Sunday, March 3, 2019

Coffee, Writing, and Fly Fishing

As you must suspect, the love of coffee is a prerequisite for being a writer. I like mine strong and rich and accented by a bit of cream.

But there’s more to writing than just coffee. Quality writing is where we search for meaning in the swirl of life, where we use the power of language to explore the wonder and ambiguity of our common humanity and the eternity to come.

Shallow and frivolous writing fails to do this and is much like icing made with sugar and lard. It may taste good at first, but ultimately provides no nutritional value and leaves the body wanting. In contrast, quality writing provides something solid, substance necessary for life, nutrition that helps you grow.

It’s easy to spot quality writing. Reading it reminds you of times you looked through a glass pane. At one angle you see the world beyond, perhaps a world you’ve never seen before. Yet at another angle you see your own reflection, something about yourself you hadn’t seen before.

Finally, no discussion of writing would be complete without the consideration of fly fishing. After all, fly fishing demands the proper execution of basic skills, just as writing does. Both demand discipline. Both have a certain artistry and beauty about them.

Moreover, I have concluded that God created trout streams so that we may become fly fishermen, and that’s something to write about. There’s something special about casting a dry fly on a hot summer afternoon, or standing beside a trout stream on a frigid fall morning sipping a cup of coffee.

So you see, the love of coffee goes well with fly fishing and just about everything else. As for writing, well I like mine as I like my coffee, strong and rich and accented by a bit of cream.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Unfair Story: The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

Nothing offends us more than to have a coworker receive the same wage for less work. Quite honestly, it’s not fair.

Yet in Matthew Chapter 20, Jesus tells such a story. This is a story of a landowner who goes to the marketplace at six in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He negotiates with them for a denarius, a generous day’s wage, then sends them off to work. At nine in the morning, this landowner returns to the marketplace to find others desiring labor. To this group, he merely promises to pay, “whatever is right.” He returns at noon and at three in the afternoon, hiring more workers. At five o’clock he returns one more time to find still more workers. These too he hires.

At the end of the day, the landowner orders his foreman to assemble the workers, beginning with those who were hired last. To these one-hour workers, he pays a denarius, a full day’s wage. Seeing this, the group hired first assumes they’ll be paid more. Yet when they receive their pay, they too receive a denarius.

Grumbling, they approach the landowner. “We have borne the burden and heat of the day, yet you have made this last group equal to us.”

The landowner rebukes them. They didn’t complain because he had been unfair. Indeed, he fulfilled to them everything he promised. They complained because he was generous.

End of story.

We cannot help but sympathize with the first group of laborers. They indeed worked all day and bore the greater burdens. Shouldn’t their pay reflect the extra work?

Yet the group hired last also has concerns. Consider this possibility.

A man has a wife and several small children, and it’s imperative that he finds work. After all in that economy, if he doesn’t work nobody will eat. So at six in the morning, he searches for work but finds none. He inquires at nearby fields. He checks in the town’s marketplace several times. He searches neighboring farms. He chases false rumors. He inquires concerning possibilities. He asks and seeks everywhere. Everybody turns him away.

By noon he has that sick feeling in his stomach. He can’t secure work. He keeps searching, but by three o’clock he has sunk into despair. The day has slipped away, wasted. He’s been a failure. The only reason he’s in the marketplace at five o’clock, standing there with no reasonable hope of employment, is that he can’t bear to go home, knowing what he’ll face, having let down those he loves, those who depend on him. He can’t face the shame.

Yet at five his fortune changes.

He meets the master. 

The master asks, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” It’s almost as if outside the vineyard is idleness. Certainly for the unemployed, being outside is awful. But idle? 

“Nobody has hired us.”

“Go to my vineyard.”

So this man (and other workers) rushes off to the vineyard. Anything, even a cheap copper coin (what’s fair), is better than nothing. Though it won’t feed the family, it will at least mitigate the shame.

Then comes six o’clock, the end of the day, and everybody lines up. Imagine his reaction when he receives a full day’s wage, a silver denarius. At first he’ll be stunned. Then he’ll race home, squeeze his wife, toss the kids in the air with squeals and laughter, and with great joy he’ll tell them about his day, this glorious day. Together the family will rejoice and praise the name of this unbelievable and generous master.

Meanwhile, the first group of workers will be complaining when they arrive home. After all, it wasn’t fair.

Same vineyard. Same master. Same wage. Yet two different reactions.

The immediate context for this parable begins in Chapter 19 when Peter announces how he has given up everything to follow Christ. In effect, he asks, “What will I receive?” or “What’s in it for me?”

Jesus responds with this story.

So what’s the point?

Let’s ask Peter if he really wants to receive a wage. Does he want to stand before Almighty God and announce what he has done for Him? Lost and sinful Peter, part of fallen humanity, saved only by the grace of God, asking this holy God for what’s fair? Seriously?

And consider this. What if there’s a second day of harvest? Where will the grumbling workers be? Probably at the vineyard at six. After all they need to work too, so they'll be there, working and grumbling. 

But where will those be who were hired last? They’ll be at the vineyard long before six in the morning, eager to get in and begin working. Why? Because they’ve been changed. They've been touched by the grace of the master. They will not idly stand outside the vineyard in unemployed horror, nor have any desire to work elsewhere. They will work for the master and with great joy, for after all, that’s the heart’s response to grace.

Perhaps we should tell Peter not to stand before God and boast of what he’s done. Don’t ask for a wage, Peter, that’s not what you want. That’s not what any of us want. For we will receive our wage, and a fair one, but we too will walk away grumbling.

You see the kingdom of heaven is unlike the kingdoms of this world. The kingdoms of this world operate by the principle of the wage, a day’s pay for a day’s work. In fact in our fallen world, it is essential that they operate this way; those who don’t work don’t eat. But the kingdom of heaven works by a different principle, an astonishing and incomprehensible principle. That principle is grace, and grace changes the heart.

One final thought. Place yourself in the story. The day is over, work is done, dusk is settling, and the workers line up to receive their wage. Now look past the foreman through the descending gloom at the face of the master. There, by the power of story, you’ll see the face of God.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Is Your Life a Story?

Our lives are full of events; things happen. We live with them daily. Events have a beginning, a complication, and then a conclusion of some sort. Then we proceed to our next life event.

In fact our lives are not only a series of events, but also a series of overlapping events. For example, we have an event concerning our aging parents during the same timeframe as the appeal to the county appraiser’s office, which happened the day before the fire down the street, and after the hot water tank gave out, and so on. Because of this swirl of events, it’s often difficult to see any meaning or purpose in life. After all events, and life, often appear jumbled and random. 

Perhaps this is why we are so attracted to stories. By the power of story, we are able to separate the events and then consider them both individually and within context. Stories allow us to chart the complications of life and see their resolution. They allow us to see that events, though perhaps jumbled, are not disjointed. And though they appear to be random, they are not pointless. 

And though events often bounce off one another then spin in unpredictable directions, or so they seem, stories suggest that perhaps we don’t live in a random, accidental world. There is a progression to life, and there is meaning. 

This is what story gives us, the power to apprehend meaning in the swirl of life. And perhaps that’s why mankind’s love for story is never ending.

So how do you see your swirl of events? Is your life a story?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wilson, Progressives, and a Book Review

I have completed Wilson, the biography of our 28th President, by A. Scott Berg. Mr. Berg wanted to write a biography that captured, “the essence of Wilson’s character,” and in many ways he succeeded.

Wilson, a Presbyterian, was a controversial man who tried to seek the higher moral ground in political issues. However, he behaved inconsistently much of the time, both in Washington and during the Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of World War I. The biography recorded, documented, and commented on these events. Also, rumors that have followed Wilson throughout history, such as those concerning Mrs. Peck and the courtship of the second Mrs. Wilson, were also addressed in a forthright fashion. The author provided documentation along with a well-reasoned argument concerning these issues.

However Wilson, as a man or politician, cannot be separated from the Progressive movement, and any biography must wade into these troubled waters. Though the book provided assessments concerning some issues, it lacked a critical evaluation of many of Wilson’s progressive ideas and enacted legislation, such as the Federal Reserve as one example.

As Berg lauded some of Wilson’s sweeping reforms, including World War I mobilization, some of his sentences were a bit problematic. Note one from Chapter 12, Armageddon.

“Wilson introduced Daylight Saving Time to America, which created an extra hour of farm work every day and which saved an hour of artificial light, reducing the use of electric and coal power.”

Note that since electricity was essentially nonexistent to American farms in 1917, Daylight Savings Time would have little impact on farm life that organized its activities by solar time. It certainly would not have added an extra hour of farm work.

As we evaluate Wilson and the Progressive movement, we must understand that the movement of the early 20th century, though the forerunner of today, was not the monstrosity that we see today. Progressive ideas were a reaction to something, often a troubling social condition, whether poor labor conditions, child labor, women suffrage etc. Moreover, many of the perpetrators of these poor conditions hid behind the Constitution, thus hindering reform. Many Progressives were openly Christian, and many Progressive ideas had Christian backing.

But there were problems, even with the early movement. First of all, Progressives had a willingness to ignore the Constitution or to view it as an obstacle in the way of their reform (hence their circumvention by the courts as one tactic). They ignored constitutional theory, such as limited government. Ironically, this view of limited government (along with the separation of powers) was grounded theologically in the fallen nature of man, best itemized by Calvin’s idea of total depravity, ironically also a view held by many Progressives. This inconsistency between their theology and social actions would create vast problems later in history, problems we wrestle with today. Progressives attempted to synthesize two opposing worldviews, an impossible and dangerous task. Expanding government to throw at real or perceived social problems almost always leads to greater problems, a lesson still ignored today.

On a personal note, when I began Wilson, I had mixed opinions concerning our 28th President. After finishing the biography, I must confess to still having mixed opinions concerning the man and some of his policies. Such is Thomas Woodrow Wilson.

Again, though obviously pro-Wilson and at times a bit apologetic, overall the biography is good and I would recommend it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Pray for Parking? Seriously?

I have a quick question.

Let's say that after church I want to rush home and watch some afternoon football. But first I'll stop in downtown Lawrence to pick up a Chipotle burrito for a carry out lunch (probably a grilled chicken with sour cream and cheese).

Now the question. As I rush downtown, do I pray for a parking place?

If we say yes to the question, that would be selfish and self-absorbed. It would be like making God our personal genie, whose main duty is to make our life easy.

But hold on a minute. Do we really want to say no? Do we actually want to say to a holy God that we don't need His help? Is this not the primordial sin of self-exaltation and independence from God? And if that isn't bad enough, what if we think God is too busy to listen to our dinky supplication? Or that maybe He doesn't care? Those thoughts blaspheme the character of God.

So do we pray?

So much for a quick question.

Paul wrote to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17), and just as it was important to the Thessalonians, so too is it important to us. Prayer shows us what we are, finite and needy, and if we give any thought to the matter, self-focused and sinful. Prayer also shows us what God is, sovereign, infinite, and holy. In prayer we acknowledge our dependence upon God. But more importantly, ceaseless prayer keeps us before the throne of grace, before the face of God, where we are forced to decide whether we want our will to be done, or His.

So pray for a parking place?  Well if I'm praying without ceasing, my prayers have begun long before I reach Chipotle. But what if I haven't been in prayer and am now confronted with the need for a parking place? I vote to pray, to consciously place myself before the face of God. For what an excellent time to begin the practice of ceaseless prayer. After all, downtown Lawrence can be messy, just as life.

Originally posted February 2014

Monday, March 13, 2017

What Does God Look Like? (The Power of Story)

Children are full of questions, but its usually the five-year-old boy who asks this one. You know the kid. He'll be running around the place with his toy plane, swishing it around and making noise. Then all of a sudden he'll turn to you and ask, "What does God look like?"

And there you stand.

Adults dont ask such questions. They dont have the time for such things. Also there are the problems of the physical describing the spiritual, the finite understanding the infinite, in short, the creation comprehending the creator.

But even in the adult world, the question remains. Its haunting and demands an answer. What does God look like?

When Jesus walked the face of the earth, he actually addressed this issue. No, he never told us what God looked like; instead he showed us. And he used the power of story to do so.

So whats the answer?

God looks like a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to search high and low for a lost lamb (Luke 15:4-7), then calls all to rejoice when it is found. God looks like a king who forgave an unbelievable debt, one impossible to repay, just for the asking (Matt 18:23-35). God looks like a rich landowner who showed grace when he paid his vineyard workers at the end of the day (Matt 20:1:16). Or how about this? God looks like dad, running towards his stinking son, a boy dressed in rags and smelling like pigs (Luke 15:11-32).

When we read these stories what do we read? Well we may read a story about a dignified father running, hugging, and kissing his filthy son, but we are shown a stunning picture of our heavenly father.

Though these images are not photographically clear, the stories of Jesus have provided us, as through a dark or dim glass, a picture of the face of God. Only story has this power to communicate the infinite to the finite, the holy to the sinful, and truth into a hard heart.

So what does God look like? Is the question really important?

The question is extremely important, for in the quest to seek its answer will reside the meaning of life. And that is very important to the five-year-old who lives within all of us.

Originally posted February 2014

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Bloopers, College Style

We all make mistakes. We all have slips of the tongue, or sometimes fingers on the keyboard. Online college students who are taking a religion class are no exception.  The following are some that have crossed my computer screen over the years, copied as they originally appeared.

From submitted papers

Im thankful for the freedoms I have and the ability to cast a vote at the expense of others.

Abraham was a true and firm believer of God and his covenant was so important because God fulfilled his life and the life of his family, giving them so many blessings before his crucifixion.

Since evolutionary forces is the product of mankind, and not Gods creation it makes the ambiguous man real purpose.

Jesus was born during the error of Herod the great.

In the sixth century it is said to believe Jesus the holy son of God was born to a virgin by the name of Mary and David her husband, in the land of Bethlehem.

Luke also identifies that, Caesar Augustus made Mary and Jospeh vacate their house Nazareth and move to the house of Josephs antecedents.  This new place was the hosue of David.  The new house was too small, which forced Jesus to sleep in the manger.

The Pastor feels that the bible is the expired Word of God.

Unlike my religion which is Christianity, the Islam religion has its own set of beliefs.

During the concept, distribution and explanation of this paper will be explaining about the religions that I have done some extensive research and examined its meaning.

Is there a way to fix errors after submitting, your Discussion Board? I have tried on several threads, but it just wants me to write it all over again. It is bad enough that since Microsoft went into my computer, it does not work very well.

The crusades are another event that was led by Constantine in the fourth century to conquer battle for religious freedoms to break free from Roman influence.

The Jew made up over a third of the Jewish people in the world and half of the Jews in Europe.

Its told in the bible; which is the Christians holy book of God that Jesus would be born on a Holy day, born of a virgin and could be found in the City of Bethlehem by following the North star.

Christianity has about 2 billion members worldwide with 159 billion in the United States

When complaining about a grade

I worked really hard on this this paper. I didn't even know we had to write it like a legit paper.

From posted personal biographies

I hit half decade mark do not feel any older.

Iam married for thirty years, we have three wonderful children. One daughter married two sons in the service

Hello, my name is ________, and I am glad to back in class again.   I have five children, three girls and one son.

From describing a church visit

Directly across from the church is a very well kept community cemetery.  It provides a non-restrictive seating area for the congregation, a complete band, and space enough for praise dancers.

As I was waiting for the person that I was interviewing I did also see that the people that were involved for in this language were definitely a person a middle eastern decent with a second guessing at all.

[This church] is one of the smallest churches in the Napa valley, you could tell it had been around for a while, but when you enter the church the response from the members was completely infighting.

So as we chuckle over some of these comments, let us be all the more ready to chuckle at our own bloopers when we make them.