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Friday, June 21, 2019

When Three People Ask... (Faith Journey pt. 1)

On three consecutive days I was asked for the same story by three friends, each from further back than the last. The first made me happy, the second made me sad. The third insisted that I share my answer with you, here, in the seemingly permanent cloud that is Blogger.

The first friend was Sam, who I first met this year. He's 21 years old, married, and interested in philosophy and other people. He asked to meet me mostly so we could exchange stories. We both talked about the role of God and the Church in our lives, and when we parted I felt good about my story.

The second was David C., who I first met in university. We both lived in Pearson Scholarship Hall at the University of Kansas, but lost touch years ago. Then out of the blue I get a Facebook message from him: "Hi! Remember me? I found you, and read some of your posts. When did you become a Christian? I'd love to hear about it!"

I told him that I would get back to him. Which is what I am doing right now. And it's taking a while, because I didn't feel so good about my story at this point. I didn't feel so good, because by the time I first met him, I had been a Christian for years. Just not a very good one. Or at least not an obvious one.

The third request for my story coalesced from a few different directions: the first two requests, a sermon that my Dad is preparing, a marriage seminar Horyon and I attended that Saturday, Sunday's sermon, and a Sunday lunch conversation with my friends, Rick and Joe. By the end of lunch I shared with them the source of the third request: The Holy Spirit.

The Spirit was telling me a lot of things. "Share your story bigger, wider, farther. You are not disgusting to me. Your sins are covered, forgiven, forgotten. David won't judge you, your friends at Redeemer won't judge you, and even if they all do, We won't. Besides, you haven't posted to the Roblog since March. Seriously, it's been two months, and that last post was about your gout. You had no trouble publicly discussing the pain in your sole, so why not deal with the condition of your soul? Let's get something worth reading up there. Now get busy."

I only stalled for two days before getting started. Not bad for me. The 400 or so words up to here are the last of the stalling.

I grew up going to the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Leavenworth, KS. Sunday school, choir, youth group, camp and retreats. I turned 49 this year, and my childhood memories are hazy, but I was baptized around the age of 13, because that's when kids got baptized in our church. We took a class first, but I don't remember much about any of it. I certainly don't remember a sense of becoming a new creation.

If you had asked me, I'm sure I would have told you that I took my faith seriously, and that I believed in God, and that I was saved. I believed it then, and I believe my then-self's sincerity. I knew my Bible stories, I felt the love of God in my church. I believed.

I was a church camp counselor. I went to church camp and helped younger kids along the path of belief. In high school I attended a weekly morning prayer group, because I believed. I didn't talk about my belief in the halls or at lunch or in class, because people didn't do that, but I believed.

Then I went to university. I was on my own, and my weekends were mine to use as I pleased. I visited the local Disciples of Christ church a couple of times, but it didn't feel like home, so I didn't go back. Besides, I was home once or twice a month, and that was enough church.

I drank some alcohol there, but not nearly as much as a lot of people. Never more than once a week, and a lot less than that before I turned 21. And I know that I did some swearing, because there was no one telling me I shouldn't, or making me feel shame at it. And one way to blend in with a group and find acceptance is by using the same language that they do. So I did.

But I was still a believer. Not like David, but I believed. David wore his faith on his sleeve: relentlessly cheerful, kind to everyone, and always ready to talk about God. Church every Sunday, no drinking, no swearing. To him, I must have seemed like just another heathen.

Some time during this education, I took a couple of classes that struck some serious blows to my poorly exercised faith. The first was "Women in World Religions," a.k.a. "Being a Woman is Really a Bummer in Most Religions." It hit all the major religions, including Christianity, pointing out the inequities inherent in most all of them. Most of it was unpleasant to learn about, and some of it was sickening. But as long as we live in a world in which female genital mutilation happens, it is important for us to learn that it happens. I took comfort in belonging to a church in which women held leadership positions. Though we had never had a female pastor, it was not out of the question (though always a decade or two in the future).

That class made me compare my religion to others in a way that I had not previously. In hindsight, this was essential to my faith. After all, can one truly choose their faith if one has not even considered others? It did draw attention to a broad pattern of treating women as less-than-equals in faith communities. I do not recall whether or not the professor portrayed this as a fundamental flaw of religions in general (and by extension, of God), but it's a simple enough connection to make, even for a student as lazy as myself. This was never a core idea for me, but at the very least it colored my perception of God, and got added to the barrel of bad things that a good God would never allow to happen.

The other class hit harder. It was on the Bible as an historical document. There was some literary analysis, a lot of connections to previous and surrounding cultures, and a sort of clinical detachment that left faith completely out of the discussion. From my perspective now, I can see some advantages to this approach. Namely, it helps to avoid arguments that aren't going to be settled in a class like that. I learned a lot in that class, but my big takeaway at the time was that the Bible is a mess of a collection of documents written by people.

As I've mentioned, I had grown up with the Bible as a steady presence. Not that we had regular family Bible readings, but faith was lived out in our home. It was an underlying assumption, rather than a line to be toed. The choir practice and youth group meetings I went to were modeled for me by my parents going to their own choir practice, board meetings, elder meetings, celebrations, funerals, church gatherings, and Sunday School. Every year Chris and I got Sunday School attendance certificates, because we went at the same time as our parents. Never even occurred to us to try to avoid it. We went and we learned, because it was important. Bible stories and faith were sometimes talked about at home. Monthly giving to the church was not only done, but the percentage increased over the years.

My faith was based on our church, which was based on the Bible. And I felt like the Bible was starting to crumble around the edges, maybe even fall apart completely. (In hindsight, I am the one who was crumbling around the edges, making it possible for me to be renewed by God, but at the time it sure didn't feel like that!) In the following few years, I had some conversations with my pastor, and with a few other people I trusted. I gradually came to understand the Bible in a new way. Well, new for me, anyway. And by gradually, I'm not sure exactly how long that process took. In a sense, it is no more finished than I am.

I will return to this idea later (maybe in another post), but for now I will just say this: I stopped thinking (or I began to stop thinking) of the Bible as a book that God sat down and wrote, or even dictated to people.

That process of evolving faith continued into the year after I graduated from university. I spent that year joining the Peace Corps, though I had no idea that it would take that long when I started. Submitting all the proper forms, having an interview, getting a full medical check-up and background check, and lots of waiting, including a couple of false starts. I lived at home, with my parents, for more than a year. An extreme test of their patience which I am afraid I barely noticed. I worked with Dad building decks and doing other projects, and directed a youth choir at church.

During that year, I attended my parents' Sunday School class, The Seekers. (They were founded back when names like that were widely considered to be 'groovy,' and they still have the same name.) That's where my concept of what an adult group of believers could be, and my current style is still modeled on it.

It was a good year, and I wish that I could tell you more precisely how my faith evolved during that time. I was journaling then, but those journals are in my parents' basement, 14 time zones away from my current home in Busan.*

*That is a convenient excuse. I am not lazy enough to have my own meme about it, but it is easy to imagine that I would either not go look at all or get so distracted that this project would get left behind.

My time in Nepal with the Peace Corps was a Big Deal. A big enough deal that it calls for at least the beginning of its own post.

But as a reward for staying with me this whole time, I offer you photos of a more recent journey. These are a few family selfies from January of this year, on our way to visit my parents in Kansas. The first nine are of us waiting in the Busan airport for our first flight. You will notice that in each one of these nine photos, someone is out of focus, or looking the other way, or being extremely silly. In a way, this sums up our family very well. The tenth photo is in Chicago, about 16 hours later. It accurately captures how tired we were, with one more flight to go.

Pretend hamburger?

Looking in Quinten's ear.

Tongue out.

Blurry wife, Maxine starting to lose it.

Blurry everyone, me starting to lose it.

Wife stretching, Quinten fading, Maxine worried, me annoyed.

Maybe this time... nope.


We give up. Maxine is not amused.

I cannot explain my cheeriness in this photo.

Monday, March 18, 2019


I don't know about you, but when I hear the word "gout" I think old-timey, rich old dude disease. I had no idea what caused it, or how to treat it, or even what the symptoms were.

Now I know. And not in my usual "I read it somewhere" way, but in a more practical sense.

Last Monday as I went about my day I got a cramp in my right foot, at the joint where my big toe is attached to my foot. I tried to work it out by stretching and walking through it, but it got progressively worse through the day. It got a little swollen, but not as much as I would expect from a fracture. That big joint became painful to the touch, and I started to lose flexibility in my foot. At the end of the day, I got a ride home because I could not stand the thought of walking to and from the bus. When I got home, I went to bed, took some Tylenol, and tried to sleep. That didn't go so well, since my foot was only comfortable when not being touched by anything and resting at a comfortable angle. I couldn't find a comfortable angle, and I live in a universe that is chock full of matter, so my foot was constantly touching something. It was a lousy night.

The next morning, my father-in-law, Youngsoo, took me to a clinic. They took x-rays and drew blood for testing, and made me walk around with one bare foot in their office, which made me grateful that it was early in the morning.

(Side note: every x-ray technician I have encountered in this country has inspired an incomparable blood lust in me. Apparently they believe that foreigners feel no pain, probably because we are not very good at expressing ourselves when some ass-hat grabs an injured limb and twists it into position for that perfect angle. And while I am aware that in Korean culture laughter is a very common way to show discomfort, it is difficult to set aside the fact that in American culture laughing at someone else's pain is considered a sign of being a super-villain. Fortunately, my Korean is not good enough to say, "I wonder what sort of x-ray picture we would get if I were to forcibly insert the x-ray projector into one of your body cavities?" I really need to take more Korean lessons. But I digress.)

The doctor was guessing gout, and gave me a prescription that he said would help if it was. I went to school that with a cane borrowed from Youngsoo and medicine to take after lunch. I was walking like a gimp, trying to figure out how best to use the cane, and how to avoid flexing my right foot. It was a long day, and I was exhausted from trying to avoid pain.

So here are some things I learned about gout. I do not know if they are generally true, or just in my case, and some of them are a bit speculative. I do not recommend quoting me in a research paper.

- gout happens when uric acid crystals form in the joints, most often the big toe.
- it is very much driven by diet, and can often be avoided by changing one's diet.
- the big toe does not, in fact, go to market, nor is it a piggie.
- crystals in general are kind of cool, but they have sharp edges, like a thousand little knives.
- flexing the joint with the crystals in it applies pressure to the crystals, breaking them into millions of tinier, newer, sharper crystals.
- uric acid is highly concentrated in organ meats, so I need to avoid liver, gizzards. No problem.
- and red meat in general. Dammit.
- and some seafood. Well poop.
- Including mackerel, a fish which I could not have picked out of a lineup before moving to Korea, but is now easily my favorite: cheap, flavorful, with so much natural oil you can cook it in a dry pan, big bones that are easy to remove, and full of the purines that lead to high concentrations of uric acid in the bloodstream so GOUT GOODBYE MACKEREL I WILL REMEMBER YOU FOREVER!
- It is removed from the bloodstream by the kidneys, unless they are busy processing alcohol, so I am going completely dry for the next month. Maybe longer.
- Oh yeah, sugary drinks interfere too. I didn't want my weekly Pepsi that bad anyway.
- The doctor said it is aggravated by stress, so if giving up everything you enjoy eating stresses you out, TOO BAD YOU GET GOUT ANYWAY! HA HA! - sincerely, your body.
- Once you announce that you have gout on Facebook, you quickly find out who else does as well.
- Just like every other medical condition, you are likely to do better if you are not overweight.
- But hey, if I'm taking everything fun out of my diet, that shouldn't be a problem.
- The medicine works, and fairly quickly.

By Wednesday night I had no trouble sleeping. I was walking more carefully, and my foot only hurt when I flexed it too much. But at least I could flex it, and it was no longer painful to the touch.

Thursday I was walking slowly, with short steps, and without the cane. Occasional pain when I forgot what I was doing, but nothing like earlier in the week.

Friday I was mostly back to normal.

Except that I'm no longer sure what normal is. Even now, a full week after I had trouble sleeping because of the pain, I feel something when I flex my foot. Not exactly pain, but the memory of pain. A sense that that pain is lurking just out of sight, and ready to come back any time. I have medicine to take, and I'm pretty sure I'll recognize it the next time I have an attack. Taking the medicine early and being gentle with my foot should make a second attack much more manageable, but...

It's a reminder that even though we pay attention to how our age is counting up, our remaining days on Earth are also counting down. It's a reminder that the body is a wondrous machine, but like any machine it requires maintenance. It's a reminder that going to America and eating your weight in meat has a downside.

I'm not going to claim that this has turned my life around. But I'm paying more attention to what I eat now. I'm trying to be more active.

And I am seriously hoping that research into the human microbiome leads to that Woody Allen future where you eat whatever you want and remain healthy and fit without even trying.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Return

February 2019

It was not the smoothest of trips, but it wasn't bad. I did a terrible job of emptying my pockets, so I got the full pat-down by the heroes who keep our airports safe. Since I didn't take some things out of my pockets, it seemed reasonable for them to assume that I was a potential terrorist, using my own children as cover. I also had four tubes of toothpaste in a carry-on bag. Fortunately, they caught that and threw them in the trash. I don't know about you, but I feel safer knowing that no one on the flight had a full tube of toothpaste.

"I demand that you fly this plane to Libya, or everyone here will soon have minty-fresh breath!"

It all felt like a punishment for not properly preparing to fly in a police state. Seriously, how much more secure are we with everyone getting their shoes run through the x-ray machine? And please, don't tell me that you feel more secure. You know what makes me feel secure? Cockpit doors that are sturdier than the lavatory doors. Remember, we have our shoes x-rayed because one idiot tried to smuggle a bomb in his shoes. And it didn't work, not even close. I was already emotionally exhausted, as well as physically tired. The annoyance you see here is what's left of my ire four days later. Sorry, five days. I forget that the trip itself takes an entire day.

Everything is amazing, and nobody is happy.

(Dang, that's Louis C.K. Sorry, but it's still funny even though he is a jerk.)

One good thing did happen in Kansas City International Airport: In packing, we had loaded up Maxine with a relatively big, blue, fabric suitcase to use as a carry-on bag. It was heavy, because it had a lot of her books in it (that's my girl!), and she added some notebooks to bring back as presents for friends (that's Mommy's girl! I don't bring back crap for my friends!), making it even heavier. I figured it was still way cheaper then shipping it all, and was prepared to carry it myself. Then, while we were waiting to board, they announced that the plane was overbooked, and that there would be trouble fitting everything in the overhead compartments and under seats. They offered to check a bag if we wished, all the way to our destination. Complimentary! So we shuffled her important stuff into her backpack (which was in the blue suitcase), moved some stuff from Quinten and my carry-ons as well, and checked it through! Bada-bing bada-bang bada-boom! We dropped at least 15 pounds of carry-on stuff! That would have cost us like $200 to check!

I'm sorry, sir, but I'm going to have to ask you to step aside for a body-cavity search. You just used the word "boom," which is a sound we expect from terrorists. Please come this way, and do not resist.

Once we got on the plane, everything was fine. Except that there was a problem with the fueling truck, so they had to bring over another fueling truck. So we left a little late, maybe 15 minutes. They made it up by giving us an extra snack and asking us to all hold our breath so the plane would be lighter. Apparently it worked, because we arrived close to our scheduled time.

They did not ask us to hold our breaths. That would be silly. And they also did not give us anything extra. That would be intruding on the profit margin, which is even more silly.

We had no problem making our flight from Chicago to Tokyo. It was a long walk to our gate, but at least we didn't have to carry as much stuff. I mean, we were all carrying our bags, coats and jackets, but we got to use a restroom on the ground, and smell airport food. #blessed. The flight itself was fine. We landed in Chicago at the time they started boarding our next flight, and we were almost the last passengers to board, but we made it. In hindsight, it would have been very nice if the airport staff had offered us a ride on one of their golf-carts, but at least I can rest assured that no one there had a full tube of toothpaste.

The Chicago airport actually smells pretty good: there were a number of restaurants, and it was early enough in the day that most travelers had not yet acquired the funk you get after about 10 hours. I know this funk because I generate it in spades, and appreciate how it encourages other people to keep their distance.

The flight from Chicago to Tokyo was about 12 hours. Half a day. It is absolutely amazing that we can cross to the other side of the world in such a short time. One hundred years ago it would have seemed like a miracle. A hundred years from now it will either seem tediously slow or just one of those stories old people tell around the hearth about how things used to be right before they start crying and yelling, "You blew it up, you b***ards!"

You know you've been travelling too long when the ending of Planet of the Apes starts to look more like a sunny day at the beach than a post-apocalyptic vision.

As usual, the last flight is the most painful. We arrive in Japan feeling like we should be home, but there one more flight waiting, just two and a half hours, and a couple of hours in the Tokyo airport. That's a long four and a half hours, even though it takes about 40 minutes to get from our arrival gate to our departure gate. And during that time, I hear our names being paged. I go look into it, and they tell me that something in our luggage looks like a gun. They will want to open one of my suitcases with me, just to be sure. I'm thinking it's probably Quinten's bug-catching gun, a chunk of plastic that is suspiciously shaped like a futuristic ray gun.

Sure. Whatever. I haven't slept more than 4 hours in the last 40 hours, I'm an emotional mess after leaving my parents behind, I'm exuding a funk that has me hallucinating, and I'm an American. But you want me to be there when you open the suitcase that might have a gun in it? What could possibly go wrong? Just in case, you all should prepare to be shrunk, or frozen, or turned into newts.

It is the euphonium. They have a musical instrument case the size of a bassinet, and they want to make sure that I'm not smuggling a gun in it. Oddly enough, at the American airports the subject never even came up. Because flying around with a gun is fine, but

leave the m****r-f*****g toothpaste at home!

Sorry. I'm still pissed that I had to throw away almost four full tubes of toothpaste, and I can't even blame it on Trump because America has been buying into this ridiculous crap since 9/11.

By the way, you are welcome to disagree with me on this, but unless you can point towards a legitimate source showing that the TSA has stopped anything significant, I'm going to just suggest that you write about it on your own blog.

So the last flight is painful. Night is falling, and I feel that I am, too. My eyes are getting that gritty feeling, like I've been in the desert a couple of days with nothing to drink buy my own urine. My wrists and ankles hurt, my hands and feet are still swollen from the previous flight. When we got on the plane I start watching a movie. (It is my 7th on this trip, "The Greatest Showman" because I don't feel like I need to pay close attention to it and the music will keep me awake.) Thirty minutes into the movie I look out the window (from the center section of seats) and am surprised to see big, clear lights. I think, "Oh my, we shouldn't be that close to the ground! Maybe it's a reflection of a light inside the plane?" Then I realize that we have not yet taken off.  We end up taking off 45 minutes late.

Thirty minutes into the flight: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. We had some technical problem before taking off. We thought we had it fixed, but after testing we found that it wasn't. So we fixed it again, and that's why we left so late. But everything seems okay now. Thank you for your patience."

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the politeness and honesty. But the timing was a bit disturbing. And I will chalk up the use of "seems okay" to a translation slip. I'm sure he meant that "everything is absolutely okay and this airplane is working perfectly."

Seriously. Translating is hard. I mean, it seems to be hard.

We arrived in Korea and cleared customs and immigration with no problems. From getting off the plane to getting our bags was less than 30 minutes, then we were out, euphonium cannon, non-minty-fresh-breath, bags and all. Horyon was waiting for us right outside, and I was the same emotional mess that I was when we arrived in Kansas City a month earlier: happy/sad/exhausted/relieved.

Please be careful while deplaning as your emotional baggage may have shifted during the flight.

And don't even THINK of bringing a full tube of toothpaste!

Monday, October 08, 2018

Just Reading

I was sitting at the table reading when I noticed Quinten doing the same on the sofa. He was reading the classic Green Eggs and Ham by the inimitable Doctor Seuss, and clearly enjoying himself.

I put down my book and listened. He was doing different voices for the two characters, packing it with feeling. He got some of the words wrong, but I suppressed Professor Daddy, who tries to bring learning into our daily reading. 

Learning to read is a shit-ton of work, y'all. If you learned as a school child, you probably don't remember all that work. I sure don't. And if your kids go to a school in which everyone speaks English in every class, and your child doesn't have any sort of learning disabilities, you also may not realize it.

Quinten's school doesn't start teaching the English alphabet until the 3rd grade. They believe that children should be extremely solid in their native alphabet first, and that written language should not be taught until the spoken moves beyond a certain point. I think. Or maybe it has to do with how many baby teeth they have lost. Frankly, Waldorf Education is something of a black box to me, and many of their milestones and process seem arbitrary. Especially this one. 

I know for absolute fact that kids can learn two languages at once, both spoken and written, because Quinten reads in English. From time to time I sense hints of dyslexia in the way he reads, but he is doing very well considering that I am his only teacher, and the vast majority of our learning time overlaps with story time at night. On any given night it may not seem like a lot of work, but it adds up. Quinten and I have put in that effort together. 

Sometimes he is very much aware of how much work it is, like when I make him read, but he loves it when I read to him, completely unaware that I am teaching him something larger than phonics. I honestly don't know whether I want him to remember how hard this was or not. I so very badly want him to read effortlessly, gliding from line to line across the page, the story blossoming in his mind, exploding, creeping, stalking, dancing, crying, laughing and unfolding in his mind.

I just finished reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. It was so very, very good. It was long and complex, with stories and themes nested in each other, and characters that came and went, and occasionally returned, pain and triumph often side by side. It was not an easy read, but it was enjoyable in a way that the easy ones aren't.

I want my kids to be able to read and enjoy books like The Bone Clocks. I'm not even sure when I will know one way or the other that they will.

I did something unorthodox for me in reading The Bone Clocks: I picked it up and started reading it while in the middle of reading another novel. It sounded more interesting than the book I was reading, and it was. It was on my Kindle, so it was more portable than the dead-tree book I was reading. It was clearly not aimed at young adult readers, unlike the book I was reading.

And it was not Stephanie Meyers' Twilight.

Unlike. The book. I was. Ahem. Reading.

Which I finished reading. Yes, the whole thing. And I have a thing or two to say about it, and to ask about it. But not today. Today I just want to say that I read it because Maxine had already read it in Korean, and asked for it in English. 

It's sort of a policy of mine to not say no to a child of mine who wants a book, but I wanted to know what I was handing her, so I read it first.

With a little Bone Clock break to wash away the taste of treacle it left in my mouth.

Maxine's not ready for The Bone Clocks yet. It may never be her cup of tea. But she enjoys reading. That's one out of two kids so far. Anyone want to take bets on Quinten not enjoying reading when he's older?

I didn't think so.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Sermon: Matthew 7:12-14

I did not want to post this sermon on the Roblog. The sermon itself is not a mistake, but it is chock full of incomplete ideas and concepts that I was still in the middle of grasping, and therefore was unable to communicate clearly. As you will read or hear, I completely changed my strategy the day before preaching, and it shows. To me, at least. And about six minutes in, I apologize. It's even in the script.

Apologizing before you start is one way to lower expectations, but it can also have the effect of making some people judge harshly before they listen. I am very fortunate that our congregation has members who do not do that. In fact, in the following weeks I was told by a few of them that this was the best sermon that they had heard from me.

That stopped me in my tracks. It made me feel ashamed of my apology. True, I was not happy with the work I had done, but the words I was working with were not my own. I was working with the Bible, The Word of God. And where The Word is concerned, human strength and weakness become irrelevant. As Paul tells us, "For the foolishness of God is wiser than [the wisdom of] men, and the weakness of God is stronger than [the strength of] men." (1 Cor 1:25)

And so now I submit my weak sermon, which God saw fit to make strong. Thus humbling me again. As I watch it now, a month after the recording was made, it is not as bad as I felt at the time. I can see that I am tired, that the struggle was real. But there is a good message there. If I were to spend another couple of hours on it, I could tighten it down to 20 minutes and bring some coherence that is lacking, but it really isn't bad. I need to trust my brothers and sisters more!

And one more thing: the video is 42 minutes long, but the sermon itself clocks in at just over 30 minutes. We just neglected to stop the video, so it includes the response to the sermon, the introduction to communion, invitation to pray, a song from the praise team, my benediction. Which is not standard, as it involves pizza and chicken. So there's that. Enjoy!

Golden (Rule, Narrow) Gate July 29th, 2018

12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 
14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

I am sure that you have heard of people wrestling with the scriptures. If you are a new Christian, you know what I’m talking about: the old you faced the truth about God, found in the scriptures. The old you and God did not agree. You looked at your life, looked at what God wanted for your life, and decided that you were wrong. You lost. And in losing that battle, the war was won. You surrendered to God, and admitted that your best will never be good enough to save you.

The scriptures won. God won. And when that war was over, your lifetime of battles began. If you are a Christian who prays, reads the Bible, and listens for the Holy Spirit to speak to you, you know what it is to wrestle with scripture. Our sinful nature means that we constantly veer away from God, and have to fight battles with ourselves again and again. And much of that sinful nature is revealed to us by the Holy Spirit through scripture.

If you don’t wrestle with scripture, something is wrong: you have been too complacent with yourself, or you have given up. It’s even possible you never got started at all. If any of that is true, please talk to someone after the sermon! But that’s not my focus today.

I’ve been wrestling with part of today’s scripture for the past month. Trying to decide what’s wrong with my thinking, praying about it, and trying to listen. As well as taking care of my family, working, enjoying the pleasant warmth of this Busan summer, settling into a new home, and sleeping a bit from time to time. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the scripture has been rubbing my nose in the dirt. In fact, I don’t think it’s quite finished, and it might not be for some time.

In the end, just yesterday in fact, I decided on a very old strategy for dealing with it: divide and conquer. So today, I am bringing you two separate sermons. Don’t worry, they will both be short. And please accept my apologies if they seem incomplete. For my first sermon today, I am addressing verse 12 only:

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12

First off, did you notice that reference to the Law and the Prophets? We also heard it earlier in the Sermon on the Mount,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Matthew 5:17

And we hear about the Law and the Prophets later in Matthew, too, when he answers the lawyer about what is the greatest commandment:

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40

Throughout his gospel, Matthew is calling our attention to the unity of scripture. Reminding us that the God of Genesis and Exodus is Jesus. The promises God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still being kept today. The invitation extended through Moses is still available to us. It is not about the rules you need to follow in order to avoid God's wrath, but a promise that we are forgiven, and a description of what a forgiven life looks like.  All of this leads us to the Golden Rule:

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12

You may have learned it King James style: “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” Or maybe “Treat others the way you want them to treat you.” Or “Do good things for other people.”

We find The Golden Rule used by people from many religions, as well as people who claim to have no religion. Just last week the boys soccer team in Thailand were rescued from a cave after being trapped for 18 days. One of the rescuers even died during the rescue. I have no idea what religion, if any, the rescuers subscribed to, but 95% of Thais claim Buddhism. Maybe the rescuer who died thought that he was earning a better life the next time around, maybe even Nirvana. Maybe they did it because they hoped that others would do the same for them.

The presence of The Golden Rule in many religions is often used to justify the idea that all religions are basically the same. I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that being a good Christian is pretty much the same as being a good Buddhist, or a good Muslim, or any other religion that boils down to “Be nice to other people.”

The next time someone tells you this, ask them why? Why should you treat other people the way you want to be treated? Is it because that is how you earn material rewards? Or a better afterlife? Or a better next life? The answer to this question is important, and the word “so” leads us to the answer. “So” means because of what came before. Let’s read Matthew 7:7-11 together as a reminder of what came before:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! Matthew 7:7-11

If I could sum this up in one sentence, it would be this: “If we just ask, God does good things for us.” These good things are not hidden away where we need a treasure map to find them. They are all around, if you just seek, ask, knock. Because seeking God means acknowledging that you need God. Knocking means you need to be in God's presence. Asking means you need God's love.

And if I could sum up Matthew 7:12 , I would say it like this: We should do good things for other people.

When we put the two pieces together, we get this: “If we just ask, God does good things for us. So we should do good things for other people.”

Jesus is telling us that loving other people is the natural response to God loving us. More than that, it is inevitable! We are like cups being filled with God’s love, but when we are full God keeps pouring! This enables us to love those around us, even our enemies. Especially our enemies! Remember this?

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew 5:43-45

So that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. There’s the kingdom again, not far away, not in the future, but here and now. And loving your enemy, in other words treating them the way you want to be treated, is a sign of being a child of God! God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, so go and do likewise! God sends rain on the just and on the unjust, so should we!

The Good News is this: doing to others what you wish they would do to you is not something you have to come up with on your own. Just react to how God has treated you!

Sermon number one, done, son! Now the hard sermon.

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Matthew 7:13-14

If you read this the same way I did a month ago, your first reaction is something like this: “Wow. Does that mean most people are going to hell? Is Satan is winning, just going by numbers? That doesn’t sound right! What’s wrong?”

Like much we read in Matthew, this rings of Old Testament, the idea of making a choice. Let’s take a look back at one of Moses’ sermons in Deuteronomy:

See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 

But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. 

Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.

                          Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses was reminding the young nation of Israel of the same choice that you and I face today: Life and good, or death and evil. Throughout the history of Israel, they chose poorly, yet God claimed them consistently. Time after time they turn to other gods, yet God takes them back when they repent. Then Jesus comes, the perfect version of Moses, and offers the same choice:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Matthew 7:13-14

We shouldn’t be surprised to see this choice offered again. I shouldn’t be surprised. Israel is a model for you and me. We constantly turn away from God, yet God never turns away from us.

Still, I am struggling with this idea. Wrestling with it. My brain won’t let go. So I tackle the language, the metaphor.

Most of us today do not live in gated cities, so we have to rely on historical analysis to start to make sense of this scripture. A city in Biblical times, such as Jerusalem, had walls around it for protection. To enter and leave, there were gates. One thing to keep in mind is that the gates were of different sizes, and for different uses. Some were wide enough to march an army through, because sometimes your army would need to go out and come in. You could pull a bunch of carts in easily, or walk in with a crowd if the gate was open. One gate in the Jerusalem wall was for dumping out garbage. Imagine trying to get in that one! Other gates were narrow, with turns, and stairs. You could not run in through a gate like this, nor could you enter side by side with another person. This was to stop foreign armies from running in, side by side, and doing unpleasant things inside your city.

Now we have an idea of what wide and narrow gates look like. We can see that people move through some easily, and some with difficulty. We can start to paint a better mental picture of what Jesus was saying.

Next, let’s consider the passages that come after verses 13 and 14. In the next few weeks we will hear warnings about false prophets, pretend Christians, and faith with weak foundations. Our verse today is the beginning of a warning: wide, easy paths to destruction are abundant. Following the crowd could take you to the wrong city. The narrow, difficult way leads to life. In other words, if your faith seems easy, it is very likely wrong. If being a part of the kingdom of heaven is no harder than ordering at McDonald's, then you are following the wrong idea of heaven, and serving the wrong god!

So coming back to my first question: are most people going to hell? I am still wrestling with it. As a church, we are memorizing Philippians 2:1-11, and one of the last verses says, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:10-11

Do those who are not saved first confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, then go to hell? I don’t know.

Honestly, I do not have all the answers. And I do not suggest that you trust anyone who says that they do. God has made it clear that we won’t understand what God is doing:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9

The warnings are clear, but God’s mercy and love are also clear. Look again at verse 14:

 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Matthew 7:14

Those who what? Find it. They do what? Find it. Who finds things? People who seek! Seek and you shall find!

But don’t settle, that’s the wide, easy gate. It’s going to take some wrestling on your part. You are going to have to invite the Word of God into your life, and let it settle in. Let it take up space. Let God’s Word be the guest that overstays their welcome.

Sometimes the answers will be clear, and you will rejoice. Sometimes the answers will break you, and that is good too. We need to be broken so that we can accept God as the only way. And sometimes the answers don't come right away. That's fine, too. That's God working you over, letting the Word of God soak into you, and change you from your bones on out.

I don’t know the answers to all of the questions, but Jesus has given us some of the answers directly:

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40

And what does it look like to love your neighbor?

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12

When in doubt, go back to the basics: Love God. Let God’s love flow into you so richly that you can’t help loving other people. That is what the entire Bible is about.


Wednesday, August 08, 2018

The Hunger Banquet

While I was growing up, Church camp was my favorite week of the year. I started going in late elementary school, and continued all the way through high school. While I was in high school I started counseling, and continued being involved until I left the country. Church camp is one thing that I really miss living overseas, and I wish that my kids could have the same experiences I did. They go to a Korean version, and of course they are young, so it won't be the same as mine, but Maxine and Quinten both had fun at their camps this year.

Today I got a message from my friend Nelson Townsend, asking if I remember experiencing a global dinner at camp. We chatted about it, and we both agreed that the experience loomed large in our memories.

Oddly enough, neither of us can remember if the other was there.* We went to the same camp, and Nelson is only one year younger than I, so it's entirely possible that we were at the same camp, experiencing the same dinner, though our memories don't quite match up.** So we decided to write about it independently (though we've sort of all ready ruined the independence by chatting about it).

Nelson's version is here. It honestly sounds like we went to completely different events. Reading his version strikes no bells with me, other than the general setup. And I definitely don't remember the ending. Anyway, take a look at his first, or after mine. Whichever works for you.

The Setup

At dinner one evening, three or four days into the camp, all of the campers and counselors were randomly assigned to tables in the dinning hall, as opposed to sitting wherever we liked.***

At some point we were told that the meal would be a model for how the world eats, with the people there proportionally representing people around the world. I felt like this was a shocking reveal, as though we had no idea it was happening until we were in the middle of it. Entirely possible, but it's equally possible that we were told beforehand, and it didn't register with me.

As soon as we sat down some differences were apparent. Most of the tables weren't even set: in the middle of the tables were paper plates, plastic spoons and disposable cups, and one bottle of water. A couple of tables were set with regular plates, metal forks and spoons, and pitchers of water, with napkins at each place. But one table had a table cloth, and flowers in the middle. Maybe candles. There were no plates, but the silverware was shiny, and the drink glasses were crystal. There was a string quartet in tuxedos playing dinner music for that table.****

The Meal

When we sat down, the fanciest table was served immediately, while the rest of us waited. Their food was brought out in courses, on someone's special occasion china. Plates that are so nice they make the food taste better, rather than the shatter-resistant plastic camp plates at the other two tables, the kind where you swear you can taste every meal that has ever been served on them. At the fancy table, waiters (maybe the director in a tux?) brought food to each person with a bow and a cheerful "bon appetit!" They were offered a selection of beverages, including the colas and such that you weren't allowed to drink with meals at camp.

The food itself was the stuff you dream of while you're at camp: steak, shrimp, baked potato with toppings, green salad, hot dinner rolls with soft butter. Some kind of vegetables that are left begging for attention next to that chunk of cow meat, but undoubtedly deserve to be the godparents of your future children. The Good Stuff.

The rest of us watched as they ate. Stomachs rumbling, anger building.

Then the two regular tables had their food served home style: It was brought out and placed in the middle of the table; they served themselves, and helped each other. The food was simple, but plentiful. Spaghetti, maybe. A meal that would be a solid B+  or A- at camp. And they didn't have to wait too long.

As the rest of us watched, with nothing on our paper plates but the smells from the tables of privilege, we talked. We talked about the unfairness of it. We talked about how at least people in poor countries don't have to watch rich people eat. (Now there's an embarrassing memory.) We talked about how hungry we were.

Then our food came, and it got worse. In some Hunger Banquets, the poor are served a small portion of beans and rice with a cup of dirty water. Dirty enough to be annoying and taste bad, but not so dirty as to give dysentery. We each got a scoop of beans and rice and a cup of clean water, so we were fortunate. It was not enough to satisfy our hunger, by any stretch of the imagination, but none of us were going to be sickened or die from one night of hunger.

You wouldn't have thought so if you had heard us talk, though. Listening to us would give you the impression that the Geneva Convention had been flagrantly violated, and that certain parents would be demanding refunds for camp this year.

As it turns out, our parents had already been notified. In fact, they had signed permission slips for this specific dinner. After all, you don't want to find out that a camper is diabetic the hard way. But at the time, all we knew was that this just wasn't fair. In fact, it was terribly unfair. And to be perfectly frank, it may have even been bullshit.

The meal did not devolve into complete chaos, but there was some interesting behavior. What I remember most was the beggars and the thieves. There weren't very many of either, but their behavior stood out in a huge room full of mostly compliant teenagers.

The beggars met with no success. I believe the response was one that most of us use to justify not giving to beggars: I don't have enough to share with all of the poor people, so I'm not going to share with you.

The thieves got a piece of bread or two before they were shut down by the world police. I think they got away with what they got by being sneaky, but once they were caught it didn't happen again.

The Aftermath

I am sure that we had discussions about it afterwards. Those discussions undoubtedly included the rational for leaving the coin-op soft drinks machine unplugged that night. I am sure we were told that hunger can be a tool to build spiritual endurance, and that people around the world and throughout time have fasted in order to draw closer to God, or nirvana, or whatever supreme being they consider to be supremest. But what I remember was feeling cheated, knowing that a few of my fellow campers were going to bed full. And not just full, but happily stuffed, with awesome tastiness. While my belly was growling and it was possible that I wouldn't survive until breakfast. And that I was definitely not alone in this feeling.

SPOILER ALERT: I did survive until breakfast, as did the other campers.

I am guessing that at the time the counselors thought that the meal was only partially successful: a few campers participated in the discussion in meaningful ways, but a large group, maybe a majority, found that it left a bad taste in their mouths, the beans and rice being very bland, as well as not filling. Leaving us with a lack of satisfaction only secondary to that left by a poorly executed metaphor in a second-rate blog.

But I remember the larger lesson of the Hunger Banquet clearly, even after thirty years, even though the details have mostly escaped me. This is exceptional to me.

I am not good with memories. I am absolutely awful with names and details. As I wrote earlier, church camp was a big part of my life, but my collection of solid, meaningful memories from that time fits into a very small corner of my mind: farewell circles in the sun, snuffing back tears as we say goodbye to people who have loomed so large in our lives for such a short time. Moments of worship that were heartbreaking, and moments that were transcendent. A montage of campfires that includes singing, laughing, stories, and what seemed to be a talent for choosing a place to sit that was constantly shrouded in smoke. The gum tree outside the dining hall, where people would stick their gum before going in to eat, which was maybe not as disgusting as you are imagining, unless you happened to lean on it while trying to be nonchalant 15-year-old (not that this is necessarily the voice of experience*****).

However, there are some memories that refuse to just sit on a shelf, waiting to be looked at. Some memories explode into the room of your mind, coating the walls with their essence, and changing the way everything looks. The Hunger Banquet was one of these memories. Still is. Though the details have faded, my world view has never been the same.

I understood, in a way I never had before, that the world was not fair. And I benefited from that unfairness. I don't know if this specific event was in mind when I decided to join the Peace Corps, but that decision came less than eight years later.

I still tell people that there were two reasons I joined the Peace Corps: one reason is that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. This is the one that makes people smile. The other reason is that I felt like I had been born into a fortunate time and place, and I needed to do something to repay a portion of what I had been given. Even if the facts of the Hunger Banquet didn't come to mind, the shading it imparted on my view of the world had not faded. Maybe that is why I joined the Peace Corps, and later moved to Korea, and met Horyon, and...

I how others have experience Hunger Banquets. Just the time I've spent writing about it makes me want to put one together for my friends and neighbors. Maybe some day.

In the mean time, enjoy your food, and don't forget that you are more fortunate than you realize.


*Not really that odd. It was before we had really met at K.U., and church camp was pretty big, with maybe 100 kids. We only figured out that connection later, never having been friends at camp.

**Memory is a funny thing. This meal, though it had a big impact on my worldview, took place around 1987, maybe 1988, so about 30 years ago. My memories of the specifics are hazy, and I am drawing on some internet resources to fill in plausible gaps. But this is more memoir than history. If anyone reading this was actually there, I'm happy to hear your impressions, even if they differ from mine. I'm also curious to hear about your similar experiences if you weren't at this one. Feel free to comment below.

***This is a perfect example of memory gap. We may have had free seating at that camp, but I've been to many camps in which small groups sat together. So I'm really just guessing here, but I don't want to clutter the narrative with this second guessing.

****This is a perfect example of a detail I just made up out of thin air, to accentuate the differences between the groups.

*****It is.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

I Wrote a Short Story

So today I wrote a short story. It fills about six pages in my notebook: tough to read, makes chickens mad when you compare it to chicken-scratching, not well thought out. Based on me and my first world problems.

The story is this blog entry because I am trying a bit of writing advice that goes like this: the first thing you put on paper is going to be mostly crap. Accept this fact, and court it. And remember that hidden in this crap draft will be diamonds. The first part of your job as a writer is to just strain and push and get it all out there.

Then you have to leave it alone for a while. Because as a writer, you fall naturally in love with your crap draft. You have to let it cool off a bit, go do something else. It will stop feeling like a part of you once it has a chance to age a bit. Then you can dig into it, look at it with fresher, more vicious eyes.

So I've closed the notebook, and won't look back until next week. Then I will type it out, and hopefully in that process discover what worth it has, if any. I suspect that it will end up being a bit of flash fiction (less than 1,000 words). Frankly, the plot is not capable of carrying more than that, and may not even make it to half. The character (only one) is like an even more annoying and whiny and foolish version of myself, and could be outlined in two sentences, one of which you are reading now. The setting has promise, but you can't base a story on scenery alone.

Anyway, once I get the second draft up and running, I will decide whether or not to put it up here. Maybe get some feedback from my peeps first. But what I wrote first is not here, because only infants and toddlers bring you a handful of crap first draft and expect you to smile.

The writing advice, by the way, comes from the excellent Writing About Writing blog. I would also say that the scatological bent comes from there, but those who know me will be doubtful, and those who don't might do research.

A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.