Friday, December 24, 2010

Hoping Against Hope

I’ve often wondered why God kept the Israelites waiting so long.  The Exile began in 586 B.C.E. when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and everything in it, including Solomon’s temple, killed a lot of the people and carted off to Babylon a lot of the rest of the population, including the Davidic king.  Since God had promised that David’s kingship would be eternal, the people immediately began looking for a restoration of the kingdom with one of David’s descendants on the throne.  Almost six hundred years later, they were still waiting.  Why did God wait so long?  Six hundred years just seems excessive.  Even if the Exile was punishment for Israel’s collective sin—their idolatry, their forsaking God, their exploitation of their own poor citizens, including their own widows and orphans—surely a couple of hundred years was a long enough punishment, wouldn’t you think?  After all, after just a couple of generations everyone who participated in those collective sins was gone.  What is the point of continuing to punish the great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren of the perpetrators?
But that wasn’t the first time that God waited a long time.  The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for over 200 years before God sent Moses to deliver them.  That’s only one-third as long as the Exile, but there’s an important distinction—the Exile was caused by Israel’s sin, but the Israelites were in Egypt by Joseph’s and the Pharaoh’s invitation, and they were made slaves when a new Pharaoh was threatened by their burgeoning population.  You’d have thought that God would have done something about their slavery almost immediately—and yet he waited 215 years to deliver them.  (Some of you—and I know who at least some of you are—are ready to send me an email pointing out that the Israelites were in Egypt 430 years, but the 430 years refers to the period between the establishment of the covenant with Abraham and the deliverance from Egypt.  See Paul’s reckoning in Galatians 4:16-17.)
Why the wait?  That’s always bothered me.  Maybe it’s because in order to get people to believe that God can do the impossible, they have to be put in positions where the impossible is the only solution.
This is the same God who isn’t content to have a couple in their sixties have a baby.  As impressive as that might have been, it wouldn’t have been as impressive as a couple in their seventies, right?  In 2008 a 70-year-old woman gave birth to twins, and she is considered to be the oldest woman to have given birth.  But that’s not enough for God, because, as unlikely as it is, it obviously isn’t impossible, and God doesn’t want to be known merely as the “God of the Unlikely.”  No, God promises a childless couple, Abraham and Sarah, when they are around 75, that they will have a son, and then makes them wait 25 years before he is born.
And here is what Paul says about the faith of Abraham: Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations,” according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be."  He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb.  No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.  Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness."  Romans 4:18-22)
For Paul, faith was “hoping against hope”, believing, not when things were merely bleak and there was little basis for hope, and deliverance was unlikely, but when things were at their darkest, completely and utterly hopeless, and there was no chance for deliverance.
These were the circumstances into which Jesus was born.  After a hundred years of exile, people probably started wondering if God was going to keep his promises.  After two hundred years, they probably decided he had forgotten them.  After three or four hundred years, the Messiah was probably just an abstract theological concept—something everyone believed in as a matter of doctrine but only the fanatics truly expected to happen in real life.  After five hundred years?  No hope, no real expectation, only a resigned acceptance of the reality of darkness.
It is into this world that the light is born, for God is not the God of the unlikely, but the God of the impossible, the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  (Romans 3:17)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Peace Sign

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
This verse is well-known to anyone familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus, yet it doesn’t come from any of the Gospels, and it’s not about Jesus.
The verse is Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah is the speaker and he is speaking to Ahaz, King of Judah, who has received word that the king of the northern kingdom, Israel, and the king of Syria are forming an alliance to attack Jerusalem.  It shall not happen, Isaiah tells Ahaz.  The head of Syria is King Rezin, and the head of Israel is King Pekah…and just leaves that thought hanging.  The implication is “…and the head of Judah is…God.”  But then Isaiah issues a warning to Ahaz: “If you stand firm in faith.  If you don’t stand firm in faith, you won’t stand at all.”  Isaiah isn’t telling Ahaz to be true to his doctrinal positions regarding the nature of God.  He’s not telling him be believe certain facts about God without compromise.  That’s nothing.  Isaiah is telling Ahaz not to go to war and defend himself, but to trust that God will take care of things.  That’s fairly easy to do in theory, but when your enemies are gathering armies, joining forces and heading your way, that’s another story.
We don’t know whether Ahaz believed Isaiah—believed God—or not, but he readied his army.  If that would seem to indicate unbelief, one might say he was just being prudent.  “I believe God, but I have a responsibility as king to protect the people and to be prepared for any situation.”  What he believed is ultimately irrelevant; it’s what he did that matters.  If he went against his instincts, his deep belief in what was going to happen if he didn’t defend himself, and then didn’t ready his army—now that’s faith.
So God sent Isaiah to Ahaz a second time.  Isaiah tells him to ask God for a sign,  any sign, as assurance to God is serious about protecting him.  But Ahaz’s mind is made up, and he refuses to ask for a sign.  With false piety he says, “I will not put the LORD to the test.”
You know, if God tells you to put him to the test, you better put him to the test.
But Ahaz refuses, and Isaiah responds:
"Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
The birth of this child would be a sign that God was on the side of Judah in this conflict and wouldn’t allow the invasion to take place.  Sure enough, a few months later Pekah and Rezin were dead and Assyria had deported a large section of the populations of their kingdoms.  It’s unclear from the context who the child was whose birth was to be a sign to Ahaz, but the best scholarly consensus points to Hezekiah, who would succeed Ahaz as King of Judah.  (Hezekiah was one of the few kings of the divided kingdom to receive a favorable evaluation in the book of Kings.)  But the ambiguity of the text allowed later generations after the Exile to look to this passage and see the coming of a future king whose birth would signal that God had forgiven the unfaithfulness that led to the exile of both halves of the divided kingdom.  Through this king God would establish an eternal kingdom, and there would be peace.
Matthew tapped into this understanding when he applied this verse to Mary and Jesus.  This eschatological interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy was based on the conviction of the early Christians (even before Matthew wrote his gospel) that in Jesus God is actually present with his people.
One wonders if, in the expectation that there would be peace in this kingdom, the people understood that it would be a peace that comes not from having mighty armies readied to defend against all others, but rather from trusting that God would protect them.  Apparently not, because many who believed in his lifetime that Jesus was indeed this king still carried swords in anticipation of the ultimate and final conflict. 
But Jesus understood, and told Peter—and the rest of us—to put his sword away.  The Kingdom of God operates differently from the kingdoms of the world.
During Advent, Christians are called to radical faith.  In the midst of all the uncertainties of life, when we are confronted with the outbursts of war and violence, faith and trust in God anchors our lives and helps us stand firm and not fall.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Nobody Branch

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead."  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.  There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."
Matthew 2:23

Part of the birth narrative of Jesus is the flight to Egypt to escape the murderous plans of King Herod.  In this passage we see Joseph returning to Israel and settling his family in Nazareth, in fulfillment, Matthew says, of the prophets that Messiah would be “called a Nazorean.”
Um, , okay, except we kinda can’t find anywhere where any prophet, much less prophets, said any such thing.
In fact, the city of Nazareth isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament, much less anyone being from there.  It was such an obscure, backwater village that Josephus, writing in the decades immediately following Jesus’ death, didn’t even include it in a list of towns in Galilee.  Nazareth wasn’t just Nowhere, it was the other side of Nowhere.  And nowhere can we find a mention that the Messiah would be a Nazorean.  Some have speculated that Matthew is claiming that the Messiah would be a Nazirite like Samuel or Samson, one who was consecrated and set apart of life-long sacred duty; yet no Old Testament passages claim this for the Messiah either.
Some have suggested that, because Nazareth was a Nowhere town, anyone from there must by definition be a Nobody, and this is what Matthew is claiming—that the prophets said that the Messiah would be a Nobody.  This suggestion has some merit.  Isaiah 53:2 says this of the Messiah: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
And the first part of that verse perhaps points us in a new direction as well.  One of the Hebrew words for “branch” is nezer, which both written and spoken is close to the word for Nazarite, nazir, which can also be translated as “an untrimmed vine” (as in Leviticus 25:5, 11).  I know this sounds like a stretch, but this kind of word-play is exactly the kind of thing that Hebrew writers liked to do.  So perhaps Matthew is evoking images of the Messiah being a branch that is consecrated for sacred services, and that is an image that is certainly attested to in the prophets, perhaps no more clearly than this passage from Isaiah which is often used as an Advent reading:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
Isaiah 11:1-3

The stump is the fallen Davidic monarchy, cut down and sent into exile, and Isaiah is prophesying that, in his mercy, God has not washed his hands completely of sinful Israel.  Out of David (Jesse was David’s father) would someday come a righteous king who would rule with fairness.  With the righteous King would come a righteous Kingdom, which would encompass all Creation, so that there would be peace at last:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Vss. 6-10

So Matthew means for this little phrase, “He will be called a Nazorean,” which we have always taken to mean merely that Jesus came from Nazareth, to mean so much more.  Jesus comes onto the scene as a nondescript little shoot from some stump out in the middle of nowhere, yet that little shoot will grow to be a mighty tree, king of the forest.  And his coming signals the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, which itself starts out as small as a mustard seed, “but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."  (Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 13:32, emphasis mine.)
And in Isaiah’s vision, this kingdom isn’t just for the benefit of a few insiders, it’s for all creation.  Everyone’s invited.
Even Nobodies from the other side of Nowhere.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Advent--and Advents

Evangelicals have historically not done Advent, but when we have, we’ve done it, well, wrong.
Advent is a season of the Church calendar, which, in the aftermath of the Reformation, many Protestants ceased observing.  Not that there was much wrong with the Church calendar, except that protestants stopped capitalizing the word “church,” referring as it did to the One Holy Catholic Church, which Protestants no longer acknowledged.  There were many churches, not One.  So we tended to avoid all things that even smelled Catholic, including the Church calendar.
It was kind of a baby and bathwater thing.
When Evangelicals came on the scene, they were part of the anti-calendar group.  Christmas and Easter were celebrated, but more as events and not as seasons.  And the seasons of Advent, Epiphany, Lent were out, along with special days like Trinity Sunday and the different feasts.
It wasn’t until after Pam and I were married that we were part of a Baptist church that had an Advent Wreath, which I thought was pretty cool.  And soon after that I noticed other Baptist churches observing Advent.  I learned that it was a period of waiting for the Christ-child to be born, an anticipation which was fulfilled on Christmas Even when the Christ Candle is lit.  So, I learned, Advent is a month-long season of preparation for Christmas.
What I learned was wrong.  Oops.
I should have known just by looking at the word itself.  “Advent” doesn’t mean waiting; look it up.  It in fact means that the waiting is over.  Advent means onset, beginning, arrival, and strictly speaking refers, not to the birth of the Messiah, but to the onset of the Kingdom of God.  True, the coming of the Messiah was seen as a necessary part of the Kingdom’s arrival, but not as the sum total. 
It’s no wonder that we messed up the observance of Advent, because the Kingdom of God is by-and-large absent from Evangelical theology and teaching.  Evangelicals teach about Heaven after death, but when teaching about the Kingdom of God tend to do one of two things: equate the Kingdom of God with Heaven, or treat it as a temporary earthly sojourn, an in-between time that is better than what we have to put up with now but not as good as what we get when we die and go to Heaven.  But that’s not exactly how Jesus treated it.  Jesus preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God, not the Good News of Heaven.  And there’s a difference.
The in-betweeness that Jesus taught was that time between when something begins and when it is completed, and no part of the Kingdom of God is ever seen as temporary.  The Kingdom of God is eternal, and not just eternal in the heavens but eternal on earth as well.  When it comes in its fullness it won’t just be for people who have died and gone to Heaven, but it will be for all flesh and all Creation—animal, vegetable and mineral, the heavens and the earth.  A vision of the future in which the only place where God’s will is done is after we die and go to Heaven is contrary to Jesus’ prayer that God’s Kingdom would come and his will be done on earth as well as in Heaven.
It’s actually not proper to talk about The Advent, because there are not one but two advents: the first coming of Christ, and the second coming of Christ, but once again the emphasis is on the Kingdom of God.  In the first Advent, the coming of Christ signifies that the Kingdom of God is, to use Jesus’ phrase, at hand.  It’s beginning, it has arrived—not fully, no, but look around and see that it is breaking out all around you.  The second Advent signifies the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.  It is no longer at hand but fully present; no longer coming but actually here; no longer arriving but arrived.
So the celebration of Advent is a yearly reminder, not that we live in a between-time of earthly existence before heavenly reward, but rather that we live in the mean-time between the initiation of the Kingdom of God and its final and eternal fruition. 
Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of three Advents.  The first is when Christ came to humankind as a human; the third is when he comes again to reveal what is right and what is not, what belongs in the Kingdom and what doesn’t fit.  (This is what is meant when the early Christians said that Jesus was coming again to judge the world; not, as is commonly taught, that he came to condemn some and save others.)  These are historical realities that all will experience.  But the second advent, according to Bernard, is when Jesus comes into our hearts.  This advent is open to all but reality only to those who are able to receive it.  And all three advents are necessary for the Kingdom of God to come in fullness in a person’s life.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Questions and Answers

Isn’t it maddening when a person answers a question with another question?  A time or two is all right, but when they do it all the time, it can be quite frustrating.
So add this to the reasons that Jesus can be quite frustrating.
I read somewhere that in the gospels Jesus was asked 183 questions and only gave 3 answers.  Now, I’m not going to take the time to check the math, but I’m pretty sure that the point is accurate.  Jesus seemed to have all the answers yet was reluctant to dish them out.  I don’t think it was because he was a truth-hoarder, wanting to keep it all to himself, nor because he intended to lead a mystery religion like Gnosticism in which only the insiders had access to the truth.  So why didn’t he ask fewer questions and give more answers?
I think one reason is that he believed that the most important truths weren’t hidden but in fact were rather self-evident.  Let’s face it, summing up the Law with “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t rocket science.  In fact, he wasn’t even the first one to say it; he was quoting two very well known scriptures, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.  Every one of Jesus’ hearers knew these verses.  Other rabbis cited them as summaries of the law; Jesus wasn’t breaking new ground here.  In the first chapter of Romans Paul makes it clear that spiritual insight isn’t hidden but can be clearly seen: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”
Therefore Jesus wanted people to see that they didn’t need a rabbi or Pharisee to impart to them great spiritual truths that were hidden from view.  Open your eyes, he is saying, and see what has been self-evident all along.  He was notoriously known for telling down-to-earth stories that did not answer questions as much as provoke thought, and then he trusted people’s ability to hear his stories and reach some startling conclusions about the kingdom of God. Jesus believed that farmers and housewives and tax-collectors and lepers could imagine, think, and reach conclusions. He believed in the human ability to discern. Jesus knew that developing discernment in others was far superior than giving them point-blank directions.  Some individuals wanted Jesus’ ready-made answers to their dilemmas, and usually went away disappointed.
But I think that Jesus wanted more than just for people to think for themselves; he wanted people to think differently.  Few of life’s dilemma’s can be solved by ready-made answers.  People aren’t machines, and neither is life.  It is invariably unpredictable.  I have an inherent—and I believe healthy—distrust of people who come to me with silver-bullet solutions to my problems.  I have found that life is much too complex for simple, one-size-fits-all answers.
But here’s the real kicker: I think that Jesus wanted to get people away from the idea that the kind of truth that matters, that really, really matters, is the kind that can fit into an answer to a question, regardless of whether that answer is simple or complex.  The truth that really matters can’t be put into a propositional sentence like a math formula, a doctrinal statement or a creed.  At best, propositional answers can only point to the truth; ironically, by pointing to the truth they are not in fact propositional statements but metaphors that head us in the right direction.
As I’ve done many times before, I remind us that Jesus didn’t say, “I know the truth” but “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
There is a kind of knowing that involves facts, information, solutions, and reasoning.  But there is another kind of knowing that doesn’t involve any of that—and that is when you experience the truth.  I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, but I’m pretty sure that reading about it and knowing all the facts there are to know about it can’t compare to being there, and that once experienced, words are not only insufficient, but unnecessary.
To experience something is to enter into something of a relationship with it.  You know it, even if you can’t quantify it.  And even if it’s not logical or doesn’t make sense to anyone else, it makes sense to you.
This is relational knowledge—“I am the truth,” Jesus said—and it isn’t subject to the categories of logic, the scientific method, or inerrancy.  And if God is an animate Being—a Person—then it is the way that we must come to know him.
And until we know this, we don’t know nothing. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Need for Contemplation

I’m not one to underline, highlight, or otherwise mark up my books as I read (for reasons I won’t go into here), but every once in a while I have to do it when I come across something I want to remember.  Such was the case yesterday as I was reading a chapter out of A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren, a book I’m reading as part of a study group I participate in. 
It’s not that the section is particularly well-written or full of deep theological insight, but rather that Brian reminds me of something that I know but often forget—or just flat out ignore.

Through the years I have noticed that among the people most dedicated to missional activism, you find either (a) people burned out because of the difficulty of the task, or (b) people who have best learned to undergird their activism with contemplation, with quiet resting, with finding God in the center of normalcy—including the normalcy of struggle and hard work.  Contemplation isn’t only for passive, withdrawn people, but also for active, involved ones.

There is a high burn-out factor in what are called the helping professions—nursing, social work, drug and alcohol counseling, etc.—and ministry.  The problems are complex and never ending, there is a high failure rate, and the compensation is low.  I’m not talking financially, although that is certainly true for the helping professions; but success in the helping professions is often not easily defined or measured, is too seldom seen, and even then it usually comes in small, incremental steps.  And when a person does it as a volunteer, as many very dedicated people do, the burnout rate is extremely high.
I am writing this to a group of people that, by and large, are more committed to volunteer activism than the average citizen.  I know many people in our congregation that give many hours to the ministries of this church, and I know a great number of people who give selflessly outside of the church, whether as a volunteer at Waverly, visiting nursing homes, teaching adults to read, or helping young couples build strong marriages.
You do great work, often unseen, with no compensation, and sometimes with little appreciation.  You work with a child to help them to read, but your efforts are subverted by the child’s difficult home situation.  Or an adult decides that learning to read is just too difficult, or takes too much time, or it’s just too late, and they stop showing up for appointments.  You work with a young couple for a few months but in their youthful naiveté they don’t understand how difficult marriage is, and in a year or so they are separated.  And sometimes, when people fail to live up to their expectations, they blame you.  You didn’t help them enough.  It’s your fault.
It happens all too often.  And you wonder why you keep trying.
Burnout is usually treated just as McLaren suggests—you look to your relationship with God, you go deeper there, to find that your satisfaction is found in God, not in some ill-defined notion of success.  And in deepening—or even rediscovering—your relationship with God, you find the peace, the satisfaction, and the appreciation you so desperately need.
The problem comes when you treat the practice of contemplation merely as a treatment for burnout, and most treatments end when the condition is cured.  Contemplation takes time, but more than anything, at its core it is the ability to do nothing in the presence of God but enjoy His presence.  And for active, get-something-accomplished people, that’s difficult to do.  When the pain is severe enough they’ll do it, because they have little choice; but remove the pain, remove the urgency, and they fall back into their activist habits of go, go, go.
McLaren reminds me that the discipline of contemplation is not merely a treatment for a condition, but a necessary condition for anyone who gives—not so much of their time or their money, but of themselves­­.  It is the discipline that helps you to find your joy in your relationship with God, and allows you to bring that joy into the difficult and often joyless conditions in which you feel called to serve.
It’s the difference between your serving driving you to seek a relationship with God, and your relationship with God driving you to serve.
The former leads to a continual pattern of burnout and relief, burnout and relief.  The latter leads to a life in which joy is more a resident in your life than an occasional visitor.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


This weekend was spent working on necks--guitar necks, of course.  I'm in the carving stage--taking a rectangular piece of mahogany and turning it into something that feels natural cradled in the left hand.  This is one of the really fun parts of building a guitar, the part that makes you feel more like an artist than a builder.  It's sculpting to a certain degree.  Factories can use CNC (computer-numerically-controlled) routers to carve multiple necks at a time that are exactly the same, with tolerances that measure in the hundredths of inches, but even if I could afford such a unit for a small shop--and they cost $2-3k--I wouldn't want to miss this part.

It's part science, and I use math and geometry to guide the removal of material.  Here's a link to how I do it.  Last night I finished shaping Quigley's neck before moving on to Austins, but was struck by how in this process of creating the perfect neck, you need precision instruments.  I have a ruler that measures down to 1/64ths of an inch, and a caliper that measure in the thousandths of inches, and I use them to get close to perfection.  

But to achieve perfection, I have to use the most precise instrument of all--my finger.  There's a certain point when everything looks good to the naked eye, and this is the point that rulers and calipers can take you.  But players don't talk about guitar necks that look good, they talk about necks that feel good.  You can take a good-looking neck and run your finger up and down it, and you'll feel things you can't see.  

A slight bump.  
A minute unevenness.  
A little irregularity.  
Maybe just a place on one side of the neck that feels different than the same place on the opposite side. 

Small things that take little to remove but make a huge difference in playability, because a neck that feels good relaxes the player, and tension is the enemy of effortless playing.

It may seem that music is about sound, but only superficially; music is about feel, on many different levels.

Near the end of his life, Antonio Torres, considered the father of the modern classical guitar, was asked by his friend Juan Martinez Sirvento share his secret. He wrote in response:". . . my secret is one you have witnessed many times, and one that I can't leave to posterity, because it must with my body go to the grave, for it consists of the tactile senses in my finger pads, in my thumb and index finger that tell the intelligent builder if the top is or is not well made, and how it should be treated to obtain the best tone from the instrument." 

The most sensitive measuring device is not made by humans, but by God.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


“Safe and sound.”  We use the phrase often enough that it’s easy to think that the two words are almost synonymous and that the distinction is a matter of nuance.  But it’s not.
Dallas Willard quotes an anonymous author who gives this striking illustration of the difference: “The steamship whose machinery is broken may be brought into port and made fast to the dock.  She is safe, but not sound.  Repairs may last a long time.”
How many Christians are there who are content to be safe and indifferent to their need to be sound?  The evidence would indicate that there are a lot, maybe even most.  This may be a function of the theology that we have been taught, particularly in evangelical circles with our history of or even birth in a revivalism that emphasized avoiding hell and entering heaven after death.  In this form of the gospel the problem of sin is that it separates us from God, a separation that becomes permanent upon death.  We are in danger of hell, and Christ died to give us an escape, so that the person who “accepts Christ as their personal savior” gets “saved” from eternal spiritual death, and upon death enters into eternal spiritual life.  Accepting Christ means that you are saved—and therefore safe.
There may even be the assumption that, once saved, you are also sound, and nothing else needs to be done except to devote yourself to the task of helping others get safe through Jesus.  But that is clearly not the case, as we can see all too many people who are Christians but hardly Christ-like.  To be fair, I have no problem claiming to be Christian, but the claim that I am Christ-like is not mine to make, so I don’t want to make it sound like I am falling into the trap of judging others without holding myself to the same standard.  Nonetheless, the presence of Christians who are mean, who are divisive, who are bigoted, who are dishonest, who are materialistic, etc., and not just occasionally but characteristically, indicates to me that there is a problem somewhere in our understanding (and maybe even our teaching) of what it means to be Christian.  To be clear, I’m not making an indictment on those Christians who are characteristically mean, for instance, but who recognize it and are actively working to submit to the Spirit’s working in their lives to make them kinder and more patient, but on those Christians who aren’t trying and feel little need to.  They are safe from the fires of hell, so nothing else really matters.  The rest is optional.
But being safe from the after-death consequences of sin is not the same as being healed from the effects of sin.  A foundering ship that makes it to port is safe, but the purpose of a ship is not to be permanently moored to the dock; such a ship is just taking up valuable space.  The purpose of a ship is to sail, and to sail it must be made seaworthy.  The danger of sin is not just to a person’s after-death experience, but to their whole-life experience.  Christ came not just to make us safe, but to make us sound—to heal us from the powerful effects of sin that keep us from living the life God intended us to live.  Sin diminishes our humanity; Christ wants to help us recover our made-in-His-image humanity, which he declared is “very good.” 
We often make a big deal about the discontinuity between our existence in Christ before death and that of our existence in Christ after death: streets of asphalt vs. streets of gold, seeing through a glass darkly vs. seeing face-to-face, diminishing earthly body vs. eternal spiritual body, etc.  What we often miss is the biblical emphasis on the continuity of a person’s before-death existence with their after-death existence.  In fact, Jesus didn’t really talk much in terms of before-death and after-death; read him closely and you’ll see that he talked in terms of life in the Kingdom of God vs. life outside the Kingdom of God.  Those who prepare now to live in the Kingdom—which is “at hand” but not yet fully—will be ready to live in the Kingdom when it does come in its fullness.  They will be sound.  But those who are unprepared when the Kingdom comes “on earth as it is in Heaven” will founder.  They will sink.  In other words, soundness matters.  It’s unsafe to be taking on water when the Kingdom comes.
Salvation is more than getting safe, it is becoming sound, and I believe that a full understanding of the gospel makes it clear that you can’t sign up for one without signing up for the other. 

Thinking that you can be Christian without being Christ-like is neither safe nor sound. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Purest Moment in Sports

This may surprise some of you, but I don't watch sports like I used to.  I didn't watch much of the baseball playoffs, nor the World Series.  Of the teams that I follow, only the Washington Capitals are contenders for the league championship, but I'm only a casual hockey fan with a very rudimentary understanding of the game.  Of the rest of the teams teams that I follow, only Maryland basketball has contended for a championship in recent years (Final Four in 2001, winning the National Championship in 2002).  For the rest of my teams, the last time they contended was the last time they won it: Redskins in 1991, Orioles in 1983, Bullets/Wizards in 1978, Baylor football and basketball--well, the men have never won the championship in either sport, though the men's basketball team went deep into the tournament last year, and the Baylor women's basketball team won the championship in 2005 and played in the championship game last year, losing (like everyone else in the world) to Connecticut.

What I'm saying is that I don't watch much anymore unless I have a dog in the hunt, and my dogs haven't been hunting much lately.

But I always try to tune in when a team wins it all.  There is nothing fake or commercial in the reaction of an athlete in the moments after their team has won a championship.  It's very pure.  It is what they work for all their lives, and some never achieve it, through no fault of their own.

Last night the Giants won the World Series.  I was rooting for the Rangers, but didn't really care one way or the other.  But it was fun to watch the Giants celebrate.  Fox T.V. has done a great job the last few years by having a different camera on each player in the field to record their reaction immediately after the final out, and then showing them one-by-one.  That's just good, compelling T.V. right there.

One moment they are ballplayers, intent on making the next play just like they have done all their lives.  Look at their faces, and you can't tell if it's the World Series game or the 9th inning of a game in April.  The are ballplayers; this is what they do.

The next moment, when the third out is recorded, they are kids again.

Probably my favorite celebration picture is after the Orioles swept the favored Dodgers in 1966 to win their first World Series.  I'd like to think this would still be my favorite picture even if I weren't an Oriole fan.  In October 1966 I was seven years old, and we had just moved to Maryland from Alabama.  I wasn't a baseball fan, and certainly not an Oriole fan.  I was unaware of what was going on in baseball back then.

But look at the look on Brooks Robinson's face, and, good grief, he's got Michael Jordan hops.  Brooksie probably had never jumped that high in his life, and probably never did again, even when they won the series again in 1970 when he had an unparalleled series in the field and at bat and won the Most Valuable Player award.

Pure, unbridled joy.

Very cool.

Friday, October 29, 2010

One Thing

“Purity of heart,” Søren Kiekegaard once said, “is to will one thing.”
An interesting idea, isn’t it, since purity of heart is generally thought of as something approaching sinlessness, and to will one thing—and only one thing—seems, well, a bit obsessive.  I mean, aren’t we all striving for balance in our lives?  Isn’t that the goal that is put before us as we strive for a lifestyle that approaches sanity?
In the biblical world, the heart was the center of a person’s will.  It wasn’t where you “fell in love,” but where you chose to love as an act of your will.  So maybe Kierkegaard was onto something here.  “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus said, “for they will see God.”  So by Kierkegaard’s definition, Jesus is saying, “Blessed are those who want only one thing: to see God; for they are the only ones who will.”
The writer of Hebrews tells us to “lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin that so easily entangles us, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”  Therein lies a pretty good pattern to follow.
“Lay aside every encumbrance…”  Imagine a person lining up to run a long-distance race wearing blue jeans with a smart-phone clipped to their leather belt, a wallet in one back pocket and an iPod in the other pocket, with a backpack containing their laptop, a bottle or two of water, a couple of energy bars, and their new Kindle so they can read a novel while they run.  OK, I can’t imagine that.  When you run a race, you’re looking to shed extra weight, not add it.  You wear the least amount of clothing that decency and outside temperatures allow, you depend on the water stations for hydration so you don’t have to carry any water, and you don’t carry anything at all.
Encumbrances are the good things in our lives that tend to pile up over time, demanding our attention and burning our energy until we are so busy doing good things that we have neither time nor energy for the best thing.  We become unfocused, and winning the race—or even finishing the race—is no longer the goal; we just want to survive the race.

“…and the sin that so easily entangles us…”  In our culture sin seems to be viewed as something that breaks somebody else’s rather arbitrary code of morality so that we won’t find ourselves engaged in anything pleasurable or even fun.  And maybe the way that the church has often dealt with certain types of conduct that, in the end, are rather trivial, has contributed to this mistaken idea.  But mistaken it is.  The biblical concept of sin is as something that not only gets in the way of what you most need and want, but actually defeats  Pizza is an enjoyable meal from time to time, but for a person hoping to win a race, pizza gets in the way.  A runner who can’t control their desire for junk food is one who will never see their desire to win the race come to pass.  Junk food defeats their desire to win.  And this is an apt analogy, because the writer of Hebrews says that sin entangles, just as my desire for ice cream, potato chips, and hamburgers seems to sometimes take over and entangle me in its snares.  (Seriously, have you tried Grandma Utz’s Kettle Chips?  They entangle me every time.) you in your pursuit.
There are things in our lives that aren’t good, and they not only get in the way, they defeat our best intentions and entangle us in self-defeating habits.
“…run with perseverance…”  I wrote about perseverance a couple of weeks ago, so I won’t say much here, just that none of this is easy, and there will be setbacks, and some days the best you can do is not give up.  And you know what?  That is no small thing.
“…fixing our eyes on Jesus….”  Fixing our eyes on Jesus, not being distracted by all the other things, some good, some not so good, but none as good as the best thing, which is to want what God wants.  And Jesus shows us not only what God wants, but how to want it and the path to follow to get there.
I was going to write that our biggest problem is a kind of spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder, but that’s only part of the problem.  Spiritual ADD might cause us to want more than one thing, but maybe our problem isn’t that we want more than one thing, but that we don’t really want the one best thing—to see God. 
Maybe the real problem is IDD—Intentional Deficit Disorder.  Maybe the reason we don’t see God is because we never really intended it.
“Blessed are the pure in heart.”

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cool Guitar Video

A few months ago someone told me they saw a documentary about Wayne Henderson on PBS called From Wood to Singing Guitar.  I couldn't find another showing, but today I ran across this excerpt from the film on YouTube.  From there I was able to order the DVD of the entire documentary, and I can't wait for it to arrive.  I think you'll enjoy the excerpt.  There's some great guitar playing, and some insight into building.  And whenever I start to feel bad because my shop is not better organized, I'm going to watch this video!

The coolest thing is watching Wayne use a pocketknife to notch the lining for the

The DVD was produced by Appalshop, a pretty neat organization that works to preserve the unique culture of Appalachia.  Take a look around their website; the DVD can be purchased through their Appalstore link.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Job Security

Today the YMCA was installing new treadmills, because the old ones kept breaking down.  So there have been signs up all over the place warning that the Health and Wellness Center, where the treadmills, ellipticals, stair climbers, and resistance machines are, would be shut down from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. today.  The track above the HAWC would be open, as would the free weight area.

I went in this afternoon to use the free weights.  The only stairway open from the locker rooms downstairs up to the HAWC opens into the free weight area, through which you walk to get to the HAWC.  In the opening to the HAWC, there was a big wipe board, upon which was written in red letters at least 8" tall, "AREA CLOSED.  WILL REOPEN AT 5 PM".  The board was in the middle of the opening such that you had to turn sideways in order to squeeze by.

In other words, you can't miss it.

I come upstairs into the free weight area just in time to see a guy squeeze by the big wipe board with "AREA CLOSED" written on it.  And then I heard him ask one of the YMCA employees, "Is this area closed?"

Guys like this are why there will always be work for guys like me, because I'm sure all sorts of less-than-holy thoughts were running through the workers' minds.

People.  You gotta love 'em.

The Gathering Center

When I was young, Baptist wasn’t just the church you attended, it is what you were.  I was a Baptist.  I had friends who were Methodist, others who were Catholic, some who were Presbyterian, and some who were Jewish.  What you were determined what church you attended, not the other way around.  The number of Methodists who attended Baptist churches was rare, as was the number of Catholics who attended Presbyterian churches.  Usually these were people who married someone from a different denomination and started attending church with them.  Sometimes they “converted” to the new denomination, like my aunt, a Baptist who married an Episcopalian and then went through the process of becoming  Other spouses never became something else; they remained, for instance, Presbyterian even while attending and maybe even being deeply active in a Methodist church. Episcopalian.
Being that your denominational affiliation became part of your identity, there was little mixing.  What I learned about Christianity in the Baptist church was never presented as “This is what Baptists believe,” it was simply, “This is what the Bible teaches.”  On some occasions the beliefs of other denominations were presented, but mainly as a contrast to what the Bible teaches.  Thus, “Methodists believe in infant baptism, but the Bible says…” 
I was aware that my friends believed differently than I did, but it never came up—not that theology was a likely topic for young boys.  But you just didn’t compare notes.  Methodists believed what Methodists believed, Baptists believed what Baptists believed, etc.  We didn’t have anything to learn from one another.  If a Baptist wanted to learn more about theology or biblical interpretation, they would go to the Baptist publishing board and read books by Baptist theologians, Baptist commentaries, etc.  Same with the Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, etc.  This wasn’t just true when I was young; it remained so while I was in college and seminary.  (As a Ph.D. student we read from scholars of different stripes, but that made us rather suspect to many in denominational headquarters.  I wish I was kidding.)
Then things began to change.  First there came about large Christian publishers like Zondervan that, though evangelical, weren’t tied to any one denomination and offered books by all kinds of evangelical authors (and a few that weren’t but whose writings wouldn’t contradict anything evangelicals held dear.) 
But the really big change happened with the Internet.  Now everyone has access to books written by people of every denominational affiliation.  Go on Amazon and do a search for books on spiritual transformation, and you’ll get a whole bunch of books, and you may have to look hard to find out which tribe the author belongs to.  Read the reviews and you’ll hear different perspectives, and there’s no way to identify the denominational background of the reviewer.  But you just may find yourself learning something and/or agreeing with someone, with no denominational label attached to it.
In the blogosphere you can find all sorts of Christian writers, and they may or may not have a denominational claim.  Christians are learning from each other, and not worrying so much about whether it’s Baptist, Methodist, evangelical, or whatever—just whether it rings true or not.  Go to a Christian-themed article on Wikipedia, and who knows who has contributed to that article?  It may be a combination of every type of Christian there is.  And maybe the sharp corners of denominational peculiarities have been rounded off so that all that remains are the things we most surely agree upon.  That’s not a bad thing.
Denominational headquarters no longer control what the people in their churches are learning; they no longer can monopolize biblical truth.
And that’s a good thing.
Phyllis Tickle, in her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why calls this “The Gathering Center” where the lines between the different colors of Christians begin to blend and, instead of staying apart from one another, we come together, learn from each other, respect each other differences, embrace what we have in common—and, even better, increase what we have in common.
And this, too, is a good thing.  I even venture to say that it is a sign that the Kingdom of God is moving closer to its fullness.
One can only hope.

A New Jig

 One of the tasks in guitar-building that is both critical and daunting is establishing the neck angle when making the tenon that joins the neck to the body.  The neck of the guitar is angled back from the top a scant 1-2 degrees.  That's not much, and that's why it can be a pain to make.  Imagine drawing a line that starts at the very edge of the fretboard side of the heel and then angles back 1 degree to the heel cap--heck, it's hard just to hold the ruler straight when drawing the line.  Then sanding the angle while keeping the shoulder of the heel perfectly level.

I did it last time, but not without some trial which led to error which led to me making a whole new neck.  Mahogany neck blanks cost around $35, so I was interested in finding a better, more efficient way.

I found a website that offered a jig that would set the angle straight from the guitar top and then allow you to rout the tenon at the precise angle, but it's made of metal and obviously for professional luthiers who are going to do this a lot.  It cost $899.  (But today it's on sale for an amazing $799 while supplies last!)

Not going to happen.

But then the owner of the guitar-building forum that I subscribe to, Robbie O'Brien, offered to the forum members plans for building a very similar jig for just $20, with the cost refunded to the first person to build the jig, use it on an actual build, and post the results on the forum.

Well, I sent the $20 in right away, and not because I cared about the refund.  I have two necks to build and I want them--and every one after them--done right, and as efficiently as possible.

I had to purchase about $75 worth of hardware, and a half-sheet of cabinet-grade plywood, and it took me parts of two weekends to build the jig.  

Before ever using a new jig on an actual guitar, it's imperative to test it on scrap.  I spent the better part of Saturday morning testing the mortise side on a piece of 2 x 4.  

Test cuts in 2 x 4

Once I was sure I had everything dialed in and was getting consistent results, I was ready to move on to the guitars.

Tim's guitar clamped on the mortise side of the jig
I started with Tim's guitar.  I put masking tape on the neck end of the sides and connected the center line of the top with that of the back (it's easier to see a line drawn on masking tape than on the dark brown rosewood), and lined up all the centerlines with those of the template.  

Centerlines lined up (ignore the parallax)
 The bearing at the top of the router bit rides against the clear acrylic template and gives the shape to the mortise.  Since I'm doing a full-depth cut, I work very slowly, routing out about 1/8" at a time, but in just a couple of minutes I got a mortise cut into the guitar.

Mortise Routed

Five minutes later and the mortise is cut in Austin's guitar.  (This is why doing two guitars at once is faster than doing two separately: there's only half the setup and cleanup time involved.  Set it up, do two guitars, then clean it up.  I could do more guitars at once except I can't afford to have that much money tied up in materials.)
Fine looking mortise
Now onto the neck tenons, which is why I built this jig in the first place.  Here's how it works:

To achieve the neck angle I want a straight-edge that is flush with the 14th fret (where the neck joins the body) to have a gap of about 3.5 mm at the bridge area of the top.  The jig has an aluminum angle bar that extends above the top of the jig that is attached to a pivot board underneath it.  This pivot board is attached to the top of the jig with hinges, and the neck is clamped to the pivot board.

The guitar body is stood upside down on the top of the jig, with the guitar soundboard flush against the aluminum angle bar at the centerline.  

Top flush against bar
 With the bridge location marked on the soundboard, I turn a knob on the pivot board that pushes it away from the vertical axis, thus moving the bar away from the soundboard.  I fiddle with the knob until the gap at the bridge location is 3.5 mm, then lock it down.

Gap at bridge (which is several inches below the end of the bar)
Note: if a millimeter is pretty small; a half millimeter is even smaller (d'uh).  So measuring 3.5 mm is basically, "Well, it's more than 3 mm but it's not 4 mm.  There's a limit to the precision needed.  I could use a dial indicator, but this is one of those times when pretty close is close enough.  I can adjust the height of the bridge for each guitar to compensate for any deviance in neck angel from guitar to guitar.

Neck clamped to jig
I have a neck that I had screwed up by making too thin, and this is why I don't throw away my mistakes--there eventually will come a time when they can be used.  I glue an endblock onto this neck, and then test the jig on this neck.  On the first pass I notice that the tenon fits pretty loose in the mortise, and I want a tighter fit, so I put some masking tape on the template tenon, which will result in a wider tenon.  I keep adding masking tape and cutting tenons until I get a nice fit in the mortise.

Neck clamped to pivot board, which is slightly off vertical
Then it's just a matter of routing the tenon.  I don't do a full cut because I want to sneak up on the 14th fret line.  I want the tenon on the fretboard side to be exactly at the 14th fret line, while it will be a little deeper at the heel cap.

Boom!  Done, and perfectly!  The tenon fits snugly in the mortise, and the neck fits flush onto the top of the guitar sides.  

I put the other neck in, put the other body next to the aluminum bar, and make a small adjustment (because the body lengths are different, the bridge location is different as well), rout the tenon, and, once again, a perfect fit.

Snug fit (the gap at the bottom is irrelevant; it's the sides that need to be tight)
On both guitars I put the neck on the guitar body, hold a straight-edge on the neck from around  the nut area, and measure the gap at the bridge.  In theory it should be 3.5 mm.

In reality?  3.5 mm.

I love it when things work the way they should.

A task that has been filled with apprehension and frustration I can now face with confidence.  The nice thing about this jig is that setup is pretty simple: clamp it to the workbench, put the right bit in the router, adjust the templates for the size mortise and tenon needed, and it's ready to go.
And it didn't cost me $799.