Saturday, May 30, 2015

What I Miss About Libraries

Once upon a time, when you checked out library books they would stamp the due date on a little sheet of paper glued to the front cover.  This was not only a reminder when it had to be back (although that meant no online renewal), but it also showed you how popular or not a book might be.

I once checked a book out of the library at Harvard, and the last time it was checked out, at least according to the due date form, was in the 20's and before that it was last checked out in 1909.  That was pretty cool.  But the only way I knew that was because of that sheet of paper at the front.  Books no longer have that.

I am reading a book right now that I found in the new books section, and I thought "Hey, I could be the first person to be reading this book since it was purchased by the library."  And I might still have that idea, except that someone else wrote in the book, (and really unimportant statements as well) and so my image was shattered.  But, if there was a due date sheet at the front I would have already known that someone one, or several people, had already read it.

I miss that due back paper.

Monday, May 25, 2015

By the Power of the Holy Spirit

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 2:1-21:

On May 24, 1738, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had a remarkable experience.  John had been struggling with his faith, and in particular with the claim made by some that after accepting Christ into his life, he should have been filled with continual joy, never experiencing any doubts about his faith, which is not what was happening in his life.  And so listening to those same people he believed that he had not actually been saved.  And so on May 24, , and let me remind you that today is May 24, John wrote in his journal, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”  This event, known as the Aldersgate experience, was preceded three days earlier by a similar experience of his brother Charles, who on the one year anniversary wrote a poem, the 7th verse of which begins “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise,” which became a hymn of the same name and has been traditionally the first hymn found in any Methodist hymnal, from the first to the present day.

Although John and Charles had already really put into place many of the pieces that would lead to the formation of the Methodist movement, many people consider John Wesley’s heart being strangely warmed to be the date when the Methodist church was really begun, that without that event, we would not be sitting here today.  John himself in writing a letter to his much older brother Samuel said that before this event he was never a Christian.  To give some perspective, Wesley was already an ordained minister, spent more than two hours in prayer every day, plus private devotion, he fasted a minimum of two times a week, received communion 4-5 times a week, and engaged in service to those in need, so if Wesley wasn’t a Christian prior to this, then I would say none of us are Christian, and Wesley himself would later back off that claim.  He came to believe that people could have instantaneous conversion experiences, but for many, if not most, it was an experience that happened over time, and our faith continued to deepen and grow throughout our lives.  Now personally, as a church historian who studies Methodism, I think the Aldersgate experience is a little overdone in importance.  Not to say it’s not important, but I’m not sure we can claim that today, or this moment, are really the birthday of the Methodist movement.  Why Aldersgate is important, however, was because the transformative effect it had in John’s life and because of the power of the Holy Spirit which became present for him in that moment.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mary of Magdala

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 20:1-18:

As many of you know, it is said that the best-selling book of all time is the Bible.  The 13th best-selling book in any language is the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, which is also the tenth best-selling book in English.  So, it is perhaps not surprising that when I began asking people what women in the Bible I should preach on, nearly without exception, the first name that came up was Mary Magdalene.  Although people have had a fascination with Mary Magdalene for a long time, and within recent memory, she has played a significant role in Jesus Christ Superstar and in the novel and movie The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion it is The Da Vinci Code which has driven resurgence in interest and thinking about Mary.  But most of this has been more speculation and fiction, than reality.

Now I don’t have a very high opinion of Dan Brown.  I think he is a great suspense writer, and I have, in fact, read most of his books, but the problem is he includes facts that could be disproved with just two minutes on Wikipedia or ten minutes in the library, and then passes those off facts as the absolute truth, and this is especially true in The Da Vinci Code.  So for example, he says that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1950s and contained the earliest Christian writings, when in fact they were found in 1947 and do not contain any Christian writings at all.  But the claims he makes about Mary, and what we can claim about her are even worse, and I strongly suspect have influenced what many of you think about Mary Magdalene.  And so to begin we are going to spend some time deconstructing some beliefs of Mary, looking at what we know about her from the Bible, and then because Dan Brown focuses a lot of his material on non-canonical texts, that is books that were not included in the Bible, we will look briefly at those as well, and then we will discuss what she means for us and why she is important.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The MLB Is Doing The NFL's Job

This week Major League Baseball announced that although the umpires are already the ones who prepare all the game balls, and mark them as such, before every game.  Now the umpires will have control of the balls until the game begins, rather than having the ball boys taking them to the dugouts. In addition, if more balls are needed during the game, an official will go to the umpire's locker room, which is otherwise locked, to retrieve new balls.  They announced these changes in the wake of what is happening in the NFL.

Of course I am glad MLB is making such moves, but why is no one asking the NFL why they aren't doing similar things?  Why are they going to continue to allow different teams to play with different balls?  Why are they not taking steps to make sure the officials have control of the balls until play begins?  Or even more, why they don't hire their own staff to control the balls during the games, rather than leaving it up to the teams?  Why does it seem like their pressure gauges don't work the same, since they got two very different readings at different times using different gauges?  Why, for all the broohaha about this, does the NFL not seem to be taking the "integrity of the game" seriously when they have been shown to have a significant problem?

Well, at least the MLB is doing the NFL's job, now if only the NFL would act similarly.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mary, Blessed Among Women

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 1:26-45:

There was an event that happened this week here in Albuquerque, that I thought was sort of appropriate as we celebrate Mother’s Day.  Some of you may have seen it on the news, and maybe some of you were even impacted by it, but somehow a dog made her way onto I-40, and decided, well maybe decided is the wrong word, but was forced to deliver her puppies on the side of the road, and so people were slowing down and causing a back-up and then someone called the city and animal control and the police showed up to make sure she and the puppies were safe, and everything worked out well, except for the fact that the police felt the need to issue a ticket to the dog for littering.

Today we continue in our series looking at the story of some of the women in the Bible, and if you missed any of those I encourage you to pick up a CD as you leave today, or listen to them on our Facebook or YouTube pages.  But as I was putting this series together I was asking my wife Linda, and the wonderful mother to my own children, about the order I should do things and to help me narrow down some of the stories.  As I listed off some of the women I thought we might cover today, I didn’t have Mary, the mother of Jesus on the list.  And Linda’s response was “It’s mother’s day, don’t you think you should do something about Mary?”  To which I foolishly responded something along the lines of “well I could, but I don’t have to.  I think there are other women I could discuss and give a message that also applied.”  And she said, “Its mother’s day, you should talk about Mary.”  And quickly realizing that I was not going to win this argument, and since I had already dismissed the idea that women should listen to their husbands, I did the prudent and smart thing and said “yes dear,” and so today we look at Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Now in the Protestant tradition, we haven’t really done a lot with Mary as a figure.  For those who grew up Roman Catholic or Orthodox, you heard a lot more about Mary and did a lot more with her than we Protestants do.  The primary reason for that is because at the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther sought to return to a scriptural basis for everything the church did.  By scripture alone became one of the rallying cries, and much of what the tradition holds about Mary is not found in scripture, and so her story was predominantly removed.  Now there were some other reasons as well, but that was one them, because in Mary is simply not talked about all that much in scripture.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

At Least The NFL Is Investigating Something

Yesterday the NFL released its much anticipated report on "inflategate."  After more than 100 days, and who knows how many millions, a lawyer, and that is a key piece of information, found that it is "more probable than not" that the New England Patriots tampered with the air pressure in the balls before a game.  More probable than not.  Are you kidding me?  What law school did this guy go to?

Lawyers have to do a better job than that. There is no standard of justice that can be placed on "more probable than not," and while Goodell will certainly try and enforce some "justice" on Tom Brady and other employees, I don't know how he can when the information is only circumstantial at best, and thus is only "more probable."

One other key piece of information that was glaringly missing is that they did not evaluate all the footballs that the Colts were using, but of those that they did, 3 out of 4 were also underinflated.  So by the standard the NFL itself has set up, isn't it "more probable than not" that the Colts were also "tampering" with the balls?  Besides for the fact that after this came out plenty of quarterbacks came out and said they did nearly the same thing, and we won't get into the fact that Brady shredded the Colts defense after the balls were back to regulation.

And finally, why is the NFL letting teams control the balls at all?  Does this happen in any other sport?  In basketball, the officials, or representatives there of, control the balls.  In MLB, while the ball boys have them during the game, it's the umps who prep all of the balls before play begins, not the home team.  And none of the sports allow the teams to use different balls/pucks, etc.  They all come out of the same pool.  So why does the NFL allow teams to do anything with the balls?  There is some explaining that still needs to be done.

But, at least the NFL spent some time and money conducting an investigation into something.  It certainly seems like more than what they did in the Ray Rice case, or about Jameis Winston and certainly much more than the Seattle Seahawks did to investigate Frank Clark, who was their second round draft choice.

Clark was kicked off the University of Michigan football team last November following an arrest for domestic violence against his girlfriend.  There had been prior incidents of criminal behavior that also led to the dismissal.  In this case, there were several witnesses who testified that they either saw the victim attacked and hit, or saw her laying unconscious on the ground, and the police took pictures of some of the wounds.

But the Seattle Seahawks, in doing their "due diligence," only talked to Clark himself about this incident.  They did not talk to any of the arresting officers nor to the victim or any of the witnesses.  Now I can understand why they might not talk to the victim, but not to any of the witnesses?  And then for the GM to have the temerity to come out and say he did not believe that Clark had actually ever struck the victim, that takes some nerve.  To me it means either the GM is lying or they didn't actually care because they needed a pass rusher, and so only conducted a cursory look so they could say they did an investigation.  I'm going with more of the second because as I said in an earlier post, plausible deniability is easier and better than due diligence, although I'd also believe the first.

So congratulations NFL.  You did a terrible investigation that found nothing, and proved nothing, against a problem that you yourself caused and should fix, but you did a much better job than any of your teams are doing to investigate violence against women.  At least you have some standards.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

One Of These Riot Pictures Is Different From The Others

One of these pictures is of the police in Baltimore. Which one?

If you guessed the first picture, you were correct. And where are the others from? Ferguson? New York? Cleveland? Oakland? No, no, no and no.

Instead they are from the University of Arizona, the University of Kentucky, the University of Maryland, Ohio State University, Penn State University, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of West Virginia during riots following sports victories, losses and the firing of a coach.

These riots are explained away, if they are covered nationally at all, as being done by "drunk" students who got a little out of control, a little rowdy, but it's okay.  But the riots in Baltimore, that was thugs who need to be dealt with accordingly.  What is the defining difference?

Surely race and class have nothing to do with it.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Canaanite Woman and Baltimore

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 15:21-28:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (NRSV)

The theologian Karl Barth once said that preachers should work with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  Now whether than still holds or not is up for debate, the biggest problem being that the number of people who actually read a newspaper is greatly reduced, and I am not one of them.  But as we were watched the events unfold in Baltimore this week, I couldn’t help but think of everything that I was seeing and hearing through the lens of the story of the Canaanite woman.

One of the commentators who lives in Baltimore said that what made him most sad was that the scars and destruction of the race riots from 1968 had not yet been overcome, and his fear was that in nearly 50 years this destruction would also still be present.  And my initial response was that the reasons for those riots in 1968 had not yet been overcome either, the wounds were still there, but I pray that will not be the case 50 years from now.  That we will begin to do something as a nation to change how we live together, but that requires us to look at ourselves, our culture and our country in profoundly different ways.  The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson says “social conventions develop over centuries and, by definition, are never explicitly discussed or agreed upon.  A crucial aspect of ‘convention’ is that it is unspoken and taken for granted.  Indeed, so taken for granted that we are by and large completely unaware of how much these codes are embedded in our most deeply held sense of what is true, right and just.”  It is that level of social convention that not only drives what we witnessed in Baltimore, but also drives the interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Due Diligence Versus Plausible Deniability

Last night in the NFL draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Jameis Winston with the number one pick.  This was not really a surprise since it's what everyone expected from the time it was said that Tampa Bay would have the first pick.  There is no question (or little question) that Winston can play and can be a franchise quarterback.  The issue has always been his off the field behavior.

Lots of scouts and other retired executives have said they wouldn't take him number one because of the off the field issues, and since he would be the face of the franchise that risk is even greater.  They weighed the risks as being greater than the reward.  And I think you could easily say that had he not been a quarterback that his draft stock, because of those issues, would have been a lot lower (although Florida State and others probably would not have tolerated as much either, or enabled him the way they did).  But the Bucs considered the risk to be smaller than the reward, and everyone kept saying, including the team, that they "did their due diligence" in checking out his background.

Except, it doesn't appear that they did.  Outside the Lines reported on several occasions that NO team from the NFL, or the NFL league office itself ever contacted the district attorney in Tallahassee to talk with him about the rape investigation.  Someone from Tampa did briefly talk to an assistant DA, but that incident was never brought up.  I never heard anyone ask if they talked with the Tallahassee or Florida State Police departments, although I'm guessing that if they did it was only cursory. Winston's former high school coach, who said that Winston needs a tight, strict environment, said that he had meetings in person with several NFL teams lasting as long as 4 hours, but only had a phone conversation with the Bucs and it was less than an hour.

Lovie Smith, the coach of Tampa Bay, said they choose him because they didn't see a "pattern" of negative behavior.  Smith and the Bucs might be the only people who haven't seen a pattern of behavior.  And it really makes me think, contrary to what they said, and what the media repeats, that they didn't do their due diligence, because they didn't want to.  They wanted Jameis Winston and they didn't want anything to derail that, and so what they did was enough to make it look like they did their work, but not enough so that if something comes out later they can say "we didn't know, he fooled us" and have plausible deniability.

I truly hope that Jameis Winston is the quarterback that everyone thinks he can be on and off the field, most importantly for his own sake.  But with what the NFL just went through last year you would also expect that the team and the league would do a better job in their investigations. But it doesn't appear that's happening, because plausible deniability is always easier and simpler than doing the job the right way in the first place.