Tag Archives: Wall Street Journal

Pesky Pessimism & Rose Tinted Ray-Bans

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me.
1 Corinthians 9:1-3 (NIV)

Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend. The premise of the article was that while it’s very popular to moan, groan and wax pessimistic about humanity’s rapid descent towards doomsday (a glance at your Facebook feed or a 24 hour news channel should prove this point), a look at actual data shows that life for human beings around the globe are better than they’ve ever been.

I have confessed in previous posts to having a pesky, pessimistic spirit. Ask Wendy and she can give you plenty of examples. It’s very easy for me to slip into doomsday mode with little justification for doing so. I have lived much of my spiritual journey in a form of holy pessimism. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I’ve typically found that my fellow believers eagerly buy-in to the notion that things were spiritually so much better for the apostles and Jesus’ followers in the first century. They saw the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes. They had all these miracles happening everyday. They were living in the socialistic bliss of their local Acts 2:42 commune. In contrast, things seem spiritually worse today than ever. We’re accustomed to hearing this regularly from the pulpit and the media, and it’s a popular mindset. We’re going to hell in a hand basket. So my preacher and the news stations tell me so.

What’s fascinating is that the further I get in my spiritual journey and the more I study God’s Message the more contrarian I find myself becoming in these matters. I think I’ve spent most of my journey looking at the past, even the Bible, with rose-tinted Ray-Bans.

In today’s chapter Paul hints at a conflict that’s been simmering in the leadership ranks of the early church. The term “apostle” was not a title given lightly to the early believers. It generally referred to “the twelve” whom Jesus had chosen, trained and commissioned. There appears to have been some criteria for claiming the title (i.e. having seen the risen Jesus, having been sent by Jesus, performing signs and wonders, and etc.). Paul claimed to be an “apostle” in all of his letters. He begins today’s section of the letter basically citing his resume for being an “apostle” after admitting that some claim that he’s not. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul somewhat sarcastically refers to the other apostles as “super apostles.” He gives a similar sarcastic tone to the term “esteemed apostles” in his letter to the Galatians (before calling Peter out and saying that Peter “stands condemned” for his hypocritical actions).

Something smells rotten in the early church” Shakespeare might have written. I think I gloss over how hard things were for the early believers, how much conflict and strife there was, and how miraculous it is that this fledgling movement even survived.

This morning I’m simply mulling over my own natural pessimism. This past weekend I’ve been thinking long and hard about my penchant for buying into “the past was better, the present is certainly worse and getting worser” line of thinking. I’m not sure the evidence supports that notion. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a glass that’s half-full with my name on it within easy reach.

Trust me. You won’t like it,” my pessimistic spirit whispers to me.

Arrrrrghhh. Happy Monday every one.

 

The Challenge of Words

“You shall not profane my holy name….”
Leviticus 22:32 (NRSV)

Wall Street Journal columnist, Ben Zimmer, writes a weekly piece in the newspaper’s weekend edition that explores a different word or phrase that has been in the news that week. It’s one of my favorite columns to read over coffee on Saturday mornings.

I have become increasingly fascinated with words as I’ve continued in my life journey. I’m fascinated with their origin, how they become part of our vocabulary, their meanings, and how we use them. I’m intrigued with how our society perceives words as positive or negative, good or bad, acceptable or not acceptable.

Wendy’s and my adventures in community theatre often take us into debates about words. Should we use a word that will likely offend our audience here in rural Iowa? Can we legally change the copyrighted work by using a different word? If we do have the actor use a different word, will it change the play’s character and how the audience perceives him or her? Why would that word offend the audience? Should we risk the offense and challenge our audience to consider their notions about vocabulary? They are challenging questions that prompt fascinating and equally challenging discussions.

Toward the end of today’s chapter God tells the Hebrews not “profane” His name. I was given a definition of the word profane by a professor in college that I’ve never forgotten: “to empty something of its meaning.” I can still remember the word picture as the professor stood in front of the class and mimed turning a cup over in his hand, emptying the contents of the imaginary vessel on the ground.

I’ve always found that an apt understanding of God’s zealous protection of His name. It’s really no different than we as human beings. We don’t like people making fun of our name. We don’t want our name mocked or “drug through the mud.” In Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible, John Proctor tells the witch hunters in Salem to go ahead and kill him unjustly but then begs: “give me my name!

Of course this opens a fascinating and challenging conversation about the name of God. As a child I was taught never to use the word “God” as in “Oh my god.” But, “god” is a impersonal noun that could refer to your generic pagan idol as it could refer to Yahweh (the name God gave Himself to Moses in Exodus 3). The name “Jesus” is much more specific and it packs all sorts of meaning and power. Jesus told His followers to do all sorts of things from prayers to exorcisms “in my name.” History records many signs and wonders that happened “in the name of Jesus.” If I then turn and use “Jesus” as an exclamation of disgust when the restaurant brought me the wrong order it certainly appears that I’ve taken something of spiritual power and authority, emptied it of its meaning, and used it for common swear word. I’ve profaned it.

This morning I’m once again thinking about words. It’s fun and challenging to debate the particulars of words and their usage. Despite the hairsplitting, it’s obvious that throughout God’s Message I’m reminded that words have power to heal, encourage, and build others up. They also have the power to sully, divide, tear down, and profane. I am reminded that the words we choose should be gracious, wise, and kind. May the words of my mouth always exemplify those basic guidelines.

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featured image by dorkmaster via flickr

Embracing That Which You Cannot Fight

Now Joshua was old and advanced in years; and the Lord said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed.”
Joshua 13:1 (NRSV)

It’s perhaps funny that references to old age are leaping off the page at me here as I approach my 50th birthday at the end of April. I’m not feeling old and I’m trying not to obsess too much about it. I am, however, thinking a lot about how I want to approach the final acts (Shakespeare always had five of them!) of this story.

In a bit of synchronicity, the Wall Street Journal published this quote from a script by the Roman philosopher Cicero:

Cato: I think, my young friends, that you are admiring me for something that isn’t so difficult. Those who lack within themselves the means for a blessed and happy life will find any age painful. But for those who seek good things within themselves, nothing imposed on them by nature will seem troublesome. Growing older is a prime example of this. Everyone hopes to reach old age, but when it comes, most of us complain about it. People can be foolish and inconsistent.

They say that old age crept up on them much faster than they expected. But, first of all, who is to blame for such poor judgment? Does old age steal upon youth any faster than youth does on childhood? Would growing older really be less of a burden to them if they were approaching eight hundred rather than eighty? If old people are foolish, nothing can console them for time slipping away, no matter how long they live.

So if you compliment me on being wise—and I wish I were worthy of that estimate and my name—in this way alone do I deserve it: I follow nature as the best guide and obey her like a god. Since she has carefully planned the other parts of the drama of life, it’s unlikely that she would be a bad playwright and neglect the final act. And this last act must take place, as surely as the fruits of trees and the earth must someday wither and fall. But a wise person knows this and accepts it with grace. Fighting against nature is as pointless as the battles of the giants against the gods.

When our girls were babies I told myself that I was going to fully appreciate every stage of their growing up for what it was, both the positives and the negatives. I can’t change it, but I can choose to embrace it and find the joy in each stage. I was glad that I did that. While certain stages were more enjoyable for than others, I can honestly say that I’ve really enjoyed the entire journey of watching them grow up.

Now, I’m saying the same thing about growing older. I can’t change the way God has designed things. I might as well embrace that which I cannot fight, just as Cicero stated. It brings to mind the Cubs’ (they’re 3-0!) wise skipper, Joe Maddon, who has been telling his young ball club to “embrace the target.” No use fighting it. I might as well embrace it and find joy amidst each stage. Wendy says she’s going to hold me to that (she knows my penchant for falling back into pessimism). And, I’m sure she will. I’m hoping she doesn’t have to. I don’t want the home stretch of life’s journey to bring out the worst in me. I want it to be the fulfillment of the best in me.

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Ezekiel’s Leading Market Indicator

1929_Black_Tuesday

Your wealth, merchandise and wares,
    your mariners, sailors and shipwrights,
your merchants and all your soldiers,
    and everyone else on board
will sink into the heart of the sea
    on the day of your shipwreck.
Ezekiel 27:27 (NIV)

Reading the newspaper (the actual paper and ink newspaper) is a old school habit that has become a little luxury for Wendy and me. Growing up as a “Paperboy,” I learned early in life to enjoy taking a few minutes each day to read through the news. I long ago grew tired of the way our regional newspaper, The Des Moines Register, became little more than a giant circular advertisement with regurgitation of syndicated content from the AP wires. Wendy and I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and enjoy reading and discussing the news of the day with our breakfast each morning.

One of the things Wendy and I have come to observe about “the Journal”  is the laughable way that economic indicators grab headlines. One day the front page signals that we’re back to the economic glory days of the Roaring ’20s and the next day the headlines scream that we’re teetering on the brink of another Great Depression. There is little doubt that the paper caters to its core constituency of business and investors who tend to look at everything in life through the lens of commerce.

In today’s chapter, Ezekiel continues his prophetic message of doom for the ancient city-state of Tyre. The prophecy, however, takes a sudden turn worthy of a front page mention on the Wall Street Papyrus of their day. Ezekiel, whose prophetic messages centered around religion and idolatry, turns his prophetic lens on Tyre’s economy.

Situated on the Mediterranean coast, Tyre was an important harbor of trade back in that day. Ships from northern Africa, Greece, and southern Europe regularly sailed in and out of Tyre. The trading ships of Tyre had a strong reputation. Ezekiel, however, prophesies that their ships and their economy are about to sink.

My high school history teacher once told us that if we really wanted to find out what is really going on in the world we should “follow the money trail.” I have never forgotten it, and have found it sage advice. Greed is a powerful force, and economics regularly gets the better of our strongest moral principles and religious virtues. Ezekiel’s message in today’s chapter seems to tap into that knowledge of the human condition. Business often scoffs at religion and politics. Commerce seems to think that it will always find a way to escape and make a buck off the suckers in the world. If you want to strike fear into the heart of the business class simply threaten their bank account. Which is exactly what Ezekiel was doing.

My Summer Reading List

I have a confession to make: I’m a terrible reader. I envy those who can consume mass quantities of books, and I get jealous of people who write columns about the boat load of books they read over the summer months. Don’t get me wrong. I love books, but I read relatively slowly and books tend to stimulate my brain in such a way that I can barely get through a page before I’m thinking about how what I’ve just read relates to other things and I start pondering all sorts of connections and ideas. Pretty soon I’m staring off into space as my brain whirrs and minutes go by before I realize I better get back to the book. C’est la vie.

I made it a point this summer to actually get through a book or two, and I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. So I’m giving myself a guilty pleasure of writing a post about my summer reading list.

Moneyball ImageMoneyball by Michael Lewis. I loved the movie and had been told by two people I respect (one who’s not a baseball fan) that the book was a must read. They were right. While the movie did a masterful job of telling the true and enthralling story, there was no way to relate on screen just how much Billy Beane and his stat geeks changed the game of baseball and why. I loved this book and it prompted a lot of late night baseball conversations. The book made me love the movie even more.

Holy Shit ImageHoly Sh*t (A Brief History of Swearing) by Melissa Mohr. I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about Melissa Mohr’s book about how swearing has developed in the English language from ancient Rome to modern times. Swearing has always involved the profaning of the sacred (the holy) or exclaiming what is scatological (the shit). The real story is in how the pendulum has swung between the two in history. It’s a fascinating book and Mohr does a nice job of taking what is really an academic work and layering it with her own sarcastic wit. It’s a helluva good read.

Whos on Worst ImageWho’s on Worst by Filip Bondy. If you read this blog with any regularity you know that Wendy and I are baseball fans. This quick, trivial read is a fun look at the worst of the worst in baseball history. I was pleasantly surprised at how few Cubs actually made the list (you knew there had to be a few). Perhaps my favorite chapter listed the worst deals the New York Yankees ever made, paying players millions of dollars for a few hapless innings of work. Amazing. It’s an easy, enjoyable read for baseball fans. And, it may help win me a few game of Lunchtime Trivia at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Tolkien Letters ImageThe Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. For a life long lover of Middle Earth, I can’t believe what a treasure trove Tolkien’s letters actually are. Sometimes personal letters are rather uninteresting, but Tolkien writes long letters to fans explaining things that have long eluded me about the mythology he created. I was amazed to discover in his letters just how central his personal faith (he was Roman Catholic) was to everything he did and wrote (he called Lord of the Rings essentially a religious and Catholic story). I was also fascinated to find out how often he references C.S. Lewis (it’s actually a lot) and what good friends and colleagues they were.

Saints and Sinners imageSaints and Sinners (A History of the Popes) by Eamon Duffy. I am not Roman Catholic (I have some irreconcilable differences on non-essential doctrinal issues with my Catholic brothers), but I have been fascinated by the long and complex history of the Popes who have shaped the history of the world. I found myself intrigued by the conclave that elected Pope Francis this past summer and have been impressed with the man himself. He’s a leader I could and would follow. So, on the recommendation of the Wall Street Journal I ordered Duffy’s survey of the popes. I’m just getting into it as I write this, but am finding his objectivity and honesty refreshing. It’s already stimulating and challenging my thoughts about the Great Story and the part the church of Rome has played in it.

A Little Christmas Perspective

Coat of Arms of North Korea
Coat of Arms of North Korea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter-a-Day 1 Corinthians 10

Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others. 1 Corinthians 10:24 (NLT)

I live in the land of the First Amendment. We have rights and we’re not afraid to use them. We have freedom and we’re happy to exercise it (often to excess). Human rights and freedom are good things. They are blessed things. But, I’ve come to believe over time that our rights and our freedoms tend, on the whole, to breed self-centric thoughts, actions and motivations. I sometimes scratch my receding hair line and wonder where it is ultimately leading us.

This morning over our morning coffee and tea Wendy and I read an editorial from the Wall Street Journal by Melanie Kirkpatrick about believers in North Korea, where religion is banned altogether. There are no freedoms there and the average human has no rights in the eyes of the state. Christians are executed, their families imprisoned and persecuted. “Church” for believers in North Korea could literally be sitting silently in proximity of another believer:

North Korean Christians necessarily worship in secret. Many of the congregations are small family units consisting of just a husband and wife and, when they are old enough to keep a secret, their children. Other times a handful of Christians form a kind of congregation in motion. A worker for Open Doors explains how it works: “A Christian goes and sits on a bench in the park. Another Christian comes and sits next to him. Sometimes it is dangerous even to speak to one another, but they know they are both Christians, and at such a time, this is enough.”

And yet, as history has proven time and time and time again, our faith flourishes in the midst of persecution (and slowly recedes over time with freedom and license):

Yet despite this repression, something is happening that many characterize as nothing short of a miracle: Christianity appears to be growing in North Korea. Open Doors International, which tracks the persecution of Christians world-wide, puts the number of Christians in North Korea at between 200,000 and 400,000.

Today is Christmas Eve day. I’m looking forward to feasting with family, to gifts given and received, and to time with those I love. This afternoon Wendy and I will drive down the street and openly join thousands of others to worship and celebrate our Savior’s birth. Half a world away, our spiritual family members may secretly and fearfully sit on a park bench with one another. They will not make eye contact. They will not speak to one another. There will be no feast, no gifts given, and no open worship. They will simply sit together on opposite sides of a bench and silently join hearts in celebrating our Savior’s birth.

I get the sense that in terms of God’s economy they are spiritually the richer for it. Nevertheless, I will pray for them and think of them as I worship, and feast, and receive, and make merry. They put all that I will experience today and tomorrow in much needed perspective.

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Chapter-a-Day 1 Peter 2

Free speech doesn't mean careless talk^ - NARA...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So get rid of all evil behavior. Be done with all deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and all unkind speech. 1 Peter  2:1 (NLT)

For the Lord’s sake, respect all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right. 1 Peter 2:13-14 (NLT)

We are just a few weeks away from the presidential election as I write this post. The political attack ads and vitriol is getting turned up to excessive levels. I observe that there is not only a viciousness in the paid-for advertisements but also in the supposedly objective media outlets as well as in the casual political conversations on the streets and in the coffee shops. As I picked up the Wall Street Journal while making my coffee this morning, the banner at the top read “Why are We So Rude Online?

Sometimes as I’m reading a chapter my heart or brain will be a connection between two different thoughts at different places within the text. So it was this morning that a connection was made between the command to rid ourselves of “unkind speech” and to “respect all human authority.” I felt a gentle prod in my spirit with regard to political conversation.

I am so blessed to live in a country where free speech is held as a God given right. I believe that political discourse and debate is a healthy thing and it’s at the foundation of a democratic form of government. What I tire of is not the discourse but the discourtesy. It’s not the debate that I mind but the demeaning jokes and dishonoring insults lofted from all sides towards those who are of a different political bent.

Today, I’m reminded to guard my heart, mind and mouth as it relates to political conversations. I have no problem being honestly critical of leaders and their policies. I don’t thing it’s wrong to disagree with others on political matters. It’s part of the debate that is necessary in a country that has freely elected officials. What I am convicted of this morning is to make sure that my criticism and anger towards those with whom I disagree about temporal, earthly politics does not become dishonoring and unkind. I am, more importantly, a citizen of an eternal, heavenly Kingdom calling me to always be gentle, kind and gracious in my conversation.