Irrational exuberance

August 19, 2014

I find that I am exuberantly, irrationally happy at the news that my daughter Katie has a contract to publish her first book. I suppose this is the writer’s equivalent of having a grandchild.

The book (I know you are curious) is about the aftermath of the Spanish civil war and how hideous memories were processed in various realms of Spanish culture–fiction, art, film, photos.

Death and Disappearance

August 16, 2014

A friend of mine, Steve Morris, disappeared last week. He was in the Trinity Alps on my church’s annual men’s backpacking trip . On Saturday he and a few other men took a day hike to a nearby peak. On the way down, Steve got separated from the others. He never came into camp. Search parties have been looking ever since, using dogs, helicopters, GPS mapping. They scoured the area, which is not that large and not that rugged. (I’ve hiked there.) They found not a trace. Nothing. Not a footprint, not a water bottle, not a trail for dogs to follow. The sheriff called off the search this week, there being nowhere left to search.

It’s extremely unnerving. Steve is an experienced backpacker. He wasn’t despondent or depressed. Where has he gone? Why can’t they find some sign? Where is his body? Death itself is devastating to family and friends. Disappearance is worse. Earlier this year I read Rick Atkinson’s three-volume history of the western theater in WWII. He mentions how difficult it was for family and loved ones to deal with soldiers who went down in a ship or were shot down out of the air–who went missing. Family longed for some tangible proof of death, or at least a grave where they could mourn. Steve’s disappearance is worse by a factor of ten. No one saw him go. No one can say how he left.

I’m not sure I understand why disappearance is so upsetting, but I think it’s probably related to the insult that death poses in all its forms. It’s not just adolescents who expect to live forever. We all do. It’s really impossible to imagine that we will cease to be. Me! A known fact! My death seems as impossible as the moon blinking out one night.

At least when we see the body there’s some story of continuity we can tell ourselves. But it’s not a very convincing story. One moment, personality in full flower. The next, nothing but meat and bone. You are gone. That’s the aching surprise that greets anyone who watches a loved one die. They really are gone. That body left behind is not them, not much. It reminds you of them. But in reminding you, it reinforces the reality: they are no longer here, and you do not know where they have gone.

Is it easier to lose Robin Williams because we can still watch his funniest moments again and again on video? I don’t think so. I think it makes it harder. They remind us of him. They remind us that he will never again walk into a room.

Steve’s disappearance makes us feel this in a different, more bewildering way. We have nothing to mourn over, no focal point for our desolation. Truthfully, though, we never really do. Death obliterates all that in an instant. There is life, then there is no life. If you cannot believe in resurrection life, you are left with no reason to get up in the morning.

The Community of Marriage

August 5, 2014

Weddings come in waves. At one time I went to my friends’ weddings. Now I go to the weddings of my friends’ kids, or my kids’ friends. This summer I’ve been to three, feeling very lucky to be invited. I am pretty sure that when young people imagine the most fabulous of weddings, they do not think of populating it with people of my age.

I had a really good time at all three weddings. They were happy and reverent occasions, with good food and drink. What’s not to enjoy? It’s meaningful to reflect on marriage, to contemplate the distance Popie and I have traveled together, and to take joy in another young pair showing the faith to embark on such a journey. When I went to my friends’ weddings, years back, I felt intense excitement, as of a crucial contest. Now I look on as though from a high mountain. I know all about the risks, the uncertainties, the thrills. But I am far from playing the game myself. I have become more a philosopher.

In my community, people hardly ever marry in church nowadays. They use wineries or parks or “event facilities.” My own church sanctuary, which once booked space months in advance, hardly ever has a wedding any more.

Furthermore, lots of weddings aren’t performed by pastors or priests; the couple get a friend or a relative to lead the service.

Furthermore, I think it is pretty unusual for the marrying couple to be anxious to get into bed that night. They have generally been doing that for a while.

All the same, my impression is that weddings have not really changed foundationally. They represent the same hope that they did when I was young–the hope of loving and ecstatic partnership, of home, children, permanence. The trappings have become more elaborate (and considerably more expensive), but they aim at the same kind of ritual celebration.

For me, what has changed is more substantial. Not being in the game, I approach weddings with a quiet mind. I enjoy the service, the food, and the happiness, but what I feast on are the conversations–with old friends, and occasionally with someone I meet. In my current stage of life weddings are not just about marriage, they are about community. We come together for the wedding and we affirm, not just the ecstatic dreams of the couple, but the gentle, sustaining community that surrounds them. We are the background. We are the binding threads. I am not invited to the day because I am so terribly important to the celebrating couple, but because it is fitting to have the wider community present. I see old friends, I establish who is related to whom, I have a stray encounter with someone I have never met and may never meet again but who is also significant to this community of which, however partially, I am a part.

It has become common in weddings I attend for the congregation to join in vow-making, stating their commitment to support the couple. In my day this was a novel and striking development. From my view now, it is merely a symbolic utterance of a bodily truth: we are here, we represent the warp and woof of your lives, and we know that what you the couple do in marrying is the sharp exclamation point jutting out of a common reality. We belong to each other.

The Amazing, Mysterious Psalms

July 23, 2014

I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Psalms in the last few years, and every time I study them I see more. That’s the basis of these seven studies, which have been field-tested in my own small group. They start with thoroughly unmodern topics we usually gloss over, such as the king, or the absolute difference between the righteous and the wicked. They go on to Anne Lamott’s three types of prayer (I love this list): Thanks, Help, and Wow! And they end with two psalms that, though adjacent in the psalmbook, take opposite approaches to the assessment of trouble.

Feel free to spread these…. You should be able to copy them and print at home.

Seven Studies on the Psalms

Study 1: The Righteous and the Wicked

We are accustomed to thinking of people in shades of gray. Nobody is all good, nobody is all bad. For the psalmists, and for the Bible writers in general, however, there is a fundamental division between the righteous and the wicked. The two kinds are at odds with each other, and ultimately God is on the side of the righteous and will destroy the wicked. How do we gray thinkers understand this?

Psalm 1
1. What does the blessed person not do? Why?
2. What does the blessed person do? Why?
3. What is the law (Torah) of the Lord? What does it mean to delight in the law? Why should it be the key mark of the blessed person?
4. The opposite of a well-watered tree would seem to be a drought-stricken tree. How is chaff different?
5. How does v. 5 explain/illustrate that? What can the wicked not do?
6. According to v. 6 what is God’s role?

Psalm 10
7. According to v. 1, what is God’s role? Does this accord with 1:6?
8. The description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is very strong. What strikes you most?
9. Do you know anybody who meets this description? Where in the world might you expect to find people like this?
10. Does verse 11 accord with v. 1? What is the difference?
11. What, according to the psalmist, does God do? List the activities attributed to him.
12. According to verse 18, what is the aim of what God does? What does this say about God’ interventionist goals? How closely does he want to be involved in everyday affairs?

Psalm 11
13. Assuming the NIV is right, that vv 1b-3 quote a skeptic, what is this skeptic’s view of the righteous and the wicked?
14. What is God actually doing?
15. What will God do?
16. What does it mean that God is righteous? (v. 7)
17. Given what we have discussed, what does it mean that he loves justice?
18. What is the reward for the righteous?

Study 2: Who Are These People?

Even when the psalms focus on an individual’s relationship to God, they do so in the context of the nation of Israel. When the past is described, it is less likely to be about a personal decision to follow God, than about God’s act of claiming his people in the exodus. In the present, not only individuals are called to worship God, the congregation of Israel is urged to worship. The future, as we shall see, belongs to the people of God.

Psalm 47
1. Verses 1-4 call on the nations of the world to joyfully celebrate God’s greatness, which is expressed in his special treatment of Israel, putting the nations under their feet. What kind of people want the rest of the world to celebrate their own subjugation?
2. What else should the nations celebrate? (v.4)
3. Why did God love Jacob (v. 4)? Why does he treat Israel so well?
4. Verses 4-6 accelerate the praise for God as King over all the earth. What circumstances would make people find this a source of such extravagant delight?
5. Verses 8-9 describe the great apocalyptic throne scene, where the king is surrounded by all those who serve him. What is the great surprise? What does this say about Israel’s understanding of the pride expressed in verses 1-4? What are the dangers of this mindset? What are the strengths?
6. Note the final line of the poem. What is the significance of that?
7. If the church is the renewed Israel, how can we apply this poem to ourselves? Can we really take joy in God’s favoring of us? Can we joyfully appreciate the kind of future assembly that is described?

Psalm 50
1. As with psalm 47, this poem begins with a summons of the whole earth. What is the purpose of this assembly?
2. On what basis does God judge his people?
4. Why would God clarify that he has no charges to make against Israel for their sacrifices? What kind of mindset is he correcting?
5. What kind of behavior does he want to see? What kind of relationship? (v. 14,15)
6. The psalm seems to turn to a different category of people–the wicked. Are these Israelites? How do you know? (v. 16, 17)
7. What behavior is condemned?
7. What is the thought behind these actions? (verse 21)
8. What, exactly, do Israelites need to know? What do they need to do? What does this tell us about Israel’s self-understanding?
9. If we are the renewed Israel, how does this scolding apply to us?

Study 3: The King

The psalms that translate easily into our modern life are personal cries: “help,” “thanks,” “praise God.” Others are not so easy to relate to–for example, those that call for judgment on enemies, those that remember the history of Israel, those that revere Jerusalem and the Temple, and those that revere the king.

The king is crucial to Israel’s hopes. The psalms make it obvious that Israelites think not only individually, as we do, but as a nation. The king embodies their national identity. In that simple fact, you have the kernel of the expectation of the messiah. For “messiah” is simply another way to say, “king.”

Psalm 132
1. In 1-9, what is David (the great king) remembered for? Why is this significant?
2. From the prayer of verse 10, what can you speculate about the situation that propels this psalm?
3. What promises of God are remembered in 11-18? Which are for the king? Which are for the nation?
4. How is the king’s welfare related to the nation’s welfare?
5. If Jesus is the promised Messiah, how does this relate to us?

Psalm 2
1. What is the problem presented in vv. 1-2? Does this have any contemporary reality?
2. What are the kings of the earth calling for?
3. What is God’s response?
4. What has God done? What will he do?
5. What is his relationship to the king of Israel?
6. What should the kings of the earth do? (Note that they can maintain a continued existence.)
7. Has anything changed from the time this psalm was written to today?

Psalm 45
1. What is the occasion of this psalm?
2. In the description of the king (vv. 2-9) what strikes you most?
3. Does it seem odd that the king is addressed as God and that his throne is said to last forever? (v. 6a) Is this just highfalutin’ rhetoric?
4. If the description of the king is climbing higher and higher, why does it end with the gold-decked bride? (v. 9)
5. What advice for the bride on her wedding day? (vv. 10-11) Given that the situation for women in those days is very different from today, is this good advice for her situation? Why or why not?
6. What is the bride told her future is like? What has she done to deserve this?
7. What New Testament passages does this illuminate for you? In particular, what does it say about the church as the bride of the messiah?

Study 4: Praising God

The psalms teach us how to pray–both how to lament and how to rejoice, for they speak about the highs and lows of life, always very actively involved with God as a real and personal presence.

Psalm 33
1. The psalm starts with six imperatives. What are they? Do you do this? When and how?
2. What is the place of music in prayer? Do you use music in your prayers? How?
4. In giving reasons for praise, verses 4,5 speak of God’s character: what he is, how he does what he does, what he loves, how he “fills the earth” as someone (we might say) fills a room. Which of these attributes strikes you most, and why?
5. Verses 6-9–on what do they focus? Why should this make us fear God and revere him? (verse 8)
6. Why does God want to thwart the plans of nations? (v. 10)
7. Why are God’s plans superior? What quality of those plans does the psalmist point out, and why is it valuable. (v. 11)
8. Who is blessed, and why?
9. Verses 13-19 portray God as watching or observing everything on earth. How does he differentiate those he loves and protects and blesses? What does he see in them?
10. The psalmist claims that there is no salvation in great armies, personal strength, or horse power. This goes against everything known in the annals of warfare. How would he justify it?
11. What is the psalmist’s closing petition and how does it relate to what he has previously said?
12. How would you sum up the psalmist’s vision of God? Does it seem to be a good reason to praise him exuberantly, as in verses 1-3? Does this accord with your vision of God?
13 Do you learn anything about prayer from this psalm?

Study 5: Prayers from Desperation

Anne Lamott’s book on prayer is Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Last week we did Thanks, and now we turn to Help!

Psalm 17
1. On what basis does the psalmist appeal for help? (v. 1-5) What is he actually claiming about himself?
2. Do you ever pray this way? Why or why not?
3. What kind of help does the psalmist want for himself? What does he want for his enemies?
4. How does he describe his enemies? Can you relate? Where does one encounter such enmity today?
5. What is the psalmist’s ultimate hope? What does this have to do with his situation?

Psalm 25
1. The fear of shame preoccupies this psalm. (v. 1-3, 20) What is shame and why is it so terrible?
2. On what basis does the psalmist appeal for help? What is he actually claiming about himself?
3. Do you ever pray this way? Why or why not?
4. What kind of help does the psalmist ask for to begin with? (v. 4-5)
5. What are God’s “ways?” What exactly is he asking God to do for him?
6. From a consideration of help in the future, the psalmist turns to the past. (v. 6,7) What does he want God to remember? What does he want him to forget? What does it mean to ask God “not to remember?”
7. The psalmist returns to considering the future (mostly) in verses 8-14. What more do you learn about God’s ways?
8. What are some characteristics of those who benefit from knowing God’s ways?
9. In the final section (v 15-21) the psalmist sticks to the present. What do you learn about his situation? Do you identify?
10. What does he want God to do for him? Do you identify? On what basis does he appeal?
11. Why is v. 22 stuck on there?

Study 6: From “Thanks” and “Help” we turn to “Wow.”

Psalm 29
1. What function do verses 1 and 2 accomplish in the poem? Where is God to receive glory?
2. What qualities are deemed pre-eminent in those verses?
3. In Psalm 19 the heavens declare the glory of God. What speaks in verses 3-9? How does it speak?
4. The identification of God’s voice with the sound of thunder treads on the edge of pantheism. Is the storm God? If not, how can it have God’s voice?
5. Why does verse 9b bring the temple into it? What does the human voice add to the picture?
6. What are the implications of God’s magnificent glory for us, according to vv 10 and 11?

Psalm 46
1. In vv 1-3, the shaking of mountains and the roar of water are not a signal of God’s presence, as in Psalm 29. What do they stand for? What do they mean to you?
2. What is God in relation to them? How does that affect us?
3. What do verses 4-5 refer to?
4. How can God be identified with a city?
5. What are the external threats to a city? Can you name some contemporary examples?
6. Verse 7 is repeated in verse 11, and seems to be a significant statement. What does it mean?
7. How would you describe the picture of vv. 9 and 10? Is this present or future?
8. With this psalm in mind, how would you interpret the phrase, “a personal relationship with God?” What is personal?

Study 7: Dealing with Trouble

You may have heard it said that God is both the master of everything that happens, including bad things, and also the one who intervenes to help us with bad things. Thus some Calvinists will say that when a tree falls down and crushes a little girl, we should praise God for his mysterious goodness. Others, horrified, will ask why God didn’t intervene to stop the tree from falling. They can’t believe God would ever want (or even allow) such a terrible thing to happen.
While not exactly confronting such issues, these two psalms show very different sensibilities about trouble that comes into our lives. Lots to think about!

Psalm 90
1. What attributes of God does the psalmist (Moses?) pay attention to?
2. How does this God interact with our lives? with our sins? with our troubles?
3. What is the quality of our lives, according to this psalm? Do you resonate with this? Why or why not?
4. What does the prayer of verse 12 mean?
5. Apart from teaching us to number our days, what does the psalmist ask God to do?
6. Some of the psalmist’s requests have to do with seeing God’s love and splendor. How does this fit with the earlier, bleaker experiences?
6. What is the end result the psalmist asks for? What is God’s place in this?

Psalm 91
1. The psalmist begins with qualifications. What kind of life will experience the benefits that the psalm names?
2. Verses 3-7 use metaphor to convey threats and also protection. Which of these metaphors do you relate to best? What do they specifically convey about danger?
3. Are verses 9-10 truth or hyperbole? Why do you think so?
4. Satan quoted verse 11-12 to Jesus. (Luke 4:10-11) How did he distort its meaning? (Or did he?)
5. How does this God interact with our lives? with our sins? with our troubles?
5. What kind of experience can we expect if we are faithful, according to this psalm? Do you resonate with this? Why or why not?
6. What is the end result the psalmist says is promised? What is God’s place in this?
General questions: 1. We all pray to God in time of trouble. Which of these psalms do you relate to best? Which is truer to your experience?
2. Why do you think these two psalms are in the Bible together?

What in the World is Holiness?

July 21, 2014

That’s the title of the sermon I preached on Sunday. As you may know, I don’t preach very often, so it’s pretty exciting to me when I do! I spoke from Isaiah 6:1-5 and Hebrews 12:14-16, seeking to rehabilitate the word “holy.” If that sounds boring, it might be because the word hasn’t yet been rehabilitated for you.

Here’s the link: It goes about 25 minutes.

The Forgotten Child

July 16, 2014

Last week, when we were visiting the Eastern Sierra, we spent the night at Sawmill Campground not far from Tioga Pass. It’s a walk-in campground in a lovely little valley where I camped with my family as a child.

When I visit Fresno, the town where I grew up, a lot has changed. In fact, some years ago I tried to show my children the high school I attended, and I couldn’t find it. Some of that has to do with my memory, of course, but it’s also that the familiar markers have disappeared.

But at Sawmill, hardly anything has changed. The campground is better developed (picnic tables no less) and the road access is gone. (I remember the car bottoming out as we scraped and jolted our way to a spot flat enough to thrown down our massive canvas tent.) But the valley is identical. The view of Mt. Dana that I cherished as a child has not changed an iota. I’m not sure they have even changed the mosquitoes.

I found, wandering and rediscovering the trails I followed as a child, an almost magical reawakening of memory. I was again that child, enchanted by the snow-patched ridges. Such is the joy of landscapes that do not change, but welcome like an old friend. The mountains bypass time–or seem to, for us changeful creatures. And so, for a brief sojourn, I catch a glimpse of my soul, which does not age like the rest of me but remains, at some depth, at least half a child.

Escape Hatch to Sanity

July 11, 2014

Last week we got away for a few days to the eastern Sierra. It’s probably our favorite place, other than home. We had planned to backpack, but then the dog broke his leg and couldn’t hike, so we stayed in cabins and did day hikes. The weather was perfect, and to our surprise there was actually more snow on the mountains than we had seen last year in the same week. It’s good to get away! And it’s good to see the mountains.

These pictures are from the Little Lakes Valley, just up the road from an establishment named Pie in the Sky.

photo 2 (1)

photo 1 (1)

photo 1


June 27, 2014

David Brooks has an interesting column in today’s NYTimes entitled “The Spiritual Recession.” In it he bemoans a loss of American idealism regarding democracy. He points out that socialism never much penetrated the American psyche, even during the Great Depression, because we had an alternative faith. We believed that the American political system was, as Lincoln put it, the last best hope of the earth.

“Americans have lost faith in their own gospel.” Brooks says. “This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint. The faith bound diverse Americans, reducing polarization. The faith gave elites a sense of historic responsibility and helped them resist the money and corruption that always licked at the political system.

“Without the vibrant faith, there is no spiritual counterweight to rampant materialism. …Without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with.”

I was struck by Brooks’ column, not so much by its analysis as by its diagnosis of a mood. Things are sour, and lacking in hopefulness about what can be done.

It reminded me of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech. I guess if you are under 50 you probably have no idea what I am talking about. In July, 1979, in the middle of an energy crisis, Carter gave a speech–famous or infamous in its time–in which he talked about a “crisis of confidence” afflicting America. I remember being powerfully struck by his identifying a sense of hopelessness and loss of idealism. It seemed to me at the time that he put his finger exactly on the deepest issue. Without a will to sacrifice and work for solutions, we could go nowhere as a nation.

The speech was well received at first, but in a short time sentiment turned against Carter. It seemed that he was blaming Americans for their problems, rather than fixing them.

Which is, I think, precisely where we are today. Obama’s standing is very low, but so is everybody else’s. We want our leaders to fix things, and we don’t like to hear reasons why they can’t. Citizens of America would much rather rail against Washington than examine the impossible things they demand from Washington. They certainly don’t want to hear that they are at fault. They want to hold their leaders at fault.

Brooks is right that we need faith in democracy–that we are better people and a better nation when we keep that faith. However, that faith has not been maintained over the years through pep talks. It has been maintained by democracy’s effectiveness. There have been many times when America has been stuck with intractable problems, as we are today. But we have muddled through, sometimes blind and stumbling, to find our way. Democracy is tough.

Yes, we are in a spiritual recession. But somehow, through our ranting and our complaining and our posturing –and through our voting–we will get through. That is my faith in democracy.

Bill and Melinda Gates; Miracles

June 16, 2014

On Sunday I attended graduation for Stanford University (a friend was receiving her PhD) and heard Bill and Melinda Gates address the graduates. It was a remarkably inspiring speech. Bill started by talking about his appreciation of optimism. He said that he started out his career with great optimism for how computers and software could transform society. But this optimism itself was radically changed as he encountered (in 1997) poverty in Soweto, South Africa. Melinda shared her own encounter with death and poverty in India. It seemed that these experiences really shook them, forcing them to reevaluate their optimism and ultimately to apply it to problems deeper and more intractable than the digital divide–problems like the stigma of AIDS, malaria, drug-resistant TB. The two of them challenged the graduates to seek exposure to deeper problems and apply their optimism and genius to deeper problems.

I was grateful for the talk, and I thought myself how lacking in optimism I am. If you had told me 20 years ago that Bill Gates would give such a talk to Stanford University, I would not have credited you. The richest man in the world, known for his rapacious business instincts? Didn’t Jesus say something about camels and the eye of the needle? But as Jesus also said in that context, anything is possible with God.

Here is the transcript…

Regarding polls on evolution and creation

June 13, 2014

Deborah Haarmsma of Biologos has an elegant post on recent Gallup polling of people’s views on evolution and creation. While the poll suggests that factions supporting young earth creationism and atheistic evolution are stable and unyielding, when you break the questions down with more detail you find a far more nuanced situation. Worth reading if you are interested in these questions, regardless of your point of view.


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