Ruth 1—Questions and Observations

by Glenn on July 1, 2021

The next step in my process of trying to understand the book of Ruth better is to formulate questions and make observations as I read the text and compare two different translations. I will be using the New Revised Standard Version and the New Living Translation. At this point I am not using commentaries, just trying to see what I notice.

Before we get to the story we have to comment on the name of the book—Ruth. Here within the larger story of God’s dealing with the ancient Hebrew people—God’s people—is this story of someone who is not one of those people, at least not at the beginning. Ruth is an outsider who will become an insider who will give birth to the ancestor of David the king.

Ruth Chapter One

New Revised Standard Version

New Living Translation

Verses 1–2

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.

In the days when the judges ruled in Israel, a severe famine came upon the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah left his home and went to live in the country of Moab, taking his wife and two sons with him. The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi. Their two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. And when they reached Moab, they settled there.

Interesting that the NLT wants to make it clear we are in Israel. I assume that’s not in the original. Also the NLT wants to note that it is a “severe” famine. Is the NRSV leaving something out or is the NLT putting something in?

There is irony here. Bethlehem means “house of bread,” and there is no bread in the house of bread. The promised land is lacking in what had been promised. A person who is part of the nation to whom God has made promises decides he needs to live outside the land of promise and away from that nation to stay alive.

Hebrew names are often full of meaning. I need to learn what all these names mean. I think Elimelek means God is king, but I can’t remember what Mahlon and Kilion mean. I know they have rather sad meanings.

I have heard sermons where Elimelek is criticized severely for leaving the promised land and going to Moab. The text here is merely descriptive. It says what happened but doesn’t make judgments about that. It’s not in my head, but I know there is significance to the country of Moab as it relates to the Israelites. There is a back story there that could be part of this story. I need to get that clear. I suspect to talk about the book of Ruth, you need to understand the relationship of the Jewish people to the Moabite people.

I wonder what we should associate with “In the days when the judges ruled . . .”? Is that simply context? Something we know of that time was that “everyone did what was right in their eyes.” Is that set a tone for what follows? Is it something like, “In the time when everyone did what was right in their eyes, here is a story of three people who are acting in the best interests of others and working against their own self-interest.”

Verses 3–5

Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons. The two sons married Moabite women. One married a woman named Orpah, and the other a woman named Ruth. But about ten years later, both Mahlon and Kilion died. This left Naomi alone, without her two sons or her husband.

In messages I’ve heard, there are those who want to make much of the death of Elimelek. They consider his death divine judgment, but again, that is something you have to read into the text. The story itself is rather factual at this point. And the timeline is super-compressed and super-tragic. In three years we have three deaths. And all the deaths are of the men in the story.

I think it is safe to say that the culture of ancient Israel was a patriarchy and here is a story about women. What does it mean to be an Israelite widow?

Related to the patriarchy is the description of marriage as presented in Genesis 2:24, where “a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” (NRSV) But in this story, women have left their homes to be with the men. Is there something significant about that, or something that should be made about that at this point?

Verses 6–10

When Naomi heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.


Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

Then Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again. So Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland. With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah.

But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me. May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.” Then she kissed them good-bye, and they all broke down and wept.

10 “No,” they said. “We want to go with you to your people.”

I think we can assume this famine went on for a while, but finally the word gets out that it has ended. How have things gone for Naomi in Moab financially? We don’t really get any sort of description of how Naomi and her two daughters have done. Ahead of them lies poverty. Will that be a step up or a step down?

You wonder why Naomi tells the girls to go home after they have started the journey. Why not figure this out before she leaves? Is there something to making this decision along the way?

Naomi seems to want the best for her daughters-in-law. It seems to me the words of verse 8 could be taken formally—this is something one says—or this is an honest expression of Naomi of her feelings toward her daughters-in-law. In other words, is Naomi being polite or is this how she feels? Regardless, verse 9 feels real. It seems like that has to be taken as a sincere hope as evidenced by the weeping. It must be something they all feel toward each other.

The LORD is among the characters in this story, although it is a non-speaking role, if I recall correctly. The LORD will be referred to and people will act in his name, but the LORD won’t actually do anything in this story. Yet because of the LORD, characters will act in a certain way.

It’s interesting to me that English translations use this title and not the actual name of God. In fairness, we don’t actually know exactly how to say that name. And so maybe this is the safe play. But it feels like something gets lost when as here, someone refers to God by name, but this isn’t reflected in the translation.

Verses 11–13

But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

But Naomi replied, “Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands? 12 No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again. And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what? 13 Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else? No, of course not, my daughters! Things are far more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord himself has raised his fist against me.”

This is the second attempt Naomi makes to send the girls away. There’s something about this line of reasoning Naomi offers that I wonder about. I guess it’s the idea that Naomi believes the girls are connected to her because of her sons and the only way they can be connected to each other going forward would be if she had more sons, which she says will not (cannot) happen. And then how Naomi thinks this all out to its logical conclusion, noting that the girls would have to wait until her sons grew up and that they will not want to do that. Is this a polite way of saying, “You girls will be too old.”

Verses 14–18

At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”


16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

And again they wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye. But Ruth clung tightly to Naomi. 15 “Look,” Naomi said to her, “your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods. You should do the same.”

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” 18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said nothing more.

Both Orpah and Ruth express deep emotions toward Naomi, but with Ruth there is this added physical element of Ruth clinging to Naomi.

Ruth has a conversion experience, although we are not told how this came about. Naomi has stressed that her two daughters-in-law should go back to their gods. And she has pointed out to Ruth that Orpah has gone back to her gods. Naomi seems against trying to convert Ruth outright. There is no reaction from Naomi about this conversion, either. But Ruth’s commitment is total and to the death.

Verses 19–22

So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”

20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.

So the two of them continued on their journey. When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was excited by their arrival. “Is it really Naomi?” the women asked.

20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?”

22 So Naomi returned from Moab, accompanied by her daughter-in-law Ruth, the young Moabite woman. They arrived in Bethlehem in late spring, at the beginning of the barley harvest

A lot of time has passed since Naomi left. She left with a husband and two sons and returns with a daughter-in-law. The NRSV says Bethlehem was “stirred,” while the NLT says it was “excited.” Clearly it caused a reaction. I feel like these words are different, but I don’t know if it is a difference that matters. Were people stirred up or were they excited to see Naomi.

Regardless, when Naomi is addressed by her name, she wants nothing to do with her name. She wants to be called Mara, bitter. Fascinating to think about Ruth’s commitment to Naomi in light of Naomi’s emotional state right now. Is she regretting her decision?

Naomi attributes her state to God’s doing. To what extent is she right? Has God afflicted her? Is he to be blamed for her circumstances? Again, God is referenced. Naomi is confident in her assertion, but God neither confirms nor denies her accusation.

One difference in the translation is that the NLT establishes when the Barley harvest begins—”late spring.” I assume this is not in the original but the translators wanted to make it clear where this harvest figures in terms of the seasons.

Truth and the Bible

by Glenn on June 11, 2021

There’s an old joke about the three baseball umpires as described by Walter Truett Anderson. [1] Perhaps I am even beginning to understand the metaphor/allegory in a way I can explain it. Over a beer after a game,

“One [umpire] says, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ‘em the way they are.’ Another responds, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.’  The third says, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes and they ain’t nothin’ until I call ‘em.’”

And there we have three approaches to truth we find today. A simplistic approach to this story sums it up this way: Umpire One says there is objective truth; Umpire Two says truth is relative; and Umpire Three says truth is whatever anyone says is true.

But it’s more complicated than that.

It’s as easy to reject the third umpire’s view as it is frustrating to experience this view of truth in daily life. There must be something there even if we might disagree on how to describe it. So we neither throw our hands up in despair (“What do we know?”) or say nothing can actually be known because everything is a power struggle to decide what the truth is.

I used to think the first umpire was the exemplar for what it means to be a Christian living in the truth. Much of the talk I’ve heard over the years on the subject of Christian apologetics seems to hearken to this idea of an exclusive truth that we can discover, understand completely, and then hold proudly and proclaim loudly.

The problem, of course, is that as soon as we announce we have the exclusive truth we find ourselves with the exhausting task of trying to make sense of the contradictions we have with the guy next door who says something completely different but has a similar claim to know the truth in an exclusive way.

This view of truth means you must assume you are right and the rest of the world is wrong or ignore these contradictions. Further, it means you can’t do the important work of taking a look at your own internal contradictions or the way life often goes against what “we know.” As a Christian it means you can’t let the Bible be the story it is. You need to impose order on it and explain why, for example, it has no contradictions. [2]

So both the first and third umpires live in an untenable place. The first umpire is naive (though he certainly wouldn’t consider himself that), thinking he knows perfectly. Perhaps he knows his Bible well but hasn’t taken time to consider how the Bible relates to, say, natural history. Meanwhile the third umpire says nothing can be known. That’s a tough way to live life.

Initially, the second umpire appears weak. He makes truth sound subjective. He looks squishy. But this is reality. The fundamental misunderstanding I’ve lived with for some years [3] is to mistake the thing that is actually relative, which is not truth, but me. As has been said rather elegantly, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” [4]

This makes coming to the truth a matter of relationship, which means it’s messy. We take the truth seriously, but ourselves less so. There “are ways of seeing” [5] that need to be factored in. And we need new ways of seeing. The fundamental change I’m learning to make is to recognize that there is something objective out there, but that I am subjective in here. Investigate both seriously and carefully.

All of this matters in how we approach the Bible. First umpire readers (I was one and I hope I am learning how not to be one) take themselves too seriously. They say, in effect, “I see the truth clearly and it’s a shame you don’t” on all sorts of matters—women in ministry, American exceptionalism, the importance of this or that presidential candidate, etc. Third umpire readers don’t take the Bible seriously enough. “It’s just one of many texts. We can’t privilege one over another.”

Second umpire readers take the Bible seriously, but themselves less so. They understand there’s a there there. Not everything is a social construction. But it’s only through dialogue with ourselves and others that we come to know the truth or, better, come to embody the truth in a better way.

I was both heartened and disheartened some years ago listening to Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006). People who took the Bible very seriously—word for “literal” word—saw nothing wrong with promoting and maintaining chattel slavery. In fact, it was a cause worth dying for. They defended slavery using the Bible. They took themselves too seriously and neither the Bible nor the plight of others seriously enough. That was wrong.

We shouldn’t approach the Bible in either a first or third umpire sense. Which means we approach the scriptures as they and we are and allow the scriptures to change us as we live in dialogue with God through his word and with others in the community of faith as they, too, interact with God and his word. We don’t read the Bible, we let it read us. We don’t impose order on the Bible, we let the Bible order us.

 

_________________________

[1] See p. 31 and chapter 7 of J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh’s Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

[2] Ignoring absolutely self-evident evidence to the contrary, beginning with simple things like Proverbs 26:4, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly . . .” (NIV) and Proverbs 26:5, “Answer a fool according to his folly . . .” (NIV), and continuing to the fundamental contradictions in the book of Job where Job’s three friends (and then a fourth guy) do not see that their understanding of the world (bad things only happen to bad people) is not in operation. The ones who think they know the truth don’t, and Job, the one who understands the truth, never really gets an answer for why his life became an exception to the rule.

[3] I don’t think some of our Christian apologists have really helped. The discovery of John Stackhouse recently has been a gift. He doesn’t have the ubiquitous presence that Ravi Zacharias had before his tragic denouement, but he’s got a more satisfying way of describing the way Christians should relate to the truth and other people. He appears to be more deeply grounded in philosophy.

[4] https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/03/09/as-we-are/

[5] Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 1985), p. 17.

Touches With History

by Glenn on June 11, 2021

I had three touches with history over the Memorial Day weekend. I wasn’t looking for them, but there they were anyway.

–1–

The first was a book I read over the weekend called The Bomber Mafia, by Malcolm Gladwell (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2021).

The Bomber Mafia is not a long book and I could hardly put it down. I finished it in two days. Confession: I don’t really like to read. I like having read. I need to read. Everything in life is easier for me when I am reading, so I read. This was an easy book to read and it was absolutely fascinating.

The book is about the U.S. Air Force in World War 2, in particular two generals named Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay and their approaches to waging warfare. Both were interested in ending the war early, but they had very different approaches. One was interested in precision-bombing, taking away the means of the enemy waging war. The other was committed to wholesale destruction.

But this book is more than that. It’s about the technology of waging war.

Do you know the three most expensive undertakings of World War 2? The first was the B-29 Bomber, known as the Superfortress. The second was the Manhattan Project, the development of the first atomic bomb. The third was, as Gladwell explains, “Not a bomb, not a plane, not a tank, not a gun, not a ship. It was the Norden bombsight.” This was a “fifty-five pount analog computer” designed to, according to legend, “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from six miles up.”

I don’t want to give anything away. But two things struck me as I read. The first was the staggering amount of losses in the Eighth Air Force based in England. In 1943 B-17s flew to Schweinfurt to attack a ball bearing factory. They were unsuccessful but lost sixty planes and 552 airmen were either captured or killed.

Then they tried again in the Fall of 1943, this time with a diversion. The diversion didn’t work for reasons that are part of the story Gladwell is telling. This second attack on Schweinfurt was only marginally more successful, but in the process, “Nearly a quarter of the crews on that mission did not come home.”

So then you start figuring out your odds of survival. Not every mission was like that one, but if on every mission there are 25% casualties, you won’t long have air crews or planes.

How do you process those kind of losses? And as we come up to the anniversary of D-Day this Sunday, you think about the 4,900 Allied troops killed, missing, and wounded to take the beaches of Normandy. The more I understand about World War 2, the harder it is to comprehend the level of commitment.

The second thing that comes out in the book is the story of the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945. The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan were not the only allied air attacks on Japan. Before, during, and even after the dropping of those two atomic bombs, U.S. forces were using a newly developed weapon on the cities of Japan. Napalm. Many more people died from firebombs than the two nuclear weapons.

Gladwell has a strong moral sense but he’s not telling a morality tale. He is offering a compelling story that makes you think. I can’t recommend this book enough and if you want my copy, just ask.

War is awful, as those who were part of one must know only too well. This book was a good choice to read on Memorial Day weekend.

As a Christian you struggle to make sense of war. At the same time you are not overwhelmed by it. The story Gladwell tells is not an easy one to consider, but it’s not the end of The Story:

He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4, NIV)

Gladwell is a gifted writer and makes connections between things that you didn’t realize were there and tells such a captivating story that you almost can’t help yourself following along, even if you’re not particularly interested in the subject.

–2–

I get a newsletter on Sunday mornings written by a man named David French. He is a Harvard Law graduate and a committed Christian. His politics are on the conservative side, but he doesn’t push forward Republican talking points. He is an independent thinker and I frequently often myself challenged by the things he says. At the very least, I enjoy reading how he thinks.

During the week he writes for an online magazine called The Dispatch. But on Sunday mornings he writes specifically to his Christian audience and, I suppose, anyone else who is interested in listening in.

This past Sunday he opened with this question: “How old were you the first time you heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre?” He followed this with a confession: “I’m ashamed to say that I was in my forties.”

So here is my confession: Sunday was the first time I had heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre. I’m 57. Am I the only one who has lived in such ignorance?

May 31 was the 100th anniversary of this low point in the history of how white and black people relate to each other. If you are interested in reading his account (and his words directed specifically to Christians) click here. This particular article is not hidden behind a pay wall. He makes an poignant comparison to D-Day and Memorial Day.

French has a unique perspective on race relations. He and his wife are white. Years ago they adopted a baby girl from Africa. He has told some uncomfortable stories of what that’s been like and the events of the last year have not made that any easier.

–3–

I listened to a podcast on Econtalk featuring Julia Galef. She and host, Russ Roberts, talked about her book, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. I was drawn to the discussion and the book primarily because of the events of this last year. How do you think about things when there are such polarized views about, well, everything?

Galef says there are two ways of thinking—the soldier mindset and the scout mindset. The soldier mindset is intent on defending what you believe. The scout mindset seeks to discover what you can learn about the world. It was a helpful discussion.

In the book Galef tells a story about Abraham Lincoln I had never heard before. As the Union armies sought to defeat the Confederacy, the town of Vicksburg became an important target. It would give the Union control of the Mississippi River and split the South in two. Even the Confederate president Jefferson Davis recognized, “Vicksburg is the nailhead that holds the South’s two halves together.”

But how to attack Vicksburg? Lincoln and his general, Ulysses S. Grant, had very different views about how to accomplish this. Grant had been trying unsuccessfully for months. And, then, as Galef tells the story, “Finally, in May 1863, he settled on a daring plan to approach the city from an unexpected direction, while using subterfuge to hide his troops’ progress from the Confederates.”

Galef says Lincoln thought the plan was “far too risky.” He had other ideas about how to accomplish this. “But two months later, on Independence Day, Grant’s army stood victorious in the center of Vicksburg.”

It’s the end of this story that is so remarkable. Lincoln sent a letter to Grant congratulating him on his victory.

“I wish to say a word further. . . . I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”

“You were right, and I was wrong.” Wow. It seems like we are more interested in saying the opposite: “I was right. You were wrong.”

Historians say this admission of Lincoln’s was true to his character.

Good News re: COVID-19 (in the U.S.A.)

by Glenn on June 11, 2021

Good news continues to flow in on the COVID-19 front here in The United States. As of Tuesday, June 8, 2021, hospitalizations across the country are down to 16,835 and 171,731,584 Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Marty Makary, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says the news “is even better than you’ve heard.”

He writes that “80 to 85 percent of American adults are immune to the virus: More than 64% have received at least one vaccine dose and, of those who haven’t, roughly half have natural immunity from prior infection.”

Obviously, eradication of the disease would be even better but, “With more than 8 in 10 adults protected from either contracting or transmitting the virus it can’t readily propagate by jumping around in the population.” This is what is referred to as herd immunity. This “should speed up the timeline for returning fully to normal.”

If natural immunity is not factored in, then “we are far from Anthony Fauci’s stated target of 70% to 85% of the population becoming immune through full vaccination. But,” Mackary continues, “the effect of natural immunity is all around us” as evidenced in “plummeting case numbers.”

The really good news is for those who have been infected. Now, this is an opinion piece, but Dr. Mackary points out, “After treating Covid for 16 months, we haven’t seen significant incidence of re-infection.”

One question he takes on: “Should the previously infected be vaccinated?” His “clinical advice to healthy patients with natural immunity is that one shot is sufficient, and maybe not even necessary, although it could increase the long-term durability of immunity.”

Those who have had the infection but haven’t been vaccinated are in kind of a strange status. You’re probably safe for a time from re-infection or infecting others, but you’re not in the category of people who are told they no longer need masks. This article is helpful information for those thinking through this issue.

Related to this topic, on Sunday afternoon I finished a phenomenal book, The Premonition by Michael Lewis (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021).

If you haven’t read any of Lewis’ books, it’s likely you’ve seen one of the movies based on them, Moneyball or The Blind Side. (The books are ALWAYS better than the movies.) He writes so well you can hardly help yourself but continue reading.

Side note: There is a blurb on the dust jacket of The Premonition offering “Praise for Michael Lewis.” In a piece for New York Times Book Review, John Williams wrote, “I would read an 800-page history of the stapler if he wrote it.” That’s about right.

This book reads like a thriller, but it is a work of non-fiction. It is about COVID-19, but it begins back in the administration of President George W. Bush.

The story goes that Mr. Bush went on a vacation in 2005 and read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza (New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2018). It scared Mr. Bush who convened a group in The White House to gauge preparedness for an outbreak of a disease as deadly as the Spanish Flu of 1918. The result was a group of people got together in the Bush years to create a plan.

The book tells the story of close calls—the swine influenza outbreak of 2009 figures prominently in the story. It is called “the pandemic that wasn’t.” Drug-resistant tuberculosis is also part of this story. This is pretty alarming, to say the least. And one thing you learn along the way is that public health officials have a lot of power and a lot of responsibility when it comes to dealing with deadly infections. It feels like a bit of a no-win for them. If they don’t react, people could die. But if they do impose sanctions, then they are taking away freedoms.

The Premonition is not what I expected. I thought somehow it would be about the people we hear in the news all the time. But the most important people in the fight against COVID-19 were people I had never heard of. It’s inspiring to read about these individuals who are so smart and so concerned about solving problems. The CDC features in the story, but they are almost a distraction from and for the protagonists.

Lewis’ book answers some of the questions I’ve had. For example, Where did this idea of “social distancing” come from? The answer is there is “no difference between giving a person a vaccine and removing him or her from the social network.” Makes sense.

Another question: Why close the schools? When you are modeling the spread of disease, “One intervention was not like the others . . . when you closed schools and put social distance between kids, the flu-like disease fell off a cliff.” (It doesn’t come out in the book, but as it turns out, with COVID-19 this wasn’t that important of an intervention.)

There’s a great analogy in the book. When it comes to pandemics, there is no one thing that you can do that works. An intervention is like a piece of Swiss cheese. You need multiple interventions. If you layer enough pieces of Swiss cheese interventions on top of each other, now you have the ability to prevent things.

We learn the importance of the early moments when you’re dealing with communicable disease. One California public health official who figured prominently in this story says “ninety percent of the battle is in the first few days.” (The book doesn’t say outright, but it seems like we didn’t get on it early enough in this country. By the time we locked things down, it was too late and “The problem with implementing [social interventions] too late is you get all the downsides and little benefit, so speed is critical.”)

Another character in this story, Carter Mecher, offers an analogy: “Managing a pandemic was like driving a weird car that only accelerated, or braked, fifteen seconds after you hit the pedal. ‘Or think of looking at a star. It’s the same thing. The light you see is from years ago. When you are looking at a disease, the disease you are seeing is from last week.’”

COVID-19 has a couple of weird characteristics. One thing, for which we can be grateful, it is a disease that spreads quite easily, but it isn’t as dangerous as, say, Ebola. (Though certainly not without consequences for the nearly 600,000 who have died in this country and their grieving families.)

Another characteristic, most people didn’t pass the disease along. But there were “super-spreaders” who “played an outsized role in the spread of the disease.”

I’ll stop with the takeaways. I couldn’t put The Premonition down.

Telling the Story of Ruth in Your Own Words

by Glenn on June 9, 2021

So I thought I would try and tell the story of Ruth from memory, to see how much I remember and to establish some sort of baseline for being able to re-tell this story myself. This is a first attempt.

There is a family made up of a husband and wife, Elimelech and Naomi, and their two boys, Mahlon and Killion. They are living in the time of the judges, the period of time before the monarchy of ancient Israel. Their home is in the town of Bethlehem which experiences a period of famine.

This family decides to leave their home in the promised land in search of food outside the promised land. They cross the river Jordan and enter the land of Moab. They leave a large-scale disaster and then experience personal tragedy. First, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi a widow.

Mahlon and Killion marry Moabite girls, Orpah and Ruth. No children come to these marriages and then after ten years Mahlon and Killion also die. Now three widows are living with each other.

Naomi hears that the famine has ended back home in Bethlehem so she decides the three women should head there. After they start out, Naomi seems to have a change of heart. She tells her two daughters-in-law to return to their homes and their gods. Perhaps they can find new husbands. Naomi will go on alone.

Both daughters-in-law find themselves weeping and say no. After Naomi insists, Orpah returns home. But Ruth says she will not leave Naomi. In fact, she says this will be true until death. Where Naomi lives, Ruth will live. Naomi’s people will be Ruth’s people. Naomi’s God will be Ruth’s God. Ruth has had some sort of a conversion and dedicates herself to Naomi.

Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem at the start of barley season and because so much time has gone by and Naomi’s situation is so desperate, it creates something of a stir. Naomi tells people she doesn’t want to be called Naomi, which means “pleasant.” She wants to be called Mara, which means “bitter.” She believes God’s hand has been against her.

There is a man named Boaz living in Bethlehem who is a relative of Naomi. Ruth realizes she and Naomi need something to eat and Ruth sets off to glean a barley field after it has been harvested. It turns out that the field she gleans belongs to Boaz, this relative of Naomi’s.

Boaz comes to the field one morning and checks in with his foreman. Boaz sees Ruth out in the field and asks his foreman about her. He says she is the one who came back with Naomi and has been working all day except for a short break. Boaz goes to Ruth and thanks her for what she is doing for Naomi. He tells her to only glean in his field. He has told his men to leave her alone. He tells her to help herself to the water provided and he invites her to have lunch with his crew where she has enough to eat plus leftovers to take home. To his men Boaz gives special instructions to be very sloppy about their harvest so that there will be plenty for Ruth to glean.

When Ruth comes home with an abundance of food, Naomi asks where she has been gleaning. When she hears the name Boaz, she realizes this is a good thing. She tells Ruth to stay working in that field only.

Then Naomi hatches a plan. One day she tells Ruth to get cleaned up and dressed up in her finest clothes. At the end of the day, Ruth is to go to the threshing floor where Boaz is sleeping, uncover his feet and lie down by his feet, and see what happens. Boaz wakes up and is startled. He wants to know who this girl is that is sleeping at his feet. Ruth establishes who she is and then asks Boaz to spread his garment over her and to be a kinsman-redeemer for her.

Boaz thanks her for this request which he takes as a great kindness.  Boaz says Ruth could have looked at someone younger. Boaz says he will take on the role of kinsman-redeemer though there is a relative who is closer in relation. In the morning, Boaz gives Ruth six measures of grain to take home and she slips away before anyone knows that a woman has been on the threshing floor.

Boaz heads to the city gate where he finds the closer relative and gets a group of men together to conduct business. He explains the situation. Naomi is selling her field and wants a kinsman-redeemer to buy it. The closer relative is very interested, but Boaz explains there is a catch—the person who buys the land must take Ruth as a wife. Her child will become the heir of the property. The other kinsman decides he can’t entangle his estate this way.

Through a sign of the passing a sandal, it is established that this other relative will not be the kinsman-redeemer and that Boaz will take on this role.

Boaz marries Ruth. They have a child named Obed. Ruth gives the child to Naomi to care for. The women of Bethlehem rejoice for Naomi. King David will be the descendant of this child.

Reading Ruth

by Glenn on May 4, 2021

I’ve been thinking about the biblical story of Ruth for some time. I have more projects than time and self-discipline to pursue them all, but I hope to spend some time with this story.

I thought I would begin by simply re-telling the story in my own words.

Ruth 1

The story of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges. There was a famine. A family, Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Killion, moved from Bethlehem in Judah to Moab, ostensibly to find food.

In the midst of the large-scale tragedy of famine, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi widowed with her two sons. The boys married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. Ten years later, the two boys also died. Naomi was now alone with her two daughters-in-law. All three women were childless widows.

Naomi learned that there was food again back in Bethlehem so the three women prepared to move to Bethlehem. Along the way, Naomi decided to send the two girls back home to their families. She prayed that the Lord would provide them with husbands. The two girls said that they would stay with Naomi, but Naomi insisted they go back. She considered herself a kind of dead-end for these two girls. She wouldn’t have children again and even if she did have more sons, would the girls wait until the boys were old enough to marry? Naomi believed the Lord’s hand was against her and their best interest was back home.

The two girls wept with their mother-in-law. Orpah returned home. But Ruth told Naomi that she wouldn’t leave her. Everywhere Naomi went, Ruth would go. Naomi’s people and God would be Ruth’s people and God. Further, Ruth prayed that the Lord would deal severely with her if she broke this promise before death. Naomi realized that Ruth was dead serious and so she didn’t argue.

Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem which caused a commotion in town. The people asked if this was Naomi after all these years and Naomi said she wanted to go by the name, Mara, which means “bitter.” This was a rough time. It was also the beginning of the barley harvest.

Ruth 2

Naomi’s dead husband had a relative named Boaz.

Ruth announced, with Naomi’s consent, that she would go to the fields and pick up whatever leftover grain she could find. It turns out that she found herself in the field of Boaz. Boaz asked about Ruth and his foreman explained that she was with Naomi and wanted to glean after the harvesters. She had worked all day with only a short break.

Boaz went to Ruth and told her not to go to any other fields. He told her to stay with his servant girls and that he had given instructions to his men not to touch her. Further, she should help herself to water whenever she wanted.

Ruth’s response was to fall on her face and ask why she was receiving this kind of care and consideration.

It turns out Ruth’s reputation had preceded her. Boaz had heard about Ruth’s care for Naomi and how she had left her own country to live with people foreign to her. Boaz prayed a blessing over Ruth that the Lord would reward her. Ruth responded with gratitude for all his kindness.

When it was time to eat, Boaz asked Ruth to join the workers for a meal. Ruth ate all that she wanted and had leftovers. Boaz gave instructions to his men to leave behind plenty of stalks so that there was plenty for her to glean in the field. At nightfall, Ruth carried the leftover lunch and all the barley she had gleaned back to Naomi who was struck by the quantity of food Ruth had brought back. She asked where she had been gleaning and Ruth explained it was the field of Boaz. Naomi was filled with gratitude for the love and kindness he showed and pointed out that Boaz was a close relative of Elimelech.

Ruth added that Boaz said she was welcome to glean through the end of the harvest. Naomi pointed out this was good because in another field and among other workers, Ruth might be in danger.

Ruth 3

Naomi thought it was time for Ruth to have a home where she would be provided for. She told Ruth to get cleaned up and put on her finest clothes. Her instructions are that when Boaz has fallen asleep on the threshing floor, Ruth was to uncover his feet and lie down there. She did.

In the middle of the night Boaz was startled to find a woman at his feet. He asks who she was. Ruth announced herself and asked that Boaz would spread his garment over her as a kinsman-redeemer.

Boaz considers this an act of kindness toward him, since Ruth has not gone after younger men. Boaz promises that the entire town will know what kind of character she has. There is one problem—there is a man who is a closer relative. Boaz says if this closer relative wants to be Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer, that will be fine, otherwise Boaz will do it. Ruth stays with Boaz until the early morning and leaves before anyone will know she had been there. Boaz sends her on her way with six measures of barley.

Boaz headed to town.

Ruth went back to Naomi who wanted to know what happened. Ruth told the story and Naomi told Ruth to wait and see what happened. Naomi thought Boaz would settle the matter that day.

Ruth 4

Boaz went to the town gate and found the closer relative and gathered ten town elders. He explained that Naomi was back in town and was selling Elimelech’s land. Boaz thought the other relative should redeem it. But if not, Boaz would redeem it.

Boaz adds an important detail to the deal. Whoever buys the land takes Ruth, the Moabite girl, as a wife, so that the property can stay in the family name of Elimelech.

At this the other relative opted out. This would mess up his own estate. We are told of an important ritual of handing over a sandal when property was being transferred. The other relative handed his sandal to Boaz who announced that he would be buying the property of Elimelech and Kilion and Mahlon. Further, he was taking Ruth as his wife.

The elders agreed and prayed that Ruth would be like earlier matriarchs and establish a family. Boaz and Ruth got married. Ruth had a son. Naomi was blessed by the women of Bethlehem who praised the Lord for providing a kinsman-redeemer and a loving daughter-in-law who had provided a son.

The name of the child was Obed. He would have a son, Jesse. Jesse would be the father of David. That David. And the Messiah, Jesus, will be a descendant of Ruth.

 

First Impressions

I’ve preached on this story, but I am going to try and approach it with as much of a beginner’s mind as possible. Here are some things I notice:

You can’t get past the large- and small-scale tragedy of the opening. There’s no food. And then this family decides to relocate to a foreign country to try and find food. But then the husband dies. After the boys are married off to Moabite girls, there is further tragedy in that they have no children and both boys die. Three widowed women are alone in the world.

Moab has become a dead end for Naomi. When she hears there is food back home she decides to head back and her daughters-in-law are going to go with her.

It appears to be an act of generosity that causes Naomi to reconsider this decision to take the girls back to Bethlehem. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, takes Naomi up on this and receives what I take as an act of kindness. The other daughter-in-law, Ruth, will not leave Naomi. In fact, she makes a commitment to, in essence, become a Jewish girl. She won’t leave Naomi’s side and converts.

Naomi acts in a loving manner toward her daughters-in-law, but Ruth decides to engage in an even more loving act. It’s not going to be easy back in Bethlehem for Naomi, so I imagine Ruth somehow has decided that she is going to support her.

Naomi is in a dark place. She says to the the Bethlehemites not to call her by her regular name, but to call her “Mara,” which means bitter.

We are given the name of Boaz and then we have this extraordinary moment of “coincidence” where Ruth finds herself in the field of Boaz.

Boaz treats Ruth kindly. Apparently Boaz has heard about Ruth’s act of love on behalf of Naomi and so Boaz decides to help out. He provides protection and shares generously with Ruth. Boaz tells Ruth not to go anywhere else.

A key word in this story is vulnerability. It becomes especially clear as Ruth is gleaning. Boaz apparently has to instruct his men to leave her alone. Naomi says that in another field she might be at risk.

There is a moment in the story that is so difficult to understand. It’s this plan that Naomi hatches. Ruth is supposed to lay herself at the feet of the sleeping Boaz. She does. But then when Boaz wakes up, she makes this request of Boaz—to be a kinsman-redeemer. Later we will learn there is some expense involved in this, but Boaz seems to be delighted by this. You get the feeling that Boaz is an older guy. You also get the feeling that he is an honorable guy. It feels like this was a kind of proposition going on, but that nothing went down quite like anyone thought it would. Naomi gave Ruth a script that she didn’t follow. As she improvises, Boaz goes right along with it.

The idea of a kinsman-redeemer needs some explaining.

Also, we need to think about property laws. One thing that is clear in the text is that women have no power. This is a patriarchal system. This adds another layer to the tragedy at the beginning of the story. It’s not just that Naomi and her daughters-in-law are widows. That would be bad enough. But it is the implication that women without husbands/sons are effectively have no resources.

I don’t know if it is a funny moment or not, but it reads somewhat humorously—Boaz presents this land deal to the closer relative. He sounds like he’s ready to pounce on it, but then Boaz adds this little clause that says whoever buys the property gets a foreign girl as a wife. It seems like a son from that marriage would then become the heir of that property. The closer kinsman-redeemer wants nothing to do with that. But Boaz does, or at least is willing to.

Ruth is given a son, but it is Naomi who seems to treat the child as her own. Naomi has gone from no hope to having a future. And not just any future. The savior of the world will come from this family.

There is a sense that everyone in this story acts in a selfless manner. Naomi is struggling as she leaves Moab, but she wants to do what is best for her daughters-in-law. Ruth decides to help Naomi. Boaz decides to help Ruth. And by “help” I mean they go above and beyond. They both rearrange their lives to show love and care.

An important question is what kind of story is this? Is it a romance? Is this something we would see on the Hallmark Channel? Or does this not fit easily into typical categories.

What’s in this for Ruth? Is she going after security? The story is named after Ruth. She is, obviously, not the only character in the story. Is she the hero? Interesting that in the Hebrew Bible, one of the books is named after a non-Jewish person.

What’s in this for Boaz? Is he going after the proverbial younger woman? It’s not so straight forward. There is, for example, considerable expense for Boaz. His estate will be effectively divided if (when!) Ruth has a boy.

We don’t get a lot of information about the inner lives of these characters. We will have to read between the lines for some of these things. All we know is that tragedy strikes a woman named Naomi. But bitterness is replaced by peace and a kind of contentment at the end.

The Harbinger

by Glenn on December 18, 2020

Someone recommended that I read Jonathan Cahn’s The Harbinger (Lake Mary, Florida: FrontLine, 2011). In retrospect, I’m not sure if they were recommending the book or the DVD teaching series about the book. I read the book. It’s not great, and I wonder what I would think about Cahn and his work had I been exposed to his teaching rather than his writing.

The book does give you a lot to think about. Read the rest of this entry »

The Young Messiah

by Glenn on November 26, 2020

Q. Have you watched any good movies lately?

A. Actually, I have. I watched the movie, The Young Messiah, on Netflix.

Q. What’s it about?

A. It’s based on Anne Rice’s novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Both the book and the film are fiction, trying to imagine what it was like for Jesus as a child to come to understand who he was.

Q. What do you think about a made-up story about Jesus?

A. Well, I suppose you need to approach the subject cautiously. And this one does. The gospels are mostly about Jesus as an adult. They give us a brief look at Jesus as a baby and a very young child. But then there is no record of anything until he is twelve, attending Passover in Jerusalem. You can understand why someone would want to fill in the details.

Q. What did you like about the movie?

A. For starters, it’s a movie I can recommend without reservations. It’s short. I don’t have to warn anyone about language or tell them about a bad scene. It’s pretty well made.

Q. Anything you didn’t like?

A. I guess in general I don’t like movies about Jesus. The production quality is often low, which is disappointing. And then I don’t like the specificity of one particular actor trying to represent the Son of God. There are too many interpretive issues involved.

Q. What do you mean by interpretive issues?

A. Well, we tend to think of the gospels like a modern biography—where we’re given all sorts of information about a subject’s appearance—their height, weight, hair and skin color, personality, what they were wearing, etc. But the gospels don’t give us any of that sort of information.

And in the gospels we get the words of Jesus and not much more beyond that. We don’t get a lot of characterization—was he smiling when he said that? Did he sound angry? And so the actor that plays Jesus is making decisions in terms of the tone of Jesus that simply aren’t in the text. He is interpreting the text. I prefer having to use my imagination and to think deeply about the words—not see the representation of someone else’s imagination.

Q. So what was different about this movie that you don’t seem to have those objections?

A. This movie is dealing with a subject that has always interested me—what was it like for a young Jesus to come to terms with who he is? Obviously, he was human and didn’t arrive speaking complete sentences. But he was God, which means he had the power of God. And somehow he was an eternal being. Presumably he would not (or could not) sin. How did he relate to other people? The gospels don’t say anything about this. I don’t think it’s wrong to wonder or to try and fill in some of these details.

Q. Were there any surprises in the details?

A. Yeah, I think there were two. One was the presence of Satan in the life of the young Jesus. Satan isn’t always visible to the other characters in the story, but he does influence them. And so this brings a deeply spiritual emphasis to the film. It’s not creepy or spooky, as in a horror film, but we are made aware that there are spiritual realities that we tend to deny in our modern world. Jesus as an adult would be doing battle with evil. His presence in the world as a child was not unknown to dark powers. So I loved that this film represented a reality the Bible presents.

The second surprise was how dangerous the world was for Jesus and how much anxiety his parents felt. Obviously, the danger is represented in the gospel story. God appears to Joseph in a dream and warns him that he needs to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. The threat is real and they live with an understandable level of pressure. They are living with both the normal anxieties of parenthood as well as this extra mission of keeping God alive until he is old enough to care for himself. It’s hard to imagine what that must have been like. Jesus was a little kid who needed protecting. God speaks to them and gives them a general instruction—”Go to Egypt”—but then all the details are on them. There’s so much of life that Joseph and Mary have to figure out. This, too, feels real.

Q. There’s the age-old question: the book or the movie? Which is better.

A. The book always wins. I’ve seen some enjoyable “based on the book” films, Sully, Remains of the Day, Pride and Prejudice, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the first Harry Potter. In this case, it’s been a long time since I read the Anne Rice book. My memory is that I really enjoyed it. Rice’s research was impeccable. She comes from a Catholic perspective, which has some traditions associated with the child, Jesus—but these so-called “infant narratives” aren’t historical accounts. For example, the scriptures tell us that the first miracle of Jesus was at Cana of Galilee, while the book (and the film) have Jesus performing miracles, although not consciously.

So maybe the fact that it’s been so long since I read the book made this film so much more enjoyable. Something I liked about both the book and the movie—while they are both fictional accounts, they are out to present a historical Jesus. I am behind any enterprise that tries to make the real Jesus known to the world.

The Story of 2020, Part Two

by Glenn on November 26, 2020

Note: A version of the following appeared previously in an email I sent to my congregation this past summer.

Previously I wrote about the coronavirus.

It’s a difficult disease to manage because you’re contagious before you’re symptomatic, and you may never become symptomatic. As a disease it’s not a big deal, unless it’s a big deal, and then it can be a pretty big deal. To keep it from becoming a public health crisis, you need to act early, when it doesn’t look like a problem.

You can contain it when a small number of people have it, but if you don’t, then it becomes about mitigation, which is where we’ve been the last seven months, and may continue to be for some time. (In fairness, it did take medical professionals some time to realize that the coronavirus was being spread person-to-person.)

The coronavirus was a lot to deal with. And continues to be. Part of the story of this year is that we had a hard time finding common ground and holding on to the center. Somewhere we lost the spirit of “we’re all in this together.”

We have even felt this in the Church (not so much our congregation, but in the larger Church). There were some on one end of the spectrum who said (and continue to say) that they weren’t going to wear masks or maintain distance from others. Some have called this a “scamdemic” or a “plandemic,” suggesting conspiracies and/or no actual health problem. They maintain that the Church as well as the general economy should be business as usual. On the other end of the spectrum, there are churches that are effectively closed.

We have been trying a middle way. We want to obey the scriptures which remind us not to be “giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25) and be part of the efforts to mitigate the disease—wearing masks and keeping our physical distance. To me this seems reasonable. We don’t want to live in fear. But we don’t want to be foolish, either. In the same way that you would sneeze into your elbow so as not to pass on your cold to people around you, it seems both loving and wise not to pass on the coronavirus, made more difficult because you will spread it before you have it, if you ever become aware that you had it.

This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t have opinions on the handling of this public health crisis. I’ve been pretty vocal in saying that we need better testing in this country. First of all, we need an easier and quicker test. (One of the members of my congregation had one of those early tests. He said something about the feeling of someone scratching his brain.) But a lot of problems would be solved if we had a way to test, even at home, and know if we are sick or have been sick.

And we need to trust our leadership. The most famous example is the prominent doctor and government spokesman who told us early on not to worry about masks. But now he says we should wear masks. His story was that he was worried that there wouldn’t be enough masks for medical professionals if everyone went out to buy them. So did he lie? What are we to make of his words now?

I’ll try to avoid a rant, here.

All this to say, we had plenty to deal with and we weren’t necessarily doing it that well.

And then George Floyd died in police custody on May 25, 2020. This absolutely should not have happened. Is it fair to say he was killed? I know it’s innocent until proven guilty, but we saw it with our own eyes. It was horrifying. I understand Floyd had some underlying health conditions, but isn’t it likely he would be alive today had that former police officer not knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, with three other police officers watching and bystanders asking, pleading, for him to stop?

Most people were disturbed by this. Many people were upset deeply by this, particularly members of the African-American community. Can you blame them? We had a conversation on one of our Wednesday night Zoom meetings with a Black pastor who was pretty outspoken about his feelings.

The death of George Floyd (as well as Breonna Taylor and others) was awful, but maybe there was some good that could come out of it. It looked like we could have a discussion about police procedures. (A friend of mine in law enforcement discovered that kneeling on someone’s neck is an actual police procedure in Minneapolis. It’s not here in Portland.) It looked like we could talk about police unions and removing the few bad police officers so that the vast majority of good ones could be trusted to do their jobs. It looked like we could have a discussion about racism in this country. It is, after all, America’s original sin.

I was certainly ready to go there.

But then something strange happened. The coronavirus was still a problem and family members could not be in the room with relatives as they died from the coronavirus, but large gatherings of protesters were allowed.

We decided—I use “we” because I really do believe we are all in this together—that the police were a greater health threat than the coronavirus.

And then protests turned into destruction and looting and rioting. We even, for a while, had an anarchist zone in Seattle. Reforming the police turned into defunding the police.

And here is where things get really difficult, because we don’t all see eye to eye on what has happened and what should happen, even in our little community. Some of us are overwhelmed by profound loss. Others see opportunities that need to be seized.

I see some good right now. These are personal reflections, but see if they ring true for you. Let me share three right now:

1. I believe this year is exposing some idolatry in our hearts. What do I mean? It’s just possible that for some of us love of country is more important than God right now. That, by definition, is idolatry. It’s one thing to be concerned about things you see and make them a matter of prayer. It’s another thing to be unsettled by the things you see and feeling as though all is lost because your vision of what America is and should be has become a kind of god to you. If God is the most important person in my life I won’t be troubled by anything else.

2. I believe this year is reminding us of sin and its effects. This is a fallen world—a good world gone wrong. A fallen world has disease and being a Christian does not always provide immunity from it. There are a number in our community struggling with bodies that aren’t working well right now. Broken bones. Heart trouble. The prospect of surgery. We have a friend who, recently, in the midst of all of these large-scale events this year, lost both parents in a ten-day period. If sin and death were the end of the story, it would be an unlivable tragedy we could never recover from. But we are promised both an abundant life in this world and eternal life in the one to come. That gives us hope. In the center of human sin and suffering is Jesus on the cross. Dying for our sin. Experiencing our suffering. Sin is not the whole story. It’s certainly not the end of the story.

3. I believe this year is reminding us of the importance of individuals. Presidents and governors are important. We need leaders who will lead us well. Can we agree that good leaders can make things better and bad leaders can make things worse? But the power and beauty of this country is not found in our leaders. It’s found in its citizens. The Constitution opens with “We the people …” The same is true of the church. The pastor and elders matter. They can make things better or worse. But nothing matters more than the individuals in the church. It’s what individuals do day in and day out that matters. I am so proud of this community that we get to be part of. I ran into town yesterday afternoon and there was a 94-year-old member of our community out with the weed-eater, keeping her lawn tidy. You’re doing what you know to do. And you’re making things better. I should say something about the importance of families, but I’m running late and long. I know there’s one family at the coast right now. There’s another one headed there this weekend. There’s another family that is camping. Another one went kayaking the other day when dad had a day off. These are triumphs. They won’t get reported on the news, but they matter so much right now.

The Story of 2020, Part One

by Glenn on November 26, 2020

Note: A version of the following appeared previously in an email I sent to my congregation this past summer.

How will you tell the story of this year? Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Does your Christian faith influence how you tell the story? Here’s my first attempt:

We knew 2020 would have some drama to it. After all, it was an election year, but we had no idea what was coming. Early on there were some rumblings out of Wuhan, China about a new (“novel”) virus. It was called SARS-CoV-2 because of its similarity to the virus that caused SARS in 2003. [1] The disease it causes has been called Covid-19: “‘co’ for corona, ‘vi’ for virus, ‘d’ for disease, and ‘19’ for the year it appeared.” [2] It’s a little easier just to call it the coronavirus. At the end of January, travel from China was restricted to The United States because of it.

In the middle of February, Nancy and I traveled to California to work with some friends at a conference. At the event, we learned one of the speakers had cancelled. He was an older gentleman and his doctor told him not to travel because of the coronavirus. Then one of the support staff for the conference caught the flu and was banished to her hotel room. When I saw her a couple of days later, I remember feeling anxious about being near her. And then there was the flight home. I thought: “Is this a good idea?”

In March, we watched this novel coronavirus hit the country of Italy hard. The death toll was greater than in China and hospitals were overwhelmed. And then here in the States, as a country, as a state, as a church, we made changes to how we would live and move in the world. We wanted to flatten the curve. We refer to “lockdowns” in this country, but they were nothing like the lockdowns in China and Italy.

As a church, we stopped meeting, physically, but then someone had the idea of gathering online, which we began doing in April and have done ever since (with a few joyous experiments with drive-in church sprinkled in). As of July 5, we have begun a hybrid of meeting in our building, outside or in cars, and online on Sunday mornings at 11:00 am.

Normally, as Americans we have this ability to rally around each other. I remember when President Reagan was shot in 1981. I was a senior in my journalism classroom at San Pedro High School as we stood around the television. The report came out that Mr. Reagan had told the doctor, “I hope you’re a Republican.” The doctor responded, “Today, we’re all Republicans.”

9/11 was the same thing. We were all New Yorker’s. We were all especially aware of our own mortality and fragility and living accordingly.

Something was different with this coronavirus, though. We did hunker down. But then we hoarded. Toilet paper. Cleaning supplies. And then we got angry. Especially online. I suppose we were looking for someone to blame. But it’s hard to know who to blame.

I read a book on Covid-19 (Deborah MacKenzie, COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One. New York: Hachette Books, 2020.) and the author tells a story that is more complicated than this or that person/country is to blame. It’s probably better to say there’s plenty of blame to go around and the sources for our information share in some of it.

You wouldn’t think a disease like this would be political, but it is. And it has fractured our culture or at least has exposed the fractures.

The problems with this disease begin with the fact that you’re contagious before you’re symptomatic and you may not ever be symptomatic. And while the death rate is relatively low (somewhere between worse than the flu but not as bad as, say, SARS and MERS), it seems to affect different parts of our population differently—older Americans especially hard and young people hardly at all. The worse your economic situation right now, the worse your experience these last five months.

No one has a particularly good solution aside from a vaccine and we’re a ways away from that. Creating a vaccine is a complicated enterprise. It’s a race, but it’s not necessarily a race to be first. Everyone wants to be first, but the first vaccine may not be the best. And a bad vaccine will be worse than no vaccine. It will make the problem worse.

We have learned that an older person with the virus should not be put back into their retirement home. That seems clear. Physical distancing (which sounds a lot better than “social distancing”) and certain types of masks seem to help contain the spread. But the main thing is avoiding close-proximity to others in enclosed spaces over a period of time.

Anyway, this is what we thought this year would be about—dealing with the coronavirus. I mean, there were those murder hornets, [3] but that turned out to be nothing. At least for now. No, we were trying to figure out how to return to anything like normalcy. How do we plan? What is possible? What is safe? How do we balance economic concerns and human safety? There were and are a lot of questions. There’s a lot there to think through.

But then on May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed while in police custody. Like most people, I thought this was horrific. It was wrong. And the arrogance on display in that image of the now former police office with his hands in his pockets while he snuffs out the life of Floyd is staggering.

Even a friend of mine in law enforcement told me this week that he and his colleagues have looked at the video and can’t make sense of the decision-making or the police procedures behind this person who knelt on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. After all, there were four police officers there and the man was handcuffed. What could he do? This death shouldn’t have happened. But it did.

I thought, hoped, we would have an opportunity to discuss issues of race. It is, after all, America’s original sin.

To be continued . . .

 

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[1] Deborah MacKenzie, COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One. New York: Hachette Books, 2020, pp. ix and xxi.

[2] MacKenzie, p. ix.

[3] I mentioned “murder hornets” to a friend and she wrote back, “Please don’t call the Asian giant hornet a ‘murder hornet.’ That’s offensive!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond the Broken Lights

by Glenn on October 21, 2020

You never know what’s going to happen when someone hands you a book to read. One thing is true for me: there’s always a little bit of anxiety. Will it feel like a duty or will it bring pleasure? What does the person say when they hand you the book? Is it, “I loved this book and I thought you might, too”? Or is it, “You really need to read this book!” (What does that mean? Is it that good or are you trying to fix me?)

Someone handed me a book a little while ago and said they really enjoyed this particular author because he “thinks outside the box.” That was as gracious as it was intriguing to me. The author is Charles E. Poole, who is senior minister at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and the book is called, Beyond the Broken Lights: Simple words at sacred edges (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2000).

It’s not a long book, so I took some time on Monday to read it through in a few sittings over cups of coffee. Read the rest of this entry »

The Power of Favor 15 | Chapter 4.2

by Glenn on May 19, 2020

In The Power of Favor, each chapter has references to both Biblical and personal stories to illustrate lessons. If I’m correct, Moses is the 14th reference to a Biblical character as an example of favor. Osteen uses this story to illustrate the idea of “A Hedge of Protection” as this section of the chapter where I am picking up again is called. He refers to the plagues that God sent on the Egyptians and how they didn’t affect the Israelites. As the plague of flies is about to be introduced, Osteen has God speak to Pharaoh in this way,

“I will deal differently with the land where My people live. No swarms of flies will be there. I will make a distinction between you and My people.”

He continues to tell the story,

“Millions and millions of flies came into Pharaoh’s palace and all the houses of the Egyptians. The flies were so dense the people couldn’t see, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. Their land was ruined by flies. But right next door, the Israelites had no flies. . . . It didn’t make sense in the natural. This was the hand of God putting a distinction on His people.”

And then there’s the application,

“God has put that same distinction on you. When He breathed life into you, He marked you for favor, marked you for blessing, marked you to stand out. What will defeat others won’t be able to defeat you.”

One of my ongoing questions about this book is Who is “you”? Who is marked for favor? Those who read this book? If so, what is it about reading this book that makes it so that a person is marked for favor? Is everyone who reads this book marked for favor? Is it possible to be marked for favor and not read this book? Other questions come from the statement, here, that the moment God “breathed life into you, He marked you for favor.” It sounds like favor is given to us at birth. Do I understand that correctly? Is it given to everyone? If favor is connected to salvation, does that happen at our first birth or does it require, as Jesus explained to Nicodemus, a second birth. Do “you”, whoever you are, have any responsibility related to that favor? Is there a way to reject it, for example?

Leaving behind this ongoing question of Who is “you”?, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of these words and the global Coronavirus pandemic that we are experiencing. We’re told that “What will defeat others won’t be able to defeat [us]”, but in our current circumstance there doesn’t appear to be a distinction between who gets and does not get the virus. And maybe this statement doesn’t apply to a global pandemic. To what does it apply, then? Is what Osteen is saying meaningful or meaningless? I don’t mean to be snide, but I am trying to understand the author’s claims.

To what extent do the promises of God create better and different realities in this world than they do for non-Christians? In other words, do we play by a different set of rules? Gravity seems to apply to everyone.

I watched pastors defy stay-at-home orders when the Coronavirus hit. On the one hand, I admired their faith: “No weapon formed against me will stand!” At the same time, it felt so foolish. Christians get colds, the flu, cancer, why was it that they wouldn’t get this disease? Either faith doesn’t work, or we are bringing the wrong expectations to our faith. I was curious what Osteen was saying about the virus and I found this press conference. When asked what encouragement he had for people, he said,

“I think it’s important to make that choice to not live from a place of fear, a place of worry, a place of panic. You know you draw in what you consistently think about and it’s easy—you know, you’re watching the news, and I’m not saying, you know, there’s not a lot of negative going on, but you have to make that choice, I’m going to live from a place of faith, a place of trust, a place of hope, not downplaying it, I want to be smart, I want to use wisdom, I’ll wash my hands, I’ll stay away from people, but I’m going to stay in a place of peace. I believe when you do that you draw in peace, you draw in faith, that helps you to make it through.”

This seems absolutely reasonable. Have faith. Don’t be foolish. What it doesn’t say is that Christians aren’t any different than anyone else. The measured tone is markedly different from the claims of the book. When asked about parents with kids at home, Osteen remarked,

“I believe God will give you grace for every season and this is not a surprise to him, so I think that as parents if we can stay in peace, if we can be the example, that we’re not panicked, that we’re not upset, I think it translates down to our children and again I think we have to take it one day at a time. God gives us grace for today. You think about Can I do this for a month? Can I do this for a year? I don’t know, but if you come back to Can I can get through 24 hours?—“God, give me your grace for today,” I believe that is going to help you make it through each and every day. Not looking at the long term but looking at today.”

There was a check for understanding from the reporter, and Osteen continued,

“You can use your energy to worry or you can use your energy to believe. It takes the same amount of energy to worry or to say, ‘Okay, God I know you’ve got me in the palm of your hand. I know you’re guiding me, that you’re protecting me, that you’re helping those who need your help.’ And so you just use that energy to stay positive, to stay grateful. Yes, it’s difficult. Some of us can’t go to work, but you know it’s time that we can spend with our family, that we can make the most of that. I even have a friend of mine that’s doing a little bit … learning more of a new career, improving his career, because he has the time off, so I think we have to see the good in it and stay in faith and pray for those that have contracted the virus, but let’s stay in faith and believe that good will come out of it and I know like it always happens we’ll come out of it better than we were before.”

This strikes me also as a good response. The essence of the Christian faith is that while we’re not immune from the emotions we all feel from the things going on around us, we’re not undone by them because we have inner resources given to us by God. This is the only way I can explain, for example, the lack of pain mentioned in the letters of Paul. He describes these awful things that happen to him but he always speaks of the joy he feels in the midst of trying circumstances. It’s both inspiring and convicting.

These are tough times. And there are questions that aren’t easy to answer. For me as a pastor, what do I say to my congregation? I’ve seen a number of approaches:
1. Continue on in ignorance of science. I think this has been largely seen as foolish. Well, and it’s illegal right now, although that appears to be changing.

2. Continue on in small groups. I’ve noticed some churches that are very small simply continuing to meet.

3. Cooperate simply by stopping meeting.

4. Cooperate and innovate. Figure out new ways to do and be the church.

It appears that Osteen has taken the last path. Honestly, I don’t envy larger churches right now. There is such a potential for disaster if they re-open.

To return to the book, after assuring his readers that we “don’t have to live worried … even though there are so many negative things in the world, so much crime and violence. It may be happening all around you, but you have an advantage. God has put a distinction on you,” Osteen hedges his bets a little bit:

“I’m not saying negative things will never happen. That’s not reality. I’m saying you are protected by the One who controls it all. If God allows it to happen, He’s promised that He will turn it somehow and use it for your good.”

I can’t tell if he is being contradictory, here, or finally acknowledging that the blessing of God is not a straightforward path of everything getting better and better. Where I think he wants to go is to say that God has good in mind for you. That good may include material blessings and protection from bad things. If not, don’t worry, because God still has good things ultimately. I feel like the difference is between “good things are coming your way” and “Trust in God’s goodness.” The former is a promise that not even God makes. Or perhaps he is saying that everything that happens is an example of God’s favor. Why pray, then, for example God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? It really is challenging to reconcile all of this.

Osteen picks up the Moses story noting that Pharaoh wouldn’t let the Israelites go even after the plague of flies. He says that the rest of the plagues only applied to the Egyptians. Even if they tried to get away from the flies (and frogs and locusts), “everywhere they went, the plagues followed them.” As far as the Israelites, “It wasn’t where the Israelites were that kept them from the plagues. It was what was on them—the distinction, the favor, the blessing that comes from being a child of the Most High God.”

I wish Osteen would address this point that while the Israelites have the favor of God, the Egyptians most decidely do not. If there is a point of application for us today from the story of the Israelites in terms of favor, isn’t there a point of application that could be made about disfavor in the story of the Egyptians.

Also, this would be a good place to establish how one becomes “a child of the Most High God.” What if this was the first of his books that Osteen’s reader picked up? It is in my case. It feels like there are things assumed that are never explained. Rather than take the time,  Osteen simply moves on to make an application for his readers, who he tells,

“You and I have that same blessing. We may have things around us that could harm us, keep us from our dreams, bring us down. Stay in faith. There is a distinction on your life, on your property, on your children, on your career, and on your health that is put there by the Creator of the universe.”

Is this the message he would have written had he known the Coronavirus was coming? Maybe not a fair point on my part. But there certainly are plenty of assurances about the future and one wonders what Osteen would have said had he known about the coming crisis. At the very least, measured tones would be in order, although there are some preachers who are not measured at all about anything.

Next, Osteen tells an incredible story about an orange farmer who heard a freeze was coming and walked around his property “thanking [God] that [his oranges] wouldn’t freeze and that he would have a harvest that year.” Osteen says the other farmers thought this man was “so strange” and “[t]hey made fun and ridiculed him.” We can see where this is heading. This man’s orange grove was saved while the orange groves around him died. Osteen anticipates objections of those who might think this man had a lucky break, but he says “that was the hand of God putting a distinction on his property.” I have no problem with the miracle. I take that at face value. There are Christians who experience tragedy, though. It’s hard to reconcile it all. How do we rejoice at the one thing and help people know what they can expect from God.

Osteen says, “The economy doesn’t determine if you’re blessed: God does.” He goes on to talk about someone who was having a great year in sales even in a bad economy. We get something of a condition, here. Osteen writes,

“Here’s the key: As long as you stay close to God, as long as you keep Him first place, you are connected to a supply chain that will never run dry.”

Wouldn’t it be good to have that notion of staying close to God explained? Osteen talks about how his father raised an enormous sum of money to build a building in tough economic times after having open-heart surgery. And then we’re back to Joseph. This jumping from Bible story to Bible story gives me a bit of whiplash. Joseph made an appearance in the first chapter. Here he is back again. Two pages later it’s Abraham.

One of the things that needs to be explained is how can we make this promise of favor to the general masses when one of the things in Scripture is the way God seems to single out individuals to put his favor on. Abraham received favor that no one else did. The point that Osteen makes, though, is that favor will spill out onto those around us, so that favor may not be on everyone, but if it’s on us, it will get on others.

Chapter 4 ends with another story of someone in his congregation for who great things happened. I rejoice for them. It’s not that I don’t believe the story. It’s that the world is more complicated than the story we are being told. We need stories to illustrate the points we want to make, but the stories would easier to accept if I felt like they were illustrating points I understood or agreed with.