Born at the Right Time

What the Incarnation Means for Us All

December 18, 2016 | Galatians 4 (“In the fullness of time . . .”)

born-at-the-right-timeTaiwan, it seems, has one of the highest rates of Caesarian births in the world, which leads to two questions.

“What are you talking about, Al?” and “Why is that?”

A Caesarian section is an operation whereby a baby is born by surgically opening the womb of the pregnant woman, usually because of some medical emergency. It was done in ancient times, nearly always at the cost of the life of the mother. I would have guessed that it was called a Caesarian birth because Julius Caesar was born that way, but that is apparently a myth. In any case, it is relatively common these days, and not terribly dangerous.

It is apparently very common in Taiwan, even when it is not medically indicated.

A study followed 150 women in Taiwan who were pregnant with their first child, and found that 93 of them had caesarean deliveries before 39 weeks, though none of them had any complications.

This seemed decidedly odd, since of course pre-term Caesarean births require more medical and surgical intervention, require longer hospital stays, cost more money and are somewhat more dangerous for mother and baby. To be clear, these were not emergency Caesareans, these were elective Caesareans by women who had never been through childbirth before. Continue reading Born at the Right Time

Solving for x

God’s surprising approach to outsiders
August 14, 2016 | John 4

Solving for x
Not to bring up unpleasant memories, but do you remember high school algebra? Do you remember “solving for x”?

The teacher would give you an equation like this

2x + 3 = 7

or

4 + 4x = 22 – 5x

or

3x2 + 12x + 6 = 42

or

15x3 – 100 = 20

Your job would be to “solve for x” in each of these different equations. It wasn’t always easy, was it? Once you got out of school, you may not have had so much opportunity to “solve for x,” but “x” still represented the unknown. Part of the reason why we use “x” for the unknown, is that xenos in Greek means strange or foreign. (There’s a TED talk which gives another reason.)

In math and in life, we always have trouble with the unknown.

The statistical website fivethirtyeight recently asked about people in the Northeast about baseball and politics:

In the survey, [we] asked 1,071 people which baseball team they supported (if any), how strongly they supported the team, and then . . . asked them this:

How upset would you feel if you had a son or daughter who married a Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees . . . fan?

Red Sox fans were asked about marriages to Yankees fans and vice versa.

Eitan Hersh, “What The Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry Can Teach us about Political Polarization” fivethirtyeight.com (Aug. 11, 2016).

It turns out that about 1 in 5 baseball fans would be upset if one of their children married a fan of a rival team. (Let me just be clear about one thing — if any of our kids gets married to a Red Sox fan, Katherine is going to be way beyond “upset.”)

Continue reading Solving for x

An Improbable Rescue from Ultimate Danger

ScreenShot187A Pattern of Prayer, part 10: A Pattern of Redemption
April 17, 2016  – Revelation 22

I have often told you stories from World War II as a way of illustrating some of the life and death principles we find in the Bible. I have told you stories about the Raid on Cabanatuan in the Philippines, The Battle of Midway, the taking of Pegasus Bridge, the invasion of Okinawa, the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the making of the atomic bomb, and most recently, the Siege of Leningrad.

Today, I’m going to change wars.

Just about 44 years ago, Lieutenant Colonel Gene Hambleton had an uncommonly difficult week. A specialist in electronic warfare, Hambleton had served in various capacities in WWII, the Korean War, and the Cold War. On April 2, 1972, on his 63rd mission of the Vietnam war, Hambleton was a aboard Bat 21, an EB-66C aircraft which was trying to jam North Vietnamese radar.

Hambleton’s call sign was “Bat 21 Bravo” — he was the mission navigator.

There were five other crewmen on the plane when it was stuck by a North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile, but only Hambleton was able to eject.

Continue reading An Improbable Rescue from Ultimate Danger

Breaking the Siege

Slide1A Pattern of Prayer, part 3: A Pattern of Desperation
February 28, 2016 | 2 Kings 19-20
(Hezekiah’s prayers)

Before the period of modern warfare, it was common for cities to be fortified and for attackers to camp outside the walls, laying siege to the city, hoping that starvation and plague would defeat the defenders. When surrounded by a competent army, it was difficult for a city to break the siege without outside help.

Air access now make sieges less likely, but occasionally they have been used in modern wars.

You will recall that in August 1939, Hitler and Stalin entered into a non-aggression pact which divided Poland and a number of other countries between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. This pact cleared the way for Germany to invade Poland and begin World War II. The Germans and Soviets refrained from fighting each other for nearly two years. Continue reading Breaking the Siege

Un-shading the Truth

Unshadingthetruth

A Pattern of Prayer, part 2: A Pattern of Contrition
February 21, 2016 | Psalm 51
(David’s repentant prayer)

Sometimes people who have done wrong attempt to shade the truth. They tell the story in a way that shifts blame a little bit: “And then, the gun went off”; or “She got hit in the fight.” instead of “I shot him,” or “I hit her.” It is very hard to tell the complete truth. “Mistakes were made,” is the preferred non-apology of politicians.

We recently read in the news that Volkswagen had systematically evaded emissions standards for its diesel engines. To explain why he resigned, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn said he was resigning “in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrongdoing on my part.”

Here’s what happened. Modern internal combustion engines are highly computerized. If you had a science class in which your teacher taught you how an internal combustion engine works, that’s still the same —

fuel + air + compression + heat = combustion

— but now the way that process is controlled has a lot to do with the precise way a computer tells the engine to act. The computer controls the various factors to provide a proper balance between performance which is acceptable to the driver and emissions which are acceptable to the regulators.

What seems to have happened is that some Volkswagen programmers, with or without the knowledge of their bosses, programmed the engines so that the engines could tell whether they were being tested. If they were being tested for emissions, they hardly produced any nitrogen oxides (NOx) at all. But once the test was over, the engines just spewed out NOx — something like 40x the allowable amount.

Apparently, the road to cheating was just a step-by-step process, as first engineers tried to write software that would meet the standards, then software that would be particularly careful to pass the tests (and generally meet the standards), and finally software that would pass all the tests without paying any attention at all to the standards.

Sociologists and engineers call this the “normalization of deviance” — the slow adjustment of standards so that what was once considered unacceptable behavior gradually becomes acceptable. And that turns out to be relevant to our examination of the prayers of the Bible . . . .

Stop, stop, stop.

I know that some of you are distracted by the fact that my illustration does not fully cover the engineering, political and programming aspects of the Volkswagen scandal. I want you to set that aside for now. After church, for those of you interested in the automotive engineering, please see John Freeman or Nate Potratz; for those of you interested in the political aspects of emissions laws, please see Mack Crenshaw or Isaac Brohinsky; for those of you interested in the programming issues confronted by the software engineers, please see Jonathan Johnston or Russ Clarke.

Back to the current point.

“Normalization of Deviance.” Little-by-little, step-by-step, calmly and incrementally, there is a cultural shift in what is considered “okay.” We get used to increasingly deviant behavior.

As we turn this concept over in our minds, we begin to see that it helps us understand how people find themselves in the position of straying far from what they had believed to be acceptable.

Today we are going to look at a very famous series of events in the Hebrew Scriptures, which leads to King David’s recognition that little-by-little, step-by-step, he had moved very far from behavior which God considered acceptable.

Let’s pray.

Continue reading Un-shading the Truth

Courting with Camels

ScreenShot065A Pattern of Prayer, part 1: A Pattern of Need
February 14, 2016 | Genesis 24 (Praying for a wife for Isaac)

Today, you may have noticed, is Valentine’s Day. You can tell by all the pink and red hearts and the candies and cards.

Valentine’s Day has a spotty history, or supposed history, having been established in 496 by a pope who listed Valentinus as a martyr “whose name is justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”

Although the pope could not say anything about what Valentinus had done, there eventually grew up a variety of legends about a priest named Valentinus who was martyred about 270 AD. Most prominent was the idea that he was martyred for performing marriages for Christians, and that’s the idea that had the most market appeal, so that eventually “Saint Valentine’s Day,” February 14, became associated with romantic and courtly love.

It really has no spiritual significance whatsoever, and the Catholic Church has dropped it as a part of the General Roman Calendar, but it continues to sell cards, candy, and clothes.

As we were trying to figure out how we were going to approach this sermon series, I realized that we would be starting on February 14, and one of the very first specific instances of prayer in the Bible just happened to concern how God brought about a particular marriage in a particular place in time. You may be surprised that it involves camels.

I thought it might actually sanctify Valentine’s Day a bit.

It is no secret that our current view of love and marriage (even before the Supreme Court’s
decision last summer) is historically odd. We tend to think that marriage is the result of being struck by an overwhelming emotion that leads you to realize that THIS IS THE ONE FOR YOU.

But most marriages at most times and places were not romantically motivated — indeed many, many marriages have been arranged by families for various practical and political reasons.

As we look at today’s passage in Genesis 24, we will see an early arranged marriage which
proceeds along different lines — with camels playing an integral role.

Let’s pray.

* * *

Abraham was chosen to be the father of the nation which would enter the Promised Land and there worship God, and from who Messiah would come. God had called him out of Ur, which is a land far to the east of what would become Israel.

And “called him out” means invited him to walk with his wife and household 600 miles to the land of Canaan. And Abraham, in an amazing display of faith in God, does this thing.
Eventually he and Sarah have a son, Isaac (I’m leaving out some pretty big parts of the story), and Sarah passes away.

Continue reading Courting with Camels

Fractal Compassion

From the biggest picture to the smallest interaction

Matthew 9:35-36

Math Class!

Okay, so you take a triangle, like so. 20150816sermon_Page_01A simple equilateral triangle.

Now you connect the midpoints of the sides to divide it into three triangles that are ½ as big. (There really are four, plus the original one, but it looks like three.)

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Now you take each of the three, and you divide them. You have nine triangles, each the 1/4 the size of our original.

20150816sermon_Page_04 20150816sermon_Page_05

Do it again! Now you have 27 triangles, each 1/8 the size of the original. You can
keep on doing this, and the patterns are not the same, but they are similar, on a smaller and smaller scale.

20150816sermon_Page_06 20150816sermon_Page_07

This is one of the simplest illustrations of the concept of fractal geometry, which you may have heard of, and which has all sorts of useful applications in the real world. Some very simple rules (like “connect the midpoints of a triangle”) can result in some very complex and beautiful patterns.

20150816sermon_Page_09  20150816sermon_Page_10

20150816sermon_Page_11  20150816sermon_Page_12

(Don’t worry, this is not a TED talk, there’s a sermon in here somewhere.)

Continue reading Fractal Compassion

Contagion

Holy hands, unholy world
Mark 5:21-43
In 1976, a particularly nasty contagion took the lives of 151 people in Sudan and another 280 in Zaire. The disease recurred in Sudan and took the lives of another 22 people. It lay dormant for 15 years, then took 97 lives in Gabon and 254 lives in Zaire from 1994-1997. The virus took two years off. From 2000-2004 Central African countries lost 484 more people to this disease. Two more years without deaths. We are up to 1,288. From 2007-2012, another 291 people died: 1,579 in all. The most severe outbreak of all occurred in December 2013, leading to 11,385 deaths in Africa and beyond. Last week there were another 20 confirmed cases of the disease in Sierra Leone and Guinea.

In all, about 13,000 people have died from one of four strains of the Ebola virus. The most deadly strain — Ebola Zaire — has a 90% death rate. It is a hemorrhagic disease, transmitted by blood, saliva, milk, semen, urine, vomit.

It is a horrible disease. I am not going to explain it. We live in a seriously messed up world.

Let’s pray.

* * *

I invite you to turn to the book of Mark, chapter 5, verse 21. Jesus is in the early part of his ministry, teaching in and around the large lake in the north of Israel which is called the Sea of Tiberius, of the Sea of Galilee. It is about a.d. 30. He had been on the eastern side of the lake and was returning to the western shore, perhaps near the town of Gennesaret or Capernaum.

521And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea. 22Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet 23and implored him earnestly, saying, My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.

A great crowd surrounds Jesus, who is in danger of becoming a celebrity. He is in the midst of a large number of people who have heard of his teaching, his exorcisms and his healings — they are interested in seeing what he will do next.

Continue reading Contagion