Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Flint, Michigan pediatrician who wouldn't give up...

...and finally got action on the city's water crisis. This woman deserves a medal!

Snow: Time for football or shoveling? Go with football

When I was a kid, there was nothing more fun than playing football in the snow. 
One Christmas Eve, when I was in my teens, my cousin and I, having no other teens to hang out with, went out on a night already deep with snow, the snow still falling, and ran endless pass patterns. I was Joe Kapp throwing wounded ducks to my cousin, who could run like crazy.

On a more serious note, when my cardiologist visited my hospital room after he'd put a stent through the LAD (left anterior descending artery) that had been 100% blocked and caused a heart attack, he told me three things: You will be on aspirin the rest of your life (he took me off of aspirin a few months ago); you will never mow a lawn again; you will never shovel snow again. 

I can't say that I really miss shoveling snow. Here's another WaPo article, this one explaining why some people fall over dead when shoveling snow.

If you're a person of a certain age or have heart or blood pressure issues or have diabetes and you're given the choice between getting stiff-armed in a neighborhood football game in the snow involving cops or shoveling snow, pick getting stiff-armed. You may be sore the next morning, but you're more likely to still be alive. 

"Lord, You know every heart"

I try to spend awhile in Quiet Time with God every morning.

Asking God to show me what truth He wanted me to see and what thought He wanted to give to me from Acts 1 this morning, I was struck today by Acts 1:24.

In this verse, after the resurrected Jesus' ascension to heaven, the disciples are in Jerusalem, where Jesus has directed them to go. In prayer, they ask God to show them who should replace Judas, the disciple who defected, betrayed Jesus, then took his own life. They begin their prayer, "Lord, You know every heart."

This idea that God knows our hearts isn't a new truth, of course. It's confirmed at many places in Scripture. But it's a truth I need to hone in on, one I often forget.

When I think that I'm off in a corner with my sin, God knows my real heart.

When I think that I need to struggle with some challenge or hurt, that no one understands, I need to remember that God knows my heart.

He knows when I need to exercise the gift of repentance, whether I know it or not. He knows what sin threatens me.

He knows, long before I do, when I need to gather under His protective wing, praying, "Save me from the time of testing."

God knowing my heart has two aspects. There's the law and there's the promise.

The Law: Because God knows my heart, when I dare to be quiet and read His Word and let it soak in, God, through His Holy Spirit, convicts me and leads me to seek restoration of my relationship with God, a relationship I turn from when I think, "my will be done" and not "Thy will be done."

Because God knows my heart, when I dare to be quiet and read His Word and let it soak in, God, through His Holy Spirit, convinces me and leads me to take solace in His grace and His love. I come to understand that nothing can separate a sincere believer from the God we meet in Christ.

In Psalm 139:1, David prays: "You have searched me, Lord, and you know me." Later in the psalm, he asks God to cast the light of His law on his life so that He can repent and be restored in his relationship with God: "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).

David invites God to convict him of his sin so that nothing can come between God and him. The follower of the God made known to the world in Jesus Christ isn't afraid to be convicted for sin. They're not afraid of guilt. Guilt is the mechanism God uses in the mind, heart, and will of a Christian to prick their conscience and call them back home to God.

When God's hand is heavy on our shoulders, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the true believer in Christ understands that when the God Who knows our heart is convicting us, it's out of love. Citing Proverbs 3:11-12, the preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews says: "'...
he Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.' Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?" (Hebrews 12:5-7)

When God's hand is guiding me, or when God showers me with grace and forgiveness I don't deserve, or when I face daunting decisions, times, people, or circumstances, I take comfort in the fact that God knows my heart. He knows everything about me, yet still loves me, still wants to give me eternity, still promises to be with me always. And His will for me is good, eternally good. "
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:13-14). When we're authentic before God in our sin, He convinces us that because of the crucified and risen Jesus, that grace, forgiveness, and eternity will be His "last words" over our lives, not sin, condemnation, and hell.

God, grant that I won't tune You out so that I can both seek Your help in seeing and repenting for my sin AND relish the fact that though You know my heart (and everything about me), You still love me and want me as Your own. In Christ's name.

Friday, January 22, 2016

'The Promise and the Perils of Democracy'

That's the name of a three-part series I wrote back in 2005. The reference to then-current events dates the pieces a bit. But I think that the principles I talk about still hold true. Check it out and tell me what you think (don't expect the usual political mumbo-jumbo or, as Bruce Cockburn once put it, the "idolatry of ideology"):

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Never Say Goodbye by Bob Dylan

A great winter love song (at least at the start, though in a later verse, we're transported from a winter scene to warm and summery beach) from Dylan's Planet Waves, with The Band playing in the studio with him.

Twilight on the frozen lake
North wind about to break
On footprints in the snow
Silence down below
You’re beautiful beyond words
You’re beautiful to me
You can make me cry
Never say goodbye
Time is all I have to give
You can have it if you choose
With me you can live
Never say goodbye
My dreams are made of iron and steel
With a big bouquet
Of roses hanging down
From the heavens to the ground
The crashing waves roll over me
As I stand upon the sand
Wait for you to come
And grab hold of my hand
Oh, baby, baby, baby blue
You’ll change your last name, too
You’ve turned your hair to brown
Love to see it hangin’ down

David Bowie was a cut-up

Yes, he could be funny

But that's not the kind of cutting-up I'm talking about. This past week, someone linked to a 2013 article from thehitformula that said that one technique David Bowie used to  get his weird and compelling lyrics. (The phrase "serious moonlight" is one of my favorite meaningless yet vivid and understandable lines ever, I think.)

The article goes back to a 2008 interview with Bowie:
In it he described how he often comes up with interesting lyric lines by employing the ‘cut-up’ writing technique used by postmodernist author William S. Burroughs in his controversial novel Naked Lunch. 
‘Cut-up’ is a literary technique designed to add an element of chance to the creative process. 
It involves taking a finished line of text and cutting it into pieces—usually with just one or two words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged to create a brand new text. 
The cut-up concept can be traced back to the Dadaists of the 1920s, but it was developed further in the early 1950s by painter, writer and sound poet Brion Gysin—and then popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Burroughs. 
David Bowie explained: “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. 
“You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this,” he said. “You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”
I've always thought of Bowie as a dadaist, a musical heir to visual and other artists like Marcel Duchamp, who defied convention by creating works that refused to answer questions like, "What is it?" Or, "What does it mean?" 
In their way, the dadaists were the heirs of the "art for art's sake" movement that sought a purely aesthetic expression that counted on those who viewed or listened to a piece to decide on its meaning for themselves. 

James Abbott McNeill Whistler is maybe the most famous painter from this movement. Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights is a great example of what Whistler tried to create and it reminds me a lot of what not only Bowie, but Bob Dylan and others, have often done with their lyrics since the 1960s. As in the Whistler painting (below), they fuzz things up, giving us a new vantage point on reality. 

Bowie was always creating and re-creating himself (though, of course, nobody can really be made new, except by Christ). But the cut-up method is a bit like upsetting an entire tray of Scrabble letters, then searching for the patterns...or defying them. Whatever, such a method does seem to have the potential of uncorking the imagination when it's grown cliche.

Did Brian Wilson "hear" 'Good Vibrations' from his musical memories before he played it?

Musicians are often asked where their original music comes from. What's their inspiration? How does a song start?

I've heard Paul Simon say that he starts playing and he simply decides to go one way instead of another.

Billy Joel claims that there's no muse. He just plays until he hears something he likes.

Other musicians seem more instinctive about it. I've heard Paul McCartney say that while there are a few little tricks he's learned over the years, mostly he doesn't understand how a song comes to be and he's content to leave it that way. In a Rolling Stone interview I read with him in the early seventies, he called himself "a primitive." And to maintain that status, he has steadfastly refused to learn to read music.

Many musicians claim to "hear" the songs they write in their heads before they've played or written down a note. Brian Wilson, the creative force and frequent lead singer of the Beach Boys, falls into this category.

In an article for The Guardian from Britain, where Wilson is revered in ways that seem to surpass the respect in which he's held in America, Victoria Williamson, a psychologist who specializes in a frield called "musical memory," who is a fellow for music at the University of Sheffield, seeks to understand and analyze what Wilson "heard" when he composed songs like God Only Knows or Good Vibrations. While loving the music, Williamson suggests that there may be a natural, rather than supernatural, explanation for it: musical memory.

According to Williamson:
...Brian Wilson had music going through his head almost continuously. Of course, many of us are able to activate a musical memory when required – for instance, if I asked you whether the third note in Happy Birthday was higher or lower than the fourth, you would probably be able to summon up the tune – but to have it playing constantly like that is rare: one survey we did suggests that less than 5% of people experience it.

What music was going through Brian’s mind? We don’t know. It may have been re-runs of old 1940s and 50s songs, or it may have been fragments of all sorts of different tunes. But it’s possible to theorise that, if someone experiences this constant musical background, they might become more adept at playing around with those sounds – hearing links between them and thinking about how they fit together.
Some have better musical memories than others, Williams suggests. They have more raw material to play around with, recast, re-imagine, set off into different tunes and combinations. For the 5% who have music playing in their heads constantly, the possibilities appear to be infinite, even though everyone who composes is ultimately dealing with just seven notes. (That's more confining writing haiku poetry, which gives you three lines in a pattern of five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables.)

Williamson, who points to research being done on the subject, says that one scene in a recent movie about the Beach Boys, Love & Mercy, shows just talents like Wilson use their musical memory to invent something new:
At one point one of his musicians says “Hey Brian, I think you might have screwed up here. You’ve got Lyle playing in D and the rest of us are in A major.” “Yeah that’s right,” he replies. “How does that work? Two bass lines and two different keys?” she asks, to which Brian replies: “It works in my head”. That’s because he can already hear it. It’s the same way that Beethoven could lose his hearing but still be able to compose his ninth symphony. And the same way a conductor such as Arturo Toscanini would be able to scan two hours of music in a minute and be able to reassure a bassoonist in his orchestra that the broken key on their instrument wouldn’t matter as that particular note didn’t appear in the performance. 
To which the only appropriate response, I suppose, is wow. Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The sadness of Pete Rose

Paul Daugherty has long been one of my favorite newspaper columnists, his specialty being sports. He writes for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Yesterday, Reds Country was abuzz with the announcement that Pete Rose, long banned from baseball and separately barred from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown because he bet on baseball when he was a player and manager, would this year be inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame at Great American Ball Park and his number 14 forever retired from use by the Reds.

Daugherty registered what is probably a widespread point of view among Reds fans in a column titled 'Sadness pervades Reds' Rose announcement.' This is how it ended:
Enjoy the local honor [Daugherty writes to Rose]. It’s not a consolation prize, not for someone who grew up on the West Side and still, in some small way, owes his personality to that part of town. It’s not Cooperstown, either, or even a batting cage. Sadness endures, even on a day of celebration.
I responded:
I'm a lifelong Reds fan and Rose was, in Big Red Machine days, my favorite player. (In retrospect, I tilt toward Morgan as the best all-around and most pivotal contributor to the team's success though.)

People like Bonds and McGuire should never be allowed a spot in Cooperstown because, while baseball delayed taking a hard stand against PEDs, they and others juiced themselves in ways that made their on-field exploits artificial. They cheated.

But because baseball didn't finally promulgate stricter rules to banish such cheating from the game until after McGuire, Bonds, Sosa, and the others had done their worst, their ilk can't be banished from baseball as they should be.

Separately, they're still eligible for the Hall, though I doubt that they'll ever get in.

I am disappointed in teams that hire them.

But this has nothing to do with Pete Rose.

Despite repeated protestations to the contrary, given over a period of years, Rose did bet on baseball and on the Reds.

And, unlike the PED-users, there was no ambiguity about the rules governing betting in baseball. Since 1919, this has been a cardinal sin of the game. Rose knew it. Every player knew it.

So, while it may be sad that Rose isn't in baseball and may be disgusting that PED-users can stay in the game and even be eligible for Cooperstown, there's nothing to be done about it. Rose clearly violated the rules of the game, even flouted them.

The McGuires and Sosas of baseball violated decency but no official rules. While they shouldn't be allowed in the Hall, baseball can't block them from the game ex post facto, after the game finally cleaned itself of the filth of PEDs.

It had cleaned itself of gambling long before Pete Rose dirtied the game he loved and the career he cherished.

My sadness for Rose has nothing to do with thinking baseball is wronging him. It isn't. My sadness comes from realizing how, like the character in a Greek play, someone with so much greatness tossed his career and his greatness aside.

No surprise: For the long haul, study says, women prefer altruism to hunkiness

The online edition of The Week refers to a study that answers the age-old question of what women look for in men they want to be with for life:
"Individuals who displayed high levels of altruism were rated significantly more desirable overall," the researchers write. While the self-absorbed guys were viewed as more attractive candidates for a one-night stand — suggesting a night with a "bad boy" retains its short-term appeal — altruistic guys were rated as "more desirable for long-term relationships."
In the study, 202 women were shown a series of photographs of two men--one hunky, the other not so much.

For each set of two pictures, scenarios described the varied reactions of the two men in question, one of which was selfish and the other altruistic or caring.

Researchers "mixed their pitches," sometimes ascribing altruism to hunks, other times to the plain men, sometimes to both, and at other times to neither. In this way, they controlled for finding how appealing altruism really was the women in the study.

One scenario particularly caught my attention:
"Two people are walking through a busy town, and notice a homeless person sitting near a cafe. Person E decides to go into the cafe to buy a sandwich and a cup of tea to give to the homeless person outside. Person F pretends to use his mobile phone and walks straight past the homeless person."
This little vignette reminds me of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan in which two religious figures pass on the opposite side of a road from a man who has been badly beaten by thieves.

But the hero of Jesus' story, Mr. Altruistic, the man who proves to be the neighbor to this unknown man, walks toward the man, not away from hims, and then puts salves on his wounds, then takes him to an inn where he tells the innkeeper to track his expenses for the care of the injured man until he comes back to settle accounts.

Jesus told this story in response to a man trying to limit the definition of his neighbor. (He wants to make sure that with some people, like people who don't look like him or live in his own neighborhood, it's cool to like Person F above, able to keep doing what he wants to do, other people damned.)

But, through the parable, Jesus is teaching him (and us) that, in the eyes of God, our neighbor is any person whose need comes to our attention.

Altruism, in fact, is woven in as part of Jesus' Great Commandment, in which He says that all of God's moral laws--seen in the Ten Commandments--can be boiled down to summaries that come to us from the Old Testament: to love God completely and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Altruism toward our neighbors, including being charitable in the words we say about them to others, is meant to be the behavior of spiritual superstars, but of every human being.

Now you may have noticed something about human nature, if not about your own nature: Altruism doesn't come naturally to us, selfishness does.

That's exactly why God had to give His moral law. With it, we understand what it is to be fully human made in the image of God. But we also understand how most often we fail to be fully human by being altruistic.

And that's why God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus, bore our sins--our selfishness and self-centeredness--on the cross, taking the punishment of death we deserve and then rose from the dead to give forgiveness and eternal life and, for this life, the power of the Holy Spirit working within us to help us to repent, be made new, and to seek each day in that power to be altruistic, to be fully human.

Altruism is a trait none of us fully reaches in this life. That's why people like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr., Christians who struggled in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit to not be "in it for themselves," who strove and often failed to be the altruists God meant human beings to be, yet knew to return repeatedly to God in Christ's name to repent for their failures to love, to seek forgiveness, and to receive power to try to live love, the pure selfless love demonstrated on the cross, again today.

Altruism is a trait God wants to build up in us as we live in an ever-deepening relationship with Christ.

And, young men wondering why you find it hard to establish long-term relationships with women, it turns out that while women may like a jerk for a while--most people, women and men alike, are prone at young ages to want to take a walk on the wild side.

But, in the end young men, what women really want are men who have the strength of character to unselfishly care about others more than they care about themselves.

For marriage, the study suggests, women choose altruism over hunkiness. Of course they do, no surprise there: In men who can, at least occasionally, rise to the level of altruism, they get a glimpse of what God made we human beings to be like. And that's attractive!

[The story in The Week distills a lengthier discussion of the study found in Evolutionary Psychology and distilled in Pacific Standard.]

Monday, January 18, 2016

Desperados by Andy Mineo

This may be my favorite track on the newest Andy Mineo LP. I love the shrill, staccato guitar riff played through the verses.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Cana: More Than a Preview of Coming Attractions

[This was shared this morning, the inaugural Sunday for the new facility of Living Water Lutheran Church, during both worship services.]

John 2:1-11
On ATT Uverse, like every other cable and satellite service, I suppose, there's a channel devoted entirely to showing movie trailers, previews of things to come. This morning’s gospel lesson, in which Jesus turned water into wine at the beginning of His ministry, is a preview of things to come.

Jesus shows us what life in His kingdom will be like once He has been glorified. In other words, once He has died, risen, ascended to heaven, and returned to establish what Revelation calls “the new heaven and the new earth.”

He even hints at one of the most important ways He intends to come to us even today.

The lesson begins: “On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples.”

There are lots of theories offered by scholars, but “the third day” here seems to refer to the third day of Jesus’ public ministry, three days since He first began calling people to follow Him.

But, of course, no one can miss the symbolic importance of “the third day.” It was on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion that Jesus rose, confirming His power over all that destroys us, demonstrating that He has the power to bring forgiveness and new life to those with faith.

The events on this third day will foreshadow Jesus’ authority over the world, life, and death.

Verse 3: “When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’”

Imagine a wedding reception at which the chicken that served as part of the main entree ran out. It was a crisis!

Jesus’ mother--never referred to by name in John’s gospel--apparently seeks to spare the hosts from a similar embarrassment. She runs to her son, who she knows is more than just a nice boy from Nazareth, to lay the crisis before Him.

Has it ever struck you as a little funny that the first of the seven signs that John reports Jesus performed in order to point to His deity, came not in response to some death-dealing cataclysm, the lives of hundreds of people at stake, but in order to spare a bridal family embarrassment at a wedding? It seems a little silly, even though it does serve to demonstrate that the God we meet in Jesus Christ cares about even the seemingly inconsequential things in our earthly lives.

But I think Jesus sees the silliness in all of this too, because He says to His mother, in what I believe were playful tones, “Woman, what does that have to do with Me? I came to save people from sin and death and you want me to save a party? Besides, my hour”--by which in John’s gospel, Jesus always means the hour of His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension--”my hour hasn’t arrived yet.”

Sons can get away with that kind of thing with their moms often. My sisters still get a little irked when they tell me even now, “You could get away with anything with mom. She’d get mad at you and it wouldn’t be long before you’d have her laughing and telling you you could do the very thing she’d just said no to.” (I always ask then, "What's your point?")

Mary ignores Jesus’ teasing, turns to the servants, and says, “Oh. Do whatever He tells you.”  

Now, while the rest of this incident remains joyful, here’s where it really gets interesting. Verse 6: “Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’ So they took it.”

Water from stone jars was used in the Jewish rites of purification over which the Pharisees often made such a fuss with Jesus. In a sense, these jars represent the worst of Jewish religiosity. At its worst, Jesus’ fellow Jews had boiled their relationship with God down to rules: rituals observed, laws obeyed.

They used water to clean their hands, but inside they were corrupted by unrepented sin, selfishness, greed, and hatred for outsiders.

Their faith had become as empty as the stone jars at Cana.

In Matthew 23:27-28, Jesus scorned such false faith: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! [Jesus said] You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

But Jesus isn’t one to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Jesus has come to salvage and make new that which has been corrupted by sin, decimated by death and the darkness of this world. Jesus has come to make all things new.

So, Jesus orders the jars to be filled, as they’d probably been filled many times before.

Yet this time, there’s a twist in the plot. This is no same old, same old.

Verse 9: “When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.’”

Truer words were never spoken. In Jesus, God saves the best for last.

He takes what is ugly and makes it beautiful.

He takes those who are empty and fills them with the very life of God!

He can even, as He is doing today, take a building that once was dedicated to evil, the promotion of sin, and the defiance of God’s will, and use it instead, to His glory, use it as His launching pad for His people to spread the good news--the gospel--of new and everlasting life for all who believe in Jesus Christ here in our neighborhoods and in all the world

The New Testament book of Hebrews says: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” [Hebrews 1:1-2]

The turning of water into wine then, is more than just a neat trick. It is, as John tells us in verse 11, “the first of [Jesus’] signs,” an event  that “manifested [revealed, made plain] His glory.”

It's the beginning of what the scholars call the messianic feast, the banquet of love to which all who believe in the God we know in Christ will come.

In Isaiah 62:5, God promises a day in which, “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

And John would later glimpse the feasr from the Island of Patmos decades after Jesus’ resurrection: “the wedding supper of the Lamb!” to which all who have endured in trusting in Christ are invited. [Revelation 19:9]

Even now, even today, Jesus invites you and me to enjoy more than a preview of the great heavenly banquet as heaven comes to earth and another miracle occurs: We receive Christ’s body and blood in, with, and under the bread and the wine and we receive His forgiveness and new life.

In it, Christ once again comes to us in the midst of our earthly lives to give us Himself, His strength, His peace, so that we can face anything!

Through this feast, allows us to enjoy more than a preview of when we will see God face to face, when we will be one with God and neighbor, when suffering, tears, and pain will be behind us.

Today, He will gift us with the privilege of partaking of the feast alongside all the saints of every time and every place.

As surely as at the wedding in Cana, in the bread and the wine, on this joyous day, Jesus comes to us and gives to us, as the old liturgies put it, “a foretaste of the feast to come.” Amen