Friday, December 29, 2006

Christianity Today: The Scandal of Forgiveness

Christianity Today: The Scandal of Forgiveness
"The grisly, premeditated shooting of 10 Amish girls—five of them fatally—by Charles Carl Roberts at a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, on October 2 was shocking.

The Amish response, however, was even more so.

The bloody incident ended with Roberts—who apparently intended to sexually assault the girls first—taking his own life when police stormed the building. Within hours, the Amish community publicly forgave this outsider and expressed loving concern for his widow and three children. Many of the mourners at Roberts' funeral were Amish.

"Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need," the killer's widow, Marie Roberts, wrote the Amish later. "Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world."

In awe, most media observers, at least for a moment, dropped their prevailing storyline that religion is, at best, irrelevant to truly important matters and, at worst, dangerous. ..."

There are lists being assembled of the top religion news stories of 2006, and this appears on at least two that I have seen: and Religion News Writers.

Stan Guthrie's article reminds us all the the horror of the events of early October 2006. My earlier posting on the Amish response to the massacre has some pertinent background information linked.

Guthrie provides a frank discussion of the difficulties in forgiving, and that it is not the world's way -- but it is the way of Jesus Christ. Corrie Ten Boom found this out in a personal way when a former guard at the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp came up to her after one of her talks in the late 1940s. It was not until soul-searching and prayer that she was finally able to forgive the man who had humiliated her in many ways during her incarceration.

I concur with the choice of this story as being in the top 10, and we can all take lessons from the way the Amish put their faith into practice. It is a terrible price to pay for such a lesson, but the Grace of God can divert evil to good.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Presbyterian Outlook: Presbyterian mission in a flat world, part 2

Presbyterian Outlook: Presbyterian mission in a flat world, part 2
by Scott Sunquist
"Last issue we started to look at how Thomas Friendman’s “flat world” might have implications for our new patterns of missional involvement. Let me describe four of the ten “flatteners” that have changed our world and should change our missiology.

1. 11/9/89: “The New Age of Creativity: When the walls came down and the windows went up.” The Berlin wall fell on 11/9. Friedman says, “I realized that the ordinary men and women of East Germany peacefully and persistently had taken matters into their own hands. This was ‘their revolution’”
The second part of this flattener was “Windows” from Microsoft. The 3.0 series was a major breakthrough which bridged people and machines as never before. ..."
Whatever opinions one has about Microsoft and its methods, this is true. The events leading to Tiananmen Square involved a lot of faxing of information back and forth (email was not a major player yet). And repressive regimes are starting to employ firewalls at their borders to restrict the content that their citizens can access.

"... 2. 8/9/95: “The New Age of connectivity: When the Web went around and Netscape went public.” Brit “Tim Berners-Lee posted the first Web site on Aug. 6, 1991 to foster a computer network that would enable scientists to share their research more easily.” (p. 59) As Friedman notes, “He designed it and he fought to keep it open, nonproprietary and free.” What made this even more valuable and freely accessible was the development of Netscape (went public Aug. 9, 1995); a way to search and find information across the various Web sites. This innovation opened up the portal to information to all people in the world as never before. The openness of this new world of information (remember: knowledge is power) gave power to common people like you and like me, as never before. “Open, nonproprietary and free:” this was truly revolutionary in the history of knowledge. ..."

An excellent point here. I've been involved with web sites since I first put one up in Fall of 1993. There was a point in the mid-1990s when the daily traffic using the http protocol exceeded all other internet protocols -- including email, telnet, and ftp. And the web usage has continued to dominate the internet. I heard Tim O'Reilly (of O'Reilly and Associates book publishers) speak at one of the Open Source Conferences in the latter 1990s on "killer apps" -- those applications that make people want to embrace a new technology. For the personal computer it was a spreadsheet called Lotus 123. What was the killer app for the World Wide Web? People who had no interest in spreadsheets, word processors, or even solitaire had a web site they could not live without. Since that time there have been other "killer apps" like Ebay,, and now any one of a number of blogs that are revolutionizing how we acquire and pass on information.

"... 3. Work flow software. Animation today is produced through a global supply chain, not by a bunch of techno-artists in a Disney studio. Work flow software made it possible for people all over the world (in Starbucks, my home, a factory or an internet café in Timbuktu) to add on ideas, concepts or to make critical decisions.
Consider how this applies to our missionary activity. When it comes to Presbyterian missional work, we have many standards in place, but we need to have a “work flow software” mentality that would allow us all to work together and to listen together. The General Assembly Council’s mission division can be and should be the “clearing house” for the standards, values and strategies of Presbyterian-Ecumenical mission. But their job, like eBay, is to free up “the People” to be more effective; to have more power and control of their work. ..."

Here is where software has shined. The 217th General Assembly used a business tracking website named "Les" which had its growing pains, but gave not only the commissioners on the floor access to information, but interested Presbyterians anywhere in the world could track the progress of bills and overtures and watch the plenary sessions live using streaming video. Les could be improved, but is a major step forward, at least from the perspective of one who observed the goings on in Birmingham from my dining room table in Columbia, Missouri.

"... 4. Uploading: Harnessing the power of communities. Friedman notes that the “great shift from audience to participants” occurred with the new freedom people had to add or contribute directly (p. 95). It is remarkable to note that the underlying web server for e-commerce software is a global community-built software (share-ware) known as “Apache.” ..."

For better or for worse we have seen a year when You Tube has acted a a clearing house for home-made videos covering a wide variety of subjects, including politicians and their unguarded moments. Blogs have broken news stories which main-stream media have ignored -- and then belatedly covered once the bloggers have placed it before the public. If people are frustrated that stories are not being told, or that the media have decided what is important for us to know or not know, they can get that information out. The downside is that the reader or viewer must exercise some discretion in evaluating the sources. There are good blogs and there are not-so-good blogs, but the alternative is to go back to the way things were. Nobody wants that (except, perhaps, some news organizations).

It is refreshing to see people in the Mission field recognize the power of information technology. Scott Sundquist has demonstrated clearly how technology has empowered people in ways they could not imagine 20 years ago. How are we going to use this power?

I await part three of Sundquist's series with anticipation.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Former President Ford dies at 93

CNN: Former President Ford dies at 93
"RANCHO MIRAGE, California (CNN) -- Former President Gerald R. Ford, who sought to heal the nation after the tumultuous years of the Watergate scandal, died Tuesday at age 93, his widow, Betty Ford said.

A statement issued by Ford's office said he "died peacefully" at 6:45 p.m. at his home in Rancho Mirage, California.

"His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country," said a written statement from Betty Ford. ..."

I remember the relief that I felt on that day in August 1974 when Gerald Ford assumed the Presidency. In his self-effacing way he spoke to the nation, characterizing himself as a "Ford, not a Lincoln" -- a delightfully ambiguous turn of phrase that at once was a nod to the major industry of his home state of Michigan and a nod to the history of the Presidency.

Ford, by pardoning Nixon, essentially ended his prospects of being elected in 1976, but he did the country a major service by ending the feeding frenzy that was starting to erupt. The country could begin to heal.

I still wonder how the history of the United States in the latter years of the 20th century might have unfolded had he been elected in 1976.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas 2006

Here is something that I will gladly listen to year-round, but is it especially appropriate around Christmas. Messiah, by Handel, is an oratorio, which essentially is an opera performed without acting, costumes or sets. My understanding is that this was a musical form developed to work around restrictions on performing operas during Lent.

I will resume posting after December 25th, so all of you have a joyous Christmas Day as we celebrate the birth of our Lord.

Messiah: Part I

Libretto by Charles Jennens, after the Holy Scriptures. Music composed in 1741 by G.F. Handel. First performed in Dublin for the benefit of charities. Subsequently performed regularly for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital.

Scriptures taken from the King James Version (1611) and the Great Bible (1539).

Performance by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (1980)


Recitative, accompanied (Tenor): Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God; Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord. make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Isaiah 40:1-3

Aria (Tenor): Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low: The crooked straight and the rough placed plain. Isaiah 40:4

Chorus: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. Isaiah 40:5

Recitative, accompanied (Bass): Thus saith the Lord of hosts: yet once a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come. Haggai 2:6-7

The Lord, whom you seek, shall suddenly come to his temple; even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in. Behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:1

Aria (Soprano): But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner's fire. Malachi 3:2

Chorus: And he shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Malachi 3:3

Recitative (Alto): Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel: God with us. Isaiah 7:14

Aria (Alto) and Chorus: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain; O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up and be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah: Behold your God. Isaiah 40:9

Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. Isaiah 60:1

Recitative, accompanied (Bass): For behold, darkness shall cover the Earth, and gross darkness the people: But the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. Isaiah 60:2-3

Aria (Bass): The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Isaiah 9:2

Chorus: For unto us a child is born unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the might God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6


Recitative (Soprano): There were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Luke 2:8

Recitative, accompanied (Soprano): And Lo! The angel of the Lord came upon them and the glory of the Lord was round about them, and they were sore afraid. Luke 2:9

Recitative (Soprano): And the angel said unto them, fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people: for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:10-11

Recitative, accompanied (Soprano): And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising god and saying: Luke 2:13

Chorus: Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men. Luke 2:14

Aria (Soprano): Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout, O daughter of Jerusalem, behold, thy king cometh unto thee. He is the righteous Saviour and he shall speak peace unto the heathen. Zechariah 9:9-10

Recitative (Soprano): Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing. Isaiah 35:5-6

Aria (Soprano): He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. Isaiah 40:11

Come unto him all ye that labor, that are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon him and learn of him, for he is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. Matthew 11:28-29

Chorus: His yoke is easy and his burden is light. Matthew 11:30

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Friday, December 22, 2006

A Cool Firefox Extension

When Blogger started up its beta version, one of the things that it broke was the ability to use "XBlog This!", which allowed you to highlight a paragraph or two from an article and post a blog entry on it. Considering the other features of the new version of Blogger (which this week officially emerged from beta status) I thought that was an acceptable price to pay.

When coupled with Firefox 2.0 (with its on-the-fly spell checker), I thought I had a pretty good combination. One of the features of Firefox is its ability to use plugins and extensions. One such extension is the Performancing for Firefox utility with provides a WYSIWIG editor (quite similar to the blogger editor) in a split screen that allows you to cut and paste from a web page to the editor. I have been using this for a few days now, and I like most of what I see.

One thing that they could do better is not to insert so many line feeds between paragraphs. In this sense, it is not fully WYSIWIG, as I tend to edit it again with the blogger editor to format it the way I want to see it. It would also help if it supported Blogger's labeling facility. Again, if I want labels I go back into the blogger editor and add them.

Whether this will prove to be as convenient and efficient as the "XBlog This!" button I grew to depend on remains to be seen, but so far the features of Performancing for Firefox outweigh its shortcomings.

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CNN: Catholic cardinal tries his hand at podcasting

Catholic cardinal tries his hand at podcasting:

"BOSTON, Massachusetts (AP) -- Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley is
going high-tech. He already has his own blog, now he plans to start
podcasting to the masses, beginning with downloadable Christmas
messages. ..."

Cardinal Seán' Blog is fairly well laid out, chatty, pastoral, and at present there seems to be about one posting every week -- but it is interesting thing to see how a cardinal/archbishop of the Catholic Church is able to use blogging as a way of communicating with the people of his archdiocese.

The CNN article points out that Cardinal O'Malley, being a member of an order that requires vows of poverty, is not one whom one might expect to embrace newer technology. It is about communication, though, and the Archdiocese of Boston is looking toward using the internet to enhance their communications.

His first podcast will be available following the Christmas Eve service.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christian Science Monitor: A new agenda for US Evangelicals

On World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, Evangelical superstar
Rick Warren - author of the runaway bestseller "The Purpose Driven
Life" - hosted an AIDS summit at his California megachurch. The
keynoter? Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois.
It's difficult to decide which is more astounding: a
prominent evangelical pastor leading the fight against AIDS - a disease
some Christian conservatives still tag as God's punishment for
homosexuals - or a celebrated Democrat and possible 2008 presidential
contender taking center stage at Mr. Warren's church. The Warren-Obama
event reflects striking and welcome changes under way among America's
50 million Evangelicals, with potentially dynamic political
consequences. ..."

What may even be more astounding from the ideological point of view is that prior to Obama's speech, Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) spoke to the same group echoing similar themes.

What is NOT particularly astounding is that such attitudes exist among those who could be described as "evangelical". Evangelicals have always been in the vanguard of social change. The movement toward ending slavery and the changes in attitudes toward women preaching and teaching in the churches began with Christians who, based on their beliefs and attitudes, would probably be described today as evangelicals. It was their Reformed view of Scripture that led them to believe and act as they did -- and it is such a view of the Word of God that leads people lead Sam Brownback and Barak Obama to unite with Rick Warren and other evangelical Christians in meeting the needs of the the world.

Perhaps the problem in perception is that there are some Christians who confuse political ideology with the call of God, and the various media in this country find it easier to concentrate on the intemperate remarks of a few high-profile leaders. When one looks closer one sees that evangelical Christians are just as likely to be serving with their sleeves rolled up as any other Christians.

Partisan politics is a corrosive influence in this country, and when it invades the Church, it can be quite distracting and even destructive. We need to model our lives on Micah 6:6-8 -- He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Presbyterian Outlook: Presbyterian mission in a flat world

Presbyterian Outlook: Presbyterian mission in a flat world -- free registration required to read the full article

Scott Sundquist writes in the first of a three part series on mission:
"History is not the story of those who “sense” there is a problem. We all sense that there are problems in governments, societies, and churches. Everyone knows it and everyone complains about it. History is marked by those who have the clarity to see when it is time to act, those who understand why we must act, and those who can then communicate how to act.

Very few Presbyterians are pleased with our denomination’s involvement in global mission at present. Very few people are pleased to know that at one time we had more than 2,000 full-time missionaries serving in the world (1959) and now we have fewer than 240. This is not a matter of theology or ideology. This is a general frustration with the present missional and cultural context in which we find our churches and ourselves. The world’s needs and the Gospel imperative both point to the obligation to move forward with greater innovation, participation, and creativity. This is not the time for a single prophetic leader to come forward and say, “This is the way.” This is the time when all men and women of goodwill, committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, hold hands and say, “Come, let’s all move forward together. Step in the river and let’s go to the promised land of mission.”

The promised land of mission is a place where Chinese, Koreans, Brazilians, Costa Ricans, Nigerians, and Kenyans are already there to greet us and welcome us. Our future in mission is led by our past faithfulness in mission. Mission today is messy, unorganized, and powerful. It is like the Holy Spirit of the living God: unpredictable, but powerful and transformative. In the words of New York Times reporter and commentator, Thomas Friedman, the missional world is “flat.” All people now have access to participation and innovation in mission. It is not just the number of adherents who are now heavily weighted to the South—thank you, Mr. Philip Jenkins—it is Christian mission that is basically a non-western enterprise with greater participation and access by second- and third-world Christians. ..."

Our future in mission is led by our past faithfulness in mission. God certainly works in amazing ways, and sometimes, to our way of seeing things, ironic ways.

The Great Ends of the Church were first proclaimed by the Presbyterian Church of North America nearly 100 years ago, at a time when the mission field was quite active in the Presbyterian Church. The first of these set the tone for what the Presbyterian Church saw as its reason for being: The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.

These Great Ends were adopted by the successor denominations, the United Presbyterian Church in the USA and our current denomination, The Presbyterian Church (USA). The General Assembly Council has adopted the six Great Ends as its mission statement.

Am I concerned that the earthly leadership in mission has moved out of the United States and Europe? Not at all! God, who is, after all, in charge, has called leaders in every time and place to carry on the work of the Church. It seems that we may now be called to follow the lead of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.

I am looking forward to reading Scott Sundquist's other articles in this series.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

New York Times: In Raising the World’s I.Q., the Secret’s in the Salt

New York Times: In Raising the World’s I.Q., the Secret’s in the Salt:

"ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Valentina Sivryukova knew her public service messages were hitting the mark when she heard how one Kazakh schoolboy called another stupid. “What are you,” he sneered, “iodine-deficient or something?”

Ms. Sivryukova, president of the national confederation of Kazakh charities, was delighted. It meant that the years spent trying to raise public awareness that iodized salt prevents brain damage in infants were working. If the campaign bore fruit, Kazakhstan’s national I.Q. would be safeguarded.

In fact, Kazakhstan has become an example of how even a vast and still-developing nation like this Central Asian country can achieve a remarkable public health success. In 1999, only 29 percent of its households were using iodized salt. Now, 94 percent are. Next year, the United Nations is expected to certify it officially free of iodine deficiency disorders. ..."

Columbia Misssouri has been a sister city with Kutaisi, Republic of Georgia for many years, and one of the things that has been done to strengthen those ties is holding salt drives, since they, too, have low natural iodine levels. It is such a simple thing, but it has such far-reaching consequences. Wouldn't it be great if all problems had so simple a solution?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

CNN: Harvard drops religion course requirement

CNN: Harvard drops religion course requirement:
BOSTON, Massachusetts (Reuters) -- Harvard University has dropped a controversial proposal that would have required all undergraduates to study religion as part of the biggest overhaul of its curriculum in three decades, the university said on Wednesday.

Efforts to revamp Harvard's curriculum, which has been criticized for focusing too narrowly on academic topics instead of real-life issues, have been in the works for three years.

A proposal for a "reason and faith" course requirement, which would have set Harvard apart from many other secular universities and made it unique among its peers in the elite Ivy League, was made public in a preliminary report in October.

Harvard University began 370 years ago as an institution devoted to the training of ministers so as not "to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches." In addition, its charter of 1650 defined its mission as "the education of the English and Indian youth of this Country in knowledge and godliness." See the History section of the Wikipedia article for further information.

With Harvard's rich history of rigorous academic pursuit that placed religion on a par with other fields, it is disappointing to see the apparent failure of this particular initiative.

As an undergraduate at Colorado State University in 1973, my advisor told me that, with the exception of the required Senior Seminar in Zoology, I should get out and take some courses in the LIberal Arts. I did so, and took 12 hours over the next year from the Philosophy Department, including Eastern and Western religions and Contemporary Western Religious Thought. The latter course introduced me to such people as Martin Buber, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Karl Barth. OK. They were all dead by the time I took the course, but at least I was alive during the latter years of their lives...

In any event, this was perhaps the most useful year of my education. I already had the number of credits I needed in the sciences, and I already had the required liberal arts credits. The question was how to allocate my electives. In retrospect, my advisor did me a great service by suggesting that I broaden my education, and I am grateful for his nudging me out of where I was comfortable to an area where I was required to think in a different way than I was used to.

Harvard (and other institutions of higher education) would do well to return to their liberal arts roots, at least at the undergraduate level, and graduate well-rounded students.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Gruntled Center: A Picky Point About the Presbyterian Panel Report

The Gruntled Center: A Picky Point About the Presbyterian Panel Report:
"...The Stated Clerk, Cliff Kirkpatrick, is a friend and someone I respect. He wrote a generous forward to Leading from the Center. I disagree with his decision not to report the Panel results before the Assembly. But I respect that he made a principled decision. ..."

Beau Weston clarifies an impression many people had about the failure to release the May 2006 report of the Presbyterian Panel prior to the 217th General Assembly. While he disagrees with the decision, he is not as quick as many to assume sinister motives.

I have to admit that when I read Jack Marcum's memo late last spring regarding the withholding of the report, I was a bit put off. I realize the commissioners to GA had a lot on their plate, but having read the report, it seems that it could have provided much useful information.

I hope that the debate can be ratcheted down a notch or two with more people like Beau Weston adding their informed opinions. The Task Force Report on Peace, Purity, and Unity cannot, by itself, create peace, purity, and unity -- but most of what it says is not under debate. What IS under debate -- the limits of "scrupling" -- is being addressed at the Presbytery level (which is where it SHOULD be addressed).

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Christianity Today: God's Word in an Old Light

Christianity Today: God's Word in an Old Light

Philip Jenkins wrote a book in 2002 called The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity in which he described the changes in world-wide Christianity that were resulting in a shift of the Christian population from the North to the "Global South" -- Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Jenkins has written a sequel to this earlier work called The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South and Stan Guthrie, a Senior Editor at Christianity Today has interviewed Philip Jenkins. One question and answer is quoted below:
"...Global South Christians are closer to the economic and social world of the Bible than many Western Christians. How does this affect their religious life?

Things in the Bible make more intuitive sense. For a long time in Europe, for example, it's been a very plausible defense to say, "These rules in the Bible are laid down for a totally different, alien society. We have to change with the times." But for many modern Africans, the Bible describes a world they can see around them. And that gives more credibility to the moral or theological content of the Bible. Also, food is a very strong element in the Bible, and we tend not to see that in a society where the main food-related story is an alleged obesity epidemic. ..."

This goes a long way to provide an explanation for the apparent orthodoxy of Christians in developing countries. My own impression has been that the cost of professing faith in many developing countries is high enough that there are few, if any, "cultural Christians". Jenkins' suggestion that people in the "global south" read in Scripture about lives and conditions that are very familiar to them makes a lot of sense. It also explains why the center of the Christian population is shifting into Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Reuters: NASA plans permanent base on moon

Reuters: NASA plans permanent base on moon

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA said on Monday it plans to build a permanently occupied base on the moon, most likely at the lunar south pole.

The habitat will serve as a science outpost as well as a testbed for technologies needed for future travel to Mars, and construction will follow a series of flights to the moon scheduled to begin by 2020.

"We're going for a base on the moon," Scott "Doc" Horowitz, NASA's associate administrator for exploration, told reporters in a teleconference from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Plans for what the base will look like and what astronauts would do there have yet to be determined. Similarly, NASA has not projected a date when the base would go into operation.

The moon's polar sites are preferred to equatorial regions because of more moderate temperatures and longer periods of sunlight, which is critical for the solar-powered electrical systems NASA plans to develop. Eventually, nuclear power may be used to augment or replace the solar energy systems.

Scientists also suspect the poles have resources such as hydrogen, ice and other materials that could be used for life support.

Recently we were watching some mindless television show and there were visual and dialog references to Stanley Kubrick's late 1960s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I made the comment to my wife that Kubrick's reach extended far beyond his death, and my son mentioned that he had seen those visual images a lot in the shows he likes to watch, but who was Stanley Kubrick?

Well, Saturday afternoon we took over the television (a rare occurrence in our house) and put 2001 - A Space Odyssey into the DVD player and showed our son one of the seminal cinematographic milestones of the past century. He sat through most of it without complaint, but was pretty wierded out by the last segment. We then put 2010: The Year We Make Contact into the DVD player and watched that. This one had more action, dialog, and answered a few of his questions as to just what was going on in the earlier film. This was not a Kubrick film, and that was quite obvious, but it was enjoyable enough.

Two days later (Monday, December 4, 2006) NASA held a press conference to announce that plans for a permanent Lunar base would go forward, with work to begin by 2020. I was reminded of the scene in 2001 of the lunar base, Clavius, where the second monolith was found.

I can barely remember Sputnik, but I remember the subsequent space flights, and I am excited about this new development and look forward to seeing it unfold. I hope my son, who has never experienced anything other than the space age, can enjoy this as much as I.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Nativity Story

My family and I went out to see The Nativity Story yesterday afternoon (yes, the snowplows finally hit our street Sunday afternoon, and the cinder trucks laid down some grit for traction).

This film was well done and gave a sensitive portrayal of what Mary must have endured as a young woman who was found to be pregnant when customs did not permit sexual activity, as well as her submission to the Lord and her trust in God's providence.

Joseph is portrayed as a youngish man who feels hurt and betrayed by what (to his understanding) can only be unfaithfulness on his wife's part. He comes across, as Scripture relates, as a righteous man.

The dialog is a mixture of Scripture and educated guesses as to what else might have passed between Joseph, Mary, her parents, and the townspeople of Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. Where Scripture provides dialog, it is used pretty much as it appears in the Bible and where Scripture is silent, the film provides dialog that is well-delivered and makes perfect sense. Even the small amount of comic relief does not diminish the message being portrayed.

Much research seems to have gone into the making of this film, and ordinary details of life of 2,000 years ago are depicted with skill.

The last I saw on the Yahoo! Movies site, the critics gave it a C+ and the viewers gave it a B+. It may not be Oscar material, but I enjoyed it, and was moved by its portrayal of the familiar characters surrounding the birth of Jesus. It is definitely worth seeing.

Presbyterians Today: Taking back Christmas

Joan Gray, Moderator of the 217th General Assembly writes in the "Inside the PCUSA" column of Presbyterians Today an article titled Taking Back Christmas:

"Instead of a holiday season during which much is forgotten, Christians should remember why Jesus was born.

Christmas as it is generally practiced in our culture is an exercise in forgetting. From the week after Halloween until the stores close on December 24, the atmosphere around us is one of forgetting the unpleasant realities of life. We forget that credit card bills will have to be paid. We forget that everything that we eat will show up on the scales. We forget that most people we know have many things, but we buy them more because it’s Christmas.

In order to induce this state of forgetfulness we eat too much, drink too much, spend too much, party too much. Christmas—as it is generally celebrated by our culture and by the overwhelming majority of Christians—must make the angels weep.

Christmas is about the transformation of our world into the world God wants it to be. It is about our transformation into the beloved community. It is about God’s selfless love poured out on a world desperately in need of a savior. Somebody please tell me what this has to do with parents fighting to purchase the latest toy fad? ..."

The column, Inside the PCUSA, is a space for Presbyterian leaders to speak to the denomination on matters that they feel important. December's column is by the General Assembly Moderator, Joan Gray, and deals with an issue that has long plagued Christians -- the co-opting of the meaning of Christmas by external forces as well as the way Christians respond to this by acquiescing in how the world around them views Christmas.

It's hard. I personally complain every year about how the hoopla surrounding Christmas has become nothing more than additional stress in an already stressful life. I deal with this in my own ineffective way by refusing to play Christmas music until AFTER Thanksgiving (well, not exactly -- one of my favorite musical works is the Christmas Oratorio by J.S. Bach, and I play it just about any time I want to, but that's about it). But I have to admit I do little else to reclaim Christmas.

Joan Gray has some good suggestions for reclaiming Christmas in its full meaning -- ones that would be good to keep in mind this season.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Presbyterian Panel Survey Results Released

The Presbyterian Panel results that were originally to be released in late Spring, 2006 -- prior to the 217th General Assembly -- have now been released. Jack Marcum, of the Presbyterian Panel, wrote a memo on May 30, 2006 outlining the reasons for the failure to meet the original release date.

Two things seem particularly interesting to me:

1. More respondents in each of the 4 groups -- members (52%), elders (50%), clergy (49%), specialized clergy (46%) believe that Peace, Unity, and Purity differ in importance than feel they are the same in importance (30%, 32%, 42%, 38%). Of those who saw differences in importance, the elders ranked them with purity as the most important, followed by peace and unity. Specialized clergy had unity first, followed by peace and purity. In addition, majorities of members, elders, and clergy disagreed with the statement that it is worth giving up purity to get peace in the church.

2. On the statement "A Church that is not clear about what it believes is not worth belonging to", members (67%), elders (65%), and pastors (62%) agreed or strongly agreed -- sizable majorities. A plurality of specialized clergy (47%) were in agreement with that statement.

All in all, it seems that regardless of what particular stance is taken, a significant majority of all respondents agree that the PC(USA) needs to be clear about what it believes, and it appears that purity is not to be sacrificed even to bring about peace. The deep divisions on many of the questions indicate that unity is not a possibility at present.

My question is can we find ways to work together peaceably on the things that unite us, while holding the denomination together? Or will we hold our Mission hostage to our need to have our own way?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Snowbound in Mid-Missouri

Well, the temperature outside is 13 degrees and falling, there are 12-14 inches of snow on the ground, The University of Missouri cancelled classes (but remains "open"), Interstate 70 is closed from Marshall to Kingdom City (about 70 miles), and the Missouri Department of Transportation has suspended its plowing operations in Boone County.

But through the magic of broadband, I can do work from home as easily as I can do it from my office. A blessing? Or a curse? We'll see how things turn out today.

This weekend is a Boy Scout campout (which I wasn't planning on attending anyway), but the overnight low is expected to be 3 degrees. We'll see if it gets postponed....

I'm just glad this didn't come last week when we were heading back to Columbia from Houston.

Nature: Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism

Nature: Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism:
"The Antikythera Mechanism is a unique Greek geared device, constructed around the end of the second century bc. It is known that it calculated and displayed celestial information, particularly cycles such as the phases of the moon and a luni-solar calendar. Calendars were important to ancient societies for timing agricultural activity and fixing religious festivals. Eclipses and planetary motions were often interpreted as omens, while the calm regularity of the astronomical cycles must have been philosophically attractive in an uncertain and violent world. Named after its place of discovery in 1901 in a Roman shipwreck, the Antikythera Mechanism is technically more complex than any known device for at least a millennium afterwards. ..."

Yesterday I pointed to a news release about this and as it happened, Nature had already published a letter from the research team about this. The above quote is part of the abstract of a 5 page letter on the subject of the Antikythera Mechanism. If you are at a university or your public library has a Nature subscription, you should be able to read the full text.

The bibliographic citation for this article is "Nature 444, 587-591 (30 November 2006)"

Thursday, November 30, 2006

EurekAlert!: Mystery of ancient astronomical calculator unveiled

EurekAlert!: Mystery of ancient astronomical calculator unveiled:

An international team has unravelled the secrets of a 2,000-year-old computer which could transform the way we think about the ancient world.

Professor Mike Edmunds and Dr Tony Freeth, of Cardiff University led the team who believe they have finally cracked the workings of the Antikythera Mechanism, a clock-like astronomical calculator dating from the second century BC.

Remnants of a broken wooden and bronze case containing more than 30 gears was found by divers exploring a shipwreck off the island of Antikythera at the turn of the 20th century. Scientists have been trying to reconstruct it ever since. The new research suggests it is more sophisticated than anyone previously thought.

Detailed work on the gears in the mechanism show that it was able to track astronomical movements with remarkable precision. The calculator was able to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the Zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the moon. The team believe it may also have predicted the positions of some or all of the planets.

This can be filed under "seriously cool". This will be published in Nature and I am looking forward to reading the article when it appears. Professor Edmunds raises the tantalizing question of what else the Greeks were making at the time, if they could design a mechanical computer as sophisticated as this.

My Family Over The Years

The Hancock siblings, ca. 1960
(scan snagged from my brother Jim's website)

The Hancock Family, ca. 1969
(scan snagged from my brother Jim's website)

The Hancock family, spouses, and grandchildren in August 2001 on the occasion of our parent's 50th anniversary celebration. My siblings and I are toward the back on the left.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Gruntled Center: The Evangelizing New Atheists Will Lose More Centrists Than They Gain

The Gruntled Center: The Evangelizing New Atheists Will Lose More Centrists Than They Gain
"The current crop of evangelizing atheists – most notably Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) – want to convince agnostics that tolerating religion is wrong. The time has come, they argue, to drive the delusion out. ..."

Gruntled uses religious imagery to describe such people as Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett (the latter I am not familiar with), and this may not be well-received by the trio, but in terms of the belief system and the proselyting in which they engage, I think the choice of words is apt.

Belief in a negative (i.e. "there is no God") is logically unprovable, thus atheists must have faith, especially if they are going to engage in a crusade against those whose faith leads them on a different path.

Read Gruntled's full posting -- it's short, but packs more into its few paragraphs than most people could say in a considerably larger essay.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A New Family Member

Two years ago around Halloween we lost our 15 year-old Australian Shepherd, who had come to us at age 12. We had known Holly since she was a newly-weaned puppy, and she was a familiar fixture at Susan's parent's home. Now both her parents are gone, and Holly spent her remaining years living with three cats and three people.

We were reluctant to get another dog and resolved to wait until the right time came and the right dog came along.

Over the past few weeks we were made aware of an Australian Shepherd female that was available for adoption. She is a little over three years old, and has been around children and cats. So, after driving 16 hours Saturday, we spent the night in our own beds, went to church in the morning, had lunch with friends, and drove 50 miles to pick up our new dog.

Dally (the name she came with) was born September 18, 2003 and is an Australian Shepherd of the Red Merle variety with one blue and one amber eye. She looked at the two cats who were present when she entered our house and had a "yeah... whatever..." look on her face. Our black cat, who had really hit it off with Holly, seems to think Dally was brought home just for him. When Dally took her first walk with her new people, our black cat walked right alongside as was his custom with our previous dog.

Susan and Dally

Uhhh... There's a cat in my dish.

Well, if the cat survived, I guess it's safe for me.

Grace and the Angler

Coffee Groundz in Sugarland, Texas was the venue for a pleasurable meeting between Quotidian Grace, her husband El Jefe, and Mr and Mrs Reformed Angler. (I know, anybody who pays attention knows our real names, but we'll go with the blogging names).

QG and El Jefe had flown in from Florida about noon, so we set the rendezvous for 4:00 PM in Sugarland. It was a simple drive from my parents and we converged on the coffee shop within minutes of each other.

Our conversation ranged widely on topics as diverse as sports, renaissance festivals, our respective families and, of course, the PC(USA). One regret is that we never touched on one of El Jefe's and my mutual interests -- the Civil War -- but I hope that if we meet again we can remedy that.

I have now met three Presbybloggers -- Mike Kruse, whom I have known for over 20 years; Beau Weston, whom I met a few years ago before either of us were blogging; and Quotidian Grace, who is the first blogger I have met first through blogging activities. It is certainly a pleasure to be in such company.

Friday, November 24, 2006

CNN - Gene makes wheat more nutritious

CNN - Gene makes wheat more nutritious:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Scientists have found a way to boost the protein, zinc and iron content in wheat, an achievement that could help bring more nutritious food to many millions of people worldwide.

team led by University of California at Davis researcher Jorge Dubcovsky identified a gene in wild wheat that raises the grain's nutritional content. The gene became nonfunctional for unknown reasons during humankind's domestication of wheat.

in the journal Science on Thursday, the researchers said they used conventional breeding methods to bring the gene into cultivated wheat varieties, enhancing the protein, zinc and iron value in the grain. The wild plant involved is known as wild emmer wheat, an ancestor of some cultivated wheat.

represents one of the major crops feeding people worldwide, providing about 20 percent of all calories consumed. The World Health Organization has said upward of 2 billion people get too little zinc and iron in their diet, and more than 160 million children under age 5 lack adequate protein.

Nice timing on this article, the day after Thanksgiving....

It would be great if this resulted in more nutritious grain, especially as it restores a gene function that was present in the wild ancestors of wheat. Bread wheat is actually a hexaploid, meaning that it has 6 copies of each gene (compared with most organisms which are diploid, having two copies of each gene). Emmer and Durum (pasta) wheat are tetraploids resulting from natural crosses between a diploid wheat and another, similar, grass. Domestic hexaploid wheat (a cross between Emmer or Durum, and a diploid grass relative) occurred at many different times and in many different combinations in the history of agriculture, well before anyone tried controlling hybridization.

The significance of this is that it uses only what is already available in domestic wheat and its wild ancestors. Hopefully this will blunt the inevitable criticisms of the anti-biotechnology crowd...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving 2006

We are at my parent's house in Houston for Thanksgiving week, and there will be three out of four of the Hancock siblings present. At Christmas, there will also be three out of four present. We won't be there, but my brother from Annapolis and his family will be, so between the two holidays, all of us will be there.

We may all be down shortly into the new year when my parents move from the house to a duplex. I hope it will work out that we all can help in the move.

The meal will be a "tur-duc-hen" with cajun seafood stuffing. This will be a new experience and I am looking forward to it. It sounds like a real taste treat, but I may need a long nap afterwards.

Our family has much to be thankful for, and not the least is that we are able to be together.

One of my favorite hymns for Thanksgiving is this one. The hymn was written in 1844 by Henry Alford and is generally sung to the tune St. George's Windsor, written in 1858 by George J. Elvey. My source of information is The Cyber Hymnal, an excellent source for words and history of hymns.

Note that "corn" is a term applied to the prevailing food grain in a region, whether it is wheat or maize (or rye or barley, for that matter).

Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home;
All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home.

All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto His praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown unto joy or sorrow grown.
First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take His harvest home;
From His field shall in that day all offenses purge away,
Giving angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store in His garner evermore.

Even so, Lord, quickly come, bring Thy final harvest home;
Gather Thou Thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified, in Thy garner to abide;
Come, with all Thine angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Penn State -- Twin Star Explosions Fascinate Astronomers

Penn State -- Twin Star Explosions Fascinate Astronomers:
"21 November 2006—Scientists using NASA's Swift satellite stumbled upon a rare sight: two supernovas side by side in one galaxy. Large galaxies typically play host to three supernovas per century. Galaxy NGC 1316 has had two supernovas in less than five months, and a total of four supernova in 26 years, as far back as the records go. This makes NGC 1316 one of the most prodigious known producer of supernovas. ..."

This is pretty impressive, especially when you consider the scale that must be involved here. According to Wikipedia, NGC 1316 is about 100 million light years from Earth. According to HubbleSite, NGC 1316 is 60,000 light years wide. By comparison, our own galaxy, the Milky Way is estimated to be about 100,000 light years in diameter, but its diameter includes the arms that spiral out from a central disc that is much smaller and more compact.

In this image, the large bright blob at the center is the galactic core, and the bright object on the left is a star that is considerably closer than the galaxy itself. The two supernovae are circled, and the one on the right was first noted on June 19, 2006. The one on the left was first seen on November 5, 2006. They would have gone supernova 100,000,000 years ago -- about the middle of the Cretaceous period.

I can't back this up with facts and figures, but for a long time it has seemed to me that the scientific discipline in which the highest percentage of committed Christians are found is the field of astrophysics. Could it be the sheer awesomeness of what is to be seen here?

The very idea of seeing things that happened so long ago is mind-boggling. Not that many years ago Comet Hale-Bopp passed close to Earth and provided a spectacular view. It's period is approximately 4300 years, placing its last perihelion around 2300 B.C. Who saw it then? What did they think about it?

Ps 8:3 When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
Ps 8:4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

-- Psalm 8:3-4, NIV

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Brazos Bend State Park

Brazos Bend State Park is a 5000 acre park about 30 miles south of Houston. This area is represents the first Anglo settlement in Texas, but archaeologists believe that people first visited the area around 300 B.C. This particular area was part of the land grant from the Mexican government to Stephen F. Austin in the early 1800s. This was an important area in commerce, as the Brazos River is navigable, and served to supply the settlements along its course.

This park is home to a population of American Alligators, and we were hoping to see some, but considering the physical limitations of two of us, we were only able to enjoy a nature walk that looped around Creekfield Lake. There was plenty to see and enjoy, and also to listen to. There were Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, American Coots, Common Gallinules, Common Crows, various sparrows, and I heard what sure sounded like a Pileated Woodpecker.

American Coots were pretty common in Creekfield Lake.

This striking bird is a Common Gallinule, a member of the coot, gallinule and rail family. Note the red beak with its yellow tip. (You'll need to click the image to open it in its normal size.) This is a new addition to my life list.

This little caterpillar was fairly common on the emergent vegetation of Creekfield Lake.

This was the only aquatic reptile we saw, but then we were not able to get to the prime alligator viewing areas.

If there was anything that characterized this visit to Brazos Bend, it would be the vultures. I estimate about there were about 50 Black and Turkey Vultures. They tended to roost in separate trees, but if you look carefully, the uppermost bird on the right in this group of Black Vulture is actually a Turkey Vulture.

Every so often a group of vultures would take flight and circle around. The Black Vultures have the light parts of their wings at the tip, while the Turkey Vultures have the light area extending from the tip along the trailing edge of the wing.

Brazos Bend State Park offers camping, hiking, cycling, birdwatching, fishing, and camping. (Important point of alligator etiquette: If you catch a fish and an alligator wants it, let it have it.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Thanksgiving in Houston

We are in Houston this week visiting my parents for Thanksgiving.

On our way down we stopped at the Texas Renaissance Festival, as we did last year, and visited my brother Jim. We found to our surprise and pleasure that my niece (sister's daughter) and her boyfriend were participating this year.

Pictures and more will follow soon .... And here they are:

A costumed participant in the noontime parade

I'm not sure just how period-correct this costume is, but he certainly put a lot of effort into it.

Hmmmm. Must be one of those space-time anomalies....

My brother, Jim (AKA The Burley Minstrel)

I decided to leave out the images from the chain-mail fashion show. This is, after all, a blog that I'd like the kids to be able to read.

Presbyterian News Service -- Southern California pastor tapped to lead PC(USA) mission programs

Presbyterian News Service -- Southern California pastor tapped to lead PC(USA) mission programs:
"LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Tom Taylor, a Southern California pastor touted by colleagues as bridge-builder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has been named Deputy Executive Director for Mission by General Assembly Council (GAC) Executive Director Linda Valentine.

If Taylor’s appointment is confirmed by the GAC’s executive committee when it meets Dec. 7, he will begin work here Jan. 8.

Taylor, currently pastor of the 1,400-member Glenkirk Presbyterian church in Glendora, CA, will oversee all of the GAC’s mission activities, including supervision of six program directors who will be named in coming days to manage the council’s six restructured program areas. ..."

It sounds like the reorganization of the General Assembly Council staff is well on its way. I hope that our mission in the world will be enhanced by these moves.

Friday, November 17, 2006

PC(USA) - News Service - Philanthropy Expert Says Conservatives Are More Generous

PC(USA) - News Service - Philanthropy Expert Says Conservatives Are More Generous:
"SYRACUSE, NY — Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks is about to become the darling of the religious right in America — and it’s making him nervous.

The child of academics, raised in a liberal household and educated in the liberal arts, Brooks has written a book that concludes religious conservatives donate far more money than secular liberals to all sorts of charitable activities, irrespective of income. ..."

There have been indications of this trend in the PC(USA). In many ways it is not surprising, since those who are orthodox in their theology can be expected to put their faith into practice. For the orthodox, giving to the needy has never ceased to be the responsibility of the Church. We live, however, in a country where the Church has outsourced charitable giving and social programs to the government -- or perhaps more accurately, allowed the government to take over what had been their historical calling. Many, including some within our own denomination, are uncomfortable with the Church involving themselves too heavily in social programs, especially the "faith-based initiatives." Yet the need continues to mount and the governmental programs at all levels are not able to keep up with it, thus the continuing need for the Church to be involved.

Brooks, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University, has written a book being published later this month, called Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism . lists it for release on November 27, 2006, and it is available for pre-order.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Medical News Today: Dark Chocolate Lowers Blood Clot Risk

Medical News Today: Dark Chocolate Lowers Blood Clot Risk
If you eat a little bit of dark chocolate each day you could be reducing your chances of developing a blood clot, say researchers from Johns Hopkins University, USA. They say dark chocolate helps thin the blood, in pretty much the same way as aspirin does.

I knew it! Dark chocolate is therapeutic. I wonder if my physician will write me out a prescription?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Time Magazine: God vs. Science

Time Magazine: God vs. Science
"There are two great debates under the broad heading of Science vs. God. The more familiar over the past few years is the narrower of the two: Can Darwinian evolution withstand the criticisms of Christians who believe that it contradicts the creation account in the Book of Genesis? ..."

"But in fact creationism and I.D. are intimately related to a larger unresolved question, in which the aggressor's role is reversed: Can religion stand up to the progress of science? This debate long predates Darwin, but the antireligion position is being promoted with increasing insistence by scientists angered by intelligent design and excited, perhaps intoxicated, by their disciplines' increasing ability to map, quantify and change the nature of human experience. ..."

Time Magazine hosted a 90 minute debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins in their New York City offices, and that debate comprises the bulk of this quite lengthy article. This was a fairly spirited debate with neither Collins nor Dawkins yielding to the other, yet there are humorous parts as well. There is no question that the two scientists are extremely articulate and present their cases clearly. The Time interviewer was fair, and asked good, probing questions, and there was a minimum of posturing by either side. I suspect the lack of a crowd to which to play had a beneficial effect on this exchange.

All-in-all, I felt that the debate does much to clarify the issues at stake here, and I recommend reading the entire article.

San Diego Presbytery: Task Force on the Way Forward

San Diego Presbytery: Task Force on the Way Forward
"It is the conclusion of the Task Force on the Way Forward that the Presbytery of San Diego is divided and therefore polarized over some key theological issues. As a result we are unable to experience ecclesiastical unity. The advisory survey taken by commissioners at the Special Meeting of Presbytery on October 24, 2006 and the complexion of our recent presbytery meetings confirms our conclusion. As a result of this polarization, our ability to do mission and ministry together is greatly hampered. Often we spend more time arguing our respective positions than proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Much like Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36-41, we seem to have reached an insurmountable impasse.

It is time to tell ourselves the truth and bring an end to this entrenched dispute. In our opinion, it is futile to keep arguing our respective cases, hoping to persuade our brothers and sisters in Christ to change their deeply held beliefs and values, while vehemently defending our own. We simply cannot continue in this state of sharp disagreement. We will either continue to fight among ourselves or we will move forward, but we cannot do both. We must find a way to break this destructive cycle and come to a place where mission and ministry take precedence over unproductive debate. We may need to find a way to commend one another to the grace of God so that we can pursue faithful and fruitful ministry options. We must find a common ground where we can work together to further God’s kingdom here on earth, or we must part company. Anything less will not bring glory to God or increase His kingdom here on earth.

Therefore, the Task Force on the Way Forward presents the following recommendations to the Presbytery of San Diego for immediate adoption and implementation. ..."

I have to say that when I first read this I had a deep feeling of disappointment -- but then I started to think about it. San Diego is one of the more conservative presbyteries, and, if memory serves, one of the first to clearly outline what it thought were the Essential Tenets and Reformed Distinctives of our our faith. Even though I am in accord with the general goals and many of the specific stands taken, I recognize that this presbytery (as well as nearly every other in the PC(USA)) is deeply divided on many issues. In far too many of these cases, denomination-wide, the majority prevails and fails to recognize the minority's deep feelings.

San Diego seems to be taking a path that few have chosen and that is to recognize the divisions and a way forward that allows all sides to function more as a church and less as bickering children. This report makes specific recommendation as to how to accomplish this, and it may be difficult to implement, but at least they are trying to avoid the trap of fighting to win every argument by majority vote, but doing nothing to heal the divisions.

Included in this report is the questionaire that was answered by 70 respondents. The answers show clearly the depth of division.

The Paul and Barnabas analogy is one that resonates with me. By finding a way to move forward separately, the work God calls us to perform can be done more effectively. The alternative is to remain paralyzed by our inability to agree. Our disputes seem petty compared with the needs around us, and as much as I abhor the idea of separation, it may lead to greater things for the Presbyterian Church. We need to all remember that the subject of Paul's and Barnabas' disagreement was Timothy. Paul was wrong to dismiss Timothy on the basis of a single failing, but see how the early Church was strengthened -- and see how Paul's and Timothy's relationship developed several years later to the point where they were mutually supportive colleagues in ministry. If our denomination is truly presented with a "Paul and Barnabas" moment, let's not be too stubborn to recognize it.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Presbyterian Outlook: From confusion to clarity

Presbyterian Outlook: From confusion to clarity:
Presbyterian Outlook requires registration to read the full articles, but it is free.
by Jack Haberer

"...As a former member of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (TTF), I have been distressed to see so many Presbyterian friends troubled, perplexed, and even angered by the actions taken by the 217th Birmingham General Assembly in response to the Task Force’s recommendations. ..."

Not much has truly changed with the passing of the PUP recommendations. Judicatories that previously chose to ignore constitutional provisions in making ordination decisions will continue to ignore the Book of Order when it finds its provisions inconvenient. Judicatories that carried out their responsibilities with integrity are free to continue to do so, and many have made it crystal clear that they intend to do so.

What has changed is that a practice has been brought back of permitting "scruples" to be declared and allowing the judicatory to determine whether such scruples place the candidate outside the "essential tenets" of the reformed faith. The Task Force failed to clarify what the essentials are, and we go on as before without any clear understanding of what they are, and without such clarification the job of promoting Peace, Purity, and Unity is going to be very difficult.

I am still willing to give it a fair chance, since the recommendations appeared to strengthen the judicial review of such decisions -- but not enough time has elapsed to see the effect of such reviews.

People seem to be divided in four groups when it comes to the Task Force on Peace, Purity, and Unity recommendations:
  • Those who are in accord with the PUP recommendations.
  • Those who are willing to give them a chance, but have some reservations.
  • Those who are opposed to the recommendations based on a study of the issues.
  • Those who never really intended to consider fairly the recommendations and are using it as a wedge issue to further their own agendas.
The preceding four categories do not account for all Presbyterians, and my gut feeling is that they do not even comprise a majority. We need to recognize that there are those who simply do not understand what is going on because it never really has been clearly or honestly explained by either the supporters or the detractors of the PUP report.

Jack Haberer has much personally invested in the PUP report and recommendations, and I respect his opinions, but the fact that there are so many people out there who are confused suggests very strongly that the Task Force needed to do a much better job of interpretation of their report to the membership.
"...Then again, we Presbyterians are pretty insistent that the sovereign God reigns. And given that God is not the author of confusion (I Cor. 14:33), the people of God listening for the voice of God ought to be able to find their way through a season of confusion into greater clarity. This edition of The Presbyterian Outlook is dedicated to helping us all to listen better, to discern more clearly, and to follow our Lord more faithfully."

This injunction should be heeded by all sides, not only in this dispute, but in all disputes that prevent us from heeding our individual and corporate calling to follow Jesus Christ.

God is not the author of confusion; we are.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Christianity Today: The Church's Great Malfunctions

Christianity Today: The Church's Great Malfunctions:
"There is a remarkable image in the closing pages of Scripture that has become a touchstone for the way my colleagues and I think about faith and culture. Amid its descriptions of the New Jerusalem, Revelation includes "the tree of life, bearing 12 crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations" (Rev. 22:2). The tree holds out hope that whole cultures will be healed and mended, becoming places where people can flourish. And it sets an agenda for faith as a way of life that contributes to that flourishing, in anticipation, here and now.

Too often, however, Christian faith neither mends the world nor helps human beings thrive. To the contrary, it seems to shatter things into pieces, to choke what's new and beautiful before it has chance to take root, to trample underfoot what's good and true. ..."

This was posted yesterday on the Christianity Today website and raises some extremely uncomfortable points. What are these malfunctions? Miroslav Volf separates them into two groups -- the idleness of faith and the oppressiveness of faith.

An idle faith can easily yield to (1) temptation's lure, (2) institutional power, and (3) a misunderstood faith. With regard to the third, Volf refers to Karl Marx, who famously said that "religion is the opiate of the masses." And while that can be true to a point, Volf points out that Marx failed to see that religion can also be a stimulant that energizes people to perform service. Volf also points out that when religion is employed only as a soothing drug or a performance-enhancing drug, it is little more than a crutch. It can, and should be much more than a drug.

With regard to the oppressiveness of faith, Volf points to the violence so often done in the name of religion. He suggests three factors here as well:
  1. A thin faith -- one that puts into practice some of the tenets of faith but not others; i.e. being pro-life, but willing to commit violence to achieve that end)
  2. An irrelevant faith -- Can a 2000-year-old faith actually mean anything in the world today? There is a failure of the intellect here in that people don't try to apply the teachings of Scripture to modern circumstances. This is not a job for theologians; it a the job of all Christians.
  3. An unwillingness to walk the narrow path. Here we can compare the bloody conflicts that revolve around revenge and payback and, say, the response of the Amish community in Pennsylvania that reached out to the family of a man who had killed their children.
I'm sure these aren't exhaustive reasons, but they provide a good place to start a little introspection. Volf says this: "We Christians should be our own most rigorous critics—and be that precisely out of a deep sense of the beauty and goodness of our faith."

Friday, November 10, 2006

Washington Post: Let's Stop Stereotyping Evangelicals

Washington Post: Let's Stop Stereotyping Evangelicals:
" ...Evangelicals led the grass-roots campaigns for religious liberty, the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage. Even the Moral Majority in its most belligerent form amounted to nothing more terrifying than churchgoers flocking peacefully to the polls on Election Day. The only people who want a biblical theocracy in America are completely outside the evangelical mainstream, their influence negligible. ..."
Here's a pretty good article about the stereotypes that have grown up around evangelicals over the years. This article acknowledges that much of it is fueled by the behavior of a small number of self-described evangelicals who say outrageous things, which are then reported widely.

A story that is not told very effectively by the press is that of inner city "megachurches" which are truly multicultural in their makeup and are heavily engaged in social ministries. Nor is the story widely told of evangelical mission workers who place themselves in danger in such places as the Sudan and Somalia as a response to God's call.

The past election involved what seems to be an unusual number of evangelical Democrats winning contests, and these are not the "evangelical left" we are talking about here; they tend toward the conservative end of the religious and political spectrum.
"...Yet it is dishonest to disparage the massive civic and democratic contribution of evangelicals by invoking the excesses of a tiny few. As we recall from the Gospels, even Jesus had a few disciples who, after encountering some critics, wanted to call down fire from heaven to dispose of them. Jesus disabused them of that impulse. The overwhelming majority of evangelicals have dispensed with it as well. Maybe it's time more of their critics did the same."

May it be so.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

CNET: Rights group names 'Enemies of the Internet'

CNET: Rights group names 'Enemies of the Internet':
"Civil liberties group Reporters Without Borders has released its annual list of "Enemies of the Internet"--regimes the group claims restrict freedom of expression online. ..."

This list includes many of the usual suspects, and some surprises. For example, Libya, an obvious suspect and a member of this list for several years, was taken off this year since no apparent censorship is currently taking place and and "cyberdissidents" are not being jailed. Muammar Gaddafi is still viewed with some suspicion, and will, no doubt, be watched closely.

Other issues of concern are the relationships between hardware manufacturers and information providers. Cisco routers, which are a key element in the world's internet infrastructure, is also the provider of the firewall that walls off China from the rest of the world. Yahoo! and Google both have made accommodations to China, and Yahoo! in particular provided email records to authorities that resulted in a ten year prison sentence for a Chinese journalist.

Reporters Without Borders deals with press freedom issues worldwide, and includes bloggers in their concern. They recently had a 24 hour vote on the "Black Holes of the Web" which shows in stark graphics where the major problems are:

Clicking the image will take you to the original site, which will probably be around for a few days.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Washington Post: In a Tech-Savvy World, the Word of God Goes Mobile

Washington Post: In a Tech-Savvy World, the Word of God Goes Mobile
"The latest cellphone technology brings new meaning to the notion of hearing God's call.

Media-savvy ministries are adapting their message for a new generation of phones, which have memories capable of holding entire books and playing videos and music.

The result: missionaries in Asia beaming testimonials onto a two-inch screen; a three-day, 100,000-person crusade boiled down to a two-minute video sermon; a Christian punk ring tone. ..."

This article goes on to point out that the cell phone has become an ubiquitous part of people's day to day lives -- they go everywhere with their owners. Other issues of etiquette are raised -- for example, is reading your Bible on your cellphone during church acceptable?

The overall conclusions of this article are that this could be a powerful tool in evangelism and spiritual development. I guess I have my reservations. I have carried a cell phone for over ten years, but I still prefer face-to -face conversations, and text messaging never quite has caught on with me. And watching videos on my Motorola Razr, even with its larger screen, just doesn't quite fire my rocket.

Saturday, November 04, 2006 Disbelief requires a faith all its own Disbelief requires a faith all its own:

October 31, 2006

"The first book I was assigned to read as a college freshman half a century ago was "Unpopular Essays" by the English earl, Bertrand Russell. His book bore that title because Lord Russell was the most devoted and articulate atheist of his time, with a self-imposed mission to persuade readers that there was no God.

Our philosophy professor, himself a Christian, assigned the book to challenge the comfortable complacencies of a classroom full of Christians and Jews not yet out of our teens. In one of his essays, "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish," Russell related the story of an American prophetess who, in 1820, gathered thousands of her disciples by a lake in northern New York State. ..."

David Yount, author of Celebrating the Rest of Your Life: A Baby Boomer's Guide to Spirituality, lays out a good case for atheism being a faith-based system of belief. Yount makes an interesting point in his article -- science and faith are both best pursued with a humble attitude, and both are strengthened when faith is tempered with doubt.

Yahoo News: Religion on the Brain

Yahoo News: Religion on the Brain
The California Science Center's Science Matters speakers program "Religion on the Brain" will feature a neurologist presenting the latest findings in brain research about the neural processing of religious thought and experience. In light of this research, panelists will discuss how humans reconcile these different aspects of their brains in understanding the world. The panelists will discuss the possibility that humans are genetically hard-wired for critical thinking and religious spirituality. Can we believe in science and still have faith?

For those in LA, this might be an interesting way to spend a Saturday afternoon. It will be held November 4 at the California Science Center from 1:30-3:30 PM. The panelists consist of two neuroscientists, one evolutionary biologist, and one person who is identified as a "Director of the Skeptics Society". The latter two have written books on the subject.

I look forward to reading about this panel discussion after it has taken place.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Eagle and Child: What to do about upcoming elections

The Eagle and Child: What to do about upcoming elections:
"As a pastor, I'm generally pretty chary about sharing my political views. As near as I can recall, I've only written once about a specific public policy issue (a permit for a casino downtown) and never about candidates. This is mainly because I get two uneasy vibes from the general public (not from everyone, but this is a general sense): 1) they view pastors talking about specific political details with the same level of trust as they might view a used car salesman on the merits that '76 Volare that you just have to drive home today. 2) When pastors spend more time talking political policy than talking about Christ, they become pawns of political strategists rather than physicians of souls. (you may disagree with me on these two general senses -- but then I humbly ask, what is your inner response when you hear a pastor espousing political views with which you disagree. Do you immediately dismiss those views, or do you internally begin to challenge your own stances.) ..."

I attended a Presbytery meeting yesterday. During worship, one of the meditations was supposed to be about Grace, but seemed nothing more than a political commercial. There was a stunned silence during this meditation, in contrast to the other two, during which there was active participation from the assembled commissioners in the form of nodding in agreement, occasional laughter, and even an "Amen!".

Russell Smith's posting today reminds us all that God is not the property of any political party, and that we should be praying for wisdom rather than the victory of any party.

Partisanship is a corrosive evil in this country, and it is bad enough that we have to endure it during years evenly divisible by two -- but we are the Church of Jesus Christ, not a political organization. We should be setting the standard, not following the crowd.