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Category Archives: In the News
I’ve noticed that many people who fear the virus do not fear the vaccine and many who fear the vaccine do not fear the virus. I refuse to fear either. I wear a mask when necessary because our governing authorities have required it, because I want to protect others, and because doing so does not require me to disobey God. But I do not wear a mask because I fear contracting the virus. Continue reading
“What Should Christians Do About President Biden?” I hear that question, though perhaps in a less respectful form, regularly. It is more like, “What about Biden?” or “Did you hear what Biden’s done now?”
Most of my friends are Christians who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. In conversations about politics I, who did not vote for either of the major candidates, generally find myself on the outside. I sometimes try to reframe, or perhaps enlarge the frame, of such conversations to include God’s plans for the church and the world and Christian responsibility within those plans.
What is that responsibility? What should Christians do about Biden? The biblical answer is that
they should pray for him. St. Paul urged “that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority…” As the Bible scholar Christopher Wright put it, “Paul commands all kinds of prayers for all kinds of rulers.”
How should we pray for rulers like President Biden? Continue reading
It would not be surprising if the words for “mask” in the world’s languages have been used more in the past year than in all recorded history combined. That is impressive, given the length of time masks have been around. In 2018, archeologists discovered a 9,000-year-old Neolithic stone mask in the Middle East. One could argue that the earliest masks, although not face masks, were worn by Adam and Eve when they donned fig leaf coverings and tried to hide from the Lord.
Ancient Egyptians wore masks in religious rituals. They also placed masks on the faces of the dead to protect them on their crossing to the afterlife. In the Far East, masks were worn both for religious ceremonies and for theatrical productions. Classical actors routinely performed in masks, which explains why the ancient Greek word for actor was “hypocrite,” which means, “the one under the mask.”
Masks sometimes serve as identity markers. The mask marked the stage performer as an actor, the shaman as a healer, the chief as an authority. In West Africa, certain masks identified their wearers as intermediaries through whom petitions might be delivered to the dead.
More often, though, masks are worn to hide one’s identity. In ancient religious ceremonies, masks sometimes hid the wearer from malicious spirits. Historically, judges in many cultures have donned masks to protect themselves from reprisal from both friends and enemies of the accused. Today, companies are working to design “masks” that hide people’s identity from facial recognition software.
I write this on the day that Joe Biden was sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States. I thought President Biden’s inauguration speech was well-written and, at times, dynamically delivered. The theme, to which he returned again and again, was the need for national unity.
A secondary theme, a prerequisite for presidential inauguration speeches, was hope. The president brought those themes together when he called all Americans to unite to fight hopelessness. Picking up the hope theme later in the speech, he promised, in the words of Psalm 30, that though “weeping may endure for a night … joy comes in the morning.” Near the conclusion of the address, he said: “Together we will write an American story of hope…”
Every U.S. president in my lifetime has spoken of hope at his inauguration. This may be because inauguration day is a day of hope in the U.S. or it may be that Americans are naturally a hopeful people. They extend hope like a line of credit, placing it at the incoming president’s disposal.
What is the substance of this hope to which presidents routinely refer? Dwight Eisenhower spoke of it as the hope for the healing of a divided world. George W. Bush called freedom the hope of millions worldwide. Ronald Reagan thought of our hope, indeed “the last, best hope of man on earth,” in terms of an “opportunity society” where all of us “will go forward.”
Peace also figures into inauguration day hopes. Jimmy Carter hoped for a peaceful world built on international policies rather than on weapons of war. John Kennedy pledged to engage in a “peaceful revolution of hope” to assist “free men and free governments” south of our border.
Peace, justice, prosperity, and freedom form the substance of hope in inaugural speeches, but how to obtain them is far from obvious. Certainly, the united efforts of the American people play a necessary role. But presidents have assumed another dynamic is in play and that assumption is questionable.
That dynamic can be described in a word: progress.
2020 has been called the annus horribilis (“the horrible year”) and described as hellacious, apocalyptic, awful, and exhausting. The pandemic rages on, with some areas seeing higher infection rates than ever before. Many people are out of work and out of money and, as the coronavirus spikes, some are out of time.
Those who manage to avoid the virus can’t sidestep the measures taken to prevent its spread. In my state, restaurants are closed, mask requirements are in place, high schools and colleges have moved online, and theaters are shut down. Sports stadiums are empty. Churches, like ours, are seeing half their members attending worship gatherings.
Experts warn that the pandemic is causing anxiety, stress, stigma, and xenophobia. A review published in The Lancet linked an increase in mental health problems to the boredom, loss of freedom, and uncertainty caused by quarantine. Children and teens are most at risk.
We have heard the welcome news that an effective vaccine is around the corner, but many Americans are wary of taking it. Even those who are eager for the vaccine may be looking at the summer of 2021 before they are able to get it.
As if the pandemic was not bad enough, there was also the election. Usually after a general election, the nation recovers and, to some degree, reconciles. This year’s election did little to decrease divisiveness but rather increased it. Many people have lost faith in the election process, while others have doubts about the transition process.
Politics may be our most wide-spread addiction. With a dealer on every corner, it is always available. Media reporting and commentary provide an endless supply of partisan views.
As soon as someone starts coming down from the last high, a tempting report from CNN, or a Fox News update, or a tweet from the president can draw them right back in. During a general election year, it is possible to remain politically intoxicated for months.
Like other addictions, dosing on politics brings users pleasurable feelings which they then want to repeat. These feelings include the sense of belonging, the gratification of being right, and the heady shot of being in power.
There are deleterious side effects as well. Huffing politics can and often does lead to anger. It leaves one vulnerable to hatred of “the other”. Should one’s side win, it can result in arrogance; lose, and it can result in soul-wounding pride.
During the presidential campaign, I heard stories of how political addictions were destroying families. A pastor friend of mine related the bitter story of a married couple whose adult son warned them that he would disown them if they voted for the wrong candidate. He wasn’t joking.
I think I’ll watch a movie on election eve, probably “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and has a stellar cast, including the great James Stewart.
In the movie, an unlikely replacement is chosen for a recently deceased U.S. Senator. He finds himself surrounded by corruption, taken advantage of by a worldly-wise press, and pictured as a dumb ox to the nation.
Senator Smith runs afoul of some corrupt senior members, who determine to ruin him, vacate his seat, and replace him with a more compliant member. Plans are made and steps are taken to humiliate the young senator, break him, and drive him out. In spite of the temptation and corruption, Smith manages to remain true. It is, in many ways, a story for our time.
“Mr. Smith” is my plan for election night. I won’t be watching the results into the wee hours of the night. I will pay no attention to the exit polls. By election night, I will have already done what I can do to influence the election – pray and vote – and what I cannot do, control the outcome, I will leave to God.
Perhaps this seems too laissez-faire. This is, after all, the most important election in our lifetimes – or at least that is what people keep saying. Even if they are right, fretting about the outcome will not change it. Worry will accomplish nothing, as Jesus explicitly taught. I will pray and vote, but I will trust God with the outcome.
The Bible pictures God as big enough to handle circumstances, even ones that are as volatile as ours. The psalmist says that God brings down one person and exalts another. The prophet adds that “he sets up kings and deposes them.” I think the same could be said of presidents. This election will not and cannot undermine God’s supreme authority.
Still, what if America gets it wrong? What if we, confused by fake news and misled by spin masters, choose the wrong person?
A passage in the prophet Isaiah seems to me to capture the current state of our nation: “Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.”
The journal “Science” published the peer reviewed paper, “The spread of true and false news online,” by Soroush Vosughi and others in 2018. The authors drew on an exhaustive study of Twitter feeds from 2006 to 2017, which examined around 126,000 news stories tweeted by 3 million people more that 4.5 million times.
In September, the British news website “The Guardian” published a story written entirely by an AI – an artificial intelligence that “learned” how to write from scanning the Internet. The piece received a lot of press because in it the AI stated it had no plans to destroy humanity. It did, however, admit that it could be programmed in a way that might prove destructive.
The AI is not beyond making mistakes. I noted its erroneous claim that the word “robot” derives from Greek. An AI that is mistaken about where a word comes from might also be mistaken about where humanity is headed. Or it might be lying. Not a pleasant thought.
Artificial Intelligence is based on the idea that computer programs can “learn” and “grow.” No less an authority than Stephen Hawking has warned that AI, unbounded by the slow pace of biological development, might quickly supersede its human developers.
Other scientists are more optimistic, believing that AI may provide solutions to many of humanity’s age-old problems, including disease and famine. Of course, the destruction of biological life would be one solution to disease and famine.
Hawking worried that a “growing” and “learning” computer program might eventually destroy the world. I doubt it ever occurred to Hawking that his fears regarding AI could once have been expressed toward BI – biological intelligence; that is, humans – at their creation.
Did non-human life forms, like those the Bible refers to as “angels,” foresee the dangerous possibilities presented by the human capacity to “grow” and “learn”? Might not the angel Gabriel, like the scientist Hawking, have warned of impending doom? Continue reading