Too Old?

The LORD said to Abram:

Leave your country, your family, and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you. I will bless you and make your descendants into a great nation. You will become famous and be a blessing to others. I will bless anyone who blesses you, but I will put a curse on anyone who puts a curse on you. Everyone on earth will be blessed because of you.

Abram was seventy-five years old when the LORD told him to leave the city of Haran. He obeyed and left with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the possessions and slaves they had gotten while in Haran.
When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram went as far as the sacred tree of Moreh in a place called Shechem. The Canaanites were still living in the land at that time, but the LORD appeared to Abram and promised, “I will give this land to your family forever.” Abram then built an altar there for the LORD. (Genesis 12:1-)

Just because you think you know what to expect from life, doesn’t mean you do. Abraham was an old man when God called Abraham from the city of Haran. By the world’s standards, his life was nearly done. It was past time to retire. He was just an ordinary man, living in the Middle East, one of millions of people alive on the planet in that day. And God decided to pick him. What made Abraham special was not who he was, but who God was. Abraham became extraordinary—even in his twilight years—because God chose him. God did not choose Abraham because he was extraordinary. God chose Abraham because he loved him.
The promise that God gave Abraham when he told him to pack up and move to what would someday be the land of Israel had no strings attached. Regardless of Abraham’s character or choices, God told him that he was going to become famous, he’d be happy, and his descendents would become a great nation. Moreover, he protected Abraham and those who would come in contact with him or his descendents: those who blessed Abraham would themselves be blessed, and those who cursed him would be cursed. God takes care of those who belong to him and woe to any who try to harm those God has chosen.

Abraham responds to the news by going where God told him to go, and by building an alter to God. Abraham didn’t know much about this God, but he decided to pay attention to him. God can use us no matter where we are in life.

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Never Alone

“Behold, I send an Angel before you to keep you in the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Beware of Him and obey His voice; do not provoke Him, for He will not pardon your transgressions; for My name is in Him. But if you indeed obey His voice and do all that I speak, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For My Angel will go before you and bring you in to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites and the Hivites and the Jebusites; and I will cut them off. You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works; but you shall utterly overthrow them and completely break down their sacred pillars.

“So you shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread and your water. And I will take sickness away from the midst of you. No one shall suffer miscarriage or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days.” (Exodus 23:20-26)

It’s not just up to you. You’re not on your own. The word rendered “angel” in English is a transliteration of the Greek word meaning “messenger,” which is also what the Hebrew word here in Exodus meant. A messenger can be a human being working for a king, or for God, or a supernatural agent working for God. Here, it represented something supernatural: God’s physical presence before his people signified by the pillar of fire at night and the cloud during the day. God assured the people that they were not facing their problems alone, but that wherever they went, his presence would be there.

God warned the people to obey the angel and to do whatever he said. Additionally, he warned them against the gods and religious practices of the Canaanites, the people already living in the promised land. Faithfulness to God would result in prosperity for the Israelites: full harvests, many children, and a full lifespan. The only thing the Israelites had to fear was God—and then, only if they disobeyed and failed to abide by the terms of the contract.

God does not promise us a life without problems. The Israelites spent forty years in the desert, after all, and fought a long war against strong enemies before they settled down in the land of promise. But every day, every struggle, God was there. They weren’t alone. Neither are we.

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Future Moon

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Saturn’s Largest Moon, Titan

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Why Worry?

And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.”

And the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward. But lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. And the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea. And I indeed will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them. So I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen. Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gained honor for Myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.”

And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night. (Exodus 14:13-20)

What are you so worried about? When God asked Moses “why do you cry to me?” God is not wondering why Moses is asking for help. Instead, he’s asking, in essence, “why are you yelling at me?” God questioned where the panic was coming from, much as Jesus thought it odd that the disciples were so afraid of the storm as they crossed the Sea of Galilee. Moses had just spent months if not years standing before Pharaoh, the ruler of the most powerful nation on Earth, and he’d seen God destroy the country with a series of ten plagues. And now he was going to let a little thing like a deep sea in the way make him think that now they were doomed? God’s wondering, “What? Did I go somewhere? You think I brought you this far just to let you fail? Get your hopes up and then dash them? Do you think that’s what I’m all about?” But of course that’s exactly what Moses and the Israelites were thinking: they were human beings after all. Human beings all too commonly fear that God is going to let them down.

We secretly believe that for us will be unpleasant and probably involve being hungry and barefoot in a bug infested jungle where we’ll die a miserable death. God’s response to Moses and the Israelites was not much more than an eye roll, followed by reassurance that he had the problem well under control. God is neither capricious nor cruel. He loves us. He wants us to believe that so we’ll stop worrying and just enjoy today.

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Details

God spoke to Moses: “Tell the Israelites that they are to set aside offerings for me. Receive the offerings from everyone who is willing to give. These are the offerings I want you to receive from them: gold, silver, bronze; blue, purple, and scarlet material; fine linen; goats’ hair; tanned rams’ skins; dolphin skins; acacia wood; lamp oil; spices for anointing oils and for fragrant incense; onyx stones and other stones for setting in the Ephod and the Breastpiece. Let them construct a Sanctuary for me so that I can live among them. You are to construct it following the plans I’ve given you, the design for The Dwelling and the design for all its furnishings.

First let them make a Chest using acacia wood: make it three and three-quarters feet long and two and one-quarter feet wide and deep. Cover it with a veneer of pure gold inside and out and make a molding of gold all around it. Cast four gold rings and attach them to its four feet, two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Make poles from acacia wood and cover them with a veneer of gold and insert them into the rings on the sides of the Chest for carrying the Chest. The poles are to stay in the rings; they must not be removed. (Exodus 25:1-15)

God cares about the details just as much as he cares about the big picture. God told Moses to rescue the people of Israel from Egypt. He told him what to say regarding the plagues. He would give him the Ten Commandments. But God also paid attention to the decorations in the Tabernacle, explaining the sorts of cloth to be used, details about the furniture, even the sorts of spices for the anointing oils. He explained how the ark was to be built in detail, and how it was supposed to be carried. God had very specific plans for how the Israelites were going to formally worship him.

There is nothing too small for God. Nothing about an individual is insignificant. If God concerned himself about the number of gold rings to attach to the ark of the covenant, if he bothered with the kind of wood to build it out of when that wood was going to be covered over with a layer of gold—and if the finished box would wind up behind curtains that only one man once a year would even see—no matter how much you may think both you and your concerns are insignificant—God finds them of great importance, perhaps more important than even you think. You are worth more to God than spice choices and furniture design.

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God and the Art of Mowing the Grass

Come Saturday it’s time again for me to mow my grass. I’ll pick up the two lithium-ion battery packs from their shelf and slot them into my mower, then I’ll push the mower to my side yard. I’ll insert the keyfob, push the button, and pull back on the lever. The machine will come to life with a loud whir. I’ll proceed to push it back and forth across my front lawn until the grass is uniformly shorter than it was before I started. In the back yard I’ll repeat the pushing until it is all done. The next step will be for me to take the electric edger and trim around the sidewalk and bushes so that everything is neat and tidy.

I have control of how my lawn looks: I have a sprinkler system that daily squirts water onto it so that it stays green despite the fact that I live in a desert. And I use tools running on electricity to keep the green from going wild. My savannah is tamed.

For many of us, we treat God like I treat my lawn, and imagine we can keep him trim and tidy and tamed. Like our lawns, we want neat and pleasant lives. Isn’t that mostly why so many of us put money in the offering plate, attend church weekly, and offer prayers that always end with the magic words “in Jesus Name, Amen”?

I’ve heard that there are tribes that dance and bang drums in order to scare away the monster that attempts to consume the sun during an eclipse. The ancient Canaanites sacrificed to their gods in order to make the rain come in spring and bountiful harvests in the autumn.

When we get what we want, then we are convinced we did the right thing that got God to give us what we wanted and like a lucky shirt, we’ll try it again the next time we have a need. And when our prayers seem to fail, then we assume that there was something wrong with us: maybe we didn’t wear the shirt quite right—or maybe we shouldn’t have washed it.

If that’s the case, then we don’t have a relationship with God. We have a superstition. When bad things come into our lives, we double down on our superstition. We convince ourselves that we didn’t have enough faith, that we didn’t go to church enough, that maybe folding money would be better than jingling money. Or maybe we’re being punished because we snuck an extra helping of chocolate cake, or because we thought too long and hard about Brad Pitt’s abs, or Jennifer Aniston’s legs, or because we used bad language when that moron insisted on driving 35 in a 50 mile an hour zone.

God is not moved if we let black cats cross our path. He doesn’t abandon us if we don’t walk under ladders. He doesn’t turn our children into drug addicts if we don’t break mirrors. Tossing some salt over our shoulder will not keep our loved ones from dying in a car accident. A lucky shirt is not going to get us out of cancer treatment.

God doesn’t grant prizes because you perform the right rituals in the right way, he doesn’t give you a cookie when you drop a buck in the plate. He doesn’t tell you what a good girl or boy you are when you avoid screwing your neighbor. Neither is he going to curse you because you forgot to read your Bible today, or got too busy, or wanted to watch the Dodgers instead. The blessings of heaven are not being held back until you discover some secret. Jesus already died for your sins. They don’t count against you anymore. In Christ, we are already righteous. In Christ, we have everlasting life. In Christ, we have eternity in our hearts.

What we forget, thanks to our superstitions, is a simple truth. We have someone who loves us more than words can say. You can’t make him love you any more, or any less. His love is stuck on maximum.

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The Moon Landing Ideas

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When Something Bad Happens

“God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.” —St. Augustine

Is this how you think? “Something bad happened to me. Therefore, God must be punishing me because I sinned.”

Now, a caveat. If you couldn’t make your car payment this month because you gambled your money away playing poker, then, yeah: you’re suffering. But not so much because you were gambling—the Bible doesn’t have anything to say about gambling. No, your car’s getting repossessed because you’re a moron and did a stupid, stupid thing.

So we’ll put aside the obvious stupid choices that people make: my husband is divorcing me because I slept with his bowling team sort of thing.

Nevertheless, it is still easy to imagine that if you’re having hard times in life that you must have done something wrong. Doesn’t God hate sin? Doesn’t God punish sinners? Isn’t chastisement a part of life? Didn’t my dad give me swats when I disobeyed him, or failed to take out the trash, or talked back to him?

Job’s friends, notoriously, believed that and spend the bulk of the book of Job berating him and demanding that he confess his horrible sins—before they started in just throwing mud at him with the list of sins that he just had to be guilty of given how his life had gone to hell in a handbasket: his protestations of innocence, for them, were simply further proof of his wretchedness.

Thus, when we see someone suffer, our first thought is: I wonder what he did to piss off God. And if that someone is us, that is often our first thought. Surely, the reason I got that flat tire is because I thought bad things about that stupid driver who cut me off last week. It had nothing to do with the fact that the tire has a hundred thousand miles on it.

And the man waterpipe leading into my house sprang a leak because I had inappropriate thoughts about that pretty cashier at Wendy’s yesterday. And my child is failing chemistry because I have a bad temper.
And I can’t find work because I keep saying the f word when I get mad.

What do all of these things have in common? Besides the fact that your mind is inhabited by Job’s friends? Show of hands: how many of you have taken a course in Logic?

There is this thing called a logical fallacy: that is, very simply, an argument that uses poor—or no—reasoning. One will hear a lot of them during election campaigns. My worthy opponent is ugly and his mother dresses him funny; that’s why his proposal to lower taxes is an example of evil incarnate.

The fancy name for this flawed example is “argumentum ad hominem”: that is, attack on the man. Instead of attacking the proposal with an examination of its flaws, one instead simply attacks the individual.
Another favorite during political campaigns is to attribute beliefs to one’s opponent and then to attack those beliefs that you’ve attributed to your opponent. My opponent wants to lower taxes because he wants the rich to get richer and he hates the poor and wants to seem them suffer and squirm in agony. Also, he hates you. That sort of thing. This is referred to as a “strawman argument.”

In any case, believing that your car broke down because you ate too much chocolate cake and so God is punishing you is an example of a logical fallacy. The technical term for it is Post hoc ergo propter hoc Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”. That is, “false cause: it is a coincidental correlation, a correlation without causation: – X happened then Y happened; therefore X caused Y. God hates sin. My car broke down. it’s obviously because I ate too much chocolate cake. Mixed in with this will sometimes be the comment: how do you know this bad thing didn’t happen to me because I did xyz wrong: I’m a horrible sinner. You just don’t know. That’s another logical fallacy: argument from ignorance: you can’t refute me, so I must be right. (No, it’s just because you’re such an idiot that I’m gobsmacked—that, and it would take me more time that I wish to spend to refute you. Some of the more whacked out conspiracy theories and crackpot ideas fall into this category: it would take a book to refute it and most experts don’t have the time or think it’s worth the effort to show you why your belief that the moon landings never happened is akin to believing you’re a banana. Or that wearing garlic obviously keeps away vampires since you’ve never been bitten.

So, beyond the fact that it is illogical—a logical fallacy—to believe that your suffering is the result of you having been a sinner, your irrational belief can be refuted with the raw data of the scripture.
Look at anyone you care to in the Bible who was doing exactly what God wanted them to do. How many of them went from success to success and never had bad things happening to them?
Right. Let’s look at one of them. Moses.

When all you have is your faith in God, that’s a hard place to be. But it’s okay. God is there, whether you can feel him or see him or recognize his hand at work in your life. He’s there even when you think he couldn’t possibly be. He’s there even when you’re certain that it’s hopeless and nothing can ever be okay ever again.

Many of the biblical characters faced that moment of despair, even as they were doing precisely what they knew God wanted them to be doing. Had you supposed that that knowing God’s will and doing it is the inoculation against feeling discouraged and unhappy? Don’t be silly.

Moses met God in a burning bush and reluctantly obeyed his command to go back to Egypt to rescue the Israelites from hundreds of years of slavery. Few people have ever known so clearly what God’s will for their lives was.

And yet it was hard for him to feel happy. He was at least eighty years of age. His wife did not support him. Moses believed himself to be a poor public speaker and had attempted to use that as an excuse to get out of having to go to Egypt—a place he’d left forty years earlier as a fugitive after murdering someone.

When he arrived in Egypt, he had an audience with the Pharaoh. He performed the miraculous “signs” that God had given him. He threw his staff on the ground so that it became a snake. He put his hand in his tunic and pulled it out covered with leprosy, then made the leprosy go away.

The Pharaoh was unimpressed and chased Moses away. He refused to set the Israelites free and accused them of laziness. Worse, he gave them more work to do, making their already miserable lives as slaves even more unbearable.

So.

Moses did what God asked him to do. Nothing worked. In fact, life got worse. The Pharaoh was mad at him, and so were the people he had ostensibly come to set free. Certainly not an auspicious beginning to his mission.

He complained to God about what had happened. Did God zap him with a bolt of lightning for his lack of faith? Nope. God comforted him and told him to keep at it, that in the end, it would all work out.

So Moses asked again. And again. And again. The Pharaoh repeatedly denied the request. Months, perhaps a year or more passed with zero progress. Terrible plagues befell the Egyptians. Finally, after the tenth try, the Pharaoh let the people go. So now all was well, right?

As soon as the Israelites left, the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent an army to bring them back. They fled—only to find their way blocked by the Red Sea with no way out—until God opened the sea and destroyed the Pharaoh’s army.

Then there was a shortage of food, a shortage of water. When there was food, the people complained about the lack of variety. There were challenges to Moses’ leadership; the people resorted to idolatry. There were plagues, and then when they got to the Promised Land the people refused to go into it—so God sent them to wandering in the wilderness for forty years until everyone of that generation died from old age.

Nothing went the way Moses had expected or hoped. Both he and the Israelites spent a lot of time getting familiar with despair.

And Moses was not the only biblical figure who spent a lot of time in the dark place. The Prophet Habakkuk expressed the same unhappiness. After hoping that God would do something to fix the nation of Israel’s penchant for idolatry, God explained that his “solution” was to have Babylonians invade and devastate the land. Habakkuk responded with stress and unhappiness, unsatisfied by God’s promise that the Babylonians would subsequently be judged.

Habakkuk concludes his prophecy with a poem for when nothing is going right, everything is going wrong, and nothing about your circumstances makes sense:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

And finally: when the prophet Daniel’s friends faced death in a fiery furnace they told Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, the following:

“…the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

Trusting in God, remaining faithful to God and his calling, is not dependent upon His action or inaction. If it is, then we cannot claim honestly to love Him, because love, real love, is not dependent upon the actions of the beloved.

Of course, this is easier said, than done.

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There Are Monsters Out There

Nice people will say things like, “why can’t we just all get along” or “why can’t we just live in peace?” As if the sentiment alone will fix the problem, as if people would “just wake up” and “give peace a chance.”

Unfortunately, there are monsters out there. A serial killer is not interested in your pleasant sentiments. The members of the drug cartels in Mexico and other places south who kill people with regularity, cut off heads, and do other horrific crimes are not going to be swayed by us holding hands and learning to sing in “perfect harmony.” Hashtags #givepeaceachance or #endviolence repeated on Twitter, pretty memes reposted and “liked” on Facebook will not change the behavior of the evil. Putting a flower in the barrel of a thug’s gun will not slow down his bullets in the slightest.

When it comes to the situation in the Middle East, there are fundamental things to understand about the conflict, the first being that the Israelis are not the ones standing in the way of peace. The Israelis are not the problem. Blaming Israel is like blaming a rape victim.

So who is to blame? Bottom line: Israel’s enemies: those who shoot rockets indescrimately into Israel, those who kidnap children and murder them, those who walk into markets and detonate bombs, those who board busses and machinegun the passengers, those who compare Jews to pigs and apes, those who believe that Jews kill gentile children so they can drain their blood and use it as an ingredient in Passover matzas. Those who teach their children to hate Jews, whose textbooks and teachers teach the children that Jews are an infection on the world that needs to be eradicated, parroting the same language the Nazis used in the 1930s. Those who publish newspapers, print books, broadcast on radio and television the daily instruction, the calls for the destruction of Israel from its politicians and religious leaders, who cry for jihad and the murder of Jews. Few who blame Israel for the lack of peace in the Middle East care to think about inconvenient little details like Mein Kampf remaining a perennial best seller in the Palestinian territories, together with the infamous forgery called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is accepted as true by most Palestinians. Or when the wide-spread anti-Semitism is mentioned, it is explained away using language remarkably similar to someone trying to blame the rape victim because of how she was dressed: they brought it on themselves.

It is not only Jews who suffer. Our feckless journalists and pundits ignore the decline in the number of Christians in the Palestinian territories. Since the PLO took over, the percentage of Christians in Bethlehem, as an example, has gone from 90 per cent of the population down to 15 per cent, with the numbers continuing to drop. When I was in Bethlehem back in the summers of 1976 and 1977, ten years into the Israeli occupation, it was a thriving tourist mecca. Today, it is a ghost town. What changed? The Palestinian National Authority took over in 1994.

Many seem to forget how the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and Golan Heights happened to come into Israel’s possession in the first place. Hint: several nations attacked Israel in 1967 but lost the war with them. Oddly, although the Arab states had controlled those regions from 1948 to 1967, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), formed in 1964 never attacked Jordan, Egypt or Syria. They only threatened Israel. No Arab state ever suggested, between 1948 and 1967, that Jordan, Egypt or Syria establish a Palestinian state, despite the fact that the original UN mandate that had created Israel as a Jewish state in 1948 had also created a Palestinian Arab state that Jordan, Egypt and Syria merely annexed for themselves in 1948.

Hamas’ attitude toward Israel and their thoughts about finding a peaceful solution to their problems are discussed in Article 13 of its charter, published in 1988 and easily available in translation in several places online:

Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement….

Now and then the call goes out for the convening of an international conference to look for ways of solving the (Palestinian) question….

…the Islamic Resistance Movement does not consider these conferences capable of realising the demands, restoring the rights or doing justice to the oppressed. These conferences are only ways of setting the infidels in the land of the Moslems as arbitraters. When did the infidels do justice to the believers?….

There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors. The Palestinian people know better than to consent to having their future, rights and fate toyed with….

Obviously, such sentiments as Hamas expresses would seem to make the achievement of peace difficult.

The Israeli prime minister from 1969-1974, Golda Meir, wrote “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” (Press conference in London (1969), as quoted in A Land of Our Own : An Oral Autobiography (1973) edited by Marie Syrkin, p. 242)

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