The soldiers also mocked [Jesus], coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!”

Now there was also an inscription above Him, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”

But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”

And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”

And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:36–43)

Jesus knows what it’s like to be mocked. He knows what it’s like to be bullied. And he knows what it is to suffer. But he didn’t let even the most extreme circumstances stop him from doing what he needed to do or focusing on the needs of someone else instead of himself. Two criminals hung on crosses with Jesus; one joined in mocking him, the other accepted his fate and rebuked the mockery.

The thief on Jesus’ right did not have the time or opportunity to do any good works, to make restitution for the crimes for which he’d been condemned. He could not join a church, he could not tithe, and he could not get baptized. He didn’t walk an aisle or even express repentance. He did not call Jesus Lord. All he did was address Jesus by name and ask him to remember him when he came into his kingdom. He had simple faith, and made a simple request.

And on the basis of those few words, Jesus told the criminal—who remains unnamed—that he would join Jesus in Paradise that very day. The word “Paradise” that Jesus used had originated with the Persians. It referred to the pleasure gardens belonging to the Persian king. Why that very day? Because before the sun went down that evening, both that criminal and Jesus would be dead.

All human beings are like that criminal on the cross, unable to save themselves or do anything at all to improve their situation. Jesus did everything and gave everything so that sinners who do nothing can join him in Paradise.

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Jesus decided to leave Judea and to start going through Galilee because the leaders of the people wanted to kill him. It was almost time for the Festival of Shelters, and Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Why don’t you go to Judea? Then your disciples can see what you are doing. No one does anything in secret, if they want others to know about them. So let the world know what you are doing!” Even Jesus’ own brothers had not yet become his followers.

Jesus answered, “My time hasn’t yet come, but your time is always here. The people of this world cannot hate you. They hate me, because I tell them that they do evil things. Go on to the festival. My time hasn’t yet come, and I am not going.” Jesus said this and stayed on in Galilee.

After Jesus’ brothers had gone to the festival, he went secretly, without telling anyone.

During the festival the leaders looked for Jesus and asked, “Where is he?” The crowds even got into an argument about him. Some were saying, “Jesus is a good man,” while others were saying, “He is lying to everyone.” But the people were afraid of their leaders, and none of them talked in public about him.

When the festival was about half over, Jesus went into the temple and started teaching. The leaders were surprised and said, “How does this man know so much? He has never been taught!” John 7:1–15

Was Jesus a liar? His brothers, who didn’t believe he was the Messiah, told him that if he wanted to become public figure, he had to appear in public. So why not come to the Festival of Shelters (also called Succot)? Jesus told them it wasn’t his time, but then snuck there without telling anyone.

When a quarterback misleads the opposing team, has he lied? When the general misleads the enemy, has he lied? When the undercover police officer keeps his cover, has he lied? No, we’d say they were all doing their jobs. Jesus’ behavior must be seen in that light. Jesus’ brothers did not yet believe. That means they were still playing for the other side.

Jesus had a specific plan in mind for the Feast, a plan that did not involve his brothers or their expectations. By misleading his brothers, he ensured the successful outcome of God’s will.

Jesus’ critics, like the Pharisees, were always quick to find fault with his behavior, behavior that often seemed at odds with God’s law. We must be careful not to start thinking like the Pharisees. And we have to be willing to understand that sometimes we don’t know all the answers.

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X-37B reports:

The U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane will return to Earth this week —possibly as early as Tuesday — after 22 months in orbit on a secret mission.

The robotic X-37B space plane, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, will land at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where Air Force officials are gearing up for its return. As of today (Oct. 12), the X-37B mini-shuttle has been in orbit since December 2012 and racked up a record-shattering 671 days in space.

“Team Vandenberg stands ready to implement safe landing operations for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, the third time for this unique mission” said Col. Keith Baits, 30th Space Wing commander, in a statement on Friday (Oct. 10).

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A Pet Peeve

A pet peeve is a minor annoyance that one identifies as being particularly infuriating. It’s your “pet,” because you find it more maddening than most of the people around you. In fact, most of the people around you are not be bothered by it in the least. On the contrary, they embrace it as a positive thing—as an obvious good. Which drives you mad.

The term “pet peeve” first appeared in English around 1919. It is derived from the fourteenth-century word “peevish,” which means “ornery or ill-tempered.”

We all have pet peeves. I have several. But I’m going to regale you with just one of mine today.

Recently I was in an online discussion with someone regarding Israel’s recent conflict with the terrorist organization Hamas. She was wanting to understand the background to the conflict and how the situation had gotten to where it was today. I had recently read a good summary of the history of the conflict and so shared the link. She responded with, “Oh, I won’t read that. I don’t trust anything he writes.”

I’m ashamed to admit that my first thought was “Oh, so you’re an irrational idiot.” But instead, I simply searched for the same historical summary written by someone that I knew would better match her politics. It wasn’t the time to give her an introductory course in logical reasoning and research methodologies.

My online acquaintance was not behaving or thinking in a way that is out of the ordinary. Most people approach life the same way she does, and without a second thought.

But is it rational for people to refuse to look at, listen to, or read what comes from a person on account of their politics? Or their religion? Or because of the organization they belong to? Or because they appeared on a program they don’t like? Or on a television network they disapprove of? Or because of where they live? Or on account of their ethnicity? Or their nationality? Is it okay to prejudge what someone has to say without ever hearing what they say, and rejecting what they say simply because of who they are?

Sure, it’s normal. Sure it’s natural. Sure it’s common to think like that. But it’s fundamentally illogical and irrational.

Because they’re deciding—before ever hearing an argument or statement—that someone is wrong because of who they are, rather than because of what they said.

When we refuse to listen to what people say because we don’t like them for whatever reason, we are saying that their words are untrue just because they happened to come out of their mouth.

Rejecting someone’s words because of who they are falls under a class of logical fallacies that are termed fallacies of relevance. That is, they are arguments that have nothing to do with the issue at hand. They are a distraction that keeps people from looking at the facts. And they are incredibly common in politics, advertising and just about everywhere. Their prevalence makes them no less annoying and idiotic. To reject what someone says simply because of who they are is to fall victim to what is called an “argumentum ad hominem.” That’s Latin for “an attack on the person.”

There are two basic types of these “ad hominem” arguments: abusive and circumstantial.

An abusive ad hominem argument is one where the person is attacked over what he said simply because of who he is. An example would be to argue against Adolph Hitler’s comment that “today, the sun is out and there is not a cloud in the sky” simply because he is Adolph Hitler.

After all, who he is—a psychopathic Nazi—has no bearing on whether the sun is shining or whether there is a cloud in the sky. If you disagree with him, you have to do so because it is, in fact raining. That he is Adolph Hitler has no bearing on the truth or falsity of his weather report.

The other sort of ad hominem argument is the circumstantial ad hominem. For instance when a Congressman stands up in front of a crowd and comments, “Two plus two is four.” If you stand up and yell, “You can’t listen to anything that man says, he’s anti-union.” Then your assertion is invalid. Two plus two are still four, no matter if he’s pro or anti-union, no matter if he is a fascist or a communist.

If your argument against what someone writes or says, or if your refusal to listen, comes down to simply an attack on the individual, without marshalling any facts or data, then you are guilty of faulty thinking and the only thing you have demonstrated is that you need to take a good course in logic.

Our best bet is to be skeptical of everyone—not just those we don’t like for whatever reason. In fact, we should be most skeptical of those we like and those we agree with. Why? Because our all too human tendency is to pay more attention to arguments which support our point of view while discounting those that don’t. Logic and the scientific method are useful counters to our tendency to only notice what confirms our biases and pre-existing beliefs.

The essence of the scientific method is to attempt to disprove a theory. That’s why falsifiability is so critical. The longer we go without being able to disprove something, the more confidence we can have in a theory.

But in any case, we should always try to be as skeptical of what those we agree with say as we are with those we disagree with. On a practical level, this means we should spend some time reading and listening to those we disagree with, not just those who say what we like. Don’t just surround yourself with yes-men.

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Never Enough

Sleep. I never seem to get enough of it. I feel as if I’ve spent much of my adulthood sleep deprived. I remember during my senior year of high school the country went on year-round daylight savings time. For me, all this meant was that I was getting up and riding to school on the school bus before the sun came up. It was bad enough that I had to meet my bus about 6:00 AM; now it was in the dark.

As an undergraduate in college, I had early morning classes and often stayed up too late studying, though only twice did I pull an all-nighter where I went a full twenty-four hours without sleeping. The two summers I worked on a kibbutz in Israel, I was up every day before 4:00 AM and on the days I had to work with chickens, by 2:00 AM. Even with the mid-day nap time—when between two and four every day the entire nation of Israel crawls into bed to sleep (and even the stores and buses shut down)—I never seemed to feel rested.

In graduate school at UCLA I was lucky to see an average of four hours of sleep every night, what with working full time and going to school full time and commuting two hours and more every day on the LA freeways. Then there were the times I had to pull extra shifts at work, including the one nightmarish Christmas when I was at work a full twenty-four hours. At least I got paid triple time for some of that.

As a parent there have been those times when I was up with my children for half the night—most memorably when my firstborn daughter became ill her first Christmas Eve. We spent most of the night with her as she battled a high fever.

Even now, with two daughters in college and one a senior in high school, I feel as if I never get enough sleep. I arise too early and stay up too late. Multiple nights each week it seems that I find myself awakening more than once in the middle of the night, sometimes because of a bad dream, other times for reasons that I can’t figure out. Even on Saturdays, when I have hopes of sleeping in until I just naturally awaken, I find myself crawling out of bed due to feelings of guilt—“look at the time, it’s nearly nine, what are you going to do, waste your whole day in bed?” Or my wife, or one of my children, suddenly needs me to catch a bug (I refuse their demands to “kill it!”: instead I catch it and put it outside). Or “daddy, can you feed me?” Or “I need the ice chest, can you get it out of the garage?” Or “I can’t find my notebook, can you find it for me?” Or some such thing.

It is not, of course, anyone else’s fault that I don’t get enough sleep, or that I don’t get what I perceive to be as enough sleep. I could go to bed earlier, and I could take naps during the day. After all, I’m an author, I work from home, and none of my editors can see what I’m doing. So long as I meet my deadlines, they don’t care if I’m sleeping or partying all day long. Produce! If I can do that, nothing else matters.

Recently I spent time with my parents and I asked them how they are sleeping. They told me they sleep well, very soundly, and have no trouble with it at all. My sister told me the same thing. It’s generally a family trait that we sleep soundly and uninterruptedly.

I have memories of that sort of sleep.

In fact, it seems as if it has always been just memories. Even my wife has commented that I don’t seem to sleep as well as I used to. And I can’t help but agree. On our two week long honeymoon at Lake Tahoe, so many years ago, I spent the first week mostly asleep. This was my first break, my first vacation, after four years of undergraduate study and three years as a graduate student at UCLA—three years of full time work and full time school with never more than an average of four hours sleep a night. So on my honeymoon, my body attempted to overcome those three years of horrible sleep deprivation. Never since, have I consistently gone with so little sleep. In fact, I currently average at least seven hours per night. But for some reason, it still never seems to be enough.

I wonder if, after all these years, I still just have not recovered from my years at UCLA? Or maybe, when my children are done with school, and they are living their lives without me, maybe then I’ll finally be able to sleep?

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The Road

Robert Frost wrote a poem entitled The Road Not Taken, which ends with the five line stanza:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I sometimes think about a road I didn’t take. In June, 1984 I was living in Santa Clarita, California and driving a shuttle bus at the Burbank Airport. One afternoon, I got a call from Edmond Gruss, my history professor at Los Angeles Baptist College. He told me that each summer he taught a summer course at Christian Heritage College in El Cajon, California (near San Diego), but that this summer he was not going to be able to do that because of other commitments. He wondered if I would like to take his place teaching a five week intensive course on the History of Civilization, from its beginnings in Mesopotamia until about 1650 AD. I would teach six hours a day, five days a week for those five weeks.

I had never taught a History of Civilization course. Although I had been a history major as an undergraduate, my graduate work at UCLA was in Ancient Near Eastern Languages. Come the Fall Semester of 1984, I was scheduled to begin as a part time lecturer at L.A. Baptist College, where I would be teaching Bible, theology and Hebrew.

I had been married but a year. El Cajon was a three hour drive from Santa Clarita. I would have to stay there during the week and only come home on weekends. Christian Heritage would put me up in a dorm room and would provide my meals as part of my compensation. As newlyweds, we could certainly use the extra money. So I agreed to the position.

One other thing: it meant I’d not be home for our first anniversary. My wife was agreeable, however, since it seemed a great opportunity.

I had a little more than a week to get ready.

I managed to prepare lectures for only the first two of days of the course. The remaining lectures I created each evening the day before I gave them. I taught six hours and then spent the evening, sometimes past midnight, writing the next day’s lecture. Somehow I managed to survive.

This was my first time ever teaching in a college. To my surprise, the students loved me. Their class evaluations were glowing—so glowing, in fact, that the Academic Dean approached me at the end of the five weeks and offered me a full time position in the history department starting that Fall.

Obviously it was a great opportunity. I would not have to drive a shuttle bus at the Burbank Airport any longer—and I would be making considerably more money.

My wife still had a year to go before she’d get her teaching credential, but I knew we could spend the next year with a split household: I could commute down to El Cajon during the week, and return home on the weekends. My wife could finish up her teaching credential, and then after a year, we could move to El Cajon permanently.

But then I thought about the fact that I already had made a commitment to teach at L.A. Baptist College that autumn. And though it was only part time, it would be in the field I had done my graduate work in. The teaching position in El Cajon would be outside my field of expertise. I knew I could do it, but it wasn’t what I had planned or prepared for.

So in the end, I turned down the position at Christian Heritage College and stayed at LA Baptist College—where I would teach for the next three years: two years part time and one year full time. Then L.A. Baptist College became the Master’s College. They eliminated their Hebrew courses and all their upper division Old Testament classes. With no more classes to teach, my contract was not renewed.

Had I made the wrong decision turning down the offer at Christian Heritage College?

Well. If my wife and I had moved to El Cajon, while I probably would have had a permanent, full time teaching position, there were several other things I would have missed out on: my three daughters.

After I lost my position at Los Angeles Baptist College (by then, the Master’s College), my wife took a teaching position in the Lancaster School District and we moved to Lancaster, California. One of her parents invited us to her church. We ended up joining (and we have been there ever since, more than twenty-five years, now). While there, one of the members told us about an opportunity for becoming foster parents (my wife and I were infertile and we saw this as a chance to care for the children we couldn’t have ourselves). We ended up adopting all three of the infants that came into our lives as foster children.

Has the road we chose been an easy one? Not at all. It has probably been the more difficult road. We have experienced significant financial problems. When the younger brother of my youngest daughter died of SIDS, we were sued for 31 million dollars in a wrongful death lawsuit (dismissed two years later). One of our three adopted children suffers from severe mental illness, while one of the others struggles with less severe mental health issues. But I know my children’s lives are better than they would have been had we not been there. Additionally, there are all the people that have come into our lives in Lancaster that otherwise we would never have known. And all the books that I wrote would never have been written.

If I were to find myself back in El Cajon in 1984 and if I were offered the chance to take the road I didn’t, I wouldn’t. The road not taken was not the road that was best for me.

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Large Telescopes

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Our interaction with others changes us. Our parents, teachers, family, friends, and random walk-ons upon the stage of life alter our story, and affect our daily conduct. Some of our fellow actors we remember with fondness, some not so much. Many we barely recall. Perhaps we have a favorite teacher who gave us greater insight, a friend who rescued us in a time of need, a father we looked up to.

An elderly man in our church always responded, “I’m too blessed to be stressed” or “I’m blessed all over” when asked how he was doing. A widower, he was well-respected and noted for his strong faith; he devoted himself to helping the poor, disadvantaged, and troubled, striving to help the homeless and those just out of prison, putting them to work, letting them live in his house, and seeing to it that their lives became better. His attitude and outlook on life affected not just the poor that he cared for, but each and every one of us who knew him.

Besides the remarkable people I’ve known in the flesh, there are those I’ve met only vicariously: the authors of the books I’ve read.

The cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote, “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”

If you are a reader, there are books that you know have changed your life. There are others that you can’t remember, that you have no conscious awareness of, that nevertheless turned your course, perhaps in profound ways—just as nameless extras have crossed your path and made you the person you are: a police officer who noticed a mugger and arrested him before he could attack you. A stranger who saw a smoldering cigarette butt and stomped it out, preventing a brush fire that would have burned down your home. The soldiers who gave their lives on distant shores to keep you free.

Some of the transformers are obvious. For those of us who are Christians, the Bible is an obvious life-changer. Even if you’ve never read it all the way through—or even at all—its words in the lives of those around you have had their impact.

Not all the books that touch us are necessarily profound or deep. As a third-grader in a tiny school library I stumbled upon a science fiction novel, Space Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein. It began a life-long fascination with science fiction. Not only have the other works of science fiction I’ve read provided me with entertainment, relaxation, and escape, they opened my mind and gave it flexibility. Science fiction has affected how I think about the world. It has even had an effect on my theology.

My mother introduced me to the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The words of his poem The Song of Hiawatha still echo in my mind. Combined with an English teacher in junior high who made us read Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and a host of others, I developed a life-long love of poetry. Because of that, I was open to the works of Kipling, and his classic poem If. Discovering that poem in junior high changed me.

A religious tract I read in high school convinced me that reading the Bible every day would help me. It laid out a simple schedule that made it easy to read through the entire corpus of scripture in a year. My sixteen year-old self was so strongly swayed that that every year since I have read the Bible through. Another religious tract with a character boasting of his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew led me to learn those languages for myself. Not only has the daily Bible reading and the learning of ancient languages been positive influences on my own spiritual development, I ended up becoming a professor of theology and Bible, an expert in Semitic languages, an adult Sunday School teacher, and a professional author of four books on the Bible.

In my senior year of high school, not only did Mr. Ketchum, my English teacher, influence me with his teaching and encouragement, he also exposed me to works of literature I might not otherwise have found: the stage plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, especially his Enemy of the People and A Dolls House; one spoke to me about standing up for what’s right, even if it isn’t popular; the other reaffirmed for me the importance of women’s rights.

So many people hidden in books have molded me. Even now, as old as I am, “dark pigmented squiggles” regularly worm their way into my head and redirect my path.

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A Classic

There are many things that let you know you are becoming old. Receiving regular mailings from AARP asking you to join is one of the more obvious, of course. But there are other, more subtle things. For instance, my wife teaches third grade. She has been in her school so long now that she occasionally gets a student who is the offspring of a former student of hers. Admittedly disconcerting. Even worse is getting the grandchild of a former student.

Of course, worse than that, is realizing that one’s own children have grown up. And it’s cumulative: first they start driving, then they leave high school and then they start college and you realize that your so recent memories of life in the dorms are now their current reality. Or you meet up with someone you went to college with and their son or daughter is now the same age they were when you first met them.

This past week I went to my eye doctor for my annual checkup and to order a new set of glasses. My regular optometrist no longer there. He has retired. He didn’t seem that old to me. But then I thought about it: my oldest daughter is twenty-one. She had not even been born when I first started going to him for my glasses.

The same thing is likely becoming true of my allergist and dentist. I must admit that they are both looking rather gray and wrinkly.

Most scary: when I look in the mirror I occasionally see that my father is looking back at me. How has that old man who lives thousands of miles away managed to sneak into my mirror?
When did this happen, me becoming old? Just last month I was graduating from high school. Only a week ago, people asked me what I was going to be when I grew up. And I’m still not sure.

When I walk my youngest, mentally-ill daughter to her classroom on the high school campus and I see all the children milling about, it all seems so familiar and normal—until a teenager asks me a question because he mistook me for one of the faculty.

And then I look at my youngest daughter and realize that at least chronologically she’s no longer even a child. She just turned eighteen. She’s a voter!

Where did the young me go? How did I get to this place? Is there some way to make it stop? Can I go back? I don’t think I really want to be this old.

My eldest daughter complains about being an adult. She tells me that she is really only five. I’d like to believe her. But then she drives away and goes off to college in another state.

“How will I know when I’m all grown up?”

It seems like only yesterday that I asked that question. I’m not sure I have an answer yet.

Perhaps the fact that I can now get the senior discount at restaurants and at the movies means I’m grown up now? I don’t want to admit to being so elderly, but then again, how can I pass up the savings?
And why don’t they card me to make sure I’m old enough?

Does that mean I look as old as I am?

But, but…my hair is not gray. On top of my head. So, okay, my beard is gray, but if I shaved it off you’d never know I was old enough to have gray fur anywhere. And my wrinkles are hardly noticeable—unless I smile…or frown…or talk. Moving your face is overrated, anyhow.

How can I be old? I still walk more than five miles a day. Nothing is creaking. I didn’t feel tired after a recent hike around Vasquez Rocks here in southern California. Nothing aches. No back problems. Good, if wrinkled, knees.

So how can I be old?

Okay. I have to take high blood pressure medicine. And yes, by the end of the day my ankles have swollen a bit—just a minor side effect of the medication according to my doctor.

Cars manufactured the year I was born are now considered classics.

Lunch pails and toys from my childhood go for premium prices on E-bay. They’re worth more now than when they were new.

So am I worth more now? Am I valuable antique?

The music I grew up with is on the oldies station. My children don’t know what a record album is: “I didn’t know they made CDs that big! Why is it black? What are these grooves?”

Do you suppose I’d stop getting those disquieting ads from the AARP if I were to go ahead and join? Not that I’m a retired person, or plan to be one any time soon. Writers never retire, you know. But look at all the discounts I can get!

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Distant Horizons

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