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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While You’re Making Other Plans

John Lennon, of Beatles fame, is quoted as saying “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” And that certainly does seem to be the case. My first year of teaching at my alma mater, my economics professor made a comment about me that I found interesting. I didn’t hear it personally—the words were relayed to me by one of my students who happened to be taking a class from him. The professor, Mr. Barney, was talking about the importance of setting goals and working unceasingly toward them. Then he used me as an example of such a person: one who had definite goals and then achieved them.

I was flabbergasted. I thought it peculiar that anyone could look at my life and think that. And yet, perhaps from the standpoint of an outside observer, my life to that point maybe did look that way. But it sure didn’t feel that way living it: at the time.

At the time Mr. Barney said those nice words about me, I was still in the middle of my graduate work at UCLA. And it hadn’t exactly been a lifetime goal of mine to garner a graduate degree in ancient Semitic languages from that university. In fact, I didn’t believe my goals had ever been especially clear. I just had significant interests, and those interests had driven me in the direction my life had gone.

At the age of four, I had thought I might want to become an astronomer. I also was good at art, and so a career as an artist also seemed like a definite possibility, too. So all through elementary, junior and senior high school, I remained very much interested in all things related to space. At the same time, I took all the art courses that were offered in junior high and high school and always did exceptionally well. My sophomore year my algebra teacher told me I should think about becoming a mathematician. Meanwhile, my world history teacher thought I was a whiz. And my English teacher thought I’d make a good writer.

Meanwhile I had toyed with taking only shop classes: wood working, metal shop, auto shop—and then upon graduation going to live in the woods somewhere, building a log cabin, and living the life of a hermit.

By my senior year, since I had taken all the required classes needed for graduation, I could enjoy myself by taking only classes I liked. So I took an art class, honors English, honors history, and a few other courses in literature and history. My honors English teacher gave me extra work to do, since neither he nor I thought the normal requirements were enough for me. So while the rest of the class had to read one of Ibsen’s plays, I had to read and report on all of them. The same with Shakespeare. In addition, I entered a speech contest and took third place and a statewide contest for designing a billboard where I got honorable mention. It was during my senior year that I finished writing my first novel—not a very good one, but then how many high school students write novels of any sort?

I chose the college I attended because it was the school that my friends in church were going to. Once I got to college, I wavered between becoming an English major or a history major, before settling on history. Since this was a small Christian college, we were supposed to have a Christian ministry, and so I began working with Jewish people—which led me to living on a kibbutz in Israel during the summer between my Freshmen and Sophomore years.

After a summer farming in Israel, I decided learning Hebrew might be fun. I ended up taking a full three years of the language and making a second summer trip to a kibbutz between my Sophomore and Junior years. By my senior year I had taken several advanced courses in Old Testament and New Testament. I found it all fascinating, so I decided I’d go on to graduate school. My advisor encouraged me to attend the University of Chicago to do graduate work in history. Instead, since I really liked Hebrew and the study of the Old Testament, I applied to the Semitic language program at UCLA—and was accepted.

Throughout my college years I had continued to write novels, penning two or three per year, none of which I now think are very good—but I was improving my craft. I also managed to get three magazine articles published during my years in college.

And so, it was this life that happened to me as I was muddling along, that from the standpoint of Mr. Barney seemed directed at a goal: there were two trips to Israel, three years of Hebrew as an undergraduate, an advanced degree in ancient Semitic languages from UCLA. How could all of that just happened?

I’m reminded of a couple of verses from the Bible, both from the book of Proverbs:

“In their hearts humans plan their course,
But the Lord establishes their steps.” (Proverbs 16:9 NIV)


“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart;
And lean not unto thine own understanding.

In all thy ways acknowledge him,
And he shall direct thy paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6 KJV)

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10 Years Ago Today

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The LORD called to Moses from the Tabernacle and said to him, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. When you present an animal as an offering to the LORD, you may take it from your herd of cattle or your flock of sheep and goats.

“If the animal you present as a burnt offering is from the herd, it must be a male with no defects. Bring it to the entrance of the Tabernacle so you may be accepted by the LORD. Lay your hand on the animal’s head, and the LORD will accept its death in your place to purify you, making you right with him. Then slaughter the young bull in the LORD’s presence, and Aaron’s sons, the priests, will present the animal’s blood by splattering it against all sides of the altar that stands at the entrance to the Tabernacle. Then skin the animal and cut it into pieces. The sons of Aaron the priest will build a wood fire on the altar. They will arrange the pieces of the offering, including the head and fat, on the wood burning on the altar. But the internal organs and the legs must first be washed with water. Then the priest will burn the entire sacrifice on the altar as a burnt offering. It is a special gift, a pleasing aroma to the LORD. (Leviticus 1:1-9)

The book of Leviticus was a “Dummies” guide, an instruction manual for how to use the tabernacle for its intended purpose: the worship of God. God offered very detailed instructions about how the Israelites were supposed to worship him. He explained what they could sacrifice and what they could not sacrifice. He told them when to sacrifice, how the priests were to behave, and how they were to dress. He told them everything that they needed to know in order to worship him exactly the way he wanted them to.

The purpose of the sacrificial system, the purpose of all the niggling details, was to create a complete picture for his people. It gave them outward signs of what was supposed to be going on in their hearts. The symbols of worship were not the substance of true worship. The rituals served as symbols of the inner reality. Their worship of God was intended to reflect the relationship they had with him. And it served as a pattern, a parable, of what Jesus would ultimately accomplish on the cross. After Jesus’ sacrifice, the rituals in the Temple would cease. Today we simply worship in spirit and in truth, no longer making use of the same outward forms.

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Being Clean

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base also of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. And you shall put water in it, for Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet in water from it. When they go into the tabernacle of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire to the LORD, they shall wash with water, lest they die. So they shall wash their hands and their feet, lest they die. And it shall be a statute forever to them—to him and his descendants throughout their generations.” (Exodus 30:17-21)

God is not afraid of germs. God told Moses to make a basin of bronze and to put it between the tent where God met with Moses and the altar where the priests would perform sacrifices so that the priests could wash their hands and feet. The ceremonial washing required of the priests before they went in to perform the sacrifices had nothing to do with personal hygiene. Instead, the purpose of the washing was entirely symbolic: they were washing off the dirt from their hands and feet as they performed the sacrifices with their hands and walked in the holy places, signifying that they were properly prepared to serve God. It was akin to when God told Moses at their first meeting by the burning bush to take off his sandals because he was on holy ground. Centuries later, when Jesus’ washed his disciples’ feet, and Peter objected, Jesus told him that unless he washed him, he had no part with him. If the priests did not wash their hands and feet before going to the altar, they would die. The washing was an external sign of what should have been true inwardly: a clean heart, a clean conscience. Even today we are told to examine ourselves before taking the Lord’s Supper, to make certain that there is not something standing in the way of our fellowship with God or with our fellow believers in Christ.

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A Promise

Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it.”

So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on the earth—came out of the ark, one kind after another.

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

“As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.” (Genesis 8:15-22)

After God told Noah and those with him that it was safe to exit the ark, Noah’s first reaction was to thank God for sparing him and protecting him. After God smelled Noah’s sacrifice, he promised that he would never again destroy all life. The ground would not be cursed again, either.

God did not make the promise to Noah, his family, or the animals because the human race had suddenly become righteous. In fact, God pointed out that human beings were full of evil from their childhoods on; in fact, every thought of every human was always tinged with wrongness.

So why did God decide to spare the human race from future destruction? Despite how awful human beings are, God still loved us. Rather than solving our problem by destroying us and punishing us, God chose to solve our problem by destroying and punishing his Son, Jesus Christ, when he died on the cross. Jesus took the punishment due the human race: everlasting destruction. Therefore, we can rest secure now. God doesn’t break his promises.

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