Monday, September 3, 2018

The Cobra Effect

Not long ago, I learned about a social phenomenon that occurred in the country of India during British colonial rule there (1858-1947).  During some juncture during British rule in the capitol city of Delhi, government officials became concerned about the number of venomous cobras that were "on the loose".  As a remedy, the British government offered to pay a bounty on every dead cobra that was killed.  Because the general population of the city was very poor, and had no employment, many of the more enterprising ones began to breed cobras, and then bring them in for their reward.  When the British found out about the scheme, they quickly disbanded the program.  Finding no other use for the cobras, the locals simply released the venomous snakes into the city streets, thereby multiplying the number of dangerous snakes by the thousands.

This social tendency to make a solution to a problem worse than the original problem itself has become known as the - "Cobra Effect".

There are many, many other examples of this in history.  In Hanoi, Vietnam, there was a similar incident known as the "Rat Effect".  Closer to home, some would argue that Prohibition Laws in the United States had a similar effect.  When the US government outlawed the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920-1933, most social scientists tell us that drinking patterns of most Americans, and the abuse of over drinking, actually went up.

This phenomenon of the Cobra Effect has gotten me to thinking about cross-applications to religious life and theology.  Is it possible that churches that focus mostly on the sins of their congregants actually have more examples of sinful behavior in their congregation than churches that do not?  Is it possible that the the obsession over certain types of sin, over other kinds of sin, actually creates a Cobra Effect within our churches?

When I was in seminary, there was a group of guys who got together every Monday night and had a prayer group with one another.  I was not a part of this prayer group, so my knowledge of it is only second hand.  Rumor had it, though, that the most common prayer that they prayed with one another about was, "prayers for lust".  That is, I suppose, that members of the group felt a need to pray about the sin of lusting over other people.  Every Monday, the same prayer came up, "prayers for lust, prayers for lust, prayers for lust."  While I do not know (or care), whether the lusts of these young men were ever fruited (so to speak), the constant focus on this particular sin seemed to have the tendency to drive it further into their hearts, minds and souls.

I recently heard a Ted Talk about a person who was studying this phenomenon as it related to endangered trees in a particular forest in the United States.  Because these trees were endangered, there were signs along the paths of the forest that said something like, "Please don't pick up old pieces of wood that have fallen to the ground.  Every year, people steal 1 million pounds of wood from this forest."  The effect of putting up these signs was that the amount of stolen wood actually went way up.  The internal message that was being sent was, "Wow, I had never thought of stealing wood before, but I better pick some up, and take some home, it must be worth a lot....and if others are doing it, why don't I?"

In a way, one could think about the very first sin in history, the proverbial snake in the garden of Eden, and God's command not to eat from the tree of good and evil, as the first example of the Cobra Effect.  Had God not told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree, would they have ever had the notion in the first place?  Wasn't the real lure of the forbidden tree that it was something that they shouldn't be doing?  Or perhaps is it, that the true Fall of humanity has less to do with the eating of the fruit, than it does with the desire, deep inside all of us, to do the things we are not supposed to do?  In this way, the Fall of humanity actually precedes the Fall of humanity?

Who knows?  All I am sure of is that the next time I stay the night in the city of Delhi, I am going to check my bed two or three times before crawling into my sheets, and experience first hand...

The Cobra Effect,

All For Now,


Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Safe Church

Every week before I begin my message at Burlpres in Burlingame, California, I begin with the same sentence, "We welcome you to Burlpres this morning, and if you are here for the first time, we hope you find this to be a loving and a safe church, our goal is to be the most loving place in town, and a safe place to connect with God wherever you are coming from."  Recently someone asked me what I meant by "a safe place to connect with God."  This is a great question, and the focus of my blog this morning.

Safety is, of course, a relative term.  What is safe for one person may not be safe for another.  For example, a friend of mine likes to jump out of airplanes regularly, and finds that to be a safe experience.  I would not find that to be safe at all (smile).  When I say safe, I mean seven different kinds of safety for our church:

Safe Spiritually
There are many kinds of spiritual experience that are not safe.  When I was in Haiti once on a medical mission trip, I had the chance opportunity to meet some people who practiced the Voodoo religion.  After speaking with them for a while, I realized that voodooism was a very different religious practice from my own, and quite unsafe for me or my group to be encountering.  Not all spiritual experiences are the same.  What we believe at Bulrpres is that Jesus Christ is a safe spiritual experience.  Jesus said, "come to me all you who are weary and heavily laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28-30).  What Jesus was saying is that He is a safe person to come to in our times of need.

Safe Emotionally
Not long ago I was worshipping at a church whose pastor was extremely charismatic and dynamic.  Going into the church, I realized that this pastor had belief systems that were very different from mine.  And yet, not long into the message, I found myself strangely drawn to the lead speaker.  He was, "literally pulling me in."  At Burlpres we believe in a faith system that is not personality driven. The leaders of the church, the pastors, are all healthy people who live healthy lives.  Worship should be a safe experience.

Safe Intellectually
The Presbyterian Church prides itself in the amount of education that we require our pastors and leaders to have before they can provide consistent Biblical and theological leadership to our church.  This is not to say that academia is always a preventative for erratic or non-consistent thinking or processing.  However, it is to say that we value aspects of human thought like logic, rationality, cognitive reasoning, and ideas based in reality.

Safe For Children
One of the things we are working extremely hard on at our church is ramping up the level of safety that we are offering children on a regular basis.  We have always valued the safety of children at Burlpres, and yet we need to do so much more.  We have just implemented a series of background checks on all volunteers who work with children.  We have a new check-in system that will be computerized and mechanized, a barr code for all kids.  We will be implementing a new safe perimeter for children in our children's center.  Starting this Fall, only those who are approved with background checks and pre-approval, can enter our Children's Facilities.

Safe for Adults
The news over the past few weeks involving major religious figures in our country and around the world has been extremely tragic and devastating.  The number of children who have been impacted by the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal in Pennsylvania is deplorable and quite literally breaks the heart of God.  A major religious leader in the Chicago area has been accused of unsafe boundary breaking with staff members.  This simply cannot happen in church.  One of the things going forward to insure safety is that we have put in glass doors on all of our staff doors.  These glass doors present transparency for both what occurs in our office spaces, as well as what the outside perception is for what occurs there.

Safe Financially
Many religious systems are not transparent in the way that money is used.  This also does not honor God.  Burlpres will be implementing several measures over the next year to continue to insure that the broader public is aware (or can be made aware) of any financial transaction that the church engages in.  The stewardship of God's money in any community is so important and essential.

Safe Architecturally and Practically
Our current building project and projects have invested almost $1 million in insuring that our facilities and worship spaces are safe spaces for all people who attend the church.  The new roof that is being installed is made of an extremely light material that is earthquake safe and hopefully (joke) safe from leaks.  We are also cleaning up a lot of the "clutter" that can be found around the entrances of our doors, and in our classrooms, which also ensures safety.  These are just a few of the things we are doing to make the church building more safe.

Ensuring safety in any system, in a world that is constantly changing, is not an easy thing to do.  However, it is our pledge to our congregation and to our larger community that when I say from the front, "A Safe Place to Worship God," we mean that in every respect.  And in the end, providing these safety measures, and others, are in themselves expressions of loving hospitality, which we pray will go a long ways towards also making our church, "the most loving place in town."

All For Now,


Friday, August 3, 2018

The Girl With A Ham Sandwich

About fifteen years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to the country of Mozambique on the continent of Africa on a mission trip with Lifewater International for the purpose of helping to build a well for one of the rural tribal communities there.  The mission trip was remarkable in so many ways, but what remained with me from that trip was an image of a little girl that I met there, beside a village well, with holes in her bucket.  Her parents had both just died of the AIDS virus, and this little girl, with holes in her bucket, was effectively all on her own in the world.  She didn't even have a bucket that would hold the water that she would desperately need to survive.  A tragic metaphor of that mission field.  The image remains imbedded in my cranial hard drive and implanted in my heart.

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take a similar mission trip.  This time the trip was to Mexico, the Baja peninsula with Burlpres in order to build a house for a local family who lived there. While there, our group got a chance to meet the family who would someday occupy that house, and to meet the neighborhood kids who lived on the street (I say street, but it was really just a dirt path deeply pocked with holes and boulders, reminiscent of a war zone).

One of those little children is the little girl you see in the picture above.  I don't know her name, nor will I ever know it.  Her sweet little face caught my attention one day as I was eating my lunch after a morning of work.  She had no lunch.  She did not ask for mine, though, when I offered her my sandwich, she gladly took it.  And then sat, with her back to the simple house we had just built, savoring it, as if the sandwich were a Chateaubriand steak served in a Micheline be-starred restaurant.  She will forever be for me, "The Girl With A Ham Sandwich".

Statistics for those who are poor, or "impoverished", in Mexico have become a sad platitude of daily news coverage.  However, the Mexican government estimates that 33% of the population of that nation lives in moderate poverty (live with less than $2 a day), and 9% of the country lives in extreme poverty (live with less than $1 a day).  This girl most likely meets that latter category.  Like most third world countries, there is a massive gap between the "haves and have-nots".

What the statistics cannot tell you, and what I experienced, is the relative loneliness and isolation that accompanies extreme poverty.  The children we met in the street seemed almost as happy for some company as they did to have a few sandwiches given to them on a hot summer day.  One got the sense that when these children woke up each morning, the only thing that greeted many of them were the ubiquitous stray dogs that dotted the entire countryside, and the random chicken that might amble past.

And it...yes...broke my heart to leave.  When will these children have a work caravan come through their little neighborhood (barrio) again?  When will a house building party ever come to visit again?  When will someone show some actual care to these, who Jesus called, "the least of these?".  It boggles the heart and the mind to think about.  But for me, this will be the new scene in my heart and mind that makes me want to do everything I can for those who are like her.

And, I should not close this blog without saying how beautiful she was.  How dignified she was.  How full of a sense of pride and strength she was.  She least for a fleeting moment...

The Girl With A Ham Sandwich.

All For Now,


Thursday, July 12, 2018

Just Follow the Basic Recipe

Lately, because my wife Star is now working, and our kids are in a myriad of daily activities, our family has been eating a lot of pre-prepared meals from Trader Joes.  These pre-prepared meals are a far cry from the pre-made TV dinners that were around when I was a kid.  Some of these meals require a few basic steps before the meal is made.  Most of them are quite simple to put together, and relatively healthy to eat.

Now, at this point, I should probably say that my back-up career plans have always been to be a chef. While I have never had formal cooking training (though I would love to some day), I have worked as a sous-chef in a restaurant when I was in college and worked for various catering companies to prepare meals for some pretty high end entertaining (preparing a meal for former Vice President Walter Mondale comes to mind, for example).  And, as a side note, I always give people advice to have a backup career plan (but that's another blog post).

So, whenever I put a pre-prepared meal into the frying pan, on a frenetic weekday night, to be honest I always feel a little "guilty" or "dumb".  Because of my own false sense of ability in cooking, and my pride, I feel like "this simple meal is beneath me".  So, a couple of nights ago, when making a Chinese stir fry, the recipe called for simply heating up the meat, then putting in the frozen vegetables, then putting in the sauce.  Simple.  But because I was trying to impose my own culinary prowess at this moment, I thought to myself, "What if I just add a little garlic, and then some fish sauce, and perhaps some shallots, and then a bit of Cayenne pepper, and perhaps some ginger and bamboo shoots to spruce it up."  30 minutes later, and a kitchen full of cutting boards, knives, discarded remnants of garlic shells and ginger coverings, I had an....ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTING dinner!?!?!

Star, my wife, took a bite of it, and said, "this is awful, what did you do to it?"  I said, defensively, "I just tried to spruce up the recipe a little, and add a little flavor, to give it a little extra color, and texture."  Star said, while spitting out a mouthful, "well, you certainly accomplished your goal.  Let's get takeout." And she was right. It was pretty bad...

This tendency to want to throw in my own take on whatever is required of me in life, could actually be a description of my life.  When asked to preach a basic sermon, I sometimes say, "What if we spruced it up, and tried to make it better?" (sometimes to the detriment of the text or the Gospel).  When I have been asked to lead a meeting, sometimes I have said, "What if we don't just have a regular meeting, what if we have a super meeting?" (sometimes to the detriment of just the normal routine of getting a task accomplished).  What I am saying is that often I have erred in life when I didn't....

Just Follow the Basic Recipe

And what I have been wondering is if I am not alone.  What if all of us, to some extent or another tries to spruce up our lives with all kinds of things (extra stuff, nice cars, super big houses), when all that we really need to be happy is to...

Just Follow the Basic Recipe

What if a lot of the sin-behavior that we engage in (drinking too much, sex outside of the boundaries, business deals that put those around us in risk, gossiping about others, slandering or hating our neighbors) really boils down to the same problem.  What if it is a part of human nature to not...

Just Follow the Basic Recipe

That was really Adam and Eve's problem.  God gave them a good life.  He gave them supremacy and responsibility over everything in the Garden of Eden.  But the first humans weren't good with that.  They wanted to spruce up their lives.  Add a little flavor.  Add a little color.  And so, they ate from a tree that they shouldn't have.

Jesus said, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matt.11:30).  Maybe what Jesus was really saying in this text is that all we have to do to find rest and peace in this life is to...

Just Follow the Basic Recipe

And now, I'm going to the freezer to get out a frozen burrito for lunch.  Maybe I'll refrain from making a Zabbayon Sauce to accompany it...

All For Now,


Friday, June 22, 2018

Out of Egypt - An Immigrant Story

Over this summer holiday, I have been reading an incredible book called, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.  It is Jesus' first person account of his early life, as narrated and beautifully written by the queen of, yes, "vampiric novels and screenplays" and all things bloody - Anne Rice.  Apparently Rice is a Christ follower, or at least interested in the things of Christ, and her book reads as compellingly as any narrative I have read about the early life of Jesus.

What has struck me, at this interesting juncture in history, as immigration and human rights once again come to the fore (when 2,300 children and counting have been separated from their parents at the border of Mexico and the United States), is that Jesus and his family were, of course, immigrants.

Rice does a better job of annotating Jesus' early life, than I will be able to in the context of this blog post, but Jesus and his family fled the Holy Land when Jesus was about two or three.  They then became immigrants, and had to flee to the nearest country that would accept them.  Egypt was the best and closest answer.  And so the Holy family fled, political oppression, human rights violations, murderous rampages by an insane dictator named - Herod I (self-named Herod the Great, as all megalomaniacal leaders are prone to do).

This brings the life of Jesus into a much larger light when we consider that when he was just a child he most likely cast eyes upon the pyramids of Giza, and the Sphinx, and would have beheld the great library in Alexandria with his own eyes, before it burned to the ground in 270AD.  Jesus would have experienced the wonder of domesticated cats, and men of society who wore eye makeup like king Tut (but I digress).

Egypt, of course, plays figuratively into the entire history of the Bible, as a place that readily accepted and embraced the immigrants of the Holy Land, going back to the time of Abraham; "Now there was a famine in the land.  So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there" (Gen. 12:10).  This extends to the time of Jacob and his son Joseph, and subsequent sojourn of the family there,;"'Why do you just keep looking at each other?  I have heard that there is grain in Egypt.  Go down there and buy some for us, so the we may live and not die" (Gen. 42:1-2).  Egypt, it would seem, for about a 2,000 year period, had a very porous border with neighboring countries, allowing immigrants to enter and exit, for the most part, without harm.

Move to the time of Jesus.  And now let us ask a question?  What if Egypt had not accepted immigrants from neighboring countries whose people were facing political oppression?  What if the Holy family had been turned away?  What if the family had been separated, with half of them going to a prison for adults, and Jesus and his brothers and sisters (yes, Jesus had siblings, Joses, James, Judas, which Rice does a nice job of elucidating) to a separation facility for children?  What if the Holy family had never been able to reconnect with one another after separation?  What if Jesus had had to be raised by prison guards and immigration authorities?  The questions boggle the mind.

Here are my last set of questions.  What if another prophet or great leader is among the children who are now being housed in separation facilities?  What if another great leader (like Moses, another Jewish castaway who had beginnings in the land of Egypt), is now in the slavery of a chain link fence or cell, withering away with the heat of indifference and injustice?

Who knows the answer to these questions.

As a student of history, I know that truly great countries, like Egypt, Rome, even Great Britain, have always found a place for, "the least of these" (Matt. 25:40).

All For Now,


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

An Axial Moment

The late great philosopher and political theorist, Karl Jaspers (bear with me a moment, I have a larger point to make), once wrote about "Axial Civilizations".   Jaspers wrote about the fact that there are certain civilizations in the history of the world, that became so-called axial (pivotal, fundamental) moments in the future of global civilization.  What I want to reflect upon in this blogpost, is the power of an - "Axial Moment."  That there have been certain moments in history which played axial (pivotal) roles in the future of the world.

One of these axial moments is - June 6!

For example, on this very day, just 74 years ago (June 6, 1944), 160,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in a battle that would later be called "D Day" - in order to force an extremely significant thrust in the prolonged effort to push back the Nazis and to win the Western Campaign of World War II.  Nine-thousand American troops died on this very day, for our country, just 74 years ago.  Those brave souls who gave their lives, climbed the beach heads, under extreme pressure from the Nazis, only to die upon those white sands.  To become the "flowers of the forest", and fallen heroes, as later poets would write.

On this same day, just 50 years ago (June 6, 1968), a US Senator named Robert F Kennedy, the brother of the late President John F. Kennedy, was shot and assassinated in the kitchen of a hotel, named "The Ambassador", in Los Angeles, California.  Just after Robert Kennedy bellowed the words from a be-chisseled hotel podium; "Now it's onto Chicago, and let's win there", a lone gunman (as far as historians know) shot the young senator multiple times, leaving him limp, only to die on a cold, commercial, kitchen-floor.

What to make of this convergence of historic events?

What to make of this...

Axial Moment?

Not sure exactly!

Except to say that many young people have fought for the betterment of this country, only to be cut down too young, and too soon.  Also, that life is fragile.  And that these liberties of ours (freedom, truth, independence), these liberties that we keep, were not (to paraphrase Shakespeare's play Henry V), "purchased cheap".

Perhaps another reflection is that in both of these axial moments, there was a stated aggressor (Sirhan Sirhan in the former case, and the Nazis in the latter), there is an example of a violent perpetrator and a victim.  And that the would-be victims stood-up to, and ultimately vanquished their opponents - not through sheer force alone, but through good will, vigilance and the test of time.

Finally, I guess it makes me sad, from the standpoint of a person living in the year 2018, 74 an 50 years later, to know that though we have progressed in many ways, in so many more, we have miles and miles yet to travel.

Where are we as a country on June 6, 2018?

Is this another...

Axial Moment?

All For Now,


Friday, May 18, 2018

The Order of Time

Not long ago, our family spent about a week or so in La Jolla, near San Diego, for Spring Break.  While we sat by the beach and watched the waves lap upon the shore, it quite literally seemed, for that moment, as if - time stood still.

And as it turns out, according to a recent book by Physicist Carlo Rovelli, in actual scientific terms, that might have in fact been the case.  In his new book, "The Order of Time," Rovelli, surmises that time actually moves faster on the tops of mountains than it does near the flatlands, or ocean.  New clocks have been developed, using nuclear magnetic imaging, which make it possible to detect these finite differences in time.  The concept is an extension of Einstein's theory of the relativity of time, that time responds to the gravitational pull of large masses.  The earth is a large mass.  The closer that a clock, or a person for that matter, is to the earth, the slower time moves.  In very real terms, a person who lives near the ocean ages less than a person who lives near the mountains.  Looking back on it, the time my spent in Colorado Springs, around 6,033 feet above sea level, did seem to move faster than my time spent in Oxnard, at sea level.

Of course, the idea of the relativity of time is not a new idea.  The Bible tells us that, "A thousand years in your sight are like a day the has just gone by, or like a watch in the night," (Psalms 90:4).  By this description from the book of Psalms, apparently time moves faster for God than it does for humans.

Most people forget that the whole notion of time itself was invented by monks who were trying to figure out how to pray with more regularity, "The first mechanical time devices appeared in late medieval monasteries.  Bells driven by weights called monks to the hours of prayer" (Subversive Spirituality, L Paul Jensen, p. 37).  It was the invention of railroads, the transcontinental railroad in America, for example, that necessitated the standardization of time.  Previously, each town and city had its own clock and those clocks were very far from synchronized with one another.  But I digress....

Rovelli's book, the content of which I haven't yet read myself (though I have reviewed several articles and listened to several podcasts about Rovelli), reveals that the notion or idea of time is actually totally a construct of our imaginations.  Rovelli says, "We never see time, time is not something we can see or smell or taste or touch.  All we are able to do is to watch clocks which measure time."  Rovelli has even gone so far as to take the integer of time "T" out of all of his equations.  Rovelli says that time is  totally a mental construct.

Rovelli says that most people have this idea that the past and the present and the future are three different things, totally different from one another.  However, physics is showing us that the difference between the past and the present and the future are all relative.  Once again, this seems to reflect the thoughts of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, "Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.  The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises" (Ec. 1:5-6).

Reflecting further upon this Rovelli says that, "The only difference between the past and the future is the amount of disorder which lies ahead."  In other words, the way to tell the difference between this present moment and the future moments are that in this moment, we know exactly what is happening.  For example, I am typing this blog at this computer right now.  What will the future hold?  Will there be future blogs?  We don't know, because the the definition of the future is that it is disordered.  Again, Jesus lifts this up in the famous Sermon on the Mount, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself (or in Rovelli's terms, "the future has enough entropy." (Matt. 6:34).

If you are like me, this momentary convergence between the thinking of one modern day physicist and the Bible are head scratching and heartening at the same time.  Perhaps the real lesson in all of it is, we should all spend a lot more TIME...

At the beach!

All For Now,