Homework and Heights Unscaled

A report says American kids average 6 hours of homework per week, one of the highest rates in the developed world. During my last two years of high school in California, I doubt that I had six hours of homework in a semester. Unless you count the tennis balls Coach Kavianai would send home with me so I could practice my serve.

If I had had more homework, how might I have turned out? I can only wonder.

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The View from a Pastor of Pastors

One thing missing from TV news punditry is the voice of genuine Christian leaders. I’m not talking about partisans who claim to be Christians (Palin, Bachman, Sharpton, etc.). I’m talking about people who lead Christian denominations, churches, and organizations. Christians whose life work is NOT in the political sphere, and who do not have a political axe to grind. I’m talking about bishops, superintendents, pastors, pastors of pastors, theologians. These are the people Christians from whom Christians should be taking their cues.

But instead, I’m finding, Christians too often form their opinions around the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews. Often, when they do speak on religious issues, their shallowness is on full display. We shouLd NOT allow such people to shape our views on current issues.

Which is why I commend this statement from George Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God. I doubt he’s ever been on a cable news channel, but he’s obviously a man who can speak with wisdom and biblical authority, as he does here regarding the Michael Brown/Eric Garner situations. This was a letter sent to Assemblies of God pastors. Here’s an excerpt, but I encourage you to read the entire statement, because it’s excellent. THIS is the type of person Christians should be paying attention to.

“Whatever your opinion of those controversial decisions, can we stand with our brothers and sisters and affirm the value of black lives generally and of their lives specifically? Scripture teaches that God does not take pleasure in the death of people, not even the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). If so, then whatever the circumstances, we can be certain that God did not take pleasure in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Therefore, neither should we. Can we affirm, then, the grief our black brothers and sisters feel about these men’s deaths?”

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Musings on the Creation Story

Did God create everything from scratch during a six-day period 10,000 years ago, or did God guide the creation process over a long period of time (like, millions of years)? Or did everything develop with no help from God? Typically, about half of Americans take the six-day-creation view.

But a study done through Calvin College (published on Slate) shows that when you drill down, people aren’t as certain about their beliefs. In fact, the number of hard-core Creationists falls as low as 7%. Only 15% of people are confident that the earth was created within the last 10,000 years (a core tenet of Creationism).

Disclaimer: I wasn’t there when God created the earth. But I, along with probably most evangelicals that I know, are in the “God guided over a long period of time” camp. Where are you?

All of this reminds of of an article I wrote 30 years ago, not long after I became associate editor of publications for our denomination. We had a monthly magazine at the time, and I wrote a monthly column called “RandomPokes.” One of my first columns dealt with the Creation issue. I subsequently sold it to probably a half dozen other Christian publications (mostly Sunday school take-home papers). Here it is.

Musings on the Origin of Genesis

Picture yourself as Moses. Off and on for about 40 years, you’ve been sneaking out of the Israelite camp to some vacant piece of wilderness where you won’t be disturbed. It’s just you and God. You pull out your notepad, and the Almighty starts telling you some things, events of the past which 1) you already know, 2) you’ve heard before, but down through the generations the facts got distorted, or 3) you didn’t know happened.

Sometimes you hear tales of courage, of deceit, of mighty faith–even a few love stories. Other times it’s just a bunch of names strung together by endless “begats.” You carefully write everything down. Then, the session finished, you return to the day-to-day problems of leading the Children of Israel.

Could this be the way Genesis came about? Moses wrote Genesis, and he got his information from God. But Moses didn’t bother telling us the details. Did God reveal certain stories through dreams or visions? Did He lead Moses to some engraved tablets buried in the desert? Or did the Almighty just reminisce out loud while Moses scribbled everything on a notepad?

I don’t have the foggiest. But since it was left to the imagination, I prefer the Notepad Theory.

You’ve probably seen the movie “The Ten Commandments,” with its memorable scene where God gives Moses the tablets. Our hero, portrayed by Charleton Heston, Hollywood’s all-purpose Bible character, cringes against the mountain while ten specially-effected lightning bolts strike a rock wall, ultimately forming the two stone tablets. It’s a spectacular scene. But that’s not how I feel it occurred.

I don’t want to limit God’s power; He’s certainly capable of lightning bolts. But on a one-to-one basis, I think God acts in more commonplace ways. He doesn’t need to turn on the theatrics, especially if that person is attentive, like I’m sure Moses was. Granted, the Burning Bush episode was a pretty dramatic way for God to introduce himself to the future Deliverer. But after that, I’ll bet God never had trouble getting Moses’ attention.

So, without a single shred of evidence, I picture a much more peaceful Mt. Sinai than what Hollywood filmed for us. No wind and rain, no thunder and lightning, no angels singing or trumpets blaring. Just God and Moses atop the mountain on a clear, sunshiny day. And when they say good-bye after 40 days, Moses descends with the sacred tablets cradled in his arms.

That’s how I think God revealed the Genesis story to Moses, too. Universal Studios would show us an old man being buffeted by wind and rain, and cringing in fear while lightning strikes all around him. But I see Moses sitting on a rock on a moonlit night with a notepad on his lap, scribbling as fast as he can while God reminisces about In the Beginning.

I suppose some of the stories were familiar to Moses, passed down by Israelites from generation to generation. But a lot of the information had to come directly from God. Some of those stories probably astounded Moses so much that he couldn’t wait to get back to camp so he could tell everyone what he had learned.

I can imagine him exclaiming, “You mean this Methuselah guy lived 969 years!”

Or interrupting the story of Jacob and Esau to say, “I didn’t realize it was Rebekah’sidea to steal Esau’s birthright!”

Or, after hearing about the Tower of Babel, saying, “So that’swhy people speak so many languages!”

Or shaking his head in amazement–“Wow! A boat big enough to hold two of everykind of animal?”

One particular session must have stood out far above the rest.

Picture yourself as Moses again. You’ve seen scores of miracles in your time, some totally mind-boggling, like the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire, the earth opening up to swallow Dathan and his rebellious crew, etc., etc. So the story of your ancestors, though interesting, is pretty believable and maybe not the kind of stuff best-sellers were made of.

But then one day you’re told something completely new, something you’d never really thought about before. You sit down on a rock with your notepad and God says, “Today, Moses, I’m going to tell you how I created the world.”

We’re all familiar with the seven days of Creation, Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden. But until Genesis, not a single piece of Scripture existed, so this was all new to Moses. Maybe he and everyone else back then just assumed the heavens and earth had always existed. Now he learns differently.

Imagine being the first person everto hear how the world–the universe–began. That the earth was once “without form and void.” That God spread His creative acts over a tiny week’s time, with the creation of life alone covering two of those days.

I’m not sure that my little mind could have taken it all in. The fact that the first chapter of Genesis contains so few details may mean that it was even a little too much for Moses. I’m sure I couldn’t have handled it if, at the same time, I had to deal with thunder and lightning.

Like I already said, I don’t really know how Genesis came about. I’m just guessing. Maybe God placed the knowledge in Moses’ head so that when he started writing, everything came out like God wanted it to. Maybe the whole Genesis story was already known, and Moses just went around compiling all the available information, with a large dose of divine inspiration to help him know what to use. Maybe there’s another explanation.

But then, maybe Moses did grab a notepad and sneak off into the wilderness to be alone with God and listen to Him speak. I’d like to think so, anyway.

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The CIA Torture Report: We Did It, and We Won’t Do it Again

In 2008, I was delighted to know that, regardless of who won the presidency, my country would no longer be a state sponsor of torture. I’d been writing angrily against torture for years. To me it was a shameful, shameful chapter in our history. My country was better than that. I was glad to see torture end.

Jane Mayer’s excellent book “The Dark Side” told about the FBI’s effectiveness in questioning al-Qaeda detainees after we invaded Afghanistan. The Bad Guys were talking quite freely, and the FBI was following all the legal rules. But then the Bush administration, pushed by Cheney, turned everything over to the CIA. FBI agents stood aside as CIA operatives swooped in, took their prisoners, and sent them off to secret bases, or “rendered” them to countries like Egypt and Syria to be tortured. Suddenly, the prisoners all clammed up.

Even if we did gain valuable information from torture–and it’s highly questionable that we did–we were already getting it without using torture. It was totally gratuitous–even barbaric–on our part. A collapse of our moral authority as a nation.

Mayer pointed out that the FBI was interested in prosecutions, so they followed all the rules to build a case that would stand up in court. But the CIA had no interest in prosecution. All they cared about was gathering intelligence. As a result, we’re in a pickle, with some truly evil prisoners whom we can’t prosecute. Our very own laws, developed with great wisdom over 250 years, tie our hands.

As a Christian, I mourn that so many of my fellow evangelical Christians fully support torture of prisoners. Right now, I’m listening to FoxNews, and I want to vomit at how vigorously they are defending torture. I’m sad knowing that many Christians watching are shaking their heads in unquestioning agreement.

As a country, we are better than that. And as Christians, with the command to be Christ-like, we MUST be better than that.

The information in the CIA Torture Report has been in the public domain for years. I’ve read it all before in the many other reports which have bee done. But this one definitely carries more weight, and I’m glad it has been released.

I agree with John McCain, who said today, “I believe the American people have a right–indeed, a responsibility–to know what was done in their name.”

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The Mind of Chris Rock


Frank Rich conducted a wonderful interview with Chris Rock for New York Magazine. It’s long, and it’s wide-ranging: Ferguson, comedy, race, Obama, Cosby, TV…a little of everything. Rock is a fascinating person. I loved reading his perspectives. A few excerpts:

“It’s been a weird year for comedy. We lost Robin, we lost Joan, and we kind of lost Cosby.”

“You can be in the most liberal places and there’s no black people.”

About the election of Barack Obama: “That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years….My kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”

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The Blackbird at Cruising Speed

Brian Shul in front of an SR-71.

Brian Shul in front of an SR-71.

A flock of Blackbirds.

A flock of Blackbirds.

US Air Force Major Brian Shul flew the SR-71 spyplane, nicknamed the Blackbird.

The coolest plane ever. Hands down.

The SR-71 flew faster and higher than any other plane. How fast? Shul says in Vice magazine, “​The Blackbird easily flew at over 2,000 miles per hour. You were doing a mile every two seconds, or faster. The jet always wanted to go faster, so you had to hold it back. It was at three times the speed of sound when we were cruising.”

In 26 years, the nice folks in Russia, China, and elsewhere fired over 4,000 missiles at SR-71s. They never scored a hit.

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There are No Good Guys


I knew this was a bad idea. Hardliners, especially on the conservative end, were continually berating Obama for not arming the Syrian rebels. As if there are “good guys” and “bad guys” in this fight, and we could clearly identify the “good” rebels. Obama finally gave in, and we’ve been sending lots of heavy weaponry to certain rebel groups.

Now the two main rebel groups have surrendered to ISIS. I wouldn’t doubt they accumulated weapons partly as a bargaining chip. I imagine part of the surrender included negotiations like this: “We have lots of weapons. We’ll let you have them all, if you don’t kill us.”

There are no “good guys” in this conflict. There are bad guys (fighters) and there are innocents (civilians and refugees). I say this: let’s help the innocents, but let the bad guys settle their grievances with each other without giving them more firepower. Even the most “pro-Western” rebels still hate the USA.

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Do I Really Want Diapers?


Just on a whim, I began the day by going to Amazon and doing a search on “diapers.” I’m curious to see how many diaper ads appear on web pages I peruse during the day.

Sure enough, ads for diapers have been calling for my attention all day. Here’s what turned up on a BBC page.

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The Anonymous Missionaries


Earlier this week, a very impressive young couple visited the UB National Office in Huntington, Ind. They are preparing for missionary service in an “undisclosed” (as we say) country on the other side of the world, where they will train church leaders to be more effective in their work. The husband is the son of a former United Brethren pastor. As a staff, we laid hands on them and prayed for them.

As the denominational communications director, I would love to tell our constituency more about this couple–what they will be doing and where. But for security reasons, they don’t want their names or photos appearing anywhere on the internet–websites, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Such is the case with a growing number of United Brethren missionaries who serve in “restricted access” countries. Some of the most exciting stories I hear come from these missionaries…but frustratingly, I can’t report on them. The most I can do is say, these people are out there, they are dedicated, they serve in potentially hostile situations, and they could use your prayers. God knows who they are.

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The Messy Mind

Two bumper stickers on the 1970s-era wood paneling in my office.

Two bumper stickers on the 1970s-era wood paneling in my office.

New studies affirm that an untidy work environment can make people more creative. This is music to my ears.

In one study, people were put in a room and given some choices. People in a tidy room tended to make more conventional choices, while people in a messy room gravitated toward more novel choices.

In another study, people in these two different environments were asked to come up with unconventional uses for ping pong balls. The two groups came up with the same number of ideas, but the ideas from the messy-room people were deemed substantially more creative.

This sentence from an article helped explain how tidiness inhibits creativity: “If you keep all your tools in the tool shed and all your kitchen utensils in the kitchen, you might never think of using a kitchen utensil as a tool or vice-versa.”

My office is typically untidy, but there comes a point where even I can’t take it, and I spend much of a day cleaning up and pitching stuff. Like, three times a year. I consider this burst of orderliness more efficient than spending time every day maintaining order. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

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