Thursday, February 23, 2017

L. Q. C. Lamar

It was the late great Mr. C. E. Julian, esteemed teacher of history at Lamar County (GA) High School, who taught me that my home county was named for a man named L. Q. C. Lamar. I don’t think he told us that “L. Q. C.” stood for “Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus”—but it did.

(By the way, he was actually L.Q.C. II—yep, they actually named him after his father, who was already saddled with that name that sounded like a law firm in a gladiator movie. Also by the way, I once asked my father, the late great Champ Ruffin, why he didn’t name me after him. He said, “You must be kidding. Would you really want to go through life being called ‘Little Champ’?”)

I also don’t think Mr. Julian told us that John F. Kennedy devoted a chapter to L. Q. C. Lamar in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage (1955)—but he did.

So who was Lucius (as his friends called him) Lamar?

Well, he was born in Putnam County in 1825 and educated at Emory College, then located in Oxford, Georgia. He married the daughter of Emory’s president. He practiced law and was elected to the Georgia legislature. When his father-in-law became president of the University of Mississippi, Lamar moved his family to Oxford (the one in Mississippi). He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1857, but he resigned in 1860 in order to become a member of Mississippi’s secession convention. He wrote the state’s ordinance of secession. He was one of those leaders who were so enthusiastic about secession they were referred to as “fire-eaters.” He served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate army in the early years of the war and as a diplomat for the Confederacy during its later years.

Lamar again served as a Congressman from Mississippi from 1873 until 1877, when he was elected to the United States Senate. He later served as Secretary of the Interior. He wound up his career of public service as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1888 until his death in 1893.

President Kennedy considered Lamar a “profile in courage” because of his actions as a U.S. Senator. At least three times he acted in ways that were contrary to the clear wishes of his constituents. In those days, it was standard procedure for a state legislature to issue instructions to their national representatives on how they should vote on an issue. On one major issue, Lamar defied the instructions of the Mississippi legislature.

In 1878, while under tremendous pressure from the citizens of his home state, he said,

The liberty of this country and its great interests will never be secure if its public men become mere menials to do the biddings of their constituents instead of being representatives in the true sense of the word, looking to the lasting prosperity and future interests of the whole country.

Imagine—an elected national figure with so much courage and integrity, and with so much devotion to the welfare of the entire nation, that he did what his conscience told him was right, no matter the consequences to his career.

Lamar County should be very proud to carry the name of such a person.

Everybody figured Lamar’s political career was over, since his votes were condemned by almost all of Mississippi’s voters. But a funny thing happened on Lamar’s way to political oblivion. He traveled around the state, explaining why he did what he did. And people were so moved by his integrity and sincerity, they reelected him.

Imagine—voters who are willing to listen to a politician, willing to realize that, even if they don’t agree with him, he has the country’s best interests at heart, and willing to reelect him because of his integrity and courage.

Oh, and I have to say it one more time: imagine a national elected official being more interested in doing what is right and best than in protecting his or her place in office.

I mean, just imagine …

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Getting Past the Great Filter

It was 1950, and some scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico were walking to lunch. Along the way, they talked about some recent reports of UFOs and a New Yorker cartoon that attributed the recent disappearances of New York City trash canisters to alien activity.
The conversation around the lunch table moved on to other topics. Suddenly, one of the scientists, Enrico Fermi, exclaimed, “Where is everybody?” He then went on to talk about the vast number of stars in the universe, the likely huge number of Earth-like planets orbiting some of those stars, and the seeming likelihood that intelligent life would have developed on many of them.
If you keep your speculations close to home and go with the most conservative estimates, you’d reckon that there are around a billion Earth-like planets and about 100,000 intelligent civilizations just in the Milky Way galaxy (which is only one of the 100 billion galaxies, at least, in the observable universe).
Fermi wondered why, if there are indeed lots of intelligent civilizations out there, none of them have shown up here. Odds are they would have, especially given the likelihood that some of them would have been around a lot longer than we have and would have developed much more advanced technology than ours.
Fermi was no run-of-the-mill scientist (if there’s any such thing). He had won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938. He led the team that developed the first nuclear reactor. He was one of the main experts that participated in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb.
Many answers have been proposed to what became known as “Fermi’s paradox,” ranging from “They came here before we got here” to “They are here and we’re too primitive to perceive them.”
Around 1975, astronomer Michael Hart proposed that the reason we’ve not seen extraterrestrial life is that it doesn’t exist. He noted that intelligent aliens would naturally spread out and colonize the galaxy, but they haven’t. The best answer to why they haven’t, he said, is that they aren’t there.
Well, if there aren’t any other advanced civilizations out there, why not?
In the late 1990s, economist Robin Hanson proposed a theory known as “the Great Filter”. Perhaps there is a Great Filter beyond which life must move if it is going to develop into an intelligent form, and that filter is hard to get past. Maybe human beings are unique in having developed as far as we have. Or maybe lots of civilizations have developed to the point where we now are, but something has prevented them from moving to the next stage, which would be Galactic colonization.
Maybe we’ve already gotten past the Great Filter, so we’ve gone where no civilization has gone before and we can keep moving forward.
Or, maybe the Great Filter is still ahead of us.
Perhaps the Great Filter beyond which no society has ever gone is the point where it has developed not only the technology to destroy themselves, but the willingness to do so.
Which brings me to what Jesus says in Matthew 5:38-48. Maybe he lays out our Great Filter for us right there in the Sermon on the Mount when he says,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteousness” (vv. 43-45).
In the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” the Enterprise rescues an injured man named Lokai, whose skin is black on one side of his body and white on the other. He’s a self-described political refugee from the planet Cheron. Soon, another man from that planet comes aboard. His name is Bele, and he says he’s a law enforcement official who’s been chasing Lokai for many millennia. Bele’s body is also half-black and half-white, but the colors are reversed, which in Cheron’s culture is an important difference.
Finally, after much intrigue and drama, the Enterprise arrives at Lokai and Bele’s home planet, only to find that warfare has destroyed the entire population. When last we see the two men, Bele is still in pursuit of Lokai.
Lt. Uhura wonders if hate is all they ever had.
Capt. Kirk responds, “No—but that’s all they have left.”
Maybe hate is the Great Filter.
Maybe love is the only way through.
Maybe it’s up to Jesus’ followers to lead the way.

[This post first appeared at Coracle, the blog of NextSunday Resources]

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Name in Vain

The dialogue in lots of good movies and television shows contains profanity. I don’t always mind. In fact, as one who works in words, I can even appreciate the occasional well-placed curse word, especially if it fits the character speaking it and if it helps to communicate true feelings.

I mean, let’s face it: if Rhett Butler had said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot,” the line wouldn’t have gone down in history. And it would have sounded silly.

That being said, I find some scripts insulting. My Good Wife and I recently watched the first episode of an acclaimed new series on a popular streaming service. I doubt we’ll watch any more episodes. They should have called the show “F Troop,” because I think the “F word” occurred more than “the,” “a,” and “is” combined. Very few sentences omitted it, and sometimes a character would use it three or four times in one line. 

It was ridiculous and distracting. It sounded silly. And stupid.

Maybe some of you talk like that. If so, my advice is to undertake a program of radical vocabulary enhancement.

But as bad as that word is—“the mother of all curse words,” as adult Ralphie the narrator says in A Christmas Story—it’s not the profane term that bothers me most to hear an actress or actor utter. I’m most bothered when someone uses the Lord’s name in a curse, which is what we usually think of when we hear the phrase “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

It’s one of the Big 10: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). To take the Lord’s name “in vain” is to treat it as if it is empty or meaningless, so there are ways to do it besides using it in a curse. For example, a professor friend of mine would tell his students that if they asked God to help them on a test they didn’t study for, they were taking the Lord’s name in vain, since they were basically treating the Lord as a rabbit’s foot or a four-leaf clover.

Then there’s praying, speaking, or acting “in Jesus’ name.” 

In the Bible, someone’s name summarized his or her character. So to speak, pray, or act in Jesus’ name is to do so in ways that reflect who Jesus is, what he said, and what he did. If you pray for vengeance on your enemies in the name of the One who said, “Love your enemies,” and who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain. If you, in the name of the One who said that those who will enter the kingdom are the ones who visit the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25) harbor attitudes, speak words, undertake actions, and support policies that hurt the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the stranger, you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC. Around 609, or about two decades before the Babylonians overran Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, the Lord told him to go the temple in Jerusalem and preach a sermon. Here’s some of what he said:

Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.

Jeremiah said that the people could go to the temple and call on the Lord all they wanted to, but they needed to understand that truly to speak and act in God’s name meant to “truly act justly with one another” and not to “oppress the alien, the orphan, the widow.” We all know what an “orphan” and a “widow” are. Do we know what an “alien” is?

An “alien” is an immigrant.

So when we hear our leaders invoke the name of the Lord, we might do well to consider that they might be taking that name in vain, and that if we invoke the name of the Lord in supporting them, we might be, too.

After all, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

As for what the Father’s will is—well, see above on widows and orphans.

And aliens …

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Speed of Light

Light travels at 186 thousand miles per second. That means it travels about six trillion miles in a year, so that’s the distance in a light year.

The sun is “only” about 0.000016 of a light year (93 million miles) from Earth; its light reaches us in about eight minutes twenty seconds. After the sun, the next nearest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri, which is about four light years away, so its light takes about four years to reach us.

Light from Polaris (the North Star) travels 680 years before reaching Earth.

That’s about how many years passed between the times in which Isaiah and Jesus preached. Isaiah lived in a time when the darkness of empire—the Assyrian empire, in the case of eighth-century Judah—was creeping into the land. He looked forward to a time when the Lord’s light would drive the darkness away.

Isaiah said,

In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined (9:1b-2).

Matthew says about Jesus,

He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (4:14-17).

Isaiah’s hopes for the coming light were fulfilled in other ways through the years—the people returning from Babylonian exile in the late sixth century no doubt saw that event as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, for example—but for Matthew and the early church, Jesus’ ministry was their most complete fulfillment. In Jesus, the light for which Isaiah looked had come.

Some stars that are visible to the naked eye are as far as two thousand light years away, so it’s taken two thousand years for their light to get to us. Here we are, living two thousand years after Jesus. Do you ever wonder how much of Jesus’ light has made it to us? How can we let our lives be more open to the light of Jesus’ love and grace so it will drive away the darkness of pride and power that sows dissension and disunity?

It didn’t take two thousand years for such issues to develop. Jesus’ original disciples dealt with the darkness that accompanies the quest for power with its accompanying pride and jealousy. And it was only about twenty years after Jesus lived that Paul was imploring the church at Corinth to overcome its divisions (1 Cor 1:10-18). So it’s not surprising that we still have trouble letting the light drive away our darkness.

But light is stubborn. It keeps going. It keeps coming.

Today’s powerful telescopes can detect the light from objects as far as 10-15 billion light years away. When scientists see the light from those objects, they see light that has been traveling for ten to fifteen billion years.

If humans still exist somewhere ten to fifteen billion years from now (it’ll have to be somewhere other than Earth, since our sun will die in around five billion years), God’s light of love and grace, which is most fully revealed in Jesus, will still be trying to reach us ...

This post first appeared in a slightly different form on Coracle, the blog of NextSunday Resources.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Tale of Two Banquets

The Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell the story about Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand right after telling the story of King Herod’s birthday bash. You can read it all in Mark 6:17-44 and Matthew 14:1-21.

It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting culinary events.

Herod throws himself a birthday party (which makes you wonder if anybody else would have thrown it for him). His yes-men and hangers-on are there, as are the rich and powerful folks. It’s not hard to imagine the opulence and decadence of the celebration. No doubt the food was excellent and the wine abundant.

The party has a backstory. 

Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, whose name was Herodias. John the Baptist had criticized their behavior, and had for his trouble been thrown into prison, which can happen when someone speaks truth to power. During the festivities, Herodias’s daughter dances for Herod and his guests. Herod is so pleased with her performance that he tells her he’ll give her anything she asks for. Prompted by her mother, who was evidently quite unhappy with John’s observations about her and Herod’s ethical practices, she requests that the preacher’s head be served up on a platter (which, thankfully, usually only happens to us figuratively these days).

Herod doesn’t want to do it, but he has promised right out loud to give the girl anything she wants. He has his reputation to consider and his power to maintain. So he gives the order, and the deed is done.

Hearing about John’s death, Jesus wants to go away for a while. So he gets into a boat and sails across the Sea of Galilee to what he expects will be a deserted place. But when he disembarks, a large crowd is waiting for him. Jesus has compassion for them and heals the sick among them.

As evening approaches, the disciples point out that the people will need food. They suggest that Jesus send them away so they can buy some in the nearby towns. When Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people themselves, they point out that they have only five loaves of bread and two fish, which isn’t nearly enough to feed the crowd. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to distribute.

After everyone has eaten, twelve baskets full of leftovers are gathered. The Jesus-blessed and disciple-distributed bread has fed five thousand men, plus the women and children who are there.

These two stories offer two different portraits of leadership.

On the one hand is the leadership of Herod, whose desire for power inspires him to share out of his abundance with people who already have more than they need, and whose need for validation leads him to harm someone whose only crime is standing up for what he believes is right.

On the other hand is the leadership of Jesus, whose compassion inspires him to use his power to heal the sick and to feed the hungry.

I reckon each of us has to decide which kind of leadership we think is best. 

I further reckon that we’ll reveal which kind we prefer in the ways we think, choose, talk, and act.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Utopian Christians in a Dystopian World

The Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle is loosely based on a novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick. My Good Wife and I have recently finished watching the second season. It’s a fascinating and troubling show. 

I’m glad there will be a Season 3. I evidently enjoy being fascinated and troubled.

The premise of the series, which is set in 1962, is that the Axis powers won World War II. The Nazis control the Atlantic side of the United States, while the Japanese occupy the Pacific side. A neutral zone in the Rocky Mountains region separates the rival empires. 

The freedoms Americans take for granted no longer exist. Their overlords treat them as second-rate humans. Some Americans collaborate with the occupying forces and some actively resist them, but most just try to survive.

The Man in the High Castle imagines a dystopian future, that is, a future in which things are about as bad as they can be. It’s hardly the first such narrative. Classic dystopian works include George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. More recent examples of the genre include The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin.

When you read or watch dystopian stories, you hope things will get better. You hope that people will become able to pursue life through the exercise of risky freedom, which is the only way to really live.
You also have such hopes when you ponder the possibility of a real, rather than literary or cinematic, dystopian future.

Dystopian works of fiction usually feature people who resist the dehumanization that characterizes their world. They imagine something better and work toward bringing it about. Their efforts always prove costly. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. There’s a lot of nuance to the characters in The Man in the High Castle, but when you get down to it, the resisters are the heroes; the future of the nation, and maybe of the world, lies in their hands.

The opposite of dystopia is utopia. A utopian future is one in which everything is as it should be. The Christian view of the future is utopian. Christians believe that God is working God’s purposes out in creation and history so that, when all is said and done, everything will be renewed through Jesus Christ. The last part of the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, presents a utopian view of the future.

But Revelation recognizes that things aren’t yet what they will be. In fact, it was written to and for Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. The main goal of the book was to encourage them to be faithful in their Christian witness, no matter how bad things were or became. They were to resist the dystopian present by living in light of their utopian future. They were to resist by being faithful to Jesus.

That’s still how Christians resist.

Christians resist dehumanization, division, and despair by practicing grace, faith, hope, mercy, and love. We resist selfish power by thinking of others first and of self last. We resist pride and arrogance by giving ourselves away.

We do all of that because we follow Jesus Christ, whose way is the way of the cross.

Christians believe in the utopian future that God will bring about. We do what we can to make things better now. And as necessary, we subvert dystopian trends and developments through the amazing grace and self-emptying love that are ours in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sing We Now of Christmas

Today is the fourth day of Christmas. Did you receive four calling birds? If not, you might want to consider just how true your “true love” is.

If you’re like me (admit it: you just said, “Not likely!), you were a grown human being before you learned that there really are twelve days of Christmas. For the first two decades of my life, I thought it was just one of the worst Christmas songs ever written.

It’s not the worst one, though, not by a long shot.

The worst Christmas song of all time is (with all due respect to the recently deceased and greatly lamented George Michael) “Last Christmas” by Wham!. Every time I hear it, I want to wham, bam, and slam the radio. The lyrics don’t make sense. “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart. The very next day, you gave it away.” Please. Everybody knows that you don’t give away a gift on the day after Christmas day. You go stand in a long customer service line to exchange it.

By the way, just in case you’re wondering, the second worst Christmas song of all time is “Step into Christmas” by Elton John. It makes me want to step away from Christmas, and from whatever device is inflicting that silly song on me. 

The third worst Christmas song—and it really pains me to say this, because I respect him so much—is “Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney. Luckily, “horrible” has the same number of syllables as “wonderful,” so I can sing it in a way that fits the mood it puts me in.

(I should note that I recently read two articles that explained why “Last Christmas” and “Wonderful Christmas Time” are great Christmas songs. The authors know much more about such things than I do. They’re also wrong.)

I like all of the church’s Christmas songs. I do think one of them is misleading, though. I mean, think about it. “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes; but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Come on, tell the truth. We should sing, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes; and little Lord Jesus screams his little head off until he gets changed and fed, because he was a real baby, and that’s what real babies do.”

Besides, he’s in a stable. With smelly animals. I’m telling you, he made some crying.

But enough with the negativity. Let me tell you about my favorite Christmas song: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words during the War Between the States. They speak to my spirit every year.

It begins,

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

This Christmas, I confess to spending considerable time giving in to the mood of the next-to-last stanza:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

But I also affirm that I believe in the affirmation of the final verse:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Let it be, dear Lord. Let it be …