Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Link Arms Across the Planet

I am constantly amazed that, out of all the periods of time when I could have been born and lived on Planet Earth, this is the particular moment when God chose to place me here.

Think about it. Any of us could have been born in the dark ages, in some godforsaken hovel in primitive Europe at a time when the Bubonic Plague was raging. Or in Northern Africa during the height of the slave trade. In China during the Communist Revolution. Or a Jew in Germany during World War II.

Sputnik 1 in orbit (artist's depiction)
But no, here I am in the lovely and wonderful Pacific Northwest of the U.S. My own birth was almost simultaneous with the birth of the space age (the first manmade object, Sputnik I, was lifted into orbit 6 short months after I was born, and the first human, Yuri Gagarin, went into space when I was just 4.) I had no sooner entered the workforce when the Internet became a thing, and I was even privileged to be one of its first pioneers in the nonprofit space, back in 1997.

Guy Kawasaki himself (the social media pioneer and one of the principles of Apple) told me about Twitter when it was just newly birthed, and I got in on that marvelous new phenomenon when it was just a few months old.

So one of the things I've also been privileged to witness is the evaporation of national borders which has occurred, if metaphorically, with the dawn of the Internet and social media age. My Aunt Dorothy, my mom's oldest sister, left for the mission field in deepest, darkest Africa (Niger, one of the world's poorest countries) when she was in her early 20s, and worked there for about 50 years. In addition to being a nurse, she is a gifted linguist and translated Scripture into local dialects. My brother and I operated a typesetting business in Southern California in the late 1980s, and she would slow-boat handwritten translations to us from Africa; we would meticulously type up galleys of Scripture using a font negative that we had modified by hand, then slowboat them back to her for proofreading. The process took several years but ultimately produced a version of the New Testament in the local language she was working in.

Today, on the other hand, just a few short years later, I check my smart phone when I wake up in the morning and I usually have several messages from friends in Africa. It is evening where they are, and we often chat for awhile before I officially start my day (and they end theirs).

Boaz (top row, center) and the orphans of Ttamu.
One of those friends I met several years ago. He is a young man named Boaz, and lives in Mityana, Uganda. He has a passion from the Lord to help rescue children who have been orphaned in the AIDS epidemic, and in his late 20s runs an orphanage with 28 beds. He employs a schoolteacher/helper with the kids and several volunteers, and together they seek to raise up these disadvantaged boys and girls, ages 6 through 17, in the hope and knowledge and grace of our Savior. It's a marvelous ministry, but it is VERY hand-to-mouth. They are always praying for where their next meal will come from, or how they will replace worn mosquito nets, or where they will find money to buy badly needed medicine to combat yellow fever, malaria, or tooth decay. Theirs is truly a life lived on the knife's edge of faith.

Mandy and Gracia in May 2006.
One of the huge blessings in my life has been the privilege of sponsoring a number of kids in various countries. My wife and I are not wealthy (by American standards), but we are well off enough to be able to tithe to our church and also contribute to a variety of international and domestic causes. Our first sponsored child was with World Vision in Haiti, and then for a long time we were able to sponsor a girl named Gracia in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My daughter and I even got to spend a day with Gracia and her family in 2006. Next came a little boy, in the Congo's Ubangi Province, an AIDS orphan sponsored through the Evangelical Free Church of America's TouchGlobal mission; and then another girl in the Congo. And then Moses.

That's right, we're sponsoring Moses! Not the one in the little ark made of reeds, hidden in bulrushes, but his namesake, an 11-year-old boy in Boaz's orphanage in Mityana. Here's his photo and basic information, at left.

I've worked with a team of others here in the U.S. to help establish a sponsorship program for Ttamu (the orphanage in Mityana), and by God's grace more than half of the children are now sponsored at $35 per month. This has provided hitherto undreamt-of resources for Boaz and his team -- to be able to prepare healthy food for the children and ensure they have good bedding to sleep on; to get them uniforms and supplies for school; to purchase firewood to cook on; and to be able to provide important medicines or health care when they are sick. What a privilege it is for us here in the U.S., who have so much, to be able to participate in the lives of people in such great need in a place as faraway as Uganda!

Jesus said (in Luke 6:38), "For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you." He spoke in the context of giving ourselves away, of loving others. If we love others with a large heart, then our generosity will be rewarded with largeness of blessing from God. This isn't speaking of financial blessing, which is the least of the various kind of blessings that exist. God blesses us with peace, with tranquility, with a sense of joy in the fulfillment of His purposes for us. Do you want to be blessed? Be sure your heart is big enough to give generously.

I'm grateful for the opportunities this day and age affords to partner in ministry with brothers and sisters in Christ, like Boaz and his team, in Africa and across the planet. And I would like to challenge you to consider joining me! $35 a month is less than many people pay for the privilege of enjoying an occasional latte at Starbuck's. And yet it can mean fullness of life for an orphan child in a place like Mityana, Uganda.

As a companion piece ot today's blog, I've prepared a Buzzfeed article displaying the photos and basic details about 13 children at Ttamu who are yet to be sponsored. Please pray over these photos, and if you would like to help, click here. Also reply and provide me with the name of the child you would like to sponsor. And I'll make sure it happens!

You will be able to correspond with the child and invest more of your life in them, as well as receive regular updates of their progress. So please take a moment and click on this Buzzfeed link:

Together we can link arms across the planet and demonstrate Christ's love for all children everywhere!

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

'Mushroom Worker's Lung' ... Apparently It's Real

If you've been following my exploits so far this spring you are fully aware that I have Mushroom Fever. That's not a disease, per se, unless you consider an obsession a disease. It's just that I've just learned to love and enjoy hunting for wild edible mushrooms in the beautiful Pacific Northwest (PNW), previously in the fall (for Chanterelles and many more varieties) and more recently in the spring (for Morels).

The culprit: Pleurotus ostreatus
(Oyster mushrooms) pinning
from a straw log which used to
live in our "Upper Room."
Because there is a long winter season inserted between the two here in the PNW, with no wild mushrooms growing outdoors, I decided to feed my obsession by beginning the cultivation of edible mushrooms indoors. We have an attic room which we've used as a bachelor studio and home theater, and are currently also using as a work-out room, wine cellar, and now a mushroom-growing laboratory. I started this winter by growing Pearl Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) and also crimini and portobello mushrooms (which are the same organism, crimini just the underdeveloped version and portobello the fully mature adult fruit).

I'd been doing this for some time in what we called "The Upper Room" and getting fairly good at it, I think, when my wife began to complain about allergy-like symptoms every time she worked out there ... congestion, low-grade fever, etc. She asked me if I would search the internet to see if there were any possible negative side effects from growing oyster mushrooms. "Yah, sure, honey," I said, convinced it was just her usual allergies combined with the fact that I was enjoying growing mushrooms indoors so much and therefore needed to be reigned in a bit. Seriously, I thought how could she possibly be allergic to being in the same room with an Oyster mushroom, if eating them didn't bother her in the slightest? I did intend to do a search but didn't jump on it very quickly.

So of course she grew tired of waiting for me to do it, and did a little "Let me Google that for you" research on her own. And lo and behold, she turned up quite a substantial number of case reports and other documentation online of the severely allergic effects that the spores of Pleurotus ostreatus apparently have on many people:

And that's just a start.

Here's a fascinating article talking about how prolifically Pleurotus ostreatus produces spores ... a single large mushroom cap can eject, the article says, 100 million spores per hour! The estimate of the number of spores in a cubic meter of "clean, country air" where some Oysters might grow is therefore 10,000. The article concludes, "You can now buy the Oyster Mushroom in supermarkets.   It grows quite nicely in commercial mushroom houses.  As the mushrooms reach maturity, the level of  spores in the atmosphere of the mushroom house must be incredible."

By the way, mushrooms eject such a prolific amount of spores for precisely the same reason a human male creates such a large number of sperm. If it's any comfort to my wife, the article says only about 1 in a billion spores are estimated to survive the environment they are ejected into. (Roughly 10 hours' worth of work for a mature Pleurotus ostreatus cap, by my calculations. Not too bad. It took my wife and I several years to create two marvelous kids.)

Needless to say, I've now moved my straw log mushroom growing operation outdoors, next to my maple nursery logs. (Actually, it's doing better than I thought out there ... although I am a little concerned about what will happen if we get a heat wave this summer.)

I also have learned, once again, to apologetically recite the very humbling mantra: "Yes, dear, you were right. Once again." Note to self: The wife is always right.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Weekend Mushroom Hunting Report: The Elusive Black Morel

Just wanted to give a quick report of our first hard-core spring mushroom hunt. My son Nathan and I spent the weekend (Friday-early Sunday) in the mountains just south and slightly east of the Blewett Pass area in eastern Washington, hunting for the elusive black morel.

Our spacious free basecamp site
on Williams Creek.
We arrived early Friday afternoon and found a lovely base camp spot at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campground on Williams Creek near the historic gold mining town of Liberty, Washington (just a mile east of the 97 on Liberty Road). The sites were spacious, well lined with trees, plentiful, and best of all free for the first 14 days. We had good walking access to a clean pit latrine and the sites had good firepits with steel cooking grates, and most had picnic tables. You had to bring in your own water and haul out your own trash. A small price to pay.

Our site was directly across the trail from an old gold mine, well posted with claim and no trespassing signs. In fact, our only complaint was a crazy woodpecker that began rat-a-tat-tatting on a corrugated tin claim sign about 5:30 each morning. What an alarm clock!

A tinpecker used this to
wake us up at 5:30 a.m.
The sign was full of bullet holes, so you could tell other campers had experienced the same frustration with this confused tinpecker.

After setting up camp we launched in Nathan's new fourwheel-drive Toyota pickup. Our first stop was at about the 3,500-foot level in a burn area near the forest service road. Terrain was steep but accessible, and we were encouraged to find our first five morels within the first 10 minutes, less than a hundred yards from the road. (No, I'm not going to give you an exact location!)

Black morels gathered during the
first day of our hunt.
So we anticipated better things to come. But alas, two more hours of hunting in this same stretch of forest yielded only one more morel (growing in a the hole formerly occupied by a burned tree which had collapsed). But it was huge.

Beautiful view of snow-laden
mountains from the Forest Service
access road.
We then started heading uphill toward more of the burn areas. Some ninety-odd wildfires plagued this area in the fall of 2012, and morels are known to grow in year-or-two-old burn areas. We looked at several other spots with no success. When we arrived at about the 5400 foot level we were on a high ridge which looked quite dangerous due to a large volume of loose shale which had showered the narrow track during frequent landslides. And we were also into snow at this point. But we gave it the college try and hunted once more in a burn area, but found no mushrooms at all. We decided it was still too cool that high for morels, and returned to base camp.

Black morels, tri-tip, asparagus and
mashed potatoes — quite possibly
the best meal I've ever had.
The evening's meal was fantastic -- we had two large tri-tip steaks, asparagas, and mashed potatoes, grilled together in cast iron over a campfire of smoky maple wood, well seasoned (which we brought with us). We sliced our 6 black morels and grilled them with shallots, sea salt and cracked pepper, and reduced with a nice sweet tawny port. Mixed with the gravy from the tri-tip, this made for a truly unforgettable meal. Nathan is an extremely skilled cook and despite a downpour of rain during the preparation, we ate like kings and retired in comfort. (I really want to write a blog about how to camp in style!)

We anticipated our next day's hunt, which we hit hard and early (thanks to our tinpecker alarm clock) after a fortifying breakfast, would be lovely and would restock our mushroom supply. We hunted all day long, mostly at lower elevations. We basically hunted fruitlessly all the way from Liberty, down to the high desert north of Ellensburg, before looping back around on the 97 and returning for a late lunch. We then picked up the hunt again, returning to our original spot in desperation, as it was the only place in about 10 hours of hunting we'd seen any morels.

During this time we also talked to a number of other morel hunters we encountered, including one couple which resided in a remote cabin at the 4,000-foot level and was climbing a steep road up to it in an ATV.  Everyone confirmed that their luck was as bad as ours had been, and the local couple blamed a relative lack of moisture in the area. (Some years, they said the morels were so plentiful you could pick them while walking alongside the forest service roads, without even going far into the forests and climbing the steep slopes, which is hard work indeed.) But not this year.

And the forest ranger had forewarned us with a similar warning that she was receiving very few find reports, either from the professional collectors or the amateurs like us.

So in a way this is encouraging. We plan to return to our "spot" at a time when the mushrooms are heavy, hopefully next spring.

Most of the other amateur hunters we talked to had found only a handful, a half dozen or a dozen, just as we had.

So, Saturday afternoon we found only one more (smallish) morel, pictured here, which we were able to bring home to prove we actually found something. Plus I found about five impressive Gyromitra montana (a false morel, pictured below) growing in a suspicious, spider-webby animal hole of some sort. (I'm reading up about their edibility on various websites, which disagree on the topic. I may these in very small quantities somtime this week. I'll let you know if I survive. Gyromitra shrooms supposedly taste like morels but contain a small amount of toxin which is supposed to evaporate out if you cook them well enough. And I'll cook the heck out of mine, I can assure you. Also, the G. montana are the variety which is supposed to be the most edible of the lot.)

Gyromitra montana mushrooms
deep within a she-lob lair.
We slept great on Saturday night, despite the disappointing day's hunt. (Tromping for hours through steeply forested burn slopes is a good way to work up an appetite and ensure exhaustion!) In fact, I even slept through the tinpecker alarm clock on Sunday morning.

After breaking camp we headed north to the lovely town of Leavenworth and enjoyed a pint of raspberry wheat ale at the new-ish Icycle Brewery facility there. Then it was home to clean off the charcoal-y grime of two days of mushroom hunting amidst haunting burned-out pine forests.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. If the Cle Elum Forestry ranger tells me the morels are "on," you can expect me up on the ridge in about three hours. Hopefully next time I'll bring back enough to share with friends.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hell needn't be hot. Mere bad engineering will suffice.

Please be warned: I am going to use A LOT OF CAPITAL LETTERS in this diatribe, since I am mad as heck and I'm not going to take it any more.
Our Whirlpool dishwasher ... and its evil,
seriously over-engineered silverware tray.
Several years ago we bought a Whirlpool dishwasher. With the appliance itself, I don't have any serious complaints. (Except for the time it sudsed over onto our new wooden kitchen floor because we put a little too much soap in it.) But this isn't what has my goat. It's this one very small, seemingly simple piece of equipment associated with this purchase that has come to represent pure evil to me.


We have a routine in our household. Throughout the day, we load the dishwasher. At night we usually have enough in it to run it, and since utility prices are lower at night, we turn it on shortly before we go to bed. By morning, the dishes are clean, dry, and cool. So far, so good.

Three days a week, my wife leaves before I do, so it's my privilege to unload the clean dishes and put them away. I do fine until I get to the dreaded silverware basket.

This one little piece of equipment demonstrates vividly to me, each day, what happens when you overengineer something and then (obviously) don't test it in the laboratory of real life.

Wait a minute, you say ... a silverware basket? We're not talking about a space shuttle here. It's a simple thing, right? It has little compartments that you put silverware in. Then you should just as easily be able to take them out and put them away. Right?

So I would once have thought. So what's the problem? Where do I start ...

First, the basket is designed (as any good silverware basket should be) with little hooks on it that fit into the lower rack of the dishwasher, so it can be lifted out. So far so good. (Except for the fact that these hooks aren't quite big enough or obvious enough to keep the silverware basket secured to the rack, and it sometimes comes loose, causing the entire operation to grind to a halt. But, that's a comparatively minor issue.)

When you lift the basket out, it looks as if it has a flat bottom and you ought to be able to place it upright on the countertop for unloading. Right? But, not so fast! THIS particular basket is a little too vertical, and the bottom edge on one side is ever-so-slightly rounded. You set the basket on the counter ... wait for it ... then, satisfied, you turn your back ... and it falls over with a huge clatter! Silverware is flung hither and yon, sometimes breaking expensive glassware, sometimes pitching sharp knives point-first toward your bare feet. But most of the time, it simply pitches clean silverware onto the floor, meaning of course that particular silverware promptly has to be rewashed.

Making the bottom a little more square and testing its stability in the basket design would have been a simple thing. But NO.

Once you pick up all the scattered silverware, reload any that is contaminated, stop any bleeding, and calm the cat, the next problem presents itself. The individual compartments in the bin are only connected toward the top, so with any motion at all, some of the silverware slides down and goes horizontal in the bottom of the tray. You now have silverware stuck in the bottom of the tray, and there is no way to get it out without opening the latched "easy open" door that these brilliant engineers built into one side of the tray. (In the photo, you can see the door opened.)

Simple, right? Snap open the latch, open the door, remove the silverware, and shut the door again.

Only one small problem ... instead of a REAL hinge, these brilliant engineers built this sophisticated peg-and-hook system so the door could actually be fully REMOVED. (And WHY?) So of course the door invariably comes OFF when you try and shut it again.

Now the challenge is to try getting the door back ON ... and though this should be simple, it reminds me of trying to solve a rubix cube. For there are three pegs-in-hooks and then this little slot-in-hole thing at one end which I think is designed in an effort to keep the door from coming off too easily (which of course it doesn't do, since the door once opened ALWAYS comes off, but instead prevents it from going back on again). You have to get these three pegs-in-hooks all aligned just perfectly, and then you kind of have to slide the entire thing over just so in order to get that locking slot into the hole. It rarely can be done on the first try, even when you do this EVERY MORNING OF YOUR LIFE.

So, every morning of my life, after spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get my silverware successfully unloaded, I am now fuming and frothing at the mouth and trying not to swear or fling the silverware tray across the room. (Which would only warp it so I could NEVER again get it open ... or shut ... or rescue my poor lost silverware. Making the entire dishwasher absolutely useless, and ensuring my cat would never again come out of her hiding place.)

Okay, I know what you're thinking. Why on earth has he taken all this time to write this whole long blog about a silverware tray? And why did I read this far, anyway?

Actually, it's therapy. (For me, not you.) And writing this has taken me less time than it typically takes me to successfully unload my silverware.

By way of a moral to the story, suffice it to say that there is a special compartment in hell for engineers who build complicated things like this, all for the joy of making them complicated, when it should be SO simple. (And then of course they don't test them in the laboratory of real life to see what kind of havoc they have wrought.)

How many things in life do we make WAY TOO COMPLICATED when a simple solution is the best solution? What are the over-engineered things in your own life that make you want to WRITE IN ALL CAPS???

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

What YouTube Missed

May 1-8 is Global Week of Action for Children's Health. Millions of children worldwide are not registered at birth, and therefore are unable to access critical health care resources necessary for them to "Survive To 5."

Join World Vision and Child Health Now in calling for a global effort to ensure newborn children have access to the health care services that could save the lives of many.

For more information, visit Child Health Now.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Calvinists vs. Arminians: Can't we all just get along?

On February 13 I wrote a blog post titled, "Oh, Hell" in which I expounded upon some of my personal doubts and wrestlings with the concept of hell as presented in the Bible. I also mentioned I was reading Rob Bell's book on "Heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived," titled "Love Wins," and that I would get back to you when I was done, with my thoughts.

I finished the book on a jet plane, coming back from a vacation in beautiful Savannah, Georgia last week. And so, I intend to make good on my promise here.

Bell raises a lot of perceptive and fascinating questions about the Bible's treatment of the afterlife. I don't think he deserves all the criticism he's received (for instance, that he's a heretical universalist); he certainly doesn't take that position directly, although the questions he raises about the nature of God, and what really is or isn't said about hell in the Bible, might leave you with that impression.

Basically, if you want to walk away with clear ANSWERS to the questions he raises, this isn't necessarily the right book for you. Also, I think you should realize from the outset that much of what is discussed in this book might lead you (as it did me) into direct explorations of the various (perceived) conflicts between 5-point Calvinists and Arminians.

By way of review (and these are my own words), the extreme Calvinist position says that salvation (when it comes to who is saved and who is not) is "100% God's decree;" in other words, God chooses "the elect." We may think we are making choices for (or against) God, but in reality because we are elected (because those choices are foreordained by God), we are not really responsible for them. God alone decides who He will save, and who He won't. There really is no free human choice on our part involved.

On the spectrum of God's will/human choice, Arminianism swings to the opposite extreme. Salvation is completely a matter of free human choice. God has provided the means for salvation (the blood of Christ), but we are the ones who choose it. Therefore, some Calvinists accuse Arminians of believing we humans "deserve" at least "some of the credit" for our salvation. After all, we repented and made the choice. However, the classical Arminianist position itself clearly denies this.

For many years I've believed that at least the extremes of some of those who embrace both of these positions are in error, if you look at the whole of the Bible. The answer has to lie somewhere in between (or perhaps wholly outside of) these two extremes. Yes, the Bible makes it clear that God foreordains/elects the saints. (But, what does that mean? Calvinists say it's the salvation that's foreordained, and Arminianists say it's the future life of those who have been saved that is foreordained.) And yes, on the other end of the spectrum, it also makes it clear that our free will, our human choices, matter enormously.

This tension plays out in numerous places in Scripture. Despite many warnings, Pharaoh chose to oppose God and seek to keep the Israelites enslaved. The Bible says that God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" in these choices. And of course, the dramatic release of the Israelites from Egypt was part of God's plan all along, to demonstrate His glory to both Egyptians and Israelites.

So, it was both God's perfect will (His election), and man's choice (Pharaoh's decisions) that made this happen. Somewhere in the middle of our two extremes ... and it all works together for good for those who love God and "have been called" according to His purpose! (Romans 8:28)

Bell might tick off hard-core Calvinists in his assertions that God does not violate the principle of human freedom (if someone rejects him, walks away into a hell of his own making, God lets him go); and that God truly does not wish any to perish (and that God gets His way ultimately, which leads to the conclusion many people have reached that "Love Wins" is universalistic). I experienced this reaction first-hand when I discussed the book with a Calvinist friend recently.

(By the way, I know some hard-core Calvinists who spend a lot of time wrestling with the fear that they aren't really saved ... that, despite their acceptance of Christ's forgiveness for their sins, God may somehow ultimately "elect" for them to be damned ... which I think is possibly one of the more negative ramifications of Calvinism's extremes. Scripture says "All who come to me I will in no wise cast out" and urges us believers, time and again, not to fear! These Christian friends of mine have chosen to come to Him. Shouldn't they therefore release that particular fear? Would God break His promise?)

What Bell does do, through his questions, is pop some evangelical/fundamentalist "bubbles" that may need to be popped, or at least thoroughly discussed. For instance, take the contention (supported primarily by 5-point Calvinists, but also assumed by many other Christians) that at the moment of death, the curtain drops and your fate is sealed. That even if (when confronted with the majestic God who created you, in judgment) you fell to your knees and said, "I'm sorry I didn't believe in you and receive you earlier! I now understand the error of my ways. I believe in You now. Please forgive me, cover my sins with the blood of Christ!" God would shake His head and say, "Nope. Too late. Your fate is sealed, and now you will be tormented in hell forever for not doing this 10 minutes earlier. Sorry!"

That sounds extreme, I know, but that really does seem to be what many Christians believe. Bell points out that the loving Father who "desires for all men to be saved," the Father who hiked up His skirts and ran out to welcome His prodigal son back into the fold, wouldn't be capable of such evil. And, I have to say he has a good point.

However, I realize that 5-point Calvinists will make two valid points (which Bell plays around the edges of but doesn't really address directly): 1) The words of Christ himself (in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) seem to imply that the decisions we make in this life, and the inclination to make those decisions (based on the "ordainment" of God, according to Calvinists) are effective for all of eternity; and 2) If God truly does ordain those whom He desires to be saved, to eternal life, and those whom He desires to be damned, to eternal death, then He would certainly do so before the "it is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment" deadline.

Actually, my main bone of contention with extreme Calvinists is reflected in that last sentence. Could the Creator God of the Scripture really "desire some men to be damned?" Isn't this in clear violation of his own stated will, expressed in Ezekiel 18:27-32, 1 Timothy 2:3-4, 2 Peter 3:9, and elsewhere?

However, I would point out to those who argue (on the basis of Heb. 9:27's*, "It is appointed to men once to die, and after this the judgment"), "Once saved, always saved" and "Once you die in your sins, you are always lost," that even that proof text itself is not explicit about the amount of time, space, or other events that may elapse between those two things ("once to die," and "then" -- when? -- judgment). Catholics would probably insert into this space, "Hence, Purgatory" which of course is the view that an intermediary state of being is needed to fully purge/cleanse our souls from sin before we can be allowed into a sinless heaven.

Not being Catholic (and not seeing any direct evidence for Purgatory in Scripture), I naturally do not accept this contention, but something akin to Purgatory (and supported by the Old Testament metaphor of the "Outer Court of the Gentiles" when it comes to the Temple, or to similar outer areas of the Tabernacle) might possibly exist in the fringes of the journey to Heaven. C. S. Lewis alluded to this in his brilliant allegory, "The Great Divorce," wherein a busload of passengers are delivered on a day-trip from Hell to Heaven. They have great difficulty even stepping upon the grass of Heaven's outlands, as they are so incorporeal, and it is quite clear that they must become "adjusted" to the realities of heaven (their souls cleansed from all that binds them to hell) in order be able to traverse "inward and upward" toward the Center of God's universe.

The Great Divorce leaves us with the sense that all of the bus riders save one judge this journey too difficult to make. They are too comfortable in hell, having gone there in the first place because they are too uncomfortable being exposed to the holiness of God, with all of its demands. In other words, they are too used to being the captain of their own ship. The narrator alone leaves the reader with the impression that he is going to miss the bus ride home to hell, and seek to make the changes necessary to travel inward and upward. (I.e., repentance after death!)

Based on Bell's words in "Love Wins," I think he would agree with Lewis. Although I don't think he necessarily views hell as a place of punitive justice (where God pours out his wrath on sin by torturing lost souls in eternal torment), he certainly does contend that "a hell of our own making" exists. He affirms free will, the fact that God gave men the ability to choose, and will never force them to do otherwise. He agrees that if God freely gives man the ability to choose his grace, there must be the possibility that some will not choose it, perhaps may never choose it.

But, at the same time, as I mentioned earlier, he raises some intriguing questions. Evangelicals agree that God is omnipotent (as expressed by Bell's phrase, "God gets His way"). And most of them agree with straightforward interpretation of the verse "God desires that none should perish." (Although I recognize that 5-point Calvinists might not acknowledge the straightforward interpretation of this verse. One friend said to me: "That verses doesn't mean 'everyone' ... just the elect." But I'm sorry, that's not what it plainly says ... is it?) If God wants all people to be saved, and He ultimately gets His way, what does this portend for the future of all people?

Also, there is the intriguing passage in Isaiah 45:23 — "By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’" Which is reinforced quite heartily by Paul in Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:9-11. If every knee will bow and every tongue will confess (swear allegiance to, according to Isaiah) the Lordship of Christ ... then where are His detractors?

Only three possibilities, as far as I can see, remain: 1) Rob Bell is right: Love Wins in the end, and ultimately God gets His way. All ultimately repent and are covered by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. 2) Those who fail to repent (the goats of Matthew 25) are destroyed in the "Second Death," the lake of fire reserved for the Devil and his angels (Revelation 20;14), and all others (the sheep) worship God forever as He intended. Or 3) This verse doesn't really mean what it seems to mean ... either "every" doesn't really mean "every," or as one of my Calvinist friends might contend, "bowing to the Lordship of Christ" is forced upon wicked unbelievers somehow ... which raises the question: is forced allegiance really allegiance?

I've ordered those three possibilities in accordance with what I hope is true. But, scripturally, I think the best argument really lies with option #2. Scripture doesn't really seem to entertain the possibility that Satan and his demons will ultimately repent and serve God, although I don't see this as outside the realm of possibility for God's grace, certainly. (Remember, "He who is forgiven much, loves much" Luke 7:47.)

The bottom line is, just as Scripture really isn't clear on these things (what we need, after all, is to trust God today, and having the answers to these questions doesn't necessarily lend itself to this trust, does it?), I don't think we as fallible human beings can be completely clear, either. Bell makes a good point that there is not a hard-and-fast, clear-cut interpretation of these matters. My Calvinist friends might shout "Heresy!" but just shouting heresy hasn't ever helped the cause of Truth, as far as I am aware. I don't see that Rob Bell's conclusions (or at least the questions he raises) are anti-biblical in any way, so I'm certainly not ready to throw the first stone. (And, might I add ... I've actually read the book! Many of his critics have not.)

There are some things about the WAY Bell writes (his imprecise, somewhat vague, poetical style, which I assume comes from the way he preaches) that annoyed the heck out of me. But once I survived this in the first half of the book, I felt like the second half made wading through the first half worth the wait.

*By the way, even hardcore Calvinists will agree that Scripture presents several different types of "judgment," and it is not immediately clear which type Heb. 9:27 is referring to. If "judgment" refers to the Great White Throne Judgment, the final judgment at the end of days, depicted in Revelation, then certainly there is some "space" which must be inserted where the word "then" occurs in this verse.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Noah" all wet

One of the pieces of Noah art that hangs on the wall
of my office.
I don't think I've yet reviewed a movie on this blog. But, after watching "Noah" last night, I feel compelled to try my hand at it.

A couple of things first: 1) I was VERY excited about seeing this movie. I am a huge Noah buff (that is, a fan of this extremely powerful story). I spent five years in my 20s writing a fantasy novel ("Fountains of the Deep") which swirled around the edges of this historic, globe-changing event. My office at home is decorated with Noah wallpaper, paintings, etc. I was thrilled with the previews. So, it really was something I was looking forward to. The reviews were mixed, but even though I read a few sour ones, I still couldn't miss it.

2) I wasn't expecting biblical accuracy, per se. Actually, I was happy to read in one of the reviews (and I used this fact on Facebook to respond to those who expressed doubt about the movie) that while the movie "filled in the blanks" left by the scriptural account, it didn't actually contradict Scripture.

And, even if it did, I was prepared to live with that if they did a good job telling a good story and didn't totally screw it up. It's Hollywood, after all. The director is an atheist. My expectations were not high.

Yet in spite of all this, I was bitterly disappointed. Now let me try to express why. (And, be warned, this will contain spoilers.)

I felt the movie started out fairly strong. It depicted creation and the fall with a fair degree of reasonable accuracy. When Noah came on the scene, one felt how precarious it must have been to carry the light of a relationship with the Creator in such a dark world.

The depiction of earth as an industrial wasteland, spoiled by humanity's sin, reminiscent in some ways of a prediluvian Mad Max, I could live with. I was expecting a creative approach, and this didn't disappoint.

But, my first major disappointment was in the depiction of the creatures labeled as "Nephilim." In the Bible, the Nephilim are some sort of mysterious union between "the sons of God" and "the daughters of men." They were a race of giants, physically speaking. (One of the great biblical mysteries, to me, is how descendants from the Nephilim race came to exist in the antediluvian world. My novel provided a proposed solution to this mystery.)

But, in the movie, the Nephilim are actually angels who have fallen to earth. It's implied their motives were pure for falling: they wanted to come "help humanity" overcome the temptation of Adam and Eve! (That's rich, isn't it!) But God had forbidden it, supposedly, so when they reached earth they were turned into funky rock creatures, with the angelic light of their spiritual being somehow shining through the cracks and manifesting in their glowing eyes. They reminded me of Ents. I couldn't decide whether it was creepy, or just plain silly.

These "Nephilim" end up redeeming themselves, later in the movie, by allying with Noah and protecting the Ark from the hordes of barbarians who are trying to take it over to save themselves from the Flood. And of course Noah also uses the Ents (er, Nephilim) to do the heavy lifting on the actual building of this magnificent vessel. Hence it looks like it takes about a week to complete, rather than the full century Scripture assures us it actually took.

So, of course when raindrops start falling the evil humans rush the Nephilim to get at the Ark, and while the rock creatures are able to hammer many of them into dust, they are eventually overcome. As they are overcome, their angelic spirits are freed from their rock prisons and they are able to soar back up to God. How pretty.

(This was probably the most noble depiction of demons that one could imagine!)

And that's just a start of the movie's problems. The sin of godless humanity around Noah is depicted as being a combination of disrespect for women (trading them as sex slaves) ... and eating meat. (Which is worse? I'm torn.) Noah and his family are, of course, vegetarians. Because only a true sinner could eat meat.

Which brings us to the purpose of the Ark. Noah seems convinced that it's to save the animals, so that God can start over again with a much simpler and nobler world. Noah realizes (rightly enough) that sin is inherent in all of us, and the dilemma of repopulating the world with sinful humanity strikes him hard. As a result he assumes that it is his responsibility before God to ensure this is never allowed to happen. When his only daughter-in-law miraculously becomes pregnant (and bears twin girls, conveniently enough one for each of his remaining, wifeless sons) he is convinced God wants him to kill the newborns, and almost does.

This is all a very complicated set-up for the end of his movie, and the all-important "drunk and naked in the tent" scene. Actually, it wasn't in the tent, but in a cave on the beach. Of course Noah is making wine out of nice table grapes (not wine grapes) and somehow manages to become smashed. The reason, we realize, is his depression at his failure before God to extinguish humanity and hence save the world for animals. Plus his pretty wife is pissed off at him. (Noah, a frumpy version of Russell Crowe who might have passed for 60, should have been like 600 years old at this point, so having a pretty wife was a definite bonus.)

But of course, love wins in the end.

I'm sorry, does this all sound as ridiculous to you as it does to me? It left me crying out for even a small ounce of the power of the real story.

The beauty of the Ark, of course, is that it's a metaphor for Jesus. The metaphor was repeated, hundreds of years later, when Moses' sister places the baby in his own little Ark and sets it afloat on the Nile. The Ark is the salvation that God has provided you and me from a fate worse than death. Sin is the disease and a holy God has to judge it, elsewise none of us will survive. He created all this for a reason beyond our ability to imagine, but whatever it is, it's worth the pain of a sinful and decaying creation. It's worth Him going to great lengths (like the Ark ... and like His Son, dying on a cross) to save it. To save us.

Yes, all Creation groans and longs for that day, and no doubt in some wonderful sense all Creation will be saved (a seed must "die" and be planted before it can be born again into a magnicent tree). But it's not just about Creation. The Ark is there to save you and me!

It was Noah's simple obedience that made this possible, but it was God's doing. The Ark is a symbol of His grace, carrying us high above the waters of sin and death.

And another Ark is coming!

Okay, sorry about the soapbox. Back to my review. Watch "Noah" if you want to, but be warned. You might want to save it for a Redbox coupon night.

Did you see it? What did you think? Am I all washed up?