Tuesday, October 03, 2017

When Materialism Provides No Answers

"It just makes no sense. It's like an asteroid."


Stephen Paddock's brother, Eric, stood in front of the media and groped for words as they asked him to explain why his brother had just unloaded a hail of thousands of bullets into a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing at least 59 and injuring more than 500, in the U.S.' worst mass shooting.

But asteroids are (more or less) random. People who kill dozens of people with guns, and injure hundreds more, are not. Reasons exist. Everyone knows this, so law enforcement and media are currently in something of a frenzy seeking to explain why a quiet, unassuming person like Paddock would go off the deep end and do the unthinkably horrible thing that he did, before taking his own life.

He was suicidal, that part's clear. But it still doesn't explain why a suicidal person would seek to take so many innocent people with him.

Like all of us, I think my first emotions upon hearing the news reports were a sickening sense of grief. How could such a thing happen? And my own emotions are compounded by knowing one of the victims, an L.A. County Sheriff deputy who worked with me at World Vision a number of years ago. (A bullet lodged very near his spine and they are currently evaluating whether or not they can remove it safely. Please pray for Andrew and his family!)

The last time I remember feeling this way was in March 2015, when Germanwings flight 9525 copilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed his jetliner full of 149 innocent people, and himself, into a remote mountainside in France.

A Time for Reflection

I've learned to try and put the emotions associated with such events in a certain compartment, in order to examine the facts as best I am able, interpreted by the media of course and from my rather inconvenient spot in my comfy chair here in front of my computer. But the importance of careful reflection on such events cannot be underestimated. I'm not talking about figuring out how to prevent such tragedies, which is not necessarily up to people like me; but rather, deeper questions. Questions like: Why do seemingly "normal" people commit such horrific, seemingly senseless atrocities? If you eliminate the obvious possible motivations (like terrorism, greed, anger, revenge, etc.), what are you left with?

At press time, it appears that revenge may be a possible motivation. Paddock had spent large sums of money in recent days, gambling. It is theorized that perhaps he was angry at the gambling establishment for ruining his life.

Now, as you may already be aware, I am no fan of gambling ... but, first of all, it's not clear by any stretch that Paddock's life was ruined. He actually was reported to have made quite a bit of money gambling. And I would think that even if he were considered a "professional" gambler, the occasional losing streak would just be part of the territory for someone like that. Anyone with any brains knows that ultimately, the house is the winner when it comes to gambling. (And, while I am in general wired as a risk-taking person, I do question whether and why people who are blessed in the brains department would do much gambling, in the first place!)

Second, and perhaps more significantly, even if you were angry about gambling losses or the perception of being cheated, would this anger be sufficient to motivate a rational person (and for all practical purposes, Paddock did appear to be rational, as witnessed by the manner in which he planned and executed his attack) to injure and kill hundreds of innocent people? Wouldn't it make more sense to take your vengeance out directly on those casino professionals more directly responsible for your losses?

Another popular materialistic explanation is mental illness. He must have been insane. But once again, there doesn't seem to be any apparent history of mental illness. His friends and relatives all thought of Paddock as a "normal, regular guy. Just a guy." And the methodical way he planned and executed his attack also is causing most experts to question the mental illness hypothesis.

What, then? ISIL has of course claimed responsibility, but law enforcement currently sees no connection. All THAT proves is that those clowns have the ability to watch the news and the hutzpah to try and take advantage of horrible moments for their own devious ends.

What then? The materialistic explanations are running out.

More Things in Heaven and Earth

And this is what should bother thinking people about the materialistic society in which we live. As Shakespeare famously penned, "There are are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

We don't like to consider the possibility that there are dark spiritual forces at work among us. For most of us, watching movies like "The Exorcist" falls into the category of "entertainment." I was fascinated by this introduction on the site "Ranker," on their page listing "the best demonic possession movies" ...
There’s nothing more horrifying than watching a movie about a person who’s possessed by a demon. What is it about the thought of demons, supernatural visitations, darkness, and evil that fascinates to human beings so much? We must love it, as there are tons of wildly successful films where characters are possessed by demons.
I would suggest another explanation behind our fascination. It rings true. In college I had a professor of missions who had spent many years in South American countries. He had a reputation there (which surprisingly followed him to Southern California) as a (somewhat reluctant) exorcist. He was even called to one of the girls' dorms at our college, late one night, where he cast a demon or demons out of a student who was very troubled, changing the course of her life dramatically for the better. My fiance was a witness to this event, as as the campus newspaper editor I did an extensive interview with Dr. Murphy where shared the details of many of his fascinating experiences with demonic forces both in South America and in the United States.

The challenge in the U.S., he acknowledged, was that in our materialistic society we oftentimes don't believe that Satan or his demonic forces are real. Even in our churches we frequently shy away from things like this which transgress the boundaries of the "ordinary" into areas we can't materialistically explain.

However, the Bible we say we believe observes no such boundaries. Christ's interactions with demonic forces were numerous and dramatic, as were those of the apostles who followed Him. The Bible certainly agrees with Shakespeare: "There are more things in heaven and earth ..."


But Light Overcomes Darkness

And while we might find this truth frightening, if we reflect further and more deeply it should also be of great encouragement to us. For, if there are Evil Forces at work, there must also be forces at work for Good! And what do we apprehend (in faith) about those Forces for Good?
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:1-4)
There are a couple of important things to note about the truths revealed in these verses. First, even though we have been speaking (as if we were Luke Skywalker) about "Evil Forces" and "Good Forces," the truth is that there is a person (or persons) behind all such forces. Force is wielded by personality. And these persons (in this case the "spirits" of whom John speaks) have goals.

The first goal John speaks of is to convince us to believe their narrative of truth. With some friends at our church I am currently studying C. S. Lewis' brilliant work of fiction, The Screwtape Letters, which postulates what it be like to be privy to a conversation between a senior tempter and his demonic trainee. There is a fascinating exchange which highlights the demonic strategy:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
So, the demons themselves wish for us to either not believe in them at all (the materialistic viewpoint); or, to believe in them wholeheartedly and fear them and structure our lives around that fear.

And, if you take the words of these verses ("for He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world") out of the equation, it makes sense that so many non-materialistic societies have feared and worshiped demonic forces. For the primary goal of those forces is stated by Christ Himself, and it is bad news indeed: in a word, it's "death."
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)
In Christ's parable, "the thief," of course, is the prince of demons himself, Satan. Satan exults in taking what is not his, in robbing God of His glory and creation; in killing, in destruction. Fearful power.

But juxtaposed against this fearful power is an even more awesome power wielded by Christ, the "greater is He that is in you," the One who came that we might have life, and abundantly. While we mustn't make the mistake of not believing in the existence of demonic forces, we must simultaneously hold a realistic view of their relative impotence. They can only go "thus far, and no further," as God permitted Satan to afflict Job. They can only act in accordance with God's permissive purposes, which are greater than we can possibly understand.

The Cross: The Ultimate Test of Power on Both Sides

And the foremost example of this is the Cross of Christ, the greatest tragedy of human history, sinful human beings unjustly condemning the sinless Son of God to an untimely, gruesome death. But then the pinnacle achievement of Satan, killing the very Son of God, was turned on its head by the power of God (manifested in the resurrection of Christ) into the pinnacle achievement of He who is greater than!This is the power of God, my friends. And it is a power we can be confident will overcome the very worst attacks of the evil one and his minions, be they Islamic terrorism or mass murder of innocents or the opiod epidemic or even the brutal slaughter of millions of innocent unborn.

None of us know, ultimately, how the actions of a person like Stephen Paddock will be explained. But what we CAN know is this: while Satan is real, and powerful, and we are not unaware of his schemes; we have a God who is also real, and far more powerful, and has purposes that we will someday comprehend and will cause us to drop down and worship Him!

So ... I know it sounds trite to say, "Keep the faith!" at times like this ... but I believe it is exactly what God would want us to do. In the face of immense tragedy and suffering, we must reflect on His greater purposes and keep the faith. Amen?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Congruence of Christian Friendship

Spending time with some amazing friends, the Passics.
Our Pastor, Martin Schlomer, recently posted an article from Relevant Magazine titled, “What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?” The article is a conversation with Eugene Peterson, the renowned author of The Message.

At the article’s core, Peterson addresses the issue of incongruence in the Christian life. “Incongruence” is the gap between what we say we believe and what we act like we believe. A pastor for a number of years before he became a theologian and author, Peterson was shaken by the incongruence he saw in himself (as a preacher) and those who sat under his sermons each Sunday, so much so that he considered himself a failure as a preacher.

I would encourage you to read the article for yourself, and I won’t lengthen this blog by summarizing it. But I did want to present a couple of ideas that really jumped out at me, that resonated with my heart.

One is that the solutions to most of our problems really are quite simple. They aren’t necessarily easy, but they are simple. Peterson talks a lot about the importance of faithfulness, about which he coined the phrase “a long obedience in the same direction” in a book by the same name he wrote over 20 years ago. We have problems that may seem intractable, but the solutions are usually quite simple: disciplined financial management, thinking and praying before we speak or act, seeking to focus on the needs of others before our own, etc. Simple . . . but not easy.

A second thing that he said that really jumped out at me was that authentic Christian friendships are our best weapon against incongruence. I know many of us struggle with a sense that we don’t have many, or possibly even any, authentic, honest Christian friendships. In our culture, in particular, this feeling of loneliness, a lack of true friends, seems epidemic. We don’t stay planted in one place for very long. (I’ve read that the average American moves every three years.) And when we do have a place to call home, we usually hunker down inside it and hardly spend any time out-of- doors, getting to know our neighbors. (Darlene and I walk around our neighborhood daily, and we always marvel how rarely we actually see any of our neighbors out-of- doors.)

When Evangelical Free Church missions director Nubako Selenga was visiting the United States for the first time, I asked him (while driving him to our church) what struck him as the strangest thing about America. “It’s so empty,” he replied without hesitation. “There are all these beautiful homes, but I don’t see people around them. When you drive down a road in Africa, everyone is outside their home, visiting with their neighbors.”

That was convicting. How well do I know my neighbors? How many do I consider friends?

And it seems, to me, to be getting worse in the younger generations. I’m always astonished when I see at a restaurant a table full of young people, and everyone is engaged deeply . . . in their smartphones or personal devices. A whole table full of silent people who are doing God-alone- knows-what on social media, but are barely even talking to one other.

Does it surprise us to learn that friendship is an extremely high value to our Lord? “No longer do I call you servants,” Jesus said, “. . . but I have called you friends.” Exodus 33 tells us that the Lord would speak with Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” Job said he was “in [his] prime, when the friendship of God was upon [his] tent.” Jonathan and David had “sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Lord,” and the power and poignancy of that particular relationship rings down to us through the ages.

Solomon told us that “faithful are the wounds of a friend,” but “profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” Herein, perhaps, lies the secret to the power of Christian friendship to create spiritual congruence (people who live like who they really are, adopted sons and daughters of the Most High God): people willing to tell each other hard truth, even if it hurts, because their love and friendship makes such truth both necessary and beneficial.

Sounds great, right? But how? What if you are reading this and frustrated and tired of feeling alone? You wish you had intimate and authentic Christian friendships, but they just don’t seem to be happening?

I can’t think of how to say this without sounding trite, but this, once again, is something that I think is both simple and hard. It’s a “long obedience in the same direction.”

First of all, Scripture advises us to choose our friends carefully. “Be not unequally yoked,” we are admonished. I can’t tell you, however, how many times I see young people willing to enter into dating relationships and even become engaged and married to someone who does not share their faith. I understand that loneliness can drive us to make poor choices. But that’s one poor choice that has little chance of doing anything other than later enhancing and ensuring continuing loneliness.

One of God’s richest blessings on my life I am celebrating today, on the 38th anniversary of my marriage to my best friend. Actually, Darlene and I probably became the best of friends some six years before we were married, so that makes it 44 years and counting. She models to me what it truly means to be a Christian friend: she is unafraid to tell me hard truth, when I need to hear it, and I know that she is 100% committed to me and my best, no matter what lies ahead. A friend like that is worth more than all the money in the world.

Young people: please, please, please, hold out for God’s best for you! Don’t give in to the temptation to date people who do not share your faith. Could they become a believer? Sure, we pray so. But don’t take the chance that their interest in you lies in places that will eclipse their interest in Jesus.

Dating and marriage aside, my other “simple but hard” point is that any friendship requires risky nvestment: time, effort, love, whatever. Time is probably the big one we struggle with. But you can’t really expect to develop meaningful friendships if you aren’t willing to invest the time.

And I say “risky” because I know it doesn’t always work out. I’ve had people I invested in that I hoped I would be lifelong friends with, who for whatever reason didn’t reciprocate, and we drifted apart.

But true friendship is worth the risk! So get started today. Enroll in a community group at a good church and get to know others who love Jesus. If you make the investment but don’t find any solid friends there, move on to another group. Sooner or later, you’ll hit pay dirt!

And then, allow those friends to speak truth into your life! Each of us has a congruence problem—and part of the answer is finding good Christian friends.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

How does God really feel about slavery?

... in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28)
Atheists and others who denigrate the #Bible have assured us repeatedly that God supports the horrific institution of slavery; if not actively, to the extent that He permitted it; or at the very least by His supposed silence on the subject.

This is partly the fault of Christians who, in the 18th and 19th centuries, used certain passages of Scripture and certain manufactured concepts to support their own justification of owning slaves. They pulled passages like Leviticus 25:44-46 (KJV) out of context to make their case:
Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.
American slaveholders said Africans were "heathen" so that supposedly justified owning them as slaves. (Also, by this logic, as soon as a slave became a Christian, as many did, he or she was no longer a "heathen," right? And should therefore have been freed. Hmmm.) But isolating a passage like this does not give a clear view of God's opinion on the matter, particularly when terms like "bondmen" (or "slave"), and "buying children" are not clearly defined in accordance with the intent of Scripture.

So, let's start there: When the Bible calls someone a "slave," how is it defining the term (as opposed to when we here in the 21st Century call someone a "slave")?

The answer is complicated, because the word can refer either to voluntarily or involuntary servitude. And there's a huge difference (obviously!) between the two.

There is a lot of argument about this, depending on your perspective on who God is and the integrity of His Word; as well as your understanding of cultural norms at the time the Bible was penned. I believe that when the Bible uses the phrase "bondsman" or "slave," the base concept is of (primarily voluntary) indentured servitude.

So what is an "indentured servant?" There are several definitions of "indenture," but here is the one closest to the meaning of the phrase in Scripture: "A contract binding one person to work for another for a given period of time." Contracts are (obviously, again!) an agreement struck between two or more parties. In most cases, in biblical times, those two parties were the buyer (the "master" purchasing the servitude), and the one selling the servitude -- most often the "slave" him (or her) self, or else another who had the legal right to sell the servitude of that person (for a set of very narrowly defined reasons in Scripture ... keep reading!).

One can argue that even a person selling themselves into voluntary servitude was the result of economic injustice and poverty, and so often that was true. While the Bible certainly addresses these issues (economic justice and how the poor should be treated) in many other places, the fact of poverty was (and remains) a reality, and a very persistent part of the cultural fabric not only of biblical times, but also of ours.

Jesus famously said, "The poor you always have with you ..." and those among us inclined to cast dispersion upon Him often cite this as an example of His "unwillingness to speak out" against the injustice of poverty. But you and I know that's not what it was. This was not a case of the indifference or antagonism of the wealthy against the poor. Jesus Himself was poor. ("The Son of Man has no where to lay His head.") He commingled and identified with the poor on so many levels (as he also commingled and accepted as human beings those from within the system that oppressed them).

Those who take in and grasp the context of His quote understand that He was addressing the excuses of those (like Judas) who would say "The social mission is the top priority!" His words were a retort: "No, your top priority should be your heart, and loving and honoring God with 100% of it."

So, what does this matter of heart have to do with the question of whether or not the Bible condones and even supports slavery?

First let's read about the various parameters that the Bible wraps around the relationship of master to indentured servant:
  • Except under very limited circumstances, which follow, no human being was ever to be "kidnapped" and forced (against his or her will) to become a slave. To do this, in the Old Testament, was a crime punishable by death! Read Exodus 21:16 ... "“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.” Selling the victim? Possessing the victim? What this verse is talking about seems pretty clear.
  • The narrow circumstances under which a slave could be forced involuntarily into servitude included:
  • If a nation went to war with Israel and its people were captured, they could be turned into slaves. (Think about the terrorists who have attacked the United States. Do we have the right to make them do forced labor at Guantanamo? You bet.)
  • If a person was convicted of committing a crime against you (theft or violence) but had no resources to pay restitution, you then had the right to force them into servitude in order to pay their debt. But even these rights were limited by the points that follow.
  • Slaves were to be afforded compassion. Slaves (owned by others, who escaped and fled and needed help) had dignity and were to be shielded from a return to slavery. Read Deuteronomy 23:15-16 -- “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him."
  • Indentured servants were to be treated with dignity and respect, as humans, and their needs provided for. Many passages support this, some found in Exodus 21, where it is revealed that if a master strikes a slave and kills him, he is guilty of murder. It also says that if a master knocks out his slave's tooth, that slave must be freed! And that if a master marries a slave woman, she is entitled to all of the rights as his wife. If he becomes displeased with her and decides to set her aside, he must free her and allow her to choose her own way.
  • When it comes to slavery, Deuteronomy 15 is one of the most revealing chapters of Scripture. It makes the case that because Israel suffered horrific slavery under the Egyptians for 400 years, they were to be much more sensitive and just to the slaves within their midst. For instance, slavery was never to be life-long; when someone gained a slave for any reason, they were required to free them after the sixth year of servitude (the Jubilee principle). Not only were they to free them, but they were to let them go with generous provision from the master's house!
  • The goal of the master was also to be to treat the slave so well that the slave wouldn't want to go free. Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 both make provision for slaves who want to voluntarily commit themselves to life-long servitude of their masters. (The first "ear-piercing" came from these chapters! Read them.)
Frankly, the way slavery was conducted in the 18th and 19th centuries by so-called "Christians" from Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere, is so clearly and horrifically anti-biblical in nature that one should make the case that slave traders and slave owners should have been executed for their practices. Did these slavetraders and slave-owners use their religion to justify their treatment of other humans? In some cases, yes. But abusing and justifying the Bible to support something that the Bible condemns is not a condemnation of the Bible, it is a condemnation of human nature which so often seeks to justify its own sin.

The truth is, the Bible holds a redemptive view of slavery. Right now our young adults group is studying the Apostle Paul's letter to Philemon. Philemon was a wealthy slave-owner whose slave, Onesimus, wronged him (probably stole something) and ran away. Paul became friends with Onesimus at some point and led him to Christ. Paul then appealed both to Onesimus to return to Philemon voluntarily; and for Philemon to be reconciled to Onesimus as a brother in Christ, to forgive him and to treat him as an equal.

Paul even said that if Onesimus "owed anything" to Philemon, he would himself pay it! In other words, he himself would pay whatever debt Onesimus owed for however he had wronged Philemon before he became a believer. Talk about redemptive!

We don't know what happened after Paul's letter to Philemon (the shortest recorded in the New Testament), but there are hints that it worked. The early Christians attitudes toward slavery and indentured servitude were to be as the Israelites: grace-filled, merciful, and redemptive.

So: After reading what the Bible really has to say about slavery, please tell me again how it proves that God is evil?

Did God tolerate slavery under very limited circumstances (just as He mercifully tolerated other evils, such as divorce)? Yes, indeed. Does that mean He condoned it, approved of it, ignored it, whatever else modern anti-biblicists accused Him of doing? Absolutely not. To argue this demonstrates a reprehensible misunderstanding of what Scripture says about who God is and what He is like.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Coincidence? I think not ...

How did this photo of Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway get here, anyway? I certainly didn't post it. And, do you notice the way her eyes follow you, wraith-like, wherever you go???
How did this photo of Donald Trump and
Kellyanne Conway get here, anyway? I certainly
didn't post it. And, please observe two things:
1) Her Nazi-esque salute; and 2) the way her eyes
follow you, wraith-like, wherever you go!
With all the attention recently being paid to conspiracy theories, and the slow, dawning realization that one can assert that they are true without having to provide any proof whatsoever and thus capture the attention of the world, I was starting to feel left out. Hence this morning (in the shower, where all my good ideas flow down from above, then disappear, never to be seen again), I had an epiphany: I need my own conspiracy theory! And it must be bigger and better than all the rest. It must be YUGE!

So, here it is. And, I assure you, everything I am about to tell you is completely, unverifiably true.

Well, at least it's true to me ... or perhaps I should say, it is an alternate fact.

Anyway, I digress ...

It all started about this time last Spring. Spring sprang forth on Saturday, March 19, 2016, three days after my 59th birthday. (Coincidence? I think not. Please consider the fact that three is the number of Deity ... you've heard of the Trinity, right? ... and 59 is divisible by three 19.666 ad infinitum times, which means those sixes go out into infinity, which can't actually be practically verified but is what ad infinitum means, so I guess it's theoretically true; so, what I'm trying to say is that's sort of like the Mark of the Beast multiplied by infinity, which naturally points to the unverifiable reality that a great battle between the forces of good and evil began on that day.)

I was blissfully unaware of this alternate fact, of course. In fact, I was safe and secure in a job I enjoyed for a wonderful company, we had just paid off our house, and I was experiencing that sense of financial security which led me (about a month later) to make a large purchase decision, thanks to the encouragement of my pastor, of a new RV. Because of the collusion of my pastor, I assume this must have been a godly decision.

But, I digress. Or I digress into the future ... (is there a word for that? To pregress? I think not.)

So anyway, back to Saturday, March 19 ... as I said, it seemed a new spring day, like any other. Sure, Donald Trump had already announced (a little more than nine months earlier) that he was running for President of the U.S.A. But, in the light of that new spring day, it still seemed a laughable prospect. Donald Trump? President? You have to be joking, right?

But something else happened that day, which barely made the news at the time. A dual Iranian-Turkish national named Reza Zarrab was arrested when he flew into the Miami International Airport. Zarrab had been accused of violating sanctions against Iran when he apparently convinced Turkey's president, Tayyip Erdogan, to use illicit funds to provide weapons, financing and logistics for jihadi groups in Syria -- including ISIS!

And, it just so happened that I had been tweeting vigorously about the need to treat refugees with justice and compassion. I now realize that Zarrab must have used my tweets as cover to attempt to enter the U.S. illegally. And then he was caught at the Miami airport and arrested! Did he have a cellphone with him, containing tweets I had written? It's reasonable to assume. Then he was arrested! With my tweets in his possession! I was set up. Ohmygoodness, how could I not see this at the time?

Coincidence? I think not.

Unfortunately, as I alluded to, at this time I was completely unaware of this alternate fact. And so I continued, as usual, tweeting about refugees, and the need to be nice to them. And I also began tweeting, more and more frequently, my distaste for the prospect of a Trump/Conway presidency.

Then on Thursday, August 2, came the fateful tipping point. I tweeted: "You can blame the Republicans, Hillary Clinton, and the media ... but if @realDonaldTrump wins, it will be through the power of #fear."

The very next day, Friday August 3, 2016, I was laid off from my job. Coincidence? I think not!

Moreover, let's look at those numbers again ... there's a "three" there, we've already talked about that. But, if you divide 2016 by three, what do you get? That's right ... 702! Work with me here. If you subtract (working backward, kind of like backward masking, only with a calendar) 702 days from August 3, 2016, you arrive at August 12, 2015. And what happened on that day?

You guessed it. That was the day things really began to go south for Hillary Clinton, the day she handed over her email server to the Justice Department; and also the day Bernie Sanders overtook her, for the first time, in the New Hampshire polls. Ultimately, of course, she became the nominee; but even Hillary blamed these events for her ultimate loss to none other than Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Anyway, I digress ... let's fast forward to my post-layoff life:

Since August 3, I have been haunted by the sense that I am being watched. It started with my SmartTV. I would change channels, looking for something good to watch. CNN? Kellyanne Conway was there, her lips moving inanely as she tried to avoid answering whatever question she was being asked by a reporter. NBC News? Donald Trump stared out at me balefully from my screen, just daring me to tweet out another pro-refugee message as he assured me that Mexico would pay for The Wall. Fox News? Kellyanne Conway again. (How can she be two places at once, anyway? That woman gives me the creeps.)

One day I thought, this was a good time to get up off the couch and go get a beer, right? (If I ever become an alcoholic, at least I can blame Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway.) But as I did, I looked back over my shoulder ... and there were Kellyanne Conway's eyes, wraith-like, following me to the kitchen!

She WAS watching me. I knew it!

So, I turned off the SmartTV. (Now I just watch British period dramas with my wife. If I ever see Kellyanne Conway on one of those, I'm moving to Canada.)

Then, in October, I began driving for Uber. Now, you must understand that I have to keep the Uber Driver app running while I'm driving. That's the way it works. (I wonder who made it work that way? I'm willing to bet Kellyanne Conway had something to do with it ... it's probably no coincidence that her last name is a compound word formed by the verb "to con" and the noun "way.")

Anyway, normally the "way" the app works is that you switch into driver mode, which indicates you are available for a fare, and drive around aimlessly for awhile while it tries to "con" you into chasing this elusive thing called a surge cloud; and sooner or later you get a ping that somebody wants to be picked up (though NEVER in the surge cloud since no one in their right mind would pay prices equivalent to riding in a taxicab, would they?), and you accept the ping if their name isn't either "Donald" or "Kellyanne," and then the mapping software leads you to their location.

So far, so good, right? But I began to notice, while I was driving around chasing digital clouds, that sneaky little notifications began to pop up over the top of Uber driver app. Most of them were from CNN (which I soon began to suspect really stands for the "Conway News Network") and began with phrases like "Donald Trump attacks ..." or "Kellyanne Conway asserts ...." These little notifications appeared at the top of my smartphone screen along with soft little pinging sounds, drawing a quick glance when it is safe to do so, and by the time I realized in horror what was happening and was able to look back, the notification had disappeared as quickly as it had sprung up.

Coincidence? I think not. Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway were spying on me, through the Uber app in my smartphone!

(And why not? Just yesterday Kellyanne Conway asserted that it's possible to spy on someone through the camera in your microwave oven. Which was a real revelation to me, as I didn't even know my microwave oven had a camera! But I digress ...)

I couldn't avoid using the app while driving, of course; but I began turning my phone face-down on the bathroom counter each night, where I plug it in to recharge for another UberDay. But, just as I was dropping off to sleep, I would hear that insidious little "ping" and see the soft edges of bluish light glowing there in the bathroom, and soon in my mind's eye I could just imagine Kellyanne Conway's face hovering there over my bathroom bathroom sink, mouthing alternate facts. So soon, sleep began to elude me.

And inevitably, the two of them invaded what few dreams I had left. Donald Trump attacking. Kellyanne Conway asserting. Was there no place I could hide?

Well, I realized one day, after not having slept a wink for a solid week: if you can't hide, you can fight! So, I began to use social media to fight back. I began launching my own attacks, and making my own assertions.

Twitter and Facebook were my tools of war. I tried to use them to alert all my friends to what was happening.

And, I had a lot of friends to alert. (After all, at World Vision I was a social media guru ... the "Dark Lord of the Web," they called me. I had over 11,000 followers on Twitter, and over 1,000 on Facebook.)

For years, my social media numbers had been growing. But, let me tell you, as soon as I began my campaign to fight back and assert myself against the ubiquitous Donald Trump and the wraith-like Kellyanne Conway, my follower counts began to drop. The numbers began to ebb. I knew that this could not POSSIBLY be because there were people out there who might actually vote for Donald Trump / Kellyanne Conway. Well, I did know one or two who publicly admitted that they might, but they had mostly stopped following me on Facebook already, so I assume they were too ashamed of themselves to use social media.

But still, my social media numbers, which had inflated contrary to all logic and reason for years, began dropping. Coincidence? I think not.

Three weeks before the election, my wife was saying something to me while I was tweeting. "That's nice, dear," I asserted, and kept tapping away at my screen. Then she shouted something. "Don't worry," I assured her, "I'll take out the trash as soon as I'm done here."

Then suddenly, she grabbed my hands and yanked them away from my phone. When I didn't look up, she slapped me across the face. Hard.

Well, not really, But she did get my attention with these ominous words: "You need to stop tweeting about Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway. NOW! Or soon, we won't have any friends left at all!"

Well, I try to ignore most people because I suspect they may be stooges of Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway. But not my wife! One cannot ignore my wife and experience any hopes for survival and a happy life. And so, I agreed. I stopped tweeting about Donald Trump and started tweeting about mushrooms instead. On Facebook, I stopped asserting myself against the wraith-like Kellyanne Conway, and instead began posting photos of my granddaughter, cuddling with kittens and ducklings. (My granddaughter, unlike Conway, is VERY cute, by the way! As are kittens and ducklings.)

The slide in my follower numbers magically stopped sliding. My Facebook follower count stabilized at three. (My wife was still following me, bless her heart. Of course somebody needed to make sure I actually followed her instructions.) And my Twitter account also stabilized at three. One was my friend John, who is a faithful supporter of Donald Trump, but who cares about me enough anyway not to unfriend me.

The other two? It's a mystery to me who they are (as I've never really been aware of who two-thirds of my social media "friends" are anyway), but I rather suspect they are stooge accounts for Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway, who are no doubt following that sage advice: "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." And waiting for me to make one more misstep. One more nice tweet about refugees, or even a link to two self-contradicting "alternate facts" uttered by either of them, and I'm sure I'll find myself on some terrorist watchlist and detained the next time I Uber somebody up to SeaTac airport. (I've told my wife that if I disappear, she can look for her red Prius up in the Uber waiting lot north of the airport, hidden amongst 253 other red Priuses all driven by men with turbans who will no doubt also abandon their vehicles the moment an ICE agent appears.)

Oh dear. Three Facebook followers. Three Twitter followers. There's that number again. And what about 253? Let's see ... divide it by three: 84.333 ad infinitum ... yes! There is HOPE! Good will ultimately prevail in the battle against evil!

So, that's my conspiracy theory. I'm sure this post will be continued, even if I'm not here to continue it. (I wonder if they'll let me keep my smartphone at Guantanamo?) If you'd like to respond (and yes, I'm speaking to you, Darlene, John, Donald, or Kellyanne), please post a comment, which will be reviewed and hopefully approved by 253 men in turbans who are currently sitting up in the Uber waiting lot north of Seatac airport with nothing better to do.

Coincidence? I think not.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Laboring in the Chick-Fil-A Vineyard

I think one of the more interesting parables of Jesus' is the one found in Matthew 20.

In it, a vineyard owner goes out to hire workers to harvest his crop. Early in the day, he hires a group of workers, and promises to pay them a certain wage (a denarius), as he puts them (gladly!) to work.

But about noon, he decides he needs more workers, so he goes and hires more to complete the second half of the day, also promising to pay these a denarius.

Finally, with only about an hour left before quitting time, he then goes out a final time to hire a final group of workers. These he also graciously promises a denarius to join the (labor) party.

At the end of the day, when all the workmen gather around to receive their wages, those who started first are (someone understandably, to my twisted way of thinking) unhappy about the fact that those who only had to work an hour, were paid the same as they. But you know the story: The vineyard owner says, "Why are you grumbling? Didn't I pay you what I promised? Isn't what I pay those others my own business?"

I guess my struggle with this scenario has been the seeming inequity of it. A workman is worthy of his hire, after all. It seems unfair of the vineyard owner to pay some more than others, to pay some people a full day's wage for just an hour's work, when others have worked hard all day for the same amount.

I think the source of my discomfort comes from the fact that the workers are working for the vineyard owner. And we realize that, in this scenario, the vineyard owner is God. Does God truly reserve the right to distribute His grace unfairly?

One Long Night at the Chick-Fil-A

Recently our friends Jason and Hannah Comerford told us about an opportunity to win 52 free meals at Chick-Fil-A. The Christian-owned fast food operation (known for its solid Christian values) just built a new restaurant here on South Hill, and they always celebrate such openings with a promotion called #CFAfirst100. The first 100 people to show up before 6 a.m. on the day they open each get 52 free meals with a discount card good for up to a year! Sweet.

Jason and Hannah love Chick-Fil-A and they were excited about being among the first 100. The trick was, typically, people start lining up 24 hours in advance of the Grand Opening, which is when they open the Chick-Fil-A's parking lot and bathrooms to campers who get in line.

Jason and Hannah wanted to be sure they were in the first 100, so they showed up before 6 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8. (Grand opening was 6 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 9.)

You may recall what Feb. 8 was like ... it was cold. And wet. Piles of mushy snow still on the ground. So, picture sitting in these miserable conditions for 24 hours, waiting for Chick-Fil-A to open, just so you can win free chicken meals for a year! But, that's what they wanted to do. So they packed up a tent, cots, sleeping bags, and lots of warm clothing and claimed their spot in the cold, wet, Chick-Fil-A parking spot. And they found themselves within the first 10 winners!

Later that day Martin and I were planning on having lunch, and on my way I stopped by to see how they were doing. When I arrived, shortly before noon, I learned that the usual crowds hadn't materialized and there were still about 50 slots open in the #CFAfirst100 promotion! Since I was hungry and the smell of mouth-watering Chick-Fil-A filled the air, I decided to grab my camping gear and join them.

After lunch, I arrived with my gear at about 2 p.m. and became #CFAfirst100 winner #52. Now all I had to do was survive about 18 hours of bitter cold, wet weather. (Mind you, by this time Jason and Hannah had already been on scene for more than 8 hours!)

Later that night, about dinnertime, we learned there were still a dozen or so slots available. So we began "phoning friends." One of them, Rebekah McKenzie, said she would like to join, but it wouldn't be until later that evening.

We joked about how seemingly unfair that would feel ... now that we had suffered through hours and hours of cold, wet temperatures (6 hours in my case, and 14 hours in Jason and Hannah's). That's when Hannah first said: "Yeah ... that would be kind of like Christ's parable of the vineyard workers, wouldn't it?" The lightbulb began to go on ...

... then it went off until 5:30 a.m., when loudspeakers began urging us to arise and claim our final prize. When I dragged my sorry carcass out of my warm (but slightly damp) sleeping bag and headed for my place in line, there was Rebekah! And also Samantha Naron! They arrived about the time I bedded down the evening before. And Rebekah said she was winner #100!

So Rebekah and Sam had to put up with about 8 hours of nasty conditions in order to get their 52 meals. I had to put up with about 16 hours ... but Jason and Hannah were there 24 hours!

As we talked about that, it occurred to me how starkly like the true parable of Christ's that was. In some senses, us hanging out in Chick-Fil-A's parking lot was work. But it was also fun. And, it was definitely a blessing. They had games, and good food, and there were great people to hang out with. I renewed several old acquaintances and made some new friends as well. (I'm still amazed at how many people Jason and Hannah already knew in that parking lot!)

Perhaps even better was the sense of grace and blessing. Rather than be jealous for Rebekah and Sam's good fortune (relatively speaking), I found myself excited for them. We all got the exact same reward, no matter how long we had persevered.

Jason and Hannah were there a lot longer than I was, of course ... which also made me realize how blessed I was to get the 52 free meals without having to actually suffer the full 24 hours of "parking lot life" for it.

It's not really about the work, is it?

This new analogy of God's grace has given me a renewed appreciation for Christ's parable. I really don't think His focus was the same as mine was, on "the work" completed by the vineyard workers. In reality, the day's wages was a blessing for all who received the denarius. And work itself is a blessing from God! Rather than grumble about the seeming disparity, the earlier workers should have been grateful to the Lord of the Harvest for being included in the party at all. And the newer workers of course should have been overwhelmed with blessing at their good fortune.

Grace all around!

Eat more Chickin'!


This event has also given me a new appreciation for Chick-Fil-A. This wonderful business is bearing witness to the culture in so many ways. Everything they did during those 24 hours was excellent and "in order." We even got to go indoors for a few hours, where it was nice and warm ... to pack meals for local homeless! (They supplied the materials, and the venue, and we supplied the labor. It was A LOT of fun! Not to mention their nice, clean, warm, spotless bathrooms!)

And the entire time, they had music and entertainment going. I noted with interest that the music seemed to mostly be instrumental versions of popular worship songs that I enjoy! Interesting.

Something else my new appreciation for Chick-Fil-A is doing for me ... it's making me hungry! Time for lunch. Chick-Fil-A, here I come!!! One down, 51 to go.

* * *

P.S.: Here's a fun article in the Puyallup Patch about the "First 100" event. The photo features my good friend and World Vision colleague Jack Laverty, who just happens to be the son-in-law of Elimites Gordy and Linda McCoy!

(So, if you want to eat more chickin', spend some time hanging out with the McCoys, and maybe it will happen! Don't come a-knockin' at my door, though ...)

P.P.S.: I apologize to Rebekah that in an earlier version I got her arrival time wrong ... I blame sleeping standing up. (And I'm still not exactly sure when Sam arrived!)

Monday, February 06, 2017

Uber Vs. Lyft

I have been driving for Uber since October 2016 (nearly five months now). Recently (about three weeks ago) I was accepted to also drive for Lyft. Simultaneously, I was certified to drive in King County, Washington, as well as my native Pierce County, for both Uber and Lyft.

Many people have asked: Which do I like better, Uber, or Lyft? And what's the difference? I thought I might use this blog post to try and answer that question.

Driving for Both Uber and Lyft

I can drive for both Uber and Lyft because I am an independent contractor, a driver for hire. Each company has very similar requirements, though in this county, Lyft is probably more stringent. (They require licensing in both Seattle and Tacoma, whereas Uber just requires Tacoma. Lyft also requires a Washington State business license; Uber does not. Both require a federal defensive driving course certificate, and also city knowledge courses, as well as passage of a vehicle inspection and background security check.)

The Seattle business license is more than twice the price of the Tacoma one. But now that I have a driver for hire business license in both Tacoma and Seattle, I can pick up riders in both Pierce and King Counties. Which means I don't necessarily have to "deadhead" it back from an airport fare, but can pick up riders on the way back. (This sounds great in principle, but I have yet to find any riders returning from the airport. There is a long queue for both Uber and Lyft drivers at the airport.)

Both Uber and Lyft use sophisticated apps for drivers. It is easy to tell the app you are available for riders. I typically turn both apps on at the same time, and wait for my first rider. If the pickup is within 20 minutes, I accept the fare, and turn the opposite app off for the duration.

What I Like About Driving for Both Uber and Lyft

Both services give you a great deal of flexibility. If you want to work, you simply turn on the app. When you are done, you just turn it off, and that's that. As an independent contractor, you are basically your own boss.

With both services, I've found you have the potential to make between $10 and $20 per hour. They both advertise that more is possible, but I have yet to figure out how to actually make more. So much simply depends on the luck of the draw: The fares you get, how quickly you get them, how far away they are (your drive to the fare's pickup location is totally on your own dime), what kind of gas mileage your vehicle gets (you pay for your own gas), whether or not the fare is picked up in a "surge" area (more about surging later), how far the fare is traveling, etc.

What I Don't Like About Driving for both Uber and Lyft

My main frustration about both services is that neither tells you (until your fare is in the car) exactly where you are taking them. For all you know, they're going to Montana, and once they are in your vehicle and you discover this, you are pretty much committed to taking them there. This is (obviously) a major problem for drivers.

One Sunday afternoon I wanted to do a little driving. My first fare was to the SeaTac airport, a 45-minute ride up from Graham. I got paid (minimally) for the 45 minutes up, but the 45 minutes back were at my own expense. (This is called "deadheading.")

My next fare wanted to go to Seattle. I made a little bit more on the ride up, but now the deadheading back took an hour.

I decided to take one more fare, and prayed it would be local. It was nearly dinnertime and I was quite tired. But they wanted to go to a restaurant north of Seattle. It took more than an hour to get there, and at least that much time (unpaid) back.

I had invested more than 5 hours of driving the three fares. I made a little over $100, but my gas was probably $30, so $70 for 5+ hours of driving. Barely over minimum wage, and I was exhausted.

What's worse is when you drive out a half hour to puick someone up, only to discover they want to go 2 miles. (They could have walked.) You make the five or ten-minute drive with them, get paid about $5, then have to drive a half hour back to your point of origin. You've invested over an hour (plus about $5 or $10 in gas) for a $5 fare.

This could all be prevented if both Uber and Lyft would simply tell you (before you accept a fare) their destination. But neither do, because they want you to accept every fare, even if it means you as the driver get the shaft in the process. Both services obviously care more about riders than they do about drivers.

Pros and Cons of Each

This major drawback is partly alleviated by something Lyft does which they call "destination mode." If you go to the airport, you can move into "destination mode," which means you tell it you only want fares that are heading your direction (home). You get far fewer fares, but at least you don't wind up with someone who wants to go north of Seattle while you are trying to head south toward home (and dinner).

But, in this county at least, Lyft has far smaller market penetration than Uber. This means you get fewer requests, and that you have to travel further for the few you get. I frequently get pings from Lyft to ask me to pick up a fare a half hour away. My personal cutoff is 20 minutes, but I have no way of telling either Uber or Lyft this, so I end up denying a lot of requests, and they chastise you for this (if your "acceptance rate" is "too low").

However, most drivers (and riders too) seem to like Lyft better than Uber. I think this is because their customer service is a little better, and there are a few things they do that make more sense for both drivers and riders (like allowing drivers to filter according to destination).

Lyft also allows riders to tip using their credit card, and Uber does not (although we drivers can accept cash tips from Uber riders).

Because Lyft's market penetration is lower (at least here in Pierce County), that also means Lyft riders experience longer wait times for a ride than Uber riders do. Which is probably frustrating, since they are paying a little bit more than Uber riders.

Surging

"Surging" happens when a supply-and-demand algorithm determines that there is a higher demand for drivers than there is supply in a given area, and therefore prices for the riders increase. I have seen surge pricing go as high as four times the normal fare, and I've heard it can go even higher than that under extreme circumstances.

In this area, Uber surges daily. I have yet to see Lyft surge anywhere.

But even Uber's surges are very unpredictable and temporal in nature. Surges often last just a few minutes, much quicker than you can typically get there. And by driving into a surging area with your app on, you may change the supply-and-demand balance. I've frequently seen surges evaporate in front of me as I drive into surging areas with my app on.

Also, the services inform riders about surge pricing, and they are often savvy enough to know that if they wait a few minutes, the surge might evaporate. So I've had the frequent experience of driving through a surging area, only to get fares as soon as the surge has ended.

This experience leads me to believe that surging is primarily a gimmick to entice drivers to get out there and drive. It's a rainbow to chase, that you can rarely catch. I have (by sheer luck) gotten one or two surge-priced rides, but such things are rare. So, mostly I've learned to ignore surging, and just drive when I am available to drive.

Conclusion

For me, the jury is still out. Both services are so similar, though there are slight advantages (in different respects) to each. As a driver, I'm perfectly happen doing both Uber and Lyft, at least for the time being.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Summary of Apocalypse (Part 1 of 3)

A lot of people have been asking me what "Apocalypse" (the science fiction novel I am working on now, currently writing on chapter 4) is about. It's been more than a decade in the planning, and I still struggle to summarize it, elevator-speech fashion. So I thought I would take a break from the writing to try and present a brief summary here.

(The challenge, of course — in addition to being brief — will be to not include any spoilers!)

This blog post covers only the first third of the novel, which is subtitled simply ...

Apophis.


Apocalypse starts with the end of Planet Earth as we know it. NASA and other space agencies have been tracking large, civilization-threatening asteroids (near-earth objects, or NEOs) for some time. One which briefly caused them concern as a potential existential threat, way back in December of 2004 when it was first discovered and calculations showed it might come perilously close to striking the earth in 2029, was 99942 Apophis. But further orbital dynamics measurements and observations quickly determined the threat from Apophis was minimal, that it would miss earth in 2029 by a comfortably large margin.

That all changes on September 11, 2027, when "something" (or someone) unseen provides an explosive nudge to Apophis, way out in the asteroid belt as it is inbound toward Earth ... and its chance of striking our planet suddenly changes to 100%. Its new course has the civilization killer striking us dead-center on April 13, 2029, and the world has only six short months to do something about it ... and also, to deal with the unseen enemy who apparently wants us dead.

Apocalypse follows this story through the lives of three very distinct individuals, who are dealing with the coming catastrophe in far different ways, and who will ultimately be brought together under the most unlikely of circumstances:

Mitchell Feofan is an American astronaut, of Russian descent, who is working on the International Space Station with the Orion interplanetary exploration program when sudden preparations for an urgent voyage to intercept Apophis (and to "deal with" the adversary who nudged it) are drawn up. He leads the three-person, one-way mission into the unknown, which is humanity's only hope for surviving the catastrophe. His ship, the Orion-class USS Menelvagor, is loaded to the hilt with the most lethal weapons ever devised by humankind, in hopes of stopping the fate coming at earth like a titanic steamroller.

And of course, in addition to dealing with the more skin-crawling aspects of their deadly payload, Feofan also has to put up with the antics of Rigel, their onboard artificial intelligence.

Fadi Tanzilur is, in almost every respect, Feofan's antithesis. He is a Middle Easterner who has been cultivated by terrorists to stop the European Space Agency (ESA) from completing its mission to deflect Apophis. The organization he represents believes the apocalypse must happen first in order for a new civilization to be rebuilt under Sharia Law. And Tanzilur and his accomplices are in position to execute their bombing of ESA headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, when something truly extraordinary begins to shake the foundations of his life and cause him to dramatically change direction.

And then there is Ukwambulu Liyana, who lives in a world far apart from the struggles either to stop Apophis or profit from the disaster it brings. An impoverished victim of abusive power, she has risen above her own disempowerment and now works to help HIV-afflicted women living in a shantytown in Durban, South Africa. Along with an Anglican priest who changes her life forever, she finds herself on the day of disaster on the beach which is closest to the asteroid's projected point of impact in the Indian Ocean. There she catches a glimpse of a key role that she will play in the unveiling of a new era for humanity.