A Pastor’s Rejection of Vision Sunday

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The following is a sermon/talk that I gave this morning on the first Sunday of our church’s fiscal year.  I hesitate to share it and yet at the same time feel called to more than I usually do.

Introduction

This is a hard Sunday for me.  Today is now the fifth time that I have begun a new fiscal year with a new fiscal budget, alongside a new “fiscal” board with a new “fiscal” dream.

I will go on record and say that I believe this is an important Sunday.  I believe it is a good thing once a year to give a “State of the Church” type speech where I try to sum up the last year and give some hope and direction for the New Year.  That is a healthy thing to do which is why I have done it on this Sunday for the last four years.  It has always gone well and despite what I am about to say, next year I will probably do it again.

But this year I don’t know what to say.  I have hopes and dreams for our congregation.  I have my lists of things we could do and do really well.  I also have lists of things we probably shouldn’t do.  So I have vision.  I have opinions.  I certainly have ideas by the thousands.  You all should know that about me by now.

However, over the last year I’ve discovered that God does not want me to be a visionary pastor.  I don’t know if I ever believed that but part of me pretended to because I knew some of you wanted a visionary pastor.  So this Sunday was my Sunday to pretend to do that so you wouldn’t hang me or drive me out of town.  This was my day to pretend to be a confident, self assured, visionary leader to help calm those of you who thought you wanted that.

Over the last year I have decided I am done with that and I am done even pretending it.  That happened in a few ways.

Paul and the Corinthians

First I reread Paul in 1st and 2nd Corinthians.  The Corinthians hated Paul because he wasn’t visionary enough.  He wasn’t tall, dark and handsome enough.  Tradition tells us he wasn’t a great public speaker.  He was short and stocky and maybe couldn’t see well.  He was the last person you would expect to spread the gospel across the Roman empire.  The Corinthians hated him for it.  They thought he wasn’t a “super” enough apostle.

Paul’s response to them was verses like 1 Cor. 1:27, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.”  He repeats similar sentiments in 2 Corinthians 12:9 in what is my life verse, “[God] has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

So I read Paul again this last year.

Two Types of Pastors

At the same time I also met with several visionary pastors and church planters.  These are people who drip charisma and have built some awesome institutions.  Several of them have seen a great amount of success by worldly standards.  They are chock full of ideas and “inspiration.”  But I always walked away from those conversations feeling empty.  I did not feel the Spirit there.

I have also met with several other pastors who are not successful by worldly standards.  Most of them pastor smaller churches.  One or two pastor large churches but those churches are not doing successful things by our world’s standards.  Those conversations were always seasoned with salt.  Those pastors were dripping with something that I can only call “holiness.”  I walked away wanting more of it.

As I began recognizing those two types of pastors I felt God was laying out two roads for me.  One was wide and easy and filled with success but I knew where it ended.  The other was a bit rockier and narrower and more difficult but it seemed to be the one Paul and Jesus walked.

Eugene Peterson

Then I read Eugene Peterson.  Some of you might remember a sermon from a few months ago where I told Peterson’s story about building a cathedral in Massachusetts.  For two years he cast this great vision for this awesome building out in a farm field.  It was great.  Their attendance went up during that time.  They raised the money and built the building.  The minute it was built the attendance and finances dwindled.  His denominational executive told him, “start building another building ASAP and they will all come back.”  Eugene Peterson declined that gracious offer to go into more debt on a bigger building that they did not need.  He knew that Christian leadership isn’t about vision casting and building buildings.  He repented and decided to just be a pastor.  Then he wrote ten books about it.  .  .

Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

I have also been memorizing Mark’s gospel over the last two months.  Mark is only 15 chapters and 8 verses long.  It is about half as long as Matthew and Luke.  3 of Mark’s 15 chapters, 1/5th of the book, is all about “apostolic leadership.”  For three chapters (8,9 and 10) Jesus constantly lectures his disciples about power and authority.  That is where we get some of our classics.

“Whoever wants to be first must be the very last.” (Mark 9:35).

“If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.  Whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34)

“Any who wants to be great among you must be your servant and anyone who wants to be first must be your slave.” (Mark 10:44)

My favorite is, “You know those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them.  NOT SO WITH YOU!” (Mark 10:42).

I am not sure “leadership” is even a New Testament concept.  To the extent it is, it is only in the form of good following.

Proverbs 29:18

But THEN there is this other verse from Proverbs.  It comes up all the time in leadership classes and seminars.  I have heard it quoted several times this year.  It is Proverbs 29:18, “Without vision the people perish.”

I heard someone quote it awhile back.  It was in the context of “be a visionary 21st century leader.  Come up with a vision statement and hold your people to it.  It’s your job as the leader!”  I was listening to this person and it finally occurred to me that there is no way the Bible says that, at least not in the context of, “without a 21st century vision statement and a leader to be firm and a little bit arrogant in holding the people to it, the people perish.”

So I found it and it turns out the King James Version says “vision” but many of the other translations use other words.  I think one uses, “prophecy” and another uses, “revelation.”  So I looked it up and in both Hebrew and Greek the word refers to the work of a prophet and is more closely associated with “wisdom” than with 21st century “vision.”  “Without prophetic wisdom the people perish.”

The prophets were not doing 21st century executive vision casting.  They were not getting focus groups together and asking a series of questions.  They were not distributing surveys and collating data.  They were not making everybody take personality and spiritual gift inventories and then leading discussions and doing SWOT analyses.

They were praying and they were fasting.  They were studying the Scriptures (which for them was just the first five books of the Bible).  Then they were walking among the people, eating the same food, watching the same plays, listening to the same songs.  They were and laughing with them over meals and crying with them over caskets.  Then they were holding the culture up alongside the Torah and saying, “here is where it matches and here is where it doesn’t and here is what God is thinking and going to do about it.”

They were casting vision but it was God’s vision revealed in the Scriptures and it was a lot more than just five words that comprise a slogan you can paint on your church foyer wall.  The vision of the prophets was an ongoing formational process.

Proverbs tells us, “without that ongoing work of the prophets the people perish.”

The prophets did exactly what I am trying to do week in and week out.  I am just trying to pray.  I am just trying to read the Scriptures humbly and accurately.  I am just trying to meet with you all for dinner or coffee or to play games or to watch movies.  I am just trying to find times to fast.  Then for twenty to thirty (sometimes forty) minutes on a Sunday I tell you about what I think God is doing and saying.  I look at your lives and I look at the world where we live and then I look at a particular Scripture passage and I offer my interpretation of what God might be saying and doing in our midst.  Then I say, “Go live it and we will get back together next week and try again.”

Every Sunday is vision Sunday.

Conclusion

About a month ago I was thinking about all this.  I was reading Proverbs, Corinthians, Eugene Peterson and others.  I was memorizing Mark and talking to other pastors.  And I was thinking about this Sunday and realized that I had nothing to say regarding 21st century big vision casting stuff.

Then I remembered a quote from a Methodist bishop named Will Willimon.  I love this quote.  He is talking about churches that complain about their young pastors being too biblical.  Willimon says, “Too biblical? To their credit, bright, young clergy realize that only by being biblical do they have anything significant to say.” (How Odd of God, p. 176)

I don’t have anything significant to say except by being biblical.  So I decided that this vision Sunday I would just turn to the lectionary Psalm, like I’ve done the last several Sundays and will do for several more Sundays.  Then after reading it and studying it, I would just offer it up to you as one more tiny piece of God’s vision for us.  Psalm 32 is a great Psalm for that and I hope you hear God’s vision in it.

Psalm 32:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Rethinking my Re-thoughts on God and Football

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Praise Football from whom all blessings flow! Praise touchdowns for his highness below! Okay I will stop.

I am not going to lie.  I wholeheartedly believe that Christianity’s idolization of American Football has become.  .  .well, idolatrous.  Also, I am not going to lie.  I like football.  It is a really fun game to both play and watch.  I will even go further to argue that we owe our professional entertainers (from actors to musicians to sports players) a livable wage, maybe not a wage that exceeds that of most countries, but a wage nonetheless.

Putting all that aside, I get really nervous when people start talking about God helping football players win, especially the ones who make great public spectacles of religiosity like praying after every touchdown and talking about God during press conferences.  That just seems to go against the grain of Matthew 6 a bit much.

Also, I have read other parts of Scripture, passages like, Psalm 146:7, “God upholds the cause of the oppressed” and others like it that seem to suggest that God is more concerned with things like looking out for the poor and the oppressed than with helping independently wealthy athletes score more touchdowns to get more money to cause more concussive brain injuries.  It makes me even more nervous when these athletes go home and beat up their spouses and children. (source although to be fair, countersource)

The things God seems to be engaged in doing.

I am quite passionate about this, as you can probably tell, so much so that I have blogged about it before.

However, something happened over the last couple weeks that has caused me to rethink my thoughts about God and football.  Simply put, I read Luke 6 again.

Verse 35 has always stood out to me, especially the last phrase which states quite clearly, “[God] is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

This is what God is supposed to do to wicked people!

The God I grew up worshiping was not kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  In fact, being ungrateful was a great way to get God mad at you.  Being all out wicked (a word we reserve for the worst of the worse) was the best way to get God to pummel you into a fiery eternity.  As for entire nations of wicked people.  .  .well God would certainly disband them quite soon, even though it took God about a 1,000 years to disband Rome after the very wicked Pax Romana. But who has time for the study of history when you are trying to convince your compatriots to not be evil nor get destroyed?

Someone stop Jesus from talking on mountains. He starts to say some pretty bizarre things when he does!

And yet right there, coming from the mouth of Jesus no less, we find out that God is not actively decimating the wicked.  Instead God is showing kindness to them.  I love that Jesus used the word “kind” here instead of something more generic like, “love.”  If it were “love” we could hide behind sentimentality, saying such ridiculous things like, “God loves them but still will destroy them, but you know, out of love.”

That is not what kindness means.  Kindness means God is actively doing gracious and kind things to wicked people.  This isn’t a lone verse.  There are echoes of this in other parts of the Bible.  You can look at Mathew 5:45 watered down version where Jesus says that God sends both the sun and the rain on good and wicked people alike.  You can also look to particular narratives like God’s deaalings with Jacob in Genesis.

Concerning football this might mean that once in awhile God takes a break from upholding the cause of the oppressed to help a wicked person score a touchdown.  It might also mean no matter of prayer and religious grandstanding is going to help you win that football game.  In the end God might just offer a miraculous hail-mary catch to the “wicked” team because God decided to have some fun with our silly sports that day.

Of course, one can surmise that this would have something to do with prevenient grace.  Prevenient grace is this idea (on which I base my blog) that God’s gracious provision goes before us and meets us in our wicked states to invite us into a relationship with God.

This might mean there is no problem in telling that wicked, concussed, wife abuser of a football player that God did help him win.  Now in order to respond graciously to God’s grace, he should leave his violent sport and lifestyle, give all his money to the poor, seek forgiveness from those he has harmed and offer himself as a living sacrifice to God’s mission of helping oppressed people.

Oooooh, concussive brain injuries, yum!

Or maybe this has nothing to do with prevenient grace and God just enjoys blessing the wicked because that is who God is by nature.

Or maybe I was right at the very beginning of all this, that God really doesn’t want anything to do with American Football, no matter how many football players offer shallow prayers after touchdown drives and “give the God the glory” during press conferences.

If that last scenario is the case, then I guess I will conclude with The Hunger Games’ popular mantra, “May the odds [of your favorite team] be ever in [their] favor” because God probably isn’t.

What Do We Do With All These Celebrities? A Sermon on Elijah

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Last week I posted the whole manuscript of my sermon and I received some good feedback.  I am equally passionate about this week’s topic so decided to do it again.  I deleted some of the more superfluous paragraphs this time around for quicker perusing.  I hope all you perusers enjoy a good peruse.

Introduction

For some time now I have wanted to talk to all of you about a deep, long lasting and widespread Christian heresy.  Although I have addressed this in a few other sermons, it has been hard to take just one Sunday to bring it up.

The reasons for refraining were numerous.  The first is that I am really passionate about this and sometimes overrides good sense.  And, at least me, passion is most often off putting than persuasive.

The second reason is that this is currently a very popular belief in Christian culture and one that is hard to preach about without offending anybody.

This leads me to my third reason, that I was just afraid.  In Luke chapter 4 Jesus preaches a sermon very similar to what I am about to preach and the end result was his hometown citizens tried to throw him off of a cliff.

So you need to know that I unlocked this side door over here and when you bring out the pitchforks and torches, good luck catching me!

But what Jesus said in Luke 4 was that Elijah’s most significant miracles was done for a widowed single mom who lived in another country.  And they were not big fans of that observation.

Because they and we have this belief that just because we voted for someone or we bought someone’s movies or listened to their music or watched their T.V. show that means God likes them more than God likes us.  We seem to think that God can use them more than God can use normal, everyday people.

And that is wrong.

Yet I keep hearing Christians say that very thing in so many ways.  So before I move we need to talk about human celebrity and human politics as they relate to what God is doing in the world.  It seems to me that God who would rather work with nobodies who live in deserts than with football players who score touchdowns and Kings who write laws.

And I think this is good news.  This is a huge part of the gospel, that our God is so big and powerful that God does not need human power or wealth.  At times God doesn’t even appear to want it.

And I am saying this, this morning, fully aware that the Super Bowl is this afternoon and obviously God has a favorite team that God wants to win and let’s just say it is not the New England cheaters.  .  .I mean, Patriots, but really can you call them Patriots if they cheat?

I am joking but Super Bowl Sunday is as good a Sunday as any to remind ourselves that we are just as valuable to God as any football player or politician or celebrity.

I say that and I still want to be careful and not belittle or demean what some celebrities are doing for our faith right now.  I give most of them the benefit of the doubt and would argue that they are doing what we are doing, namely trying to remain faithful to God in the context that God called them too.

A God Who Loves Nobodies

Yet in Scripture, God does not seem to need them or want their celebrity and power.

Here is why I think that is:  Using nobodies reveals or even perfects God’s power.  The apostle Paul teaches us, it is actually my life verse, that power is made perfect through weakness.  So by using barren people who live in barren deserts, God’s power is perfected.

That is maybe why but here is a thought on how that works.  It goes back to the made up religions and their little “g” gods.

If I was going to invent another religion and another god, my god would first have a name that evokes power.  My God would be named “Mountain god” or “lightning bolt god” or “Sun god.”  It would not be “molehill god” or “spark god.”

Then this fictional god with the made up power name would do three things all for my benefit.  First that god would make me wealthy.  Second that god would satisfy all my appetites and hormones.  Third that god would me powerful.

And several anthropologists and sociologists and historians have noted for us that all false religions and false forms of religion go back to those three things.  Any time anybody has made up a god that god has served the purpose of making people powerful, wealthy and satisfied.

In the Old Testament you see this in all the false gods and idols.  We invent a fertility goddess to help us have more children.  Now today children are a handful but back then you put your kids to work in your farm fields and household when they were three or four.

So if you had 12 children, you had twelve slaves and twelve slaves can generate a lot of income.  And if those 12 are all boys you are really rolling in the dough but it is okay if some are girls because you can sell them for money.  But if you could not have children you went broke.  So they invented a fertility goddess that they could sacrifice and pray to and ask for children.

Then they invented a god of war and power.  This god would help you win battles and make you a king.  If you sacrificed to this god that god would help you conquer your neighbor’s land and enslave him and his sons so that now you can farm 40 times the land you could when it was just you.

Then they had gods of pleasure who rewarded you with good food from exotic lands, all the food you could eat and all the women you could want.

The funny thing is that so far this all sounds like good news, right?  Who wouldn’t want an all powerful god to multiply my dollars, land, kids and pleasures?

But they did not stop there.  They reversed the formula and if you all ready were wealthy with a lot of kids and you were famous and had access to pleasure, they assumed the gods liked you.  You did something good to get them in your favor.  However, if you were poor, had no access to pleasure and no children and no kingdom then obviously the gods hate you and you are a sinner.   Therefore, we get to either enslave you or kill you depending on how useful you are.  So the wealthy are virtuous and loved and the poor are lousy sinners.

Today we look at them 3,000 years ago and say, “oh how unenlightened and silly they were,” yet I still hear people, even Christians, arguing much the same thing.

But here is why the Christian message is good news:  Israel’s story begins when Abraham, a poor guy, living in the desert with no access to exotic food or women, married to a barren wife (so no children) finds favor with God!  The true God, the not made up God, goes out to the desert and recruits a poor, barren couple to advance God’s purposes.

This plays out all throughout Scripture.  Any time God goes to do anything it starts with the least and lonely and broken and hurting and poor.  God seems to ignore kings and celebrities in favor of working out his purposes among the nobodies.

Moses is a sheep herder out in the Canaan and is recruited to go to Egypt to free the people.  Moses is worse than those without money and power and pleasure.  He used to have those things and now has none.  That must mean the gods really hate him, to take away all that stuff.

Yet Moses is the one recruited by God to free the people.  By the way, the name Moses is given for God is not a power name but instead is, “I AM,” which means “I am present God.  I am here for you God.”  I am not the God of lightning or mountains or wildflowers or the sun (though I created those things).  Instead call me that God that is here among you.

Samuel is an altar boy, whose mother was barren before she had him.  He is recruited to be the first great prophet, not because he is special or powerful but because his mother was barren.  God loves barren women.  The false gods hate them, or else they would have children but our God blesses them!

David is a sheep herder out in the nowhere Bethlehem and is recruited by Samuel to be King and before David becomes King he is a man after God’s own heart but after he becomes King he is all about himself, adultery, murder and raising armies to go conquer nations God does not want them to conquer.

What Angry Elijah Learned

1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings this play out. Samuel and Kings are a compilation of stories about the Kings of Israel and the Kings of Judah and if you read it, it is a four volume anthology to how worthless kings are.  Even David, the one after God’s own heart, becomes King and immediately becomes worthless.  Even the good kings who followed God were powerless to keep people faithful.

So we read 1 and 2 Samuel and then the first several chapters of 1 Kings and we get disgusted at all these lousy and powerless kings who can’t do anything good for the Lord.

Then we get to Elijah’s story which starts in chapter 17.  By the time we get to Elijah, we the readers are meant to be furious with these worthless kings.  Then Elijah bursts on the scene and he is mad too.  His anger is very much written to harness our anger.

Elijah wasn’t a king.  Elijah was a prophet.  Right before he bursts on the scene we are told that King Ahab married a wicked woman named Jezebel.

You can read about that in 1 Kings 16.  Jezebel came from Sidon.  All the Sidonians worshiped the false god Baal.  Baal means “high up god” because if I am going to invent a god I would name my god something like, “my god is higher up than your god.”  It is kind of like, “My dad can beat your dad up god!”

Jezebel was sent by the prophets of Baal to convert Israel to Ball worship and where does she go, where can she go but to the throne room.  If my god is “High Up god” than I need the high up place of a throne room to advance his purposes.  Jezebel uses her feminine wiles to marry the King of Israel whose name was Ahab.  Once she married Ahab she convinced Ahab to kill the prophets of God and set up temples and worship spots to Baal.

Follow with me here, Jezebel is the prophet of Baal who is sent to Israel and she goes to the center of Israel’s power, the throne room, manages to get Ahab on her side and begins converting people to Baal.

So Elijah confronts the evil king Ahab and his worse wife Jezebel and Elijah declares a famine on the land until they get their act together.  It does not work.  Ahab doesn’t repent.  Instead he and Jezebel seem to say to each other, “Oh, we thought we killed all the prophets.  Nuts, we missed one.  Well kill him too!”

In chapter 17 verse 2 we are told, “Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah”

Remember word of the Lord does not just mean God spoke.  Word means wisdom.  The wisdom of the Lord came to Elijah and what did the wisdom of God say,

“Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.”

Let me paraphrase.  The word of the Lord came to Elijah and said, “RUN YOU FOOL!  GET OUT OF TOWN!  They are trying to kill you, you moron!”

Elijah runs.  He spends a few days in the Kerith Ravine and then goes to Sidon.  Sidon is where Jezebel came from and where the false god Baal is worshipped.

Elijah doesn’t go the throne room of Sidon, though.  Instead he ends up at a poor widows house, a single mom.  Then and now single moms are the epitome of no power, no wealth and no pleasure.  That is exactly where God sends Elijah.  While Elijah is there Elijah multiplies food for her and raises her son from the dead.  No matter how powerful your king is, he can’t multiply food and raise anybody from the dead.  But Jesus can and did those things hundreds of years later.

Follow with me here, Jezebel the prophetess of Baal tries to take over Israel by going to the center of power.  Elijah, the Israelite messenger of the true God is sent to Sidon but not to any place of power but to a poor, powerless single mom in the desert.

After a time God calls Elijah back to Ahab, but not to convert Ahab but to end the drought.  Before the drought is ended there is this wonderful shoot out on a mountain where all Ahab’s prophets face down all one of Elijah and they see whose God can set the most stuff on fire.

I am not joking.  That was the competition.  Remember God had just raised someone from the dead two chapters ago.  Setting stuff on fire seems petty.  The average guy with a cigarette butt can set things on fire.  But God can set things on fire, praise God!  So Elijah wins and those who are there see the miracle of God and join Elijah’s side.  Elijah says, “Kill all the false prophets.”  So they do.

And it doesn’t work.  The next chapter, Jezebel the wicked wife is furious that her prophets are dead and she doubles her hit on Elijah.  And Elijah’s zealous followers are nowhere to be found.  Elijah runs out to another mountain and he throws a holy tantrum before God.

Elijah tells God, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

I will be honest with you that when I hear Christians gripe against the world today I think they are a lot like Elijah throwing proud pity parties on mountains.

Maybe God’s words to us would be God’s words to Elijah:

15The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.”

God’s answer is I have more nobodies from more deserts.

17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu.

Today if you hear me saying there won’t be justice for evil kings, read verse 17.  There will be justice.

18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”

We hear of 7,000 and think that isn’t a lot but back then it was.  It was a good sized group of people who still worshiped God.

Elijah, come home from your ego trip.  There are 7,000 just like you.  You are not special and no Ahab and no Jezebel and no false god Baal are going to beat me with silly human celebrity and silly human power.  I have 7,000 nobodies in deserts who are greater than any King or Queen or false god.

Conclusion

Just because the politicians and celebrities are not doing what I want them to do, does not mean I am losing.  Instead I have 7,000 nobodies living in deserts and that is all I need.

If Jesus were someone we made up 2,000 years ago we would need as many celebrities and politicians and football players to give him lip service on national and even worldwide television.  After all human power is the only way powerless idols stay in power.

So if we made Jesus up we would be desperate for someone popular and powerful to say his name.  Strangely, in Scripture I get the sense God doesn’t want us to say God’s name all that much but that is another sermon for another day.

Likewise if we made Jesus up we would be desperate for wealthy people to write us checks and more kings to approve our building permits so that we could build more temples on hilltops.

But if Jesus really was the son of God who became flesh and who died on the cross to free us from the powers of darkness then we don’t need them.

All we need to do is remain faithful ourselves to the God who is faithful in choosing us.

It might be cool when the celebrities decide to come along but ultimately God chooses the weak and powerless and foolish because that is just what a powerful God would do.  That is the wisdom of our faith and the wisdom of the cross.

The apostle Paul says it in 1st Corinthians.  Paul says that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

That is the wisdom of our God right there.  It is a wisdom that does not gets its underwear in a knot every time the President does something we disagree with.  It is the wisdom that says there are 7000 barren people living in barren deserts whom God loves and is working through.

It is the wisdom that says that as long as God has tiny churches in places like Elgin, Oregon who are willing to open their building for the teenagers of the community to practice archery and learn a bit about Jesus then Christianity will flourish.

As long as God has a group of people who meet regularly to pray and read Scripture and have a conversation about what faithfulness looks like in our current world, Christianity will flourish.

As long as God has families who are willing to open their homes to foster children and orphans and adopt them as children and siblings, Christianity will flourish.

As long as there are groups of people who get together to talk about what houses need painting, what elderly need their leaves raked and driveways plowed and how to accomplish that Christianity will flourish.

As long as desert widows and shepherd boys and altar kids and diseased elderly offer themselves to the Almighty God, Christianity will do just fine.

God doesn’t need or want human wealth.  God doesn’t need or want human power.  God doesn’t need or want human celebrities.  Instead our God chooses the outcast nobodies who are barren and live in deserts and that is how God wins.

As I said at the beginning, that is good news because the false gods hate nobodies but our God loves them and cherishes them.

Let’s pray.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Volf’s Free of Charge

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Two significant things happened this week.  First, I read Miroslav Volf’s “Free of Charge.”  I bought it for $3 which I thought was a ripoff considering the title of the book.  The second was that my 1 year old IPod was stolen out of my unlocked car.

These things were not all that significant in the grand scheme of things.  I read books all the time and stuff gets stolen all the time.  Still the two were related.  Whoever stole my IPod wronged me and Volf’s book is about what to do when wronged.  So they are maybe worth writing about together.

The fun thing about my IPod disappearing was how complex the situation was.  It was not just a thief finding an easy target.  Instead everything about our world gets pulled into this event.

First off, you have my invincible naivete that wholeheartedly believed because I live in a small town things like IPods won’t disappear out of cars.  This naivete remained even after a conversation I had with a police officer who explained to me that stuff disappears out of cars all the time in Elgin.  I didn’t believe him and that was my bad.  So am I to blame?  My wife thinks so but I won’t go there.

Another layer surrounds the Toyota Motor Company who built my car.  The engineer who designed the locks put together an impossibly complex automatic system that sometimes locks the doors after 30 seconds of inactivity and sometimes keeps them unlocked for days on end.  I am sure there is a method to the madness but I haven’t figured it out in the 2 and a half years since buying my Rav4.  Either way, it feels as if the doors should have locked themselves because they do at other times, which means I got out of the habit of locking them myself which means the doors were unlocked which made my IPod easy prey.  So maybe Toyota wronged me by hiring dumb engineers.

Or, just maybe, it was the thief’s fault.  Stealing is wrong, after all, whether the doors are locked or unlocked.  But also, just maybe, the thief was an 8 year old who never learned better because they had bad parents or no parents.  Maybe they were taught what our culture seems to teach any more and that is it is the victim’s fault for not locking their car doors or for buying a car that pretends to lock itself and then does not.  Maybe the thief has been irreparably damaged by what Volf calls, “a culture stripped of grace” and they themselves are the victims while simultaneously also being the criminals.

All that happened was an IPod disappeared and yet the very event calls into question the decisions of myself, a group of engineers in Tokyo (or wherever), a teenager (or kid or young adult) and the entire culture(s) in wVolfhich all of us live.

Considering this, Volf’s book was quite endearing because Volf recognizes our world is anything but simple.  We do not live in the black and white fantasy of absolute right and wrong, world which Sunday School teachers indoctrinate into young children.

Instead, Volf faces the complexity head-on, even concluding at one point that as we peel back the layers of a wrong, we might find that we are the ones needing forgiveness, not giving it.  Still, Volf confronts the complexity with the simple image of God giving and forgiving on the cross.  The cross means that despite the complexity surrounding us, we should still give forgiveness when we feel wronged.  This is because the cross reminds us that only God gives complete and perfect forgiveness.  We just participate in a less complete and imperfect way.

Perhaps the most significant statement in Volf’s book came at the very end, in the afterword.  Volf states, “Some people like to keep their spirituality and their theology neatly separated.  .  .I don’t.  Spirituality that’s not theological will grope in the darkness and theology that’s not spiritual will be emptied of its most important content.”

This is a wonderful sentiment.  It reminds me that even something simple like the disappearance of an IPod is deeply theological.  My reaction to the event cannot be a vague spirituality that attaches all kinds of religious buzzwords to the event.  “They were a hurting soul who did not know better and I hope the love of God overwhelms them and the Scott Daniel’s sermons saved to the hard drive saves their lost souls.”  Gag me now.

Neither can my response be theological affirmations that seek to explain the event.  “By violating one of the sacred Ten Commandments, this teen is now guilty of the condemnation of God.  They haven’t just offended me but the very system that seeks to dispense true justice.”  Even typing that makes me roll my eyes.

Instead what I believe about God and my own acceptance of the God’s forgiveness has filled this event with meaning.  It is not enough to be spiritual.  It is not enough to hide behind theology.  Instead my spiritual response has to be infused with the content of the gospel, a content that says, “Forgive as Christ in God forgave you.”

So with that said, you who stole my IPod, I forgive you.

The Activity of God: 2 Case Studies

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Two things happened fairly close to home this weekend that have dominated national headlines.  The first happened within 100 miles of my house on a stretch of highway I drive often.  The second happened just a few hundred meters away from where my brother in law works and my brother in law watched the whole thing from a few meters away.

What caught my attention about both was not their nearness to me but that God was given credit for both.

The first happened Saturday morning, on Interstate 84 right outside of Baker City.  Icy roads and foggy conditions led to a 20 car pileup affecting more than 100 people.  Although several dozen were injured, the picture (right) that made the incident viral was of a man named Kaleb Whitby, who is younger than I am.  Kaleb walked away from the accident with two band aids on his face, but sadly, without a truck.

He probably should be dead, or at least on life support or at the very least on crutches.  Instead he is alive with 2 band aids.  His exact quote, according to the press was, “Thank God that I’m still alive.  Now I’ve got to go figure out why.”

As a pastor I find that quote endearing.   The laws of probability (laws which God created, a random number generator of sorts) dictate that he should be dead.  With that said, it might have been dumb luck and stranger things have certainly happened, though not often.  Yet as a believer I have no problem stating that God would reprogram that random number generator to keep Kaleb alive.  We call that a miracle.

The second thing that happened was that the Seattle Seahawks won both an onside kick and a coin toss, which then led to a conference championship and a trip to the Super Bowl.  My brother in law, who works for the Mariners, was on the sidelines watching the whole thing.  I am in a family of Seahawks fans and cheer for them when I am not cheering for the Chiefs.  I was thrilled they won but their game had been ugly up to the final minutes of the 4th quarter.  They had thrown 4 interceptions and received a ridiculous amount of avoidable penalties, the majority of which were because a player was on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage.

Still a great defensive line, a few miracle plays, the onside kick that bounced into their player’s hands and the luck of a coin toss led to the Seattle victory.

Moments after the game an understandably emotional Russell Wilson gave his team credit for staying in the game and stated how he “had no doubt.”  Then he said, “God prepared me for this game.  God prepared the team for this.”  Then the camera switched to a shot of the Seahawks’ players praying in a circle with one Packer in the mix.  I do not know, nor would I judge if I did, what they were praying.  Still, the entire event was one example of many that football is inventing a spirituality all its own.

Still, I wonder about Russell Wilson’s claim that God prepared them to win the game.  If I were not a Christian I would wonder at the absurdity of such a God, since Seattle was so unprepared they threw 4 interceptions and couldn’t keep their players on the right side of the line of scrimmage half the time.  I might argue that it seems to be the luck of a bouncy football and a coin toss that won the game, alongside an incredible defense that more than covered the offense’s sins.

Still, I am a Christian believer and must treat Wilson’s statement, along with Whitby’s above, with theological earnestness.

As a pastor, I would ask, “Does God really overrule the random number generator that governs the rest of us to save young men’s lives and help Seattle win football games?”

This question has many answers but I will focus on two.  The first is a philosophical one.  What can we say about a God who easily saves Kaleb Whitby’s live but leaves our high school secretary, who is an incredibly devout Christian and loving servant to our teenagers, with cancer?  Why easily override the laws to save Kaleb and not override those same laws to save the secretary?  Is such a God even good?  At the very least, philosophers argue, God should account for why the angels saved Kaleb and won’t save the secretary.

It gets worse with Seattle’s win.  I know very devout servants of Christ who are Packers fans and they feel wronged and robbed of a victory they probably deserved.  (I admit this, even though I am a Seahawks fan.)  More than that, a God who overrides the laws of a coin toss to help Seattle win is even more a tyrant for not doing so to save the lives of countless others who are starving to death or dying of cancer or being annihilated by extremists in the middle east.  Is a God good who prepares people to win football games, but has done lousy at preparing football teams to eradicate hunger and death?  Once again, philosophers would argue such a God should at least give an account of why.

However, I am not a philosopher.  I took required philosophy classes in college and seminary and went no further in the subject.  Perhaps because of that, I think that if God did indeed save Kaleb’s life and prepare Seattle to win, God would certainly be able to give us an account of why.  I trust God completely in those situations to do what is right.  In fact, if God were to show up and give an account it would probably be a lot like the one given to Job, “Who are you to contend with me?”

There is a second way to consider this question.  It is from a theological and Biblical perspective.  Luckily I took my fair share of Bible and Theology classes in college and seminary so I feel a bit more prepared in those areas.  In fact as I have thought about these two situations over the last day, I cannot get away from the 3rd Commandment which is, “Do not use the Lord’s name in vain.”

To call someone by name is to evoke their entire presence and bring their entire being to bear in the situation.  So a better translation of the 3rd commandment might be, “Don’t bring God into vain contexts” or “Be careful when you bring up God that it is not to address a foolish subject.”

This idea plays out in all of Scripture.  It certainly does so at the end of Job, where God seems to be mad that his name was brought haphazardly into Job’s conversation with friends.  In Isaiah 29:13 God speaks through the prophet saying, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”  Jesus quotes this again in Matthew 15 to describe the Pharisees who led the way in talking about God and bringing God’s name and presence into situations but did not lead the way in actual service to God.

With this in mind what do we say about the claims made of God this past weekend?  I know most Christians are delighted that God was even brought up in such high profile cases and I struggle to not be happy as well.  I also do not want to violate another commandment of Jesus’, mainly that of being hyper critical.

Still, it would seem to me that the God of Scripture would certainly break the rules of probability to save Kaleb Whitby’s life.  I do not know Kaleb.  He might be a model Saint or a lousy sinner.  He probably is like me, somewhere in between.  Regardless, Scripture reveals a God who works miracles to save the lives of all types of saints and sinners.  I hope that Kaleb finds a great mentor to help him answer his question about why God would save his life and what he should do next.  At the same time, I am sad that God is not doing the same for our High School secretary and pray often that God will.  Still, the God of Scripture would absolutely save Kaleb’s life for no other reason than love of the world and of Kaleb and his family.

The Seahawks are a different story.  We know that football certainly is vain.  It is a fun thing we do and a great pastime and I enjoyed the game yesterday as much as anybody.  Furthermore, I would never invent a new legalism by insisting people not watch it or play it.  Still, it is not an area of great spiritual meaning.  Football is vanity.

To attach God’s name and presence to something as vain as football would surely be a violation of the 3rd commandment.  It would be similar to telling people my wife loves green peppers.  My wife hates green peppers and if she overheard me saying she liked them she would either assume I was an ignorant husband who refused to notice even the rarest thing about her or she would assume I was a liar.  Both would not bode well for me.

I wish sometimes the church would give God the same attention.  Instead we try to attach God’s name to everything and anything that comes our way without stopping to ask whether God really wants to be a part of it.  In so doing, we might be force feeding God green peppers.  Or, to dispense with the metaphor, we are honoring God with our lips but our hearts are a universe away.

The God of Scripture does not prepare people to win football games nor would the God of Scripture rewrite the random number generator of the cosmos (a number generator God invented) to help one team win a vain and silly game over another.

With that said, I am delighted Seattle won and I am even more delighted that Kaleb Whitby is still alive.  I attribute the second to a God of life and love who overwrites the rules so that both may continue.  The first, I attribute to the random number generator that the God of life invented but doesn’t micromanage.  I guess you might call Seattle’s win dumb luck.

Still go Seahawks!  May that luck continue against the Patriots.

Kaleb, my prayers are with you and your family.  May the God of life and love continue to shower both to you as you seek to live a fruitful life.

Prescribing our Described Worlds: Video Games Pt. 2

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The year was 1997 (or was it 1998?).  I was hanging out at my friend Ben’s house.  The Nintendo 64 had been released and his parents bought him one.  I would never think about asking my parents to pay $200 for a video game system, let alone the additional $30-$50 for games.

But I had $100 of my own money and because of the N64, the Super Nintendo’s price was reduced to my range.  I bought one and played the 2 games that came with it.  But Ben had had a Super Nintendo for a decade and 30 games to go with it, 30 games he would soon just give to me because they were worthless now that he had the next best thing.

That particular afternoon in 1998 (or 1997) I snatched one of his games called “Final Fantasy 3.”  I asked him if we could play it and he immediately dismissed it as “too complicated” and “single player.”

I insisted, being offended by the “too complicated” part and so we put it in and watched the credits roll.

It was the 3rd Final Fantasy to be released in the USA but there were 5 Japanese games before it so the numbering was later changed to reflect the Japanese games.

What followed has been a decades long infatuation with quite possibly the greatest video game ever made.  The graphics were gorgeous.  The music was overwhelmingly beautiful.  The plot was intriguing.  The characters were fully formed and moving.  And the game play did not consist of bouncing on enemies or punching or shooting them.  For awhile I played through the game once a year.  Now I go back to it every other year or so and I am always moved by its brilliance.

Yesterday I presupposed that video games are artistic expressions.  I know a few who disagree with me but, mostly because of Final Fantasy 3 (or 6 as it would later be correctly numbered), I hold to the claim.  With that claim I argue that video games should be subjected to the same critique and engagement as the other arts.  That is why I dismissed some of the more ridiculous claims that Christians have made against art.

Today I want to talk about two wider criticisms and apply those to video games.

The first is what I called “prescriptive criticism.”  These are the critics who judge art based off of the world that is supposedly prescribed.  I would include most “Christian” critics in this category.  These critics are always focusing on “what’s the message?”  And if the critic agrees with the message then they deem the artwork “good.”  If the critic disagrees they label it “bad.”

In the case of Christian music, critics don’t pay attention to the melody, the beat, the vocals, or the instruments.  They narrow in on the lyrics and ask, “Does this song mention Jesus enough times?”  “Does this song portray God as able to fix all our problems?”  “Does this song’s God like 6 day creationism?”  “Do these lyrics quote the Bible?”

The problem with such a view is that not all art is prescriptive.  Some art just wants to describe the world as it is and let us figure out where to go from there.  Christians seldom know what to do with that art so they tell the art what its prescriptive message was and then dismiss it as being erroneous.  This is why all the “Christian” art, especially that which is loved by Christian radio and Christian publishers tends to be prescriptive.  They are all sermons in the form of a novel, song, movie or video game.  This has led to some horrible artworks produced and made popular by otherwise well meaning Christians.  In turn many cultural critics have written off the entirety of Christianity as being “close minded.”

So a counter movement has sprung up that I roughly identify with Christian Hipsters.  These are the descriptive critics.  They don’t ask, “Do I agree?” but instead “is this true?”  By this they mean, “Does this movie, song, video game accurately represent reality as it is?”  With that question some justify watching all manner of profanity, arguing, “The world is a profane place and we shouldn’t ignore it.”  I would agree but it is still hard for me to believe that watching pornography is a way to acknowledge pornography exists.  The same goes for graphic violence.

The real problem with descriptive critics is that they seem to deny that good art can be prescriptive.  Some of the best novels and paintings and even video games have prescribed a better world for us and asked us to strive towards it.  Others have shown us a worse world and begged us not to go there.  Here I think of utopias (like Star Trek) and dystopias (like the Walking Dead).

So I think a better way to critique art is to dig past the conscious questions of “do I consciously agree?” or “do I consciously verify that this is true?” to our subconscious participation in the piece.

On a deep level, what is happening to us as we engage the art?  Are we opened up or closed off to our neighbors and their realities?  Are we filled with hope or despair?  Do we become better at problem solving and critical thinking or do we suddenly start thinking a gun is the answer to all of life’s solutions? Are we made angry and is that anger justified and focused on the evils of the world or is it just that type of abstract anger that is angry for no reason?  And in the case of Zuma Blitz, why am I forgetting to blink?

Tomorrow I will talk about games that fail the above test but let’s go back to Final Fantasy 6.  At first glance FF6 fails the prescriptive test because it doesn’t mention Jesus and it seems to suggest that magic and brute strength are the way to solve the world’s problems.  To add to its “evils” it never quotes Scripture *cough* shameful *cough*.

The greatest moment of the game was when the world was decimated into a wasteland by the antagonist. Walking through this village after the disaster was chilling.

It also fails the descriptive test because we do not live in a world where magicians are running around setting things on fire.  There was never (nor will ever be) a great war of the Magi that decimated the planet.  And every time we get into a confrontation we can’t mystically summon magical Espers to appear and help us out.  More than that, there are not three statues somewhere out there that need to be perfectly aligned or else the world will go bonanzas.

However, there is a prevailing belief that the world all ready has gone bonanzas because our harmony has been misaligned.  There are many who believe we are all ready living in a post apocalyptic world.  And as you go through the game, you find that it is not the brute strength or the magic powers that end the ruin and save the day and bring about harmony.  It is the characters (14 of them!) learning how to love.

With a full 14 characters this was the best cast any of the Final Fantasies would have.

The protagonist, a woman named Terra (top left corner), regains her powers when she falls in love with a group of orphans.  Locke, the thief, comes into his own when he finally grieves and moves on from the death of his fiance.  Edgar, the Prince, fights for the love of his people.  Celes repents of being an Empire General and learns to love her adopted grandfather who works himself to death building a raft for her salvation.  Throughout the game all 14 characters learn to love and in so doing find the power to realign the world and defeat evil.

Beyond that surface, dare I say “conscious” message, the music, the visual art, the dialog, even the game play, all come together to fill the player with a subconscious peace, harmony, hope, encouragement and love that help us survive our dystopias.  This subconscious nudge towards all the virtues is out of this world but, at the same time, firmly grounds us in the realities in which we live.

That and the game is just too much fun.

See you all tomorrow where we visit the opposite end of the spectrum.

Forgetting to Blink: Video Games Pt. 1

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Over the last few weeks I have rediscovered a Facebook game called Zuma Blitz.  It involves a frog shooting balls at a chain of balls that endlessly come out of two holes in the map.  If you match three or more balls they disappear.  You are given a minute to clear as many balls and score as many points as possible.  After a minute the game ends, unless of course you get the balls with hourglasses on them which adds 5 seconds to the clock.

As you can tell, the game is completely realistic and carefully follows the laws of physics, if you can get over that whole frog shooting balls out of its mouth part.  But the reason I like Zuma Blitz is you are given five lives every hour.  This means I only end up playing the game for 5-10 minutes at a time before going back to regular life.

During those 5-10 minutes, my mind works things out.  While my finger moves and clicks the mouse, I don’t think about scoring points.  I think about church and sermons and Cross Country and my marriage and my children and the mysteries of grace.

At the same time, I forget to blink.

My eyes get dry and my contacts fall out.  I never forget to blink at any other time except when I am playing a game like Zuma Blitz.  When I work tirelessly on sermons I still blink.  When I watch movies, I blink.  When I read books, I blink.  When I run really hard and am focusing all my attention on moving my legs faster, I still blink.

But when I shoot balls out of a frog’s mouth I forget to blink.

I play Zuma so that I can think about anything but Zuma but I am still concentrating so hard on matching those balls that I forget to blink.  This paradox lies at the heart of a discussion on video games and art.  Whether our cognitive facilities are engaged or unengaged, the cultural mediums we interact with have a subconscious pull on us.  It seems we should be just as mindful of the subconscious pull then the conscious one.

Video games did not arrive on the scene until 1980 and even now they are nowhere near as popular as other mediums like movies, novels, TV shows or even those old fashioned canvas paintings (okay, I know that video games are more popular than canvas paintings.  Leave me alone all ready :P).

With that said almost every pastor I know under the age of 40 plays video games while not every pastor I know spends hours looking at paintings.  And most pastors don’t just click balls out of frogs but play the time consuming RPGs (role playing games) and violent FPSs (first person shooters) and a few of us still love the old school RTS’s (real time strategy).

This blog is the first in a series of posts that will seek to speak truth into the video gaming medium.  The question isn’t whether we are to accept or reject the medium as a whole.  Instead I hope to provide an analysis of the medium from my perspective as a Christian pastor.  Such an analysis will certainly hope to meditate on whatever is true, lovely and right about video games while encouraging disciples to be thoughtful and careful about which games they play and how much time and money they spend playing them.

In order to begin such a conversation, it might be helpful to briefly visit the reasons that Christians have often chosen to reject artistic and cultural expressions.

The first is summed up in the old Sunday School song, “Be careful little eyes what you see.”  Under this thinking just seeing the wrong thing could cause you to contaminate the purity God intends for you.  There is a lot of violence in video games and much of it offends me (we will talk about that in a future post), but to avoid a longer theological discussion let’s just quote Jesus in Mark and move on.  Mark 7:15 reads, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”  It is what you say and do that makes one impure, not what one sees and hears.

The next reason has to do with wasting time.  Why spend a half hour watching TV when you can spend a half hour praying?  Why spend 2 hours watching a movie, when you can spend 2 hours listening to a sermon?  Why spend 100 hours beating that video game when you can spend 100 hours solving the problems of the world?  It is a good question and we should be good stewards of our time.  Yet I have always struggled to articulate just what is a waste of time and what isn’t.  Is running 100 miles in one week a waste of time or a huge accomplishment?  You only need to run about 30 miles a week to stay fit and healthy and 100 miles could work against you.  Why spend a day rafting down a river?  Why spend an evening skiing on a mountain?  Why spend an entire day planning a romantic twilight dinner for your significant other?  I have no idea where to draw the line and that applies to video games as well.  With that said, I still do think there should be a line.

Next we have said:  Don’t waste your money.  And we should be good stewards of our money.  However, if you stick to a budget, video games are fairly cheap for the amount of entertainment you get.  Most $50 games go on sale no less than six months after their release, which means if you are patient you can pick them up for $5-$10.  Most movies cost $5-$10 and give you 2-3 hours of entertainment.   Video games give you far more bang for your buck.  So once again, you have to go through the messy and complicated work of defining what “wasting” looks like.

The last reason people reject artistic mediums is that they are a waste of good emotion.  Why cry at an oil canvas painting when your neighbor’s life is much, much worse?  Why sit through hours of an emotionally exhausting TV drama when your sibling needs those emotions to make their pain less great?  Why waste compassion on fictional characters in bizarre, fabricated circumstances?

Here we have something that causes us to stop and think.  Does our art (whether it is a movie, a TV show, a painting, or a video game) open us up to understanding and compassion or close us off to the world?

That question is at the heart of how we should critique art and so I want to leave it dangling for today.

See you tomorrow.  Until then don’t forget to blink.