Big Salvation Words: Repentance

And so we come to my final big salvation word: Repentance. In case you haven’t figured it out, this little collection of essays are a Lenten meditation. It might seem odd to choose the word “repentance” on this day after Easter. “Shouldn’t you be talking about victory, or new life, or bunnies?” you ask.

Ah, but in truth I am talking quite precisely about our new life in Christ that is made possible in Christ’s resurrection. For millennia those intimate with the spiritual practice of the church has said unequivocally that the Christian life is a life of repentance.

Once God’s divine life and light begin to flow into our being the secret corners of our life begin to be revealed. Once the light is turned on, we see that we need to change. Once we are given the gift of new life, we have the ability to change, or more precisely, to be transformed by the Holy Spirit within us.

And so I repent: I begin to clean out the cobwebs in the corners I have carefully avoided for much of my life. And as I clean out the cobwebs, I find another secret door that I have forgotten about. As I open it and God’s light shines in, I discover that I need to repent all over again. This leads to more inner hallways and doors, more spider webs, and alas, more repentance.

Said in this way, it all sounds rather dreary. But in fact, it is the most joyful thing a Christian can do.

Sometimes we are seduced into thinking that the Christian life is mostly about “fellowship” (ie, coffee and croissants at the coffee shop with my church buddies), “service” (ie, serving meals at the local homeless shelter), spiritual growth (reading Christian blogs, listening to Christian podcasts, reading the Bible), and thinking good thoughts that will chase out the negative thoughts.

None of these are bad things, but too often we settle for the good and never get around to the best things. “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless” (Phil 1:9f). This can only happen in the midst of repentance.

I remember renting my first apartment, a dark, dingy thing that was dirty and bug infested, but something I could afford. I was pretty depressed. But a group of college friends came over and helped my roommate and I clean it up. Windows were washed, curtains were taken down and new bright curtains were put up. Light bulbs were replaced. The carpet was cleaned. Wash buckets of pine-smelling cleaner were handed out. By the time we ordered pizza that evening, we were shocked to discover that we actually had a nice little apartment.

That is a picture of true Christian repentance and the resulting authentic Christian joy. Christ is risen. His light shines. Make the most of it. Amen.


A Prayer

This lovely prayer is from today’s Morning Prayer:

  be the beginning and end of all that we do and say.
Prompt our actions with your grace,
  and complete them with your all-powerful help.
I love the idea that it is God who prompts, and then, when we respond with action, it is God who completes.

Jesus Doesn’t Judge; Words Judge

In yesterday’s Daily Common Lectionary reading (Jn 12:44-50), Jesus says, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” If Jesus (who is God, after all) doesn’t judge and judgment is real (the Bible is full of that affirmation!), then who does the judging?

I smell a contradiction!!!

Turns out there is no contradiction. In the next verse Jesus continues, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” It took some time for the import of these two sentences to sink in.

There was a gospel song that folks in the church in which I grew up loved to sing. It began, “Sing them over again to me, Wonderful words of Life. Let me more of their beauty see, Wonderful words of Life.” But what if you reject those words? Then the words cease to be wonderful and become judgment. Jesus’ statement in Jn 12:47-48 parallels one of my favorite two verse in scripture: Rom 1:17-18. “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’. [18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” In this remarkable bit of parallelism, Paul seems to equate divine righteousness and divine wrath.

And on this Paul and John agree. Life giving words are the same thing as words of judgment (John). Righteousness is the same thing as wrath (Paul). The Eastern Orthodox commonly teach that heaven and hell are the same place. What believers experience as the warm light of love (because by faith they love God and have been purged of all chaff) the non-believers experience as the hot fire of judgment.

God doesn’t send anyone to hell (in this common Orthodox teaching), rather those who reject God experience the heavenly light of love as a burning hell. Righteousness is wrath. The wonderful words of life will judge us. So indeed Christ does not judge; he’s here to offer salvation! Judgment is all in how we respond to Jesus’ good words.

The Co-opting of Thanksgiving

American Thanksgiving (celebrated this coming Thursday, Nov 26) is a civil holiday with vaguely religious roots. Over the decades churches have co-opted it and turned it into a major holy day (for Evangelicals, at least). Now, when Americans treat it like the civil holiday that it actually is, some Christians sputter and get offended as if they actually own the day because they co-opted it.

A similar thing happened to the ancient pagan solstice festival. Christians co-opted it and associated it with the birth of Christ (which was likely in August and almost certainly not in December). Recently Wicca and other earth religions have been trying to take back their own festival, but with very little success.

It’s what Christians do. They take the stuff of nature and culture around them and see Christ in it. (“By him all things consist” Col 1:17). Sometimes those events turn into feasts and fasts. It’s a remarkable process of seeing the “natural” world through the eyes of faith.

What Then Is Scripture?

[I know, it’s been a long time. I’m done with school now, so maybe I’ll get back in the swing of things on the blog.]

For the most part, scripture doesn’t speak directly about the core doctrines of Christianity.

The Bible is mostly story, so I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, but it is a disconcerting fact for many. Properly, doctrine belongs to the Church. The core doctrines are how we sort out our life together and our experience of God as we live life together.

What then is scripture, if not a theology book? It is for praying. (Not exclusively, of course, but primarily). The psalms and canticles are the primary content of our prayers. The Gospels tell us the wonderful story of why we have a Church at al, of why we pray at alll. The Old Testament — and in this sense it is probably more appropriate to call it Hebrew Scripture — is the same but without the fullness of the New Testament. The epistles describe our life together so that our prayers can find their proper home or context.

Doctrine is fine (I know, it’s an odd thing for a trained theologian to say), but it is a second order aspect of our life together. Prayer, as fed by scripture and life together — with each other and with God — is our entry into the font of our being. From that comes our transformation, our service to others, our doctrine.

And oddly enough, this is precisely why doctrine is so vital. It is our definition of our life together with God and each other. If we get that wrong, it suggests we’re getting our prayer wrong. Doctrine is a litmus test of the purity of our life together in all its manifestations.

The Orthodox Church reserves the title “Theologian” for very few people (John, Gregory, Symeon the New Theologian), and they were all pray-ers, then poets, before becoming theologians.

This is not a new thought, but as I sort out theology with other strugglers, mostly American Evangelicals, it’s a thought that haunts me. It seemed high time to put it to words in this space.

In Defense of BPI (sort of)

In recent months there has been a major smear campaign against the local Siouxland business, Beef Products, Inc., better known as BPI, and their primary product, “lean finely textured beef,” what they prefer to call LFTB, but what most of us are more familiar with by the term “pink slime.”

Much of what is written about pink slime is misleading, false, and in the case of Jamie Oliver, outright lies. I personally try to avoid eating pink slime. In my personal hierarchy of bad stuff, it’s safer to eat than tilapia. It’s almost certainly safer than the 5 lb tube of hamburger you buy at the grocery store. The problem, in my mind, isn’t with what’s in it, but rather the extent to which it’s processed.

My geeky, scientific self loves the whole concept of LFTB. Fat, cartilage, lean beef, and bone all have different densities. That means that if you put those products in a centrifuge you can actually separate the beef from the fat and cartilage in the same way your friendly neighborhood phlebotomist separates your red and white blood cells to see if you’re vigorous enough to give blood.

In old fashioned packing plants a lot of meat ended up on the floor. It was simply not worth the cost in man-hours to separate the tiny bits of meat from the other bits of cartilage, bone, and fat that surrounded it, so all that got scooped up and shipped to the dog food factory.

What BPI did was to take all those left-over bits (after all the familiar cuts were removed) and run them through something akin to a sieve or a potato ricer. That creates a pinkish substance that almost looks like a batter. They then toss that “finely textured stuff” into a centrifuge, which separates the lean beef, bone, cartilage, fat, etc. into separate layers so the meat can be used. The end product is 95% pure lean beef (and 100% beef product, ie, there’s some fat and cartilage in it) which is so finely ground it’s more liquid than solid. (If you’re worried about that other 5%, LFTB is waaaay more pure than a hotdog or a sausage. Besides, fat, cartilage, and bone all have important nutrients that you can’t get from lean meat. It’s one of the reasons soup stock is so good for you.)

And this leads us to some of the libelous images often associated with LFTB. Before there was a way to economically recover the leftovers from the butchering process, those leftover bits and pieces were scooped up with a front end loader and sent to a dog food factory. The FDA doesn’t require the same high standards for animal food as it does for human food, and so the images of these leftover bits and pieces being hauled off to the dog food factory, when superimposed over a hamburger patty made from LFTB, the associations can be a bit disgusting.

But BPI doesn’t use leftover bits and pieces scraped off the killing floor with a front end loader. Once it was determined that the bits and pieces had economic value, they were handled in a completely different manner by the packing plant – separated onto their own conveyor belt instead of being dropped on the floor – and sold to BPI. The cow parts that end up at the BPI plant are butchered and processed with the same care as the ribeye steak that you see in your grocer’s meat counter.

The second thing that gets completely misrepresented is the addition of ammonium hydroxide gas to the product. Ammonium hydroxide is a chemical compound that naturally occurs in nearly all growing things. Every time I eat home-made bread, fruit fresh from the tree, or a grass fed, organic beef steak, I eat ammonium hydroxide. So while it’s an additive, it’s an additive of something that’s already there.

Ammonium hydroxide has a very high pH. (In other words it’s a base rather than an acid.) Arguably the biggest health danger in ground meats is the potential presence of E. coli, which requires an acidic environment to grow. Meat is naturally acidic, so it’s an ideal breeding ground for E. coli. What the BPI process does is increase the ammonium hydroxide levels in their meat to change the pH balance, making it less acidic and therefore making it very difficult for E. coli to grow.

Jamie Oliver, in his offensive program on pink slime (from his outrageously anti-American television series called Jamie’s American Road Trip), replicates the creation of pink slime by pouring household ammonia into a vat of hamburger, mixing it up, and forcing it through a sieve. That has nothing to do with the BPI process whatsoever. It was simply a bit of theater cynically and purposefully designed to misdirect the audience from the subtly of the process by setting up a red herring.

In fact, if you believe that the industrialized food system that we have in the western world is a generally good and healthy thing, you ought to embrace LFTB with thanksgiving because it addresses one of the most pernicious problems in our food system in an ingenious manner – by slightly changing the pH of the meat with a natural chemical already found in the meat, the meat becomes inhospitable to E., coli, one of the biggest killers in our food system.

My problem with LFTB, or “pink slime” as it has been called by its detractors, is not the product itself (some of my best friends are hot dogs, after all, which are essentially the same thing) but rather the process. LFTB is a long, long way from cattle on the hoof. Even though the collection process for these bits and pieces is very stringent, what else manages to accidently get into the mix? What happens to the lean beef when it is broken into such fine bits that it becomes a liquid? At this point I’m speculating, but I wonder, does the process break down the cell walls of the meat? How does this process (whatever it is) affect the nutritional make-up of the product or how the body processes it?

This is the sort of thing that worries me about LFTB. While it is essentially pure lean beef it is also a processed food. It is certainly not processed in the same way that a Dorito is processed, but it is a few steps farther away from natural than the beef steak in the meat market. Joel Salatin, farmer, lecturer, and whole food evangelist, offers the following test: “If your grandmother doesn’t recognize it as food, don’t eat it.”

Of course the LFTB, which really does look like pink slime, is mixed in with more traditional hamburger, so the BPI frozen patties at the store really do look like any other hamburger (except for the lack of E. coli crawling around the patty — but I jest), but the pink slime itself does not pass the grandmother test. That’s what makes me nervous. With all of our scientific hubris, we break real food down into its constituent parts and then rebuild it into a “new and improved food.” The catch is that many years later we discover it’s often not better, but actually detrimental to our health. Even though there’s no evidence to date that LFTB is any different than hamburger, except for the slightly higher pH, I wonder about what we don’t know.

There’s probably nothing wrong, in and of itself, with the LFTB. But there is something terribly wrong with the way we have industrialized food – from the pesticides and fertilizers to the additives and “natural flavors.” LFTB is a link in that chain. To every extent possible I avoid the chain altogether and seek out real food which is more nutritious than industrial food. So, even though Chef Jamie Oliver and the producers of the documentary, Food, Inc., make me angry, I still have a hard time siding with BPI. I don’t care that it’s “lean finely textured beef,” it still looks like pink slime to me. And I’ll admit that I’m inconsistent. I like my hot dogs to be pink, but I’m not ready for my hamburgers to go down the same path.

After all, grandma would recognize a hot dog.

p.s. To hear BPI’s version of the story, they have posted five videos on YouTube, which can be accessed from their home page at

Spring Is Here

It was raining when I left the house yesterday. As I pulled the car out of the garage I was dismayed to see the tiny, wet granules on the driveway that appeared to be sleet. I knew it was supposed to get up into the lower 60s so I wasn’t worried about the ice sticking. But I was dismayed to see the sleet. And then I realized that it wasn’t sleet. They were buds from the hackberry tree which the rain had knocked onto the driveway. The temp was in the upper 50s. It was a beautiful spring morning. There was nothing wintery about it at all.

And I realized it was high time to move beyond this whole cruise ship theme. So I updated my header photos to pictures with more of a spring-like theme. The dozen photos in this collection are as follows:

A tropical flower somewhere in the tropics, the location of which the mists of time have hidden.

Spring rains and groundwater seep out of a cliff face and off an overhanging rock in Zion National Park.

A yellow sulphur butterfly alighting on the sparse grass of Monument Valley, Arizona.

The blood-red flower of a camellia bush in February.

The flower of the soulangiana tree, better known as a Chinese magnolia, is one of the earliest blooming flowers in the southern U.S.

A male goldfinch feeding at our feeder.

A great egret patiently hunting in swamp southeast of Lafayette, Louisiana.

I went to find a snowy owl in the wind-swept fields of Nebraska and all I saw was this red-tailed hawk sitting atop the center pivot irrigation system, observing life, and vigilantly keeping the snowy owls away.

High up in the cliff walls above the Virgin River in Zion National Park, the spring rains have left their mark in the sand.

Teamwork: A black vulture and a boat-tailed grackle observe the retirees along the Gulf Coast. The vulture is no doubt waiting for someone to die. The grackle merely wants the old guy's boat shoes so his feet will match his tail.

Nothing says spring like bears coming out of hibernation. This particular one can be found in Barstow, California, along Route 66.

Even though its almost summer along the Colorado-New Mexico border, spring has not yet found its way to the top of the three peaks of the Sierra Blanca Massif.

Follow-up to “Brutal Winter”

Last week, in this post, I was being ironic about the lack of winter in Sioux City. Now that the storm has passed, it’s probably time for a follow-up. Turns out that the storm in question was brutal. Ask any who lives along the Front Range and along I-80 well into Iowa: record breaking wet snow that caused power outages across the region.

But not here. We got a very good rain, but it stayed warm enough that the snow never came. So this winter both Omaha (to the south, for those who are geographically challenged) and Sioux Falls (to the north) have gotten their share of storms. All we’ve gotten is a bit of morning fog. Which makes for a pretty scene.

If you look reaaallly close, you can see about 1 square inch of snow on our yard and a dreft (behind the tree) in the neighbors. If it weren’t for that, you’d think it was still October.

Oh yeah, and did I mention the fog made things beautiful? (That’s a finch in the tree, by the way.)

Phone solicitation

Here’s the downside to keeping my old cell phone number (which has a 712 area code, from back in the days when I lived on the Iowa side of the river).

I got a computerized call a couple of hours ago encouraging me to attend the Iowa caucus and to make sure and vote for …

oops, I hit the “delete” and “Add to reject list” buttons before I found out who I was supposed to vote for. Maybe I just better stay home and watch the Sugar Bowl instead.