Delta: What Changes, What Doesn’t

My former love of mathematics came in handy the other day.

I was in a clergy meeting, and we were talking about the delta variant of the coronavirus. And I remembered using the “delta” sign in math equations. It’s a triangle: ∆. Whenever you’re taking the delta of something, you’re finding the difference, or the amount of change.

So the delta between 5 and 3 is 5 – 3, or two. ∆x (“delta x”) is the change of a variable, x.

Delta is change. It’s difference.

As I came out of this math flashback, I spoke up in this clergy meeting, talking about how the delta variant, this change in the trend of coronavirus cases, surely means a change—again—for how we do church, for how we are the church. It’s like “Delta Church” now.

This felt like a deep insight, until I said it out loud, when I saw a bunch of other pastors staring back at me on Zoom, as if to say, “Uh, yeah, Pastor Abram. We already knew that delta means change.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What we don’t know is what kind of changes this new wave of coronavirus cases may require from us. More patience, for sure. More trust, yes. More caution? You bet. A vaccine booster, even after you’ve had two shots? Yes, that, too. A vaccine as soon as it’s available, if you’re younger? Yes, please.

Delta is all about change. It’s about things being different. And here we finally thought things were done being different, with the cases dropping a few months ago and vaccinations on the rise. It seems we’re back into an unclear present. And it’s hard to keep perspective, when we don’t even know where we are anymore!

Changeless

Enter Joshua.

At end of the book of Joshua, Israel’s great leader sees the end of his life approaching.

He leads the people of Israel in a covenant renewal at Shechem in Joshua 24. Joshua seems to sense that, as faithful as this group of people wants to be, they are only a generation away from abandoning the LORD.

So before he leads them in a declaration of trust in God, in the uncertain present moment, he has them look back.

They reflect on God’s faithfulness in the past, to remind themselves that God is a faithful God, not just in the past, but also in the present, and that God will be faithful in the future. God provided for the people in the past. He’s going to do it again today, and he’ll do it again tomorrow!

Think about your own life—whatever kind of moment you’re in, however uncertain you feel, however scared this new delta variant has you, whatever the rest of your life feels like right now… think about your past, and how God has been present to you. Think about how God has healed you, how God has provided for you, how God has shown up to you.

Joshua walks through this important act of remembering with his people.

He recaps the history of this people in the presence of all the leaders and judges and officials and tribes. He begins with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, then goes on to Moses, Aaron, and how God parted the Red Sea and brought the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt. All praise be to our liberating God! Other nations fought Israel, but through God they prevailed. God says through Joshua in verse 13, “I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”

In other words: I, the LORD, gave you what you have.

Even so, Joshua presents the people with a choice, in verse 15: “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.”

Will a faithful, loving, generous God in the past be enough for God’s people today, and well into tomorrow?

Yes, God gave us water from the rock, but… can he do it again? Yeah, God has literally defied the laws of physics to save us, but… what if he forgets how to do it again? Sure, God has done miracles in our past, made a way where there is now way, but what if God gets stuck this time?

It’s not going to happen. There is no delta with God. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God is good… not some of the time, not off and on, but God is good… all the time!

That doesn’t mean God is unmoved by our challenges. He weeps with those who weep, and he knows what it’s like to be tempted, to suffer. God knows what it feels like to be swept up by a storm at sea, or surrounded by contagious sickness.

But there is no delta with God, no change. No such thing as a God who is here today but gone tomorrow. With God, it’s not just faithfulness and provision up to a certain point. God is who God is yesterday, today, and forever.

Joshua leads the way in recommitting to this changeless God: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Mater the Tow Truck

In an uncertain moment, in a season of drought, or in-between-ness, it can be tempting to say, “Well, everything is kind of on hold right now, so there’s nothing we can do. Let’s wait till things resolve, and get back to it then.”

As a pastor—the pastor of a church living through almost two years of transition now, as the pastor of a church without a meeting space, without a church office, and at the mercy of the elements for if we can meet in person or not—I confess that this temptation is real for me, too. It’s the temptation to say, “Let’s just survive and get through this so we can go back to being the church, for real.”

But we are the body of Jesus Christ in the city of Boston right now. Do we need a building to be the body? In some ways, yeah, it really helps! Do we need to be able to attend large gatherings without masks and be back to where we were two years ago, before any of these changes came? That would be awesome! I would love that.

But that’s not our reality. Reality has changed.

Who we are in Christ Jesus has not changed.

We are still the congregation, the people, God has called us to be.

The same God who has led us “where (we’ve) been” is going ahead of us into a future we cannot see. This future is crystal clear to God. Muddy for us, totally in focus for God.

Consider Mater the Tow Truck, from Pixar’s Cars movie. Mater declares himself to be, among other things, “the world’s best backwards driver.”

He shows the race car Lightning McQueen his skills. He uses his rear-view mirrors to look behind him and quickly drive backwards through town and over various obstacles. To an amazed Lightning McQueen, Mater says, “Don’t need to know where I’m going, just need to know where I’ve been.”

“Don’t need to know where I’m going, just need to know where I’ve been.”

And that’s a good thing, because, ask me what I know about the present? Ask me what I know about next week or next month? Shrug of the shoulders.

But that doesn’t mean we’re on hold. God’s Spirit is living and active among us, and we get to be the body of Christ in the city right now in a world where everybody else is feeling anxious about all of the delta changes ahead. Do we know where we’re going? We’ll still make plans, but no, we don’t really know where we’re going. But do we know where we’ve been, how God has walked with us? You bet!

What if this tough, in-between time is vital work God is doing in is right now to shape us into the church he needs us to be for the future?

What if our building-less summer and fall means we’re an even more public witness to the city, as we worship in full view of the public at the park?

What if we were like Joshua, and led the way in helping our friends, families, and neighbors remember a good God who has always been faithful? What if we said to others, I believe that this loving and generous God is not going to give up now!

What if our faith and trust in God, even in this “delta” season, inspired others to trust God, too?

Friends, let’s say with Joshua, loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear, “But as for (us) and (our) household, we will serve the LORD!”

I adapted the above from a sermon I recently preached.

Amusement Parks on Fire’s “Thankyou Violin Radiopunk,” Reviewed

It’s been more than 10 years since Amusement Parks on Fire’s last LP. They’ve just announced a new one, An Archaea, set to release on June 25.

In the meantime, their 2017 and 2018 EPs were beautiful, and May 2020 saw an EP of rarities, which I review here. It’s called Thankyou Violin Radiopunk.

One of the things I love about Amusement Parks on Fire is that their songs are just as good, whether they consist of fuzzy, distorted guitars, or whether it’s all acoustic. The first track on Thankyou Violin Radiopunk proves that. It’s called “Firth of Third,” which has been listed under Michael Feerick’s name on YouTube for quite some time. It’s one of those YouTube videos I find myself watching on a regular basis. I think it’s one of his best songs.

Next is a “rustic,” reworked version of “Venus in Cancer,” which is just as hypnotic as the louder, heavier version APOF released on their self-titled 2005 album. APOF proves here that it’s as much about the songwriting as the sound. (I love this song’s chord progression, and how it doesn’t resolve to the tonic until the very end.) The tempo in this version is slower than the original version, too, showing that a great song can work in different styles and even at different tempos.

Then, track 3 is “Come of Age,” which reminds me of their 2005 “Blackout,” the first song I ever heard by the band. This song has been on the YouTubes since 2016, apparently. How did I miss it? How did it not make it onto an LP already? It’s a treat to have a song this good on a rarities collection.

Track 4 is a demo version of “Water from the Sun,” from 2010’s Road Eyes. Track 5, “Young Flight” (New Wave) is further proof that APOF’s songs are strong enough to sound great no matter how they arrange them.

I have no idea where track 6, “Hopefully Yours,” comes from, but the layering of room-filling, distorted guitars on top of piano hints (maybe!) that listeners can expect further sonic experimentation from this band in the future. Track 7, “Lasts Forever,” feels like a bookend to “Firth of Third.” Think: Smashing Pumpkin’s “Spaceboy,” but with way better guitar tone and vocals.

I confess I don’t really understand how the final track, “Tape Grip Addition (Prerise)” fits with the rest of the songs. If I read this album like my philosophy professor taught me to read a text, and I ask, “What’s the author doing now?”, that question is generally clear to me throughout even this hodgepodge collection of rarities. Until the last track. My best guess is this may be some kind of setup to the forthcoming LP, a “call” whose “response” is coming soon.

So glad this great band is sharing music with the world again.

You can listen to and purchase Thankyou Violin Radiopunk here.


Many thanks to the band for download access so I could write the review.

Gossip Destroys, Especially When We Think We’re Not Gossiping but Really Are

From HBR, via ICHIRO/Getty Images
From HBR, via ICHIRO/Getty Images

I recently saw a survey given to young people that asked them something like, “Do you use your computer inappropriately?” The number was low, 10% or so of respondents answering yes. The next question was something like, “Do your peers use their computer inappropriately?” The number was much higher; if I recall, close to a majority of respondents said yes. In other words, I don’t do that, but they do.

I suspect that pattern holds with other destructive habits. Take gossip, for example. Deborah Grayson Riegel points out that in her coaching work, her clients often deny participating in workplace gossip, “with a look on their faces that indicates that they are insulted to have been asked such a question.” But when Grayson Riegel reframes the question, the response changes:

When I ask them whether they have ever participated in a “confirmation expedition” — whereby they 1) ask a colleague to confirm their own negative or challenging experience with a third colleague who is not present, or 2) welcome a similar line of confirmation inquiry from another colleague about a third colleague who is not present, most admit that this is, in fact, a regular part of their daily work life.

She talks about the importance of naming gossip (or a “confirmation expedition”) as such:

First, call gossip “gossip” to stop it in its tracks. If you are engaging in “informal and evaluative talk in an organization, usually among no more than a few individuals, about another member of that organization who is not present,” — especially if the aim is to confirm your experience rather than get constructive solutions — then you are participating in gossip.

The intertestamental book of Sirach goes further than just calling gossip “gossip.” It says, “Curse the gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many” (Sirach 28:13, NRSV). Gossip destroys the well-being of persons and disrupts whole communities.

The apostle Paul also warns his first century churches about “gossips,” which in Greek sure seems like an onomatopoeia: psithuristēs (whisperer). Think: “whisper networks,” but not the good, truth-telling kind that rightly bring down folks like Harvey Weinstein et al.

One of the dangers of gossip is that it seeks to confirm information (or at least claims to), but it risks getting reality wrong, because not all the involved people are in the room, including folks who may know more about a situation at hand. Not to mention that such furtive whispering is hard to hear, and often inaccurately conveys information when passed from one person to another (as happens in the kids’ game of “Telephone”).

Grayson Riegel has excellent advice for what to do about this dynamic (see her Harvard Business Review article here). I especially appreciate her “Let people know that you have a policy of ‘if you have a problem with me, please tell me first.’” (Although I think we need to be ready for the unfortunate possibility that some may simply ignore this request.)

I would add this prayer from Psalm 139:23-24, which could help us avoid doing what we are sure only others do:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

“Backpacks,” by Leslé Honoré

I came across this beautiful and heart-wrenching poem this morning (via): “Backpacks” by Leslé Honoré.

It starts like this:

When black boys are born

We mothers kiss their faces

Put them in carriers on our chest

Twirl our fingers in their curls

Show them to the world

Our tiny black princes

And when they start school

As early as 3

We mothers

Place huge back packs on their backs

And we slowly fill them with bricks

Read the whole thing here. Or watch and listen below.

BACKPACKS by Leslé Honoré from STOPTIME.LIVE on Vimeo.


Bonhoeffer’s Last Words, Before He Was Hanged (76 Years Ago Today)

Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in the Nazi concentration camp of Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the U.S. military came to liberate it.

John W. de Gruchy describes the lead-up to that day in his Editor’s Introduction to Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 8):

On October 8 [of 1944], Bonhoeffer was taken to the cellar of the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, where he stayed until February 7, 1945. From then on, all correspondence came to an end, and contact between Bonhoeffer and the family and [Eberhard] Bethge was broken. From there Bonhoeffer was taken first to Buchenwald and then, via the village of Schönberg in Bavaria, to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he arrived on April 8. That evening he was tried by a hastily rigged court and condemned to death. Early the next morning Bonhoeffer was executed along with several other coconspirators.

He was hanged April 9. His family would not learn about it for several months.

The July before he had written to his trusted friend (and later biographer) Eberhard Bethge, one day after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. He wrote:

How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world? You understand what I mean even when I put it so briefly. I am grateful that I have been allowed this insight, and I know that it is only on the path that I have finally taken that I was able to learn this. So I am thinking gratefully and with peace of mind about past as well as present things. …

May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.

His final recorded words before his hanging are especially appropriate in these days that lead up to Easter Sunday:

This is the end–for me the beginning of life.


This post is one I’ve re-posted a few times on April 9. It began as part of the “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer” I wrote when I first got into Bonhoeffer. See other gathered Bonhoeffer posts here.

A Verse for Holy Week

Lent can help us recalibrate our anthropology:

καὶ γὰρ ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς εἰρήνης μου, ἐφ̓ ὃν ἤλπισα,
ὁ ἐσθίων ἄρτους μου, ἐμεγάλυνεν ἐπ̓ ἐμὲ πτερνισμόν·

Psalm 40:10 (LXX)

Indeed, the person at peace with me, in whom I hoped,
he who would eat of my bread, magnified trickery against me.

(NETS translation)

Jesus will apply this verse to Judas in John 13:18: The one who ate bread with me has turned his back on me.

And this was one of the 12! Even one of Jesus’s inner circle would turn his back on him. A sobering reminder of all that Jesus endured as we “journey toward the cross” this week.

Tempered Resilience (Tod Bolsinger)

Book cover of Tempered Resilience

 

The best way to introduce you to Tod Bolsinger’s new book is through a couple of quotations that wowed me:

A teachable learning mindset leads to a greater capacity for staying in a difficult position, taking on a particularly difficult task or standing up to resistance, because there is an inherent assurance that if all else fails this trial will—if nothing else—lead to further growth.

This sobering word, too:

A major difficulty in sustaining one’s mission is that others who start out with the same enthusiasm will come to lose their nerve. Mutiny and sabotage came not from enemies who opposed the initial idea, but rather from colleagues whose will was sapped by unexpected hardships along the way.

And this, which I shared with our church’s leadership and several other pastors I know:

One of the genuine crises of Christian leadership today is how inward focused it is. A movement founded on the salvation and transformation of the world often becomes consumed with helping a congregation, an organization, or educational institution survive, stay together, or deal with rampant anxiety (often all at the same time). It’s not enough to turn around a declining church, resolve conflict, restore a sense of community, regain a business’s market share, return an organization to sustainability, or even “save the company.” The question before any leader of an organization is “save the company for what?”

Bolsinger’s guiding metaphor is from blacksmithing: “To temper describes the process of heating, holding, hammering, cooling, and reheating that adds stress to raw iron until it becomes a glistening knife blade or chisel tip.” Others may find his drawing on the blacksmithing process more compelling than I did. I would have gladly taken Bolsinger’s wisdom straight up, sans analogy. (As in the quotes above.)

If you thought being sabatoged was unique to you? Par for the course, apparently. Bolsinger doesn’t deny the reality of church dysfunction; he seems to assume it. But then he equips the reader with how to lead resiliently in the face of adversity–even adversity coming from within. (“The call is coming from inside the house.”)

Bolsinger describes a “six-step process”:

1. Working: Leaders are formed in leading.
2. Heating; Strength is forged in self-reflection.
3. Holding: Vulnerable leadership requires relational security.
4. Hammering: Stress makes a leader.
5. Hewing: Resilience takes practice.
6. Tempering: Resilience comes through a rhythm of leading and not leading.

Despite a few dry moments or chapters that I thought could have been edited down, Tempered Resilience is an encouraging and empowering read. It’s offered me great encouragement these last few months, as well as given me a framework and tools to better understand the “crucible” of church leadership.

Tempered Resilience is available here (IVP) and here (Amazon/affiliate link).

 

Thanks to the good folks at IVP for the review copy, via NetGalley, sent without expectations of the content of my review.

Plug for Waltke’s Micah Commentary

waltke-micah

 

Bruce Waltke’s Commentary on Micah is on sale for $12.90 in Accordance for a while longer. Even at its list price of $27.90, it’s a bargain.

It’s been a while since I used it in depth, but whenever I have plunged its depth, I’ve been astounded at Waltke’s attention to detail, analysis of the text, and careful treatment of the grammar (and so much more). He has other Micah volumes available, even: Tyndale and McComiskey. But this stand-alone volume is the one it seems he really wanted to write, the volume that was far too long for inclusion in any series. He says in the preface that he treated each pericope as if it were a doctoral dissertation.

When I wrote a lengthy exegesis paper on a Micah passage in seminary, this commentary was close at hand. I used the library copy extensively, then bought myself a hard copy afterwards to celebrate. (I do love the smell of Eerdmans books.) When it became available in Accordance, I quickly made it one of a handful of double purchases, where I get a book in print and Accordance, so that I could access it electronically, as well.

No kickback for me on this post… just one of the best commentaries I’ve ever used for in-depth, original language work (especially text criticism), so wanting to give it its due.

Thomas Merton’s Prayer in Uncertainty

I’ve loved this prayer of Thomas Merton’s since I visited Abbey of Gethsemani as a teenager:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.