A Good Little Story

On Sunday afternoons we have a group that studies the Lutheran Confessions. We are Lutherans, and the Confessions define what that means. This Sunday I took a tangent in our conversation to express my deep appreciation for good stories, works of fiction. A good one makes you think and maybe even teaches you something in a way that’s memorable. I suppose that’s why some preachers tell lots of stories in the pulpit, but I think preaching the gospel is a different kind of thing from communicating with a story. The ambiance, scope and aim are different, though Jesus demonstrates a masterful use of stories to serve the purpose of preaching.

Anyway, here’s a very brief example of what I mean. This little story could be expanded and adjusted in many ways. As short as it is here, it borders on an allegory, but really most good stories also serve as allegories in some way, so I don’t mind.

There’s something everyone can learn here. I hope you enjoy it.

Popped Amaranth

Bag of Amaranth seed
Popped amaranth.
Overly-toasted amaranth seeds. (stayed in the hot pot too long, at too low a temperature) I think the yellow background in the center of the plate is an artifact from jpeg compression.

We’ve been trying some new kinds of food at home. When I say “we,” I mean mainly myself and my eldest daughter. She’s going for Japanese foods, and I’ve been investigating grains and some legumes. (Sprouting is fun!) Today I picked up some amaranth seed/grain, and tried popping it. Apparently, it’s used as a gluten-free grain substitute, and also has the advantage of being high in iron. As you can see from the bag photo, it’s a small seed. But with a little experimentation, I was able to pop a few tablespoons of it in a pot on the stove. You can cook with the seed itself, for which most recipes I’ve seen so far you must grind it into flour. But you can also cook with the popped seed, or use it as a cereal. I think it’s pretty neat, kind of like digital watches. It takes a pretty hot pot, and once it’s hot enough, you need to throw the cover on it to keep the popping seeds from flying all over the stove. A “6” on our electric stove seemed about right. I didn’t use any oil or anything in the pot, but I did pick it up occasionally while the spoonfuls of seeds were popping, just to keep them moving around in there.

Up next: chia seeds!

Illustration of the Powers of Ten, and also Two Arguments for Design

The Astronomy picture of the day yesterday was a YouTube video illustrating the powers of ten. It dates from the 1960s, but is still a dramatic and relevant illustration. It also has application to understanding what trillion-dollar national debt means. (A trillion has 12 zeros. Now watch the video.)

As we Lutherans like to ask, “What does this mean?”

There are astronomy videos similar to this on YouTube with belligerent arguments between Christians and atheists, though the only comments I’ve actually seen are the atheists’. The videos have an effect similar to this one, only present-day images from orbital telescopes are stunning. But inevitably, it seems that the conversation about these things tends toward the origin of these unimaginably large, distant, and beautiful things, and then also the origin of our own planet and ourselves.

Naturally, atheists have a bone to pick with Christians. Though many of them rail against “religion,” their chief target is Christianity. The generic vocabulary allows them not only to treat Christianity as though every self-identified Christian represents the faith accurately (a ridiculous proposition), but even that every self-identified proponent of other religions represents all religion (possibly the most unscientific proposition ever imagined). I don’t begrudge atheists the right to open their mouths and make fools of themselves, and neither should they deny the same right to me.

When it comes to the cosmic perspective illustrated in a video like this, there are at least two important observations to make, each of which is an independent argument in favor of Intelligent Design as a principle for identifying the origin of all things.

  1. There is a complex ordering evident in the whole universe, across the entire scale that we can perceive, and even beyond that scale to degrees that we don’t understand. The ordering of complexity is information, and that does not occur without intelligence. Hence, it is evidence for design.

  2. The Earth environment in which we live appears (so far) to be staggeringly exceptional in the incomprehesible (though perhaps not unquantifiable) vastness of space. Even if we assumed for the sake of argument that macro-evolution took place here (an unfounded assumption), the environment would have had to be perfect for it, and continued to be perfect for an unimaginably long time. That includes variables like gravity, solar radiation, chemical composition, atmospheric composition, the magnetic core and ionosphere, radioactive decay, the frequency and type of meteors, and probably hundreds more that I don’t know about. These variables are all in the “perfect” range for us to live, but this environment is infinitesimally rare. What are the chances? Some atheists like to say that the scale of the universe makes the Earth insignificant. To the contrary, the extreme rarity of the Earth makes it special, to the point of being evidence in favor of Design rather than Happenstance.

Atheists like to criticize the Bible for saying things they don’t understand. Maybe if they took the time to understand its chief points, they’d begin to see how the rest of it fits together. Then, maybe they could appreciate their own existence for the miracle that it is.

Since there are so many wacky ideas about the Bible, and since it’s a rather large work from multiple cultures and times, it’s not easy to pick a way to approach it. For what it’s worth, I recommend starting with an introductory course at a confessional Lutheran church, because one of the guiding principles of confessional Lutheranism is that the Bible interprets itself, and confessional Lutherans actually follow that principle. It will require a long reservation of judgment, but after studying the Bible, it will make a lot more sense.

The Price We Paid for Proficiency

I’ve posted several times about the trip my wife and I took to Front Sight near Las Vegas while we were on vacation in Arizona. I was skeptical that a 2-day course would be worth the going rate, which is $1,000. We both went after responding to one of many special deals that Front Sight’s founder, Dr. Piazza, offers online. Now the same deal that enabled us to go is available via a web page, where Dr. Piazza makes a case for giving it a try. At this special price, the course costs $100 per person. Having taken the course, I can say without reservation that $100 is a small fraction of the value in two days of Front Sight training. It really is all that. Prior experience doesn’t matter. You will learn more than you thought possible in that amount of time. Even if you’re uncomfortable around guns, the class will still help you become proficient.

If you anticipate being able to get to or near Las Vegas at some point for three or four days (including travel time), then I recommend that you give it a try too. There is a criminal background check to pay for, and you will need a weapon and ammunition, which you can rent and buy on site, respectively, if you need to. Beyond that, the cost is just travel, lodging, and food. For better convenience, I recommend a room at a hotel in Pahrump, but we managed just fine with Microtel toward the south end of Las Vegas Blvd.

Here’s Dr. Piazza’s advertisement page. There is an expiration on this offer of Friday, August 6. Don’t beat yourself up about it if you need more time to think about something like this. Dr. Piazza is an accomplished promoter; he’ll have many other kinds of special deals. This is the most affordable one I’ve seen.

All Americans Required to Buy a Warehouse Store Membership

The United States Congress should consider addressing two problems at once: the poor state of the economy, and the affordability of every-day goods for families living in Main St. America. Both can be addressed quite easily, by requiring every American citizen to purchase and maintain a membership at a warehouse store like Sam’s Club or Costco. It may even be beneficial for Congress to authorize the creation of a new warehouse membership store, to be run and provisioned by the United States government. (“Stuff Mart” is one possible name for such an effort.) The funds needed for a government option could be obtained by taxing the private warehouse stores up to 80% of their gross profits, or by printing more money.

The benefits of these stores is well known. Low prices on bulk-packaged items, as well as generous food samples in the aisles that can help Americans provide for all the basic needs of their families, saving money that might be useful in the next few years, when our government’s Social Security expenses threaten to make it insolvent. These cost-saving benefits have previously been limited to only a few Americans and illegal immigrants, which has not only deprived them of this basic human right, but also driven up the cost of membership for everyone else. By requiring every American to join one of these stores, Congress would drive down prices for all, while giving the economy another needed stimulus.

Some might claim that a membership would not be much help to them. For example, I live in Oregon, 80 miles from the nearest Costco, in Portland. (Sam’s Club doesn’t even exist in this state.) Someone in my shoes might wonder what good a membership would be, but that would be selfish thinking. We should think instead of the good of our country. How could Congress drive down the membership costs and prices for people living in Portland, if people like me refused to buy our own membership, just because I would seldom shop there? My infrequent use of membership privileges should really be considered a strong reason to dive in and help my fellow citizens, since my membership dollars would come with no strings attached!

Thankfully, far more Americans live nearby one of these stores than live in the sticks, so if it came to a popularity contest based upon personal interests, the few holdouts must eventually bow the neck and bear the patriotic burden of making life easier for our neighbors in the azul states— whether they live here legally or not. Yet I hope that Congress and the American people will see the wisdom in this without much controversy. If necessary, perhaps the legislation could be attached in the eleventh hour to some unrelated, but vitally important and urgent bill like the one about universally mandated health insurance. It should be obvious that the potential good outweighs the lack of honesty, integrity, and wisdom that may be necessary to impose it upon the nation.

Angels, Demons, and Prayer

Frank Peretti can write a page-turner. I just read a borrowed copy of This Present Darkness, remembering how some of my associates were reading it (or something like it) in about 1990. Previously, I’d read a copy of The Oath while we were on vacation. Different, yet still a page turner.

The great thing about his fiction is that it assumes the reality of angels and demons, not to mention a personal, almighty, and gracious God. The characters struggle with the usual problems of life, but Peretti manages to cast those struggles in a spiritual light.

I must caution avid Peretti readers, though, about the way he describes angels and demons. It makes for a fiery, swashbuckling story, but there is not enough detail in the Bible to say that his angels and demons bear more than a passing resemblance to the real thing. Personally, I would expect the real thing to be even more awe-inspiring, if we could sense those beings in their fullness. Thankfully, we can’t, and probably won’t until the End.

The problem I’ve seen with Mr. Peretti’s fiction is not in the sincerity of his faith, nor in his storytelling skills. It’s his depiction of the way salvation comes to sinners. In the worlds of his novels, sinners are first convicted by God’s law, made to realize that they don’t measure up to God’s standard of acceptability. So far so good. But then, when the penitent characters realize they need God to save them, the answer is always found in prayer. That’s not good. In these novels, prayer is the ultimate means of grace, the required instrument by which God finally brings the salvation won by Christ to the individual sinner. Without the prayed request for God to save the penitent sinner; without the penitent sinner’s giving of his heart to God in prayer, salvation is incomplete.

With this slightly but gravely mistaken understanding of prayer, it then comes as no surprise that Mr. Peretti’s description of spiritual warfare revolves entirely around prayer, and not the things in which God would have us place our trust (Romans 1:16, 1 Peter 3:21, 1 Corinthians 11:23-29).

For a summary of the biblical doctrine concerning these things, please read The Augsburg Confession.

Tolkien and Contemporary Worship

You probably never thought of these two things at the same time before. I don’t think I did, until I read just now this great little commentary in the words of Saruman of Many Colors. (White robes were no longer good enough for him.) I am amazed at how fitting they are in the context of contemporary worship. You see, worship is about power. In the true worship of the Christian Church, it’s God’s power to save, manifested in the forgiveness of sins and administered through the Means of Grace — Word and Sacrament — by those appointed to do so, according to His will. However, it’s possible to substitute something else for that power of God. Hear Saruman:

“And listen, Gandalf, my old friend and helper!” he said, coming near and speaking now in a softer voice. “I said we, for we it may be, if you will join with me. A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Numenor. This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.”

The point is that God has provided certain means to accomplish His gracious will, when and where it pleases the Holy Spirit. I use the term “Contemporary Worship” to describe the worship movement that seeks not “any real change in our designs, only in our means.” If you or your pastor is considering changes to the Divine Service in the interest of evangelism, or in search of effectiveness among a certain demographic, then there is a good chance that you are playing the part of Saruman of Many Colors. Yes, there is such a thing as Christian freedom, but even the Wise can easily lose their way in matters greater than themselves.

Book Tag?

Hmm. Well, I’ve been tagged by Bruce. It seems like kind of a silly game, really, but I’m sure it has interesting results sometimes. And it’s not without some fun. Those who know me understand that this is how I appreciate virtually all games.

When you’re tagged, you’re supposed to

  1. Pick up the nearest book of at least 123 pages. (How’s that for an arbitrary number?)

  2. Open to page 123.

  3. Find the fifth sentence. I don’t know what you’d do if you run out of text. Maybe keep turning pages, or even get the next book.

  4. Post the next three sentences.

  5. Tag five people.

  6. Tag another. (Which seems completely unnecessary)

I don’t think I’ll tag five people. It reminds me too much of Amway.

However, the closest book was one I just bought from the book racks of a Goodwill in Portland. It’s not even shelved properly. It says:

Maybe we’ll be able to hear the difference between alien phonemes, given enough practice, but it’s possible our ears simply can’t recognize the distinctions they consider meaningful. In that case we’d need a sound spectrograph to know what an alien is saying.”

Colonel Weber asked, “Suppose I gave you an hour’s worth of recordings; how long would it take you to determine if we need this sound spectrograph or not?”

For the curious, the book is The Best of SF 4 edited by David G. Hartwell, from 1999. Those lines are from “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

I tag the Abrahamsons. That counts for all my tags.


I enjoy music, but several years ago I promised myself that I wouldn’t buy any more albums. They were — and are — ridiculously expensive, and the rules for sharing, borrowing, and such were so restrictive that “buying” CDs no longer made any sense. Beside that, I have plenty of CDs already, but usually find myself out of range of a CD player.

(I don’t spend lots of money on portable gadgets like music players. My only one now is a Palm Tungsten E2, which I use constantly and appreciate for its long battery life.)

Recently I’ve been listening to my music collection in digital form. I’ve ripped nearly all my CDs to Ogg Vorbis format, a flexible, high-quality, royalty- and patent-free encoding. Most recently I’ve been ripping to FLAC, a lossless encoding. One reason for my reluctance to buy a portable music player is the paucity of players supporting the Ogg Vorbis encoding and useful with a Linux desktop. There are some, however, and I think some day I’ll take the plunge. Meanwhile, it’s been nearly alarming to see the intrusion of the wma (Windows Media) format into the arena of digital recordings, and also the various drm (Digital Rights Management) -encumbered systems.

But now, there’s an alternative that will have me buying new music recordings again: Magnatune! Get on over there and check it out. Apple enthusiasts will tell me “We already have this with iTunes!” Not so. Magnatune is an online recording label with a growing collection of quality artists from a broad spectrum of genres. According to a current Linux Journal article, fifty percent of the purchase price of Magnatune music goes directly to the artists. You can sample full albums before buying them. At this moment, I’m sampling a delightful album from American Baroque called Mozart, 4 Quartets for Strings and Wind. It’s wonderful music to work by, and I’m only on the fourth track. I may actually buy this album, not only for the music but to support the great work that American Baroque are doing.

When I’m finished sampling this album, I’m going to check out at least one album from American Bach Soloists. They have a recording of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. I already have an outstanding recording of that, but I’m curious to hear the differences of interpretation. I’m already tempted to buy their recording of Bach’s Cantatas Volume V, and I’m excited to sample an album of Heinrich Schutz music: Musicalische Exequien.

Later, I’d like to hear the music of The Seldon Plan, just because the band’s name caught my eye. (Since first writing this post, I’ve taken a listen. The Seldon Plan is pretty good, but I liked the bluesy guitar of John Williams even better. I’m tempted to buy one or more of his albums.)

So, how much will I pay for the albums I buy? According to the same Linux Journal article, there is a minimum cost of $5 per album, and there is also a maximum. Within those limits, I’ll pay what the music is worth to me. What a system! I hope Magnatune’s business thrives. Understood in a non-theological sense, their motto seems to be right on the mark: “We are not evil.”

Oh, and apparently, Magnatune also provides recordings in the Ogg Vorbis and FLAC encodings, among others.

Wolf Time available as a free e-book

The publisher Baen, which publishes science fiction, makes certain titles available as free e-books. This was begun to combat the problem of piracy, which I suppose happens when someone buys an e-book and shares it with others by giving them a copy. (There’s an unfortunate limitation for e-books, since sharing your printed copies of the same books is not piracy.)

Anyway, one of their freebies is Lars Walker’s Wolf Time. If you haven’t read any of his writing yet, this would be a good way to try it out. I found Wolf Time to be provocative and entertaining, but you have to like a dark plot. I enjoyed Walker’s The Year of the Warrior more than Wolf Time, and have been trying to buy a copy to send as a gift to my dad, but so far it hasn’t worked. Amazon can’t seem to find a copy. Next, I’ll try Powell’s.