Friday, December 25, 2015

The Forgotten Man and the Marvelous Exchange

Matthew 1.18-25:
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 1She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
He was  faced with a detestable duty. He was a man of compassion, even tenderness. But he was also a man honor, a man of stern code. His obedience to the Law was unwavering. The moment he learned that his fiancĂ© was pregnant he knew that it was the end. The end, certainly, of their betrothal, and perhaps even the end of her life.
It was two millennia ago in the Roman-occupied land of Judea. The man was named Joseph. His fiancĂ© was Mary. She was going to have a baby and it sure was not his. Compassion, honor and duty dueled within Joseph. He could not pretend there was no problem. She obviously had betrayed him. The whole town of Nazareth was watching. 
Finally, Joseph decided Mary would have to pay the price for infidelity as his honor and the Law required, but tempered with mercy. Joseph determined to break his engagement to Mary and dismiss her from his life without fanfare, leaving her to fend for herself. It would clear the slate, restore his honor and was as least hurtful to the young woman as any just solution could be. 
What the outcome might have been by Joseph’s plan we don’t know, because God revealed to him what was really going on, and Joseph changed his mind. 

Joseph dreamed of an angel, who informed Joseph that Mary’s unborn child was of the Holy Spirit. The angel gave Joseph instructions: take Mary home as his wife and adopt Mary’s child as his own, giving him the name Jesus, an ordinary name then, meaning,“God helps.” 
These things came to pass. In Joseph’s day, when a Jewish man gave a name to the child born to his wife, he was confirming the child as his own. Maybe others knew that Joseph was not the baby’s natural father, maybe they didn’t. It didn’t matter. When Joseph named the baby Jesus, he was also giving to Jesus his own identity, his own lineage. That is why Jesus could truly be said to be of the line of David, because Joseph was of David’s line and Joseph adopted Jesus as his own son. When Joseph named the child Jesus he was telling the world, “This child belongs to me, this child is my child.” 
We give Joseph short shrift, perhaps because Joseph is treated somewhat cursorily in the Gospels. Mary gets a lot more play. Joseph never speaks. Joseph hears, Joseph dreams, Joseph acts and Joseph obeys, but not even one syllable of his speaking is related. Mary is the one with the speaking part. Her role is the most sought after in Christmas pageants. 
Another pastor told me of one afternoon before the annual Christmas program, when a mother phoned the church office to say that her son, who was to play Joseph in the children's play, was sick and wouldn't be able to be there. “It's too late now to get another Joseph,” the director of the play said. “We'll just have to write him out of the script.” And they did. Joseph is easy to overlook and leave out.
In 1993, my wife played Mary in the Christmas pageant at our church. She got the part only because they needed our two-month-old daughter to play the baby Jesus, there being no other small infant in the congregation. Cathy and Elizabeth, Mary and Jesus, were a package deal, couldn’t get one without the other. But any guy off the street could have played Joseph. In fact, the pastor actually asked me, “Don, did you want to play Joseph or should I get a man from the choir to play him?” I said I would, but talk about feeling like a fifth wheel ... .
But more is going on with Joseph than is first apparent. A recurring theme of St. Paul is that Jesus' followers are adopted by God and made children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ. This should make us reconsider the significance of where Joseph fits in with God’s work. Joseph’s adoption of Jesus is highly significant. 

What if Joseph had said no to the angel and had sent Mary away anyway? Can we imagine Jesus growing up in the home of an unwed, single mother, both Mary and Jesus therefore outcast from society? How would Jesus have conceived of God as his heavenly Father if Joseph had never taken on the role of Jesus’ earthly father? But father to Jesus Joseph was.
God adopts Jesus’ disciples as sons and daughters of God in the family of God. But first, God sent his Son to be adopted by Joseph into the family of mortals. Joseph affirmed on behalf of all humanity that God belongs with us, "God with us."
The symmetry of God being born into humanity and humanity thence being adopted to become, as Second Peter puts it, “partakers of the divine nature” is called the “marvelous exchange” in Roman Catholic catechism and theosis, or divinization, in the Eastern Church. It is to realize that God becomes one of us so that we may become like him, and so are perfected to live forever with God.
Theologian George Weigel explains, “God ‘exchanges’ his divinity for our humanity, thus enabling us to ‘exchange’ our weakness for his divine glory – the glory of which the angels sing to the shepherds of Bethlehem.” St. Paul proclaimed in Second Corinthians, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
This is possible because of the power of God, of course, but also because of the strength of Joseph. Joseph adopted the Son of God as the child of humankind, and through Christ God adopts you and me as children of God. This is a marvelous exchange indeed! Should we not see the symmetry of salvation and relationship – dare we say partnership – at work in the will of God and the obedience of Joseph? We see in Joseph’s story that we and God belong to each other in the one whom Joseph named Jesus, “God helps.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Communion liturgy for Christmas Eve

This is basically The Great Thanksgiving for the day from the UM Book of Worship, with the Invitation and Pardon my own writing (at least I am pretty sure, since I have used this for several years).

Invitation and Pardon

....Christ our Lord was not born to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. And so Christ invites to his table everyone who loves him or wishes to love him, who hears his voice or desires to hear it, who comes this holy day from religious devotion or family duty, and who can pray with sincere heart:
....Merciful and forgiving God, we confess we withhold our love from you. We too easily fail to be obedient to your will. Forgive us, we pray, and free us for joyful obedience through Jesus Christ our Lord! Instill in us a true desire to live lives of worshipful holiness. Embolden us to rejoice always in your love, to love our neighbors as ourselves and to heed the cry of the needy. On this holy day, accept our prayers and worship as our thanks for your incomparable Christmas gift.
....Hear the Good News! Christ died for us while we were still sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
....In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!

The Great Thanksgiving
Pastor: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.
Lift up your hearts!
We lift them up to the Lord!
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
....It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. And so, with all your people on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn,
....Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!
....Holy are you and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ. 
....Long ago, you called Abraham to walk in your way. With his wife Sarah he founded a people chosen by you to bring light to the world. Knowing that their descendants were bound in slavery in Egypt, you made with them a covenant of righteousness and led them to freedom in the Promised Land.
....Through the prophets of Israel you made known your salvation-righteousness and through the prophet Jeremiah foretold of a New Covenant. In this covenant, you said,
....“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God,  and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor,  or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
....In the fullness of time you chose a woman of holy character named Mary, telling her through your messenger,
....“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
....When Jesus was grown he was baptized and your Spirit rested powerfully upon him. He resisted temptations and preached the Good News to all who would hear. He healed the sick, proclaimed freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and announced the year of the Lord's favor.
....Betrayed by a disciple, he was adjudged guilty of blasphemy against you, O God, who formed him in his mother’s womb. Though innocent, he was sentenced to die by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
....And yet, according to your will, by the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection you gave birth to your church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death and made with us a new covenant by water and the Spirit.
....On the night in which he gave himself up for us he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
....When the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
....And so, in remembrance of these, your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:
....Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!
....Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, That we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
....By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.
Through your Son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in your holy church, all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father, now and for ever.

....And now, with the confidence of children of God, let us pray the Lord’s Prayer.
....Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A post-San Bernadino primer, part 1

I am writing this post to link on the clergy and clergy-related United Methodist Facebook pages, where, since the terrorist attack in San Bernadino, Calif., this week, the "fur has been flying" over what positions the denomination holds on violence and what positions United Methodists should stake out. 

This is a long series of posts because so many of my colleagues in ministry and others are making claims that seem to be cued more from politicians than actual law and facts about firearms. So first is a definition of terms, then a look at the laws regarding firearms purchases and transfers, then whether, as many of my colleagues have claimed, that we need simply to follow the UM Book of Resolutions and nothing much more. 


Advocates for stricter gun control laws should at least know how to talk accurately about guns. The day after the San. B. attack,
California Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez claimed that multiautomatic round weapons are easily available, even though not in California.
My first career was as a US Army combat-arms officer. I was qualified expert on a wide range of weapons from pistol to rifle to machine gun and anti-tank weapon. Never in my life have I heard of a "multiautomatic round weapon." All rifles and pistols fall into one, and only one, of the following categories:

1. Single shot: the gun must be manually reloaded after every shot. Single shot pistols are rare are and are mostly collector's items these days. Single shot rifles are either very specialized military sniper rifles or ordinary hunting rifles. Because they have a very slow rate of fire, they are pretty much useless for other purposes than these. 

Bolt-action, single shot rifle

The only exception I might make is the famous Winchester rifle design, which is manually reloaded from a tubular magazine, below and parallel to the barrel, by cycling a lever. Well-practiced shooters can fire these fairly rapidly, but their ammunition capacity is quite low and they are very slow to reload, so as mayhem guns they are not much suitable. That's why you never read news reports of them being used for criminal purposes.

Winchester Model 1894
 2. Semi-automatic: This means that each trigger pull fires only one round (bullet), then the gun reloads itself but will not fire again until the trigger is pulled again. That is, the reloading is automatic, but the firing is manual for every shot, hence, semi-automatic, not fully automatic. The simplest way to look at it this: if the gun is ready to fire again after firing a shot, so that all the shooter has to do is pull the trigger another time, then the gun may be termed as semi-automatic. 

Every magazine-fed pistol is semi-auto and in typical usage, when the media report that a criminal used a semi-auto pistol, a magazine-fed pistol is what they mean. For revolvers, some are semi-auto because those types are mechanically made ready to fire again after every shot (until ammo is exhausted). Some are not semi-auto, though, and are single shot guns because the shooter has to manually make the gun ready to shoot again after each shot. Here is the difference:

Revolvers are either Single Action or Double Action and the majority of revolvers being sold today are both. Single Action (SA) means that the shooter must manually cock the firing level to the rear for each shot. Revolvers that are Single Action Only (SAO) are therefore single-shot pistols, not semi-auto. However, Double Action revolvers do not require manually cocking the lever: load the gun, pull the trigger and it shoots. These revolvers are called Double Action Only (DAO).

The majority of revolvers are SA/DA, which means the level must be cocked for the first round, but not for subsequent rounds. These may be (I emphasize may) more useful for self defense, but the trigger control for subsequent rounds is usually not easy and they are difficult to shoot accurately in a hurry. Their real hazard is not only missing the target more often than a SAO revolver, but that to holster the gun after firing the shooter has to remember to "decock" it so it is no longer ready to fire immediately - a real safety issue. 

Magazine fed pistols, such as the Walther PPK pictured below, are almost all SA/DA or DAO. In DA mode, mag-fed pistols are much easier to fire than DA revolvers because the trigger pull is doing much less mechanical work. DAO mag-fed pistols and revolvers typically do not have an exposed hammer or lever. The Walther below is a SA/DA pistol.

Colt Police Service revolver, a semi-automatic pistol

James Bond's Walther PPK, a semi-automatic pistol
Semi-auto rifles are one of the following designs:

1. Magazine fed: Most military-design rifles are magazine fed. A magazine is a container, holding various numbers of rounds, that attaches underneath the firing chamber. When the trigger is pulled, the firing assembly recoils to the rear of the chamber and the fired case is ejected. When the assembly returns forward, it strips the top round off the magazine and inserts it into the breech and the gun is ready to fire. The trigger must be pulled again to shoot one, and only one, more shot, then the whole process may be repeated until the magazine is empty. A semi-auto rifle or pistol fires one and only time per trigger pull, but the gun reloads itself after each shot.
The infamous Russian AK-47 rifle, a magazine fed rifle and the most produced rifle ever.
2. Clip: The term "clip" should not be used to mean magazine. A clip is an old military design that was used for both single shot, bolt-action Army rifles (The M1903) and the World War 2 M1 Garand semi-auto. 

WW2-era M1 Garand rifle shoring ammunition clip being inserted.

There have been tubular-magazine, semi-auto rifles designed, but they are obsolete and no longer made these days. 

3. Automatic or fully-automatic: This simply means that when the trigger is depressed, the gun will keep firing until the trigger is released or the ammunition is exhausted. Military machine guns are the best example, such as the US Army M60 machine gun illustrated below. 

The M60E3 military machine gun, a belt-fed, full-automatic weapon
There have been full-auto pistols produced but the concept was abandoned because recoil makes such firing wholly impractical. The Army's famous M16 series rifle and its successor, the M4, have a selector switch the enables either semi-auto or full-auto firing. However, modern US military automatic rifles restrict full-auto firing to three rounds at a time because after three, recoil almost always throws the point of aim well off the target.

It has been illegal since 1934 for private citizens to own full-automatic firearms without extensive background checks, police-department prior approval and expensive federal licensing (National Firearms Act of 1934). However, any automatic gun manufactured after 19 May, 1986, may not be owned by private citizens unless they are licensed dealers. But even they cannot transfer or sell it to anyone except police, the military or a manufacturer licensed to make automatic guns, and the dealer must surrender possession of the firearm if he gives up his license (all of which which makes the whole drill rather pointless for a dealer). 

Final term for today: 

"Assault rifle"

In 1993, when the Congress first moved to ban such things, I was serving in the Pentagon. I had never heard the term "assault rifle" before so I looked it up in the official DOD dictionary of military terms (yes, there is such a thing). Know what? It wasn't there. 

"Assault rifle" is a political term and has no other context. What it really means is "looks scary." 

So let's take a look at "assault weapons." I mean literally take a look:

Under the previous ban on assault rifles (1994-2004), this rifle meets the legal definition of an assault rifle:

And this does not:

Yet functionally they are exactly the same. Each is a .22-caliber, semiautomatic, magazine-fed rifle made by Mossberg. The top is the Model 715 and the bottom is Model 702. The barrels, bolt and magazine wells for each are identical to the other. The ammunition and effective range for both are identical. The 715 is illustrated with a 25-round magazine that also fits without modification into the 702 at bottom, like this:

What is the difference, then, between the two guns? None that affects the function:

  • I guess the 715 looks scarier than the 702. 
  • The 715 is about $150 more (suckers!) 
  • The 715 has a carrying handle, but that's a matter of convenience to haul it around and has nothing to do with its lethality. 
  • Identical scopes may be fitted to each. 
  • The 715 has a "quad-rail fore-end," extending around the barrel from the breech to the front sight. Various accessories may be mounted on the rails, such as a flashlight or laser sight. This may, under some conditions, marginally improve the 715's accuracy over the 702, but not much, and has nothing to do with making the rifle itself deadlier when fired. 
  • The stock on the 715 is adjustable in length, but not by much. It is not a folding stock.
There is no difference between them that affects function, mechanical rate of fire, range, ammunition or lethality. Post San B., one side of the political aisle (including the president just today) has said the 715 should be banned but not the 702.

But what about banning "high-capacity" magazines? The 702's included magazine holds 10 rounds. Let's compute times for each gun to shoot 100 rounds. The triggers for both (being identical) can easily be pulled five times per second. Actual trigger-pulling time for each rifle to 100 rounds is therefore 20 seconds (okay, technically 19.8, but we'll round off). 

It takes a shooter three seconds to swap out magazines in a hurry. To shoot 100 rounds with the 715 requires three magazine swaps, or nine seconds of changeout time. Shooting 100 rounds with the 702 requires nine changeouts, or 27 seconds, 18 seconds more. 

Total shooting times:
  • 715 - 29 seconds
  • 702 - 47 seconds
Now, in a gunfight, 18 seconds can be a long time, but you're only getting them three seconds at a time. I don't say they don't matter, but I do say they don't matter as much as gun controllers think. The so-called "high-capacity" magazine ban is eyewash. And there are literally millions of 10-plus capacity mags already "in the wild," so to speak. What would the administration do about them?

Finally, the inefficacy of the 1994 "assault rifle" ban is well illustrated by this:
This was a banned "assault weapon:"

This was a permitted rifle that was not an "assault weapon:"

Can you tell the difference? 

Update: A word about how ammunition is classified.

Um, no.

Ammunition for pistols and rifles is classified according to the diameter of the bullet. It unit of measure is either in millimeters or as a decimal of an inch. For example, 9mm ammo or .45-caliber ammo. But, CNN not withstanding, they are not both at the same time, and a decimal mark never precedes the millimetric number. So there is no .9mm round nor a .22mm long rifle round.Those would be 9mm and .22, respectively.

However (because nothing should be truly simple, right?), there is a pistol round called .380 ACP caliber. (ACP simply stands for Automatic Colt Pistol). This caliber is also known as a "9mm short," having the dimensions of 9 X 17 mm. But "9mm" by itself means a round 9 X 19mm, referred to as the 9mm parabellum or 9mm Luger.

To make things even more confusing, the .380 is not actually a .38-caliber round. It and the 9mm parabellum are exactly .355 inch in diameter. So is the .357 magnum round. And both the .38 ACP and the .38 Super rounds are .356 inch in diameter. The round that actually is .357 inch in diameter is called the .38 Long Colt. Does any of this make sense? Actually, no.

Update: Reason very cogently makes the case that imprecision of language and terms infects the entire debate, but frankly only on one side. And it makes me wonder whether that's on purpose. Reason makes the same point I did, that "assault weapon" is nothing but a political term:
Contrary to what [New York Times columnist Gail] Collins et al. seem to think, the "assault weapon" category has no reality independent of legislation. 
Correct. See here: "Obama Wants to Ban 'Assault Weapons' but Does Not Know What They Are"

Update: When you've lost the Los Angeles Times ... . Why banning assault rifles won't reduce gun violence
The only thing unique about assault rifles is their menacing name and look.

The problem starts with the term itself. The “assault weapons” for sale in the U.S. now aren't really weapons of war. ...

As a matter of functionality, these guns are just like other rifles. They're more powerful than some handguns and rifles, and less powerful than others.
Related: "AFTER SAN BERNARDINO Support for Assault Weapons Ban Reaches 20-Year Low"
... just 44 percent of Americans now support an assault weapons ban, the lowest number in the 20 years that the NYT poll has asked the question. In 2011, 63 percent of Americans supported such a ban.

Jesus is served

John 6.5-14 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people t...