Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Wall

I took this photo in 2008 at the Vietnam War Memorial, near the Lincoln Memorial. 

There is one Sensing whose name is engraved on the wall, Capt. John L. Sensing, US Army. I never knew him, but we are some ordinal of cousin, since all Sensings (in the South, anyway) descend from one Jakob Sensing, who immigrated to North Carolina from Germany in the 1730s. One of his sons, a Revolutionary War veteran, took his veteran's land grant in Tennessee. So here we are.

Capt. Sensing was a helicopter pilot, flying an OH-6 Cayuse aircraft (right) in the Thua Thien Province when his bird was hit by an RPG near Firebase Ripchord, April 30, 1970. He was serving in B Troop, 2/17 Air Cavalry.

Also killed on the helicopter were SP5 Robert E. Masseth and SP4 David W. Staton.

In 2019, Capt. Sensing's cousin, Dave Davidson, posted a moving tribute to him on Facebook and included this photo of John:

God rest you all, John!

In 2010, Debbie Masseth sent this: 
My son sent me this article [from where it was originally posted] and it gave me chills. Robert E. Masseth was my brother-in-law and my son is his name sake. My husband, David Masseth passed away with cancer this summer. We did not get a lot of information about his brother other then he was killed in a helicopter crash on April 30, 1970.
Somehow, the circle remains unbroken. 

Friday, May 28, 2021

Monday, May 17, 2021

UFOs Bombshells and the US Government

In just the last two or three years, the US government, mainly the Defense Dept., has released videos of what used to be called UFOs, now called UAPs, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. These include tracking and  targeting video taken by US Navy jet fighters trying to intercept UAPs. 

The most recent video release was in the past week. It is video taken from the bridge of USS Omaha of a UAP that shows apparent "transmedium" capability, meaning it travels through air or water with equal ease and speed - an ability massively beyond the capability of any technology we know of. Here is the video. As some commentators have noted, the bridge crew's voices also recorded betray no shock or astonishment, but more like "this again." 

Much more info with assessments at "Pentagon Confirms Authenticity of Video Showing UFO Maneuvering Near U.S. Navy Ship."

Then there is this: "Bombshell UFO Report: U.S. Military Encounters UFOs ‘Every Day’ That Far Exceed Its Tech, Capabilities."

An explosive report featured on CBS News’s “60 Minutes” featured several former U.S. military officials who talked about what the U.S. government knows about unidentified aerial phenomena — UAP —more commonly referred to as UFOs.

The segment comes ahead of a report that the military is supposed to deliver an unclassified report to Congress by next month. Former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said in a recent interview that the findings will shock people because “frankly, there are a lot more sightings than have been made public.”

Read the linked article, but here two 60 Minutes reports on the topic (both dated May 16, 2021). The first segment is about six minutes long, the second about 13 minutes:

I wrote in 2013 of former Canadian defense minister Paul Hellyer, who served in that role (equivalent to the US secretary of defense) in the 1960s. He stated unambiguously that UFOs are non-terrestrial craft, directed by extra-terrestrial, highly intelligent beings. That makes Mr. Hellyer the most senior person I have ever heard of who claimed this. 

But that might change with the release of the Pentagon report next month. 

Finally, here is a mere 92 seconds of President Obama on a late-night talk show saying he cannot talk about the subject. 

Was he jesting, or answering seriously, hoping it would be taken as jest? You decide.

Update: CNN covered it, too.

Transcript here.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Jesus' Ascension - really?

Acts 1.-11:

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"

7 He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

You have probably heard the expression, "an elephant in the living room." The source of this saying apparently was a substance-abuse counselor, who said that families in which there is a drug user are living with an elephant in the living room: It moves around, takes up an enormous amount of space, makes loud noises, bumps into them, knocks things over, smells bad - yet the family members are usually in denial and pretend it isn't there.

The story of Jesus' ascension is sort of an elephant in the living room of North American Christianity. Clergy of mainline churches like the UMC know what dominates this story but we usually pretend it isn't there. In previous years on Ascension Sunday, I ignored the elephant, too, but today I'm coming clean. What dominates this story is Jesus' bodily ascension into Heaven.

A miracle, in other words. That's the elephant.

The 21st-century Western mind pretends the miracle isn't there. We search for the moral of the story or its implied meaning and ignore the miracle. Lay people are taught, by implication, to do that in our secular school systems and colleges. Clergy are taught to do that in mainline seminaries and divinity schools. Almost every mention of biblical miracles in my classes at Vanderbilt Divinity School was to show how the event itself wasn't really important and wasn't the real point of the story, anyway. Don't dwell on the miracle - with the unspoken implication being that the miracle didn't really happen or that the event was really an ordinary event that occurred in unordinary circumstances and was mistaken for a miracle. Besides, the people who wrote the Bible were educated for their day, but not for ours, and did not enjoy the benefit of the scientific method as a way of understanding reality.

But we have to face the elephant in the living room of 21st-century, North American Christian faith, the fact that the entire Christian religion inescapably rests on miracles. And whatever other points the Ascension stories may have for us in our day, the central part of the story is that Jesus ascended bodily into Heaven.

In defense of modern scholarship, though, I readily agree that in miracle stories, including those of Jesus' healing, the miracle is not the only point of the stories, and sometimes not even the main point. For example, Jesus healed the servant of a Roman centurion whose faith in Jesus was so profound that Jesus exclaimed, "I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith" (Matt 8:10). That's the real kicker of the story, not the healing, which takes place entirely offstage.

But there are three miraculous events of Jesus' life in which the miracle is so central to defining who Jesus was - and who he is today - that explaining them away cuts the heart from our faith.

The first is Jesus' miraculous Incarnation as the unique Son of God. I do not refer to the virgin birth. I mean that, as Paul wrote, "In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form," (Col 2:9), which cannot be said about any other person past or present. That Jesus was fully God and fully human is an essential miracle of his very existence that cannot be intellectualized away without surrendering the essence of who Christ is, what he means and what he does.

Second is that Jesus was dead, buried, and on the third day rose from the dead. The resurrection is the hinge of Christianity, about which everything else rotates. Everything about our faith depends on it. Once its affirmation is abandoned, Christian faith becomes pointless, another fact that Paul recognized. He wrote the Corinthians that if there is no resurrection, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die' (1 Cor. 15.32).

The third miracle is the Ascension.

The Reverend Robert Hansel described most classical art of the Ascension. "We see Jesus dressed in gauzy, flowing robes and he appears to be floating weightlessly on a couple of insubstantial‑looking white clouds. The clouds are being lifted up by some smiling, chubby cherubs. It seems like some kind of pre‑technology elevator or a circus levitation act. Even though we understand that what we're seeing is artistic and poetic, we just have to smile at the apparent silliness of the whole thing. Jesus lifting off like a rocket? Peter Pan with pixie dust? Come on! Isn't this whole idea of Ascension dated and embarrassing ‑ something we'd be better off simply leaving out of contemporary Christian theology?"

The modern mind replies, "Yes."

Yes, we all know that people do not fly unassisted through the air and that precious few of us have seen angels, although we can all imagine circumstances when that would be greatly improved if one showed up now and then. And we know that wherever Heaven is, it isn't directly over our heads, as hundreds of spaceships have proven.

And having affirmed all that, we are left with the cold, hard fact that Jesus isn't here any more, and neither is his body.

The suffering, death, resurrection, appearances and ascension of Jesus Christ form a single narrative. In religious terms, they use poetic imagery and mythical literary language to describe the central events of the most important person in all history. Religious language is used best for religious experience. But there is also a very practical matter addressed, an important one for a faith that claims to be grounded in real events of actual history, as ours does. That is, What happened to Jesus' body?

Matthew records that this question was of foremost concern to Jesus' opponents after he was buried and the tomb turned up empty. Disbelieving that Jesus was raised from the dead, the question of what happened to Jesus' body was both obvious and urgent.

The story of Christ's ascension leaves us with much the same question, too. Namely, if Jesus didn't ascend into heaven, where is his grave? For he is no longer walking around, continuing his ministry. A crucial historical fact of Christianity is that Jesus' body is missing. Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, "Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. ... I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day."  Jesus' tomb is still here, too, but unlike David's tomb, there's no body there. So for people who dismiss the Ascension story from a scientific-technical point of view as I once did, I have to ask:

  • If Jesus was not raised from the dead and seen by the Mary and the other women and the disciples, why did they disciples devote the rest of the lives to preaching that Christ is risen, even to the point of suffering brutal death for their witness, save one apostle, John, who died imprisoned? And why did anyone believe them and endure similar fates by the thousands?
  • Accepting for the sake of argument that Christ was raised from the tomb but denying that Christ ascended into heaven, then what happened to his body? In a religion with two thousand years of raising innumerable monuments to even the most obscure saint or martyr, where is the church or reliquary or plain granite obelisk claiming to stand on Jesus' final resting place?

If Jesus is not here, and he is not ascended, what happened to him? And more importantly, what will happen to us?

For Christ's resurrection to be decisive, it had to be permanent. After all, Lazarus was also raised by God's power, through Jesus. Note that we call ourselves "Christians," not "Lazarites." Lazarus' resuscitation was a temporary reprieve from the grave and therefore of no value to our salvation.

The Ascension of Christ is a critical element of Jesus's story, and therefore of our salvation. But we are a scientifically minded, technically trained people, and unlike the uneducated, superstitious masses of earlier centuries, we know better than to believe in fairy tales like the Ascension story. At least, that's how I used to think, including for quite a while after I became committed to Christ. But I think now that we cannot gut the story of Jesus of its miraculous content, leaving holes in the narrative, and expect something sensible to remain. If Jesus didn't heal the sick in inexplicable ways, then what did he do? Just preach? There have been countless thousands of extraordinary preachers since Jesus' day. Quick, name two, not including Billy Graham ... or Donald Sensing. So preaching itself gets no monuments dedicated to you.

Thomas Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment and the age of Rationalism, a deist rather than a traditional Christian. He took scissors to the New Testament, cutting out the verses that mentioned miracles. What was left was perhaps morally inspiring, but not exceptional. As you may recall me saying before, any religion founded only on Jesus' teachings would be simply an admirable form of orthodox Judaism. That's no bad thing, but that is not what brings us here each Sunday. The disciples knew this, even said so explicitly. Paul wrote the Corinthians that if Christ is not raised than we are still in our sins and have no hope.

Reverend Hansel again:

     Whatever we may think of the poetic imagery, the Ascension tells us finally and completely who Jesus really is. The picture of Jesus returning to God the Father enables us to let go of previous and incomplete pictures of Jesus. Certainly Jesus is the baby in the manger at Bethlehem, but that's not who he is now. Yes, he is the great teacher of the Sermon on the Mount, but we know much more than just a record of his words. We know that he hung and died on the cross, but that's not where he is today. We believe that he rose victorious from the empty tomb, but he's not just hanging around like some sort of wandering ghost.

    Ascension adds a final and critical photograph to the album of who Christ is and what he does. He is ascended - once more with the Father, enthroned forever as the ruler and judge of all human history. This is the final picture and a very important one indeed because it puts all the other pictures in perspective."

There is a lot more to the Ascension story than the Ascension itself, but without the Ascension itself, there isn't much else about the story that matters.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Gasoline economics for panic hoarders

Dear people who filled up a dozen or more five-gallon cans with gasoline - or filled plastic plastic household tub-storage containers (that, too) or plain buckets - please permit me to give a lesson in commodity economics.

Yes, gasoline is a commodity. Its pricing is based on demand, actually, more on anticipated demand than present demand. Gasoline and other petroleum products are traded on worldwide exchanges. Prices on these "spot markets" can be very volatile. 

Like all commodities, pump prices of gasoline are set according to anticipated replacement cost. When the spot-market price rises, gas stations raise pump prices. You may not realize it but the pump price includes not much profit for the station, so they have to get enough revenue from each delivery to pay for the next one. 

While gasoline has its own spot market, raw petroleum is far more widely traded because it is the source, of course, of gasoline to begin with. Contrary to what you must have thought, the rise in fuel prices the past week was not due to the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline. It was because petroleum spot market prices went sharply upward. Here is the five-day graph:

This is the chart for the June 21 closing contract. It is a "futures" contract, as is typical of commodities. This means that the contract closes on June 21 and whoever still owns a bid on it better have a place to put 100,000 barrels of oil. And the money to pay for it. At today's price that would be $6,379,000. 

Note that about noon yesterday, a high price was reached for the last several days, actually the high since May 5, which was before the pipeline shutdown. Since then, gasoline prices have risen because of the spot price of petroleum rose, not because of Colonial's pipeline problems and not because you panic buyers and hoarders started filling up every container you could with gas. 

And now, merely coincidentally with Colonial starting the pipeline again, oil and gasoline prices are falling - more than four percent since noon yesterday. 

There is now no market for all those five-gallon cans full of over-priced gas that you were planning to sell later for what, 10 bucks per gallon or more? So while everyone else is driving around on much cheaper gas, you will have to use those cans, full of over-market-priced gas, to power your own car or truck. You can't let it sit because gasoline "spoils" after several weeks, actually starts to oxidize just sitting there. "Oxidize" is how fuel chemists say "burns." That's right, gasoline will start on it own to react to the oxygen in the air, and will over time be significantly degraded as an engine fuel. 

So you will literally have to burn money by using that high-priced gas. Without knowing it, you took a mini-course in commodities trading. And lost, big time. 

Please make sure the lesson sticks! 

End on a humor break: 

Friday, May 7, 2021

Betrayal and Forgiveness

Psalm 130.1 8
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; 2 O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. 3 If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared. 
5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. 6 My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. 
7 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. 8 He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.
Twenty-eight years ago I had a time of deep, searing anger. A time when my heart was consumed with bitter, white-hot rage at someone who betrayed me, one whom I liked and admired and respected, but whom I felt had figuratively plunged a long, double-edged dagger into my back and then slowly twisted it. I hope you’ve never experienced this kind of anger. It’s a consuming, self-gratifying, self-justifying, self-fulfilling anger. It needs no tending or encouragement, since it’s a panjandrum of an emotional perpetual-motion machine. You see, I liked this rage. How wronged I was! How vicious my former friend had been to me! Oh, it was wonderful to be so completely in the right and have such a justifiable wrath! I didn’t want to forgive her without a price being paid. I wanted her groveling supplications for mercy, after which I planned to devastate her with a thundering cannonade of wounded righteousness. Only then would forgiveness follow—maybe.
But that’s not what Jesus taught. Jesus said in Mark 11:25, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."
How easy it is to think of ourselves as forgiven sinners but ignore that we are to be forgiving saints. If we want to be forgiven, we have to forgive. I’ve wondered about forgiveness. Paul wrote in Hebrews that God would not remember our sins and lawlessness after he forgives us. Jesus said to the paralytic man who had been lowered to him through the roof, “Your sins are forgiven.” So I wonder, what does it mean for Jesus to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” and what difference does it make? 

There are two stories, both true, that answer this question for me.
The Washington Times newspaper reported one day of a Methodist minister in Virginia named Walter Everett whose son was shot to death by Michael Carlucci. Carlucci had been on a two-day bender of drugs and booze when the young Everett, a neighbor, knocked on his door. Carlucci did not know Everett, and thinking he was an intruder, shot him after a short struggle. Carlucci plead guilty to manslaughter.
Less than a month into his prison sentence, Carlucci got his first letter from Rev. Everett. “He told me that he had forgiven me for the love of God,” said Carlucci. “Tears were coming down my face. It made me feel like I wanted to live, where before I didn’t care.”
Carlucci was later released on parole, drug free and sober. Before proposing to his girlfriend, he asked Reverend Everett to officiate at the wedding. Everett agreed and the wedding took place.
In Rome in World War II, a Nazi Gestapo colonel named Herbert Kappler was responsible for rounding up escaped Allied prisoners and for destroying the Italian partisans. It was also his job to round up Jews and send them to Germany for slave labor. Later, the Jews were killed in concentration camps after they became too weak to work. Kappler had been hand-picked for this job by Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler himself, no doubt because of Kappler’s brutal suppression of the Belgian underground. In Rome, Kappler sent the Gestapo into the streets to enforce his will; all who resisted were simply gunned down on the spot. Kappler himself put a bullet through the head of a Vatican priest who had been captured carrying messages for the partisans.
The greatest obstacle to Kappler's work was an underground railroad, managed out of Rome, which was concealing more than 4,000 escapees and Jews. They were hidden in the city, the countryside or infiltrated north to Switzerland. 
The key figure in this underground railroad was an Irish priest of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. Colonel Kappler greatly hated Father O’Flaherty. O’Flaherty coordinated the humanitarian effort by arranging financing and hideouts. He often physically escorted his charges part of the way on their journey. Kappler could not arrest O’Flaherty because O’Flaherty was a citizen of Vatican City, not Italy. And Vatican City was off limits by order of Hitler himself.
One day, however, Kappler determined that O’Flaherty was too dangerous merely to be arrested. He sent a pair of assassins into a Roman church to kill O'Flaherty as he prayed, but O'Flaherty eluded them. Kappler then posted snipers at various places around the Vatican with orders to shoot O’Flaherty immediately upon his departure, even by a single foot, outside the limits of the Vatican.
This could not stop O’Flaherty. He eluded the Germans and made his way out of Vatican City to continue his work, disguised as a laborer or perhaps a shopkeeper. When Kappler captured another priest, O’Flaherty dressed in the uniform of a German officer and boldly walked into the prison to administer his friend confession before he was executed. Kappler's frustration and fury grew, and he intensified his efforts to capture both O’Flaherty and destroy the partisans.
The night came when O’Flaherty’s luck ran out. One evening as he lay in bed, Kappler’s aide, disguised in priestly robes, entered his room and placed a pistol to his temple. He took O'Flaherty to the Coliseum, dark and foreboding. A figure loomed ahead. In a moment O’Flaherty could see it was Col. Kappler. 

We will pick up the story in The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer, first with their meeting at the Coliseum, then Kappler's interrogation by his American captors, then the conclusion.

So I wonder about forgiveness. I wonder about Jesus’ justice when he forgives someone like Herbert Kappler. Of all people, we would likely say that Nazis are the ones who deserve eternal damnation. When Jesus forgives Nazis, we wonder, “Is there no justice?” 
“I do not rejoice at the death of the wicked,” God said through Ezekiel, “but take delight when they turn from their ways and live.” God can forgive even Nazis. God can forgive even me. God’s justice is based on love. God’s justice springs from his saving righteousness, from his forgiveness. His justice means all the Nazis of human history do not win. Indeed, no evil wins because all the evil of all time combined is less powerful than God's one day of love and forgiveness on the cross. This is a great hope we have in Christ, that because he forgives, his goodness will triumph and our sins and lawlessness God will remember no more.
God’s forgiveness means we are not condemned to be broken people, consumed by hatred and bitterness and anger. It means that we are not destined to be broken souls, shattered of heart and spirit, irretrievably blighted of love and all that is noble. It means we will be mended, made new and filled with the goodness of Christ.
I know that Reverend Everett did a good thing, a holy thing, when he forgave his son’s killer and blessed him at his marriage. The cynic may snort and the scoffer deride, but within my heart I know that Reverend Everett is a better man than I, and far more fortunate to be of such holiness. He is strongest in his broken places because those are the places Jesus knit him back together. Everett forgave because he was forgiven.
Well, I finally prayed about my rage and anger at my friend. Several days after this started I was alone, washing dishes in the kitchen, and muttering to God, trying to explain how I couldn’t forgive this wrong and how I didn’t think I should have to. I heard a reply then, not from inside my head, it was from above my right ear. It was a stinging rebuke. It said, “They made me carry a cross up Calvary but I forgave them at the top.” Those words literally knocked me down to the floor. To this day I remain deeply ashamed of having nurtured such anger in my heart and being so unwilling to forgive. 
The greatest miracle Christ performs is to shower grace and forgiveness on you and me. Paul wrote in First Timothy, “ . . . Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” [1 Tim. 1:15b-16]
If God did not forgive us he would not love us. If God did not love us, we would be loveless in our hearts, barren and desolate in hopeless, empty solitude. God went as Christ to the cross to forgive. The fact that we can forgive one another is Christ's gift. The obligation to forgive one another is his commandment. 
None of Jesus’ other miracles would matter if he did not forgive. Of what use is eternal life with God if he is eternally angry at me? Forgive is what God does. Having been forgiven, we may “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace....” [Heb. 4:16]
And having been forgiven, we are also able to forgive, and we are also required to forgive. 

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...