Monday, April 25, 2022

Is Vladimir Putin driven by worsening illness?

 There are renewed rumors swirling about Vladimir Putin’s health (HT: Allan R. Bevere). New video shows him apparently gripping his desk tightly while sitting behind it, which the Daily Mail assessed thus: 

There is also video that the Daily Mail says shows "Putin looks unsteady in Easter church service footage showing him biting lip and fidgeting as health rumours grow and war continues to go badly." The Mail also recounts:

Vladimir Putin's five medically-related disappearances

November 2012: Business trips and long-distance flights of the president are canceled, some of Putin's meetings shown by the Kremlin turn out to be 'canned food'

March 5 – 15, 2015: Putin does not appear in public, all meetings are 'canned' - in other words pre-recorded events were shown with the pretence they were in real time

August 9-16, 2017: The President, with journalists, visits Abkhazia and Sochi, and then for a week the Kremlin publishes only 'canned food'

February 2018: In the midst of an election campaign, the president cancels public events. Peskov admits that the head of state 'had a cold'

September 13-29, 2021: Putin goes into 'self-isolation', all events are held via video link

Observers said Putin's actions are consistent with someone suffering from Parkinson's disease, which causes tremors, slow movement and stiffness.

And there is this tweet that purports to show Putin unsteady on his feet and walking somewhat irregularly. 

Here, though, are two photos of Vlad taken a year apart. I merged them into one side-by-side shot. The left photo is from an NBC News report from April 2021. The right photo is from now, April 2022, released by the Russian government. Do you see a difference? I do not strongly consider the difference in Putin’s pallor to be very significant because the lighting difference for the photos may have played a major part in that. However, months before now there was speculation that Putin was suffering from a chronic illness that made his face swell, which these (and other photos I saw) seem to show. And Newsweek repeats the rumor is that he is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease

Or it may be simply nothing much more than what former CIA Director John Brennan told MSNBC three days ago, “Video of Putin clutching table ‘shows that he’s a man that has quite a bit of stress’.” Yes, that is a ‘well, duh,’ statement, but that really might be all there is to it. Besides, the Russian (dis)info agencies all say Putin is well, is not taking meds or drugs, and is working hard etc. etc. etc.

I  note, though, that I have not found a single report of an actual physician making an observational assessment (not a diagnosis, of course) about what photos and videos convey about his health. So I will be even more pedantic that John Brennan and say simply, "Time will tell." 

Update: Now this:

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Thomas tells his story


John 20:19-20, 24-29:

   When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

   Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

   But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

   A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

My name is Thomas. I am an apostle of Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. The Friday Jesus died was the worst day of my life. I was stunned when Jesus was arrested, and I could not bear to see his torture and execution. I was overcome with shame and guilt because I had done nothing to stop Jesus from being taken away to such a cruel death! Jesus was an exceptional man, destined for great things. By following him I was hooking my wagon to a shooting star. Now he was dead.

Don’t get the wrong idea. My discipleship was genuine, not something I thought would put me in a better class of people. Spending only a week with Jesus would have quickly disillusioned anyone of that idea. Jesus ate meals with thieves such as tax collectors. That’s how Matthew met him. Jesus spoke to prostitutes and all kinds of sinners. He actually touched lepers and sick people. Following Jesus meant being with the kind of people my parents had taught me to avoid. By the standards of the day, we hung out with the wrong crowd.

Yet there was a strange magnetism about Jesus. He attracted not just us twelve, but also some of the well-to-do and powerful folks – Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, for example. Lazarus was well off financially. Then there was Nicodemus, a highly respected member of the Jewish high council. Jesus spent a lot of time with some of the Pharisees, who were highly respected. Even after Jesus died, a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea donated a tomb. Jesus appealed to people across the whole social spectrum. Few people who knew him or knew about him were neutral about him. He evoked strong feelings. 

And that meant that almost as many people hated him as loved him. While some Pharisees listened to him, most scorned him. Jesus gave many people great aid and comfort. He healed them, he taught them, he preached, and he loved them. But he also gave haughty, self-righteous people a lot of grief. He was not above calling names, and the names he called some people, right out in public, were pretty stiff ones. So, he angered a lot of people, and they finally decided that Jesus had to go. And a lot of ordinary people got mad at him, too, over religious issues.

I should have seen his condemnation coming. Maybe I did, really, but just wouldn’t face it. Once we were in Jerusalem and Jesus was being pestered by some people who wanted him to answer plainly whether he was the Christ. Finally, Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” That put some of them over the edge! They picked up stones to stone him to death, right there on a Jerusalem street! Let me tell you, I was plenty worried and frightened, because once a mob’s blood lust is up, it’s hard to stop. Somehow, Jesus talked them out of it. They calmed down, but Jesus wouldn’t quit while he was ahead. He then told them that he was the son of God, and for that we all literally had to run for our lives, Jesus included, clear out of town. We went all the way across the Jordan River, where the people had known John the Baptist well and were kindly disposed towards Jesus. There we rested, and many people believed in Jesus. And there we got word that Lazarus was deathly sick.

In fact, Lazarus had died before we heard he was ill. Jesus seemed to know it, though. He took two days to decide whether to go to Lazarus’ town of Bethany – back across the Jordan into what we disciples had concluded was enemy territory. When he said, “Let’s go,” we started arguing among ourselves about whether to go with him. We tried to talk Jesus out of going – in vain, of course, because Jesus always listened to our advice, but he never took it, not one time. When it became clear that Jesus was going to see Mary and Martha most of the disciples still were reluctant to accompany him. 

Finally, I told them, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

By that time in my walk with Jesus, I had become personally devoted to him. Oh, his cause was wonderful, his message was holy, and his mission was pure, but that wasn’t what drew me too his side any longer. Those things were still important, but I said I would go and die with him because, quite simply, if Jesus was going to Bethany where there was a real risk of being stoned to death, I couldn’t bear the thought of him taking that risk without me there also. If Jesus were to die there without me, I wouldn’t be able to stand it. I choked down my fear because I loved him. It was as simple as that.

Nothing bad happened. Jesus called Lazarus forth from his tomb, the most astonishing thing I ever saw. Later, I found out that the raising of Lazarus was what made the high council finally decide that Jesus had to die. 

Somehow, between that day in Bethany and the night Jesus was arrested, I became a coward. Yes, a coward! When we went together to Bethany, I would have stood beside Jesus if the people had tried to stone him. I would have shielded him with my own body until they beat me down, bleeding and unconscious. But when we were in the garden and an armed cohort of soldiers came up, I just panicked. They arrested Jesus and let me tell you, I knew what was coming. The cross, no doubt about it! 

Only Peter had the guts to stand and fight, but Jesus stopped him. Then we all fled, but I think I ran hardest of all. I, who would once have sacrificed myself to save Jesus, I just turned tail. When Jesus died, he died alone. I wasn’t there to save him.

After Jesus was buried, I was so ashamed. I was hurt, I was angry, and I was remorseful beyond description. I wished that I had taken a sword as Peter did. Not even Jesus could have made me put it down. Yes, I told myself all day Saturday, if I had just taken a sword, I would have saved the day, and even if not, I would have died with Jesus. 

But Jesus died, and I lived. I hated myself for my cowardice, for my faithlessness. And now I had no aim in life. I had followed Jesus, and Jesus was gone. I was completely adrift. If God could allow Jesus to die, then faith was pointless. 

I wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other women. I wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to Peter and John and the other disciples. So, when the other disciples told me, “We have seen the Lord,” my response was skeptical, to say the least. “No, really!” they insisted, “We have seen him, in person, right here. He blew the Spirit of peace onto us!” 

Now I had heard some whoppers before, but that one took the cake. These poor men and women were hurt as much as I was, but at least I wasn’t seeing ghosts. I thought about telling them the obvious fact that crucifixion was permanent. Hadn’t the women themselves laid Jesus in the tomb? Their Jesus “sightings” were just grief-induced delusions. But grief was grief. They were dealing with theirs by imagining they saw Jesus again, and I was dealing with mine by lapsing into total apathy. 

So, I just said that no vision of Jesus would convince me unless I could touch his wounds. “Well,” Peter answered, “aren’t you just a doubting Thomas!” The name stuck. Perhaps you have heard it on occasion. 

For all the next week some of the other disciples kept telling me they had seen Jesus. Mary Magdalene was the most insistent. She told me of discovering the empty tomb and Jesus’ grave clothes lying there. I found myself thinking that I could almost believe it. It sounded too good to be true, but there was such a new spirit among my friends, a radiant confidence and quiet joy. They didn’t seem to be in mourning for a dead man.

After a few days I asked Matthew, “If you have seen the Lord, what is next? I mean, the must be more to this resurrection of Jesus you are so convinced of than him just showing up and announcing, ‘I'm back!’”

“We’re waiting,” Matthew replied. 

“For what?” I asked. 

“For you,” he said.

I began thinking. Matthew had always seemed a sensible type. He had always analyzed situations with an accountant’s mind if you get my drift. If Matthew said these sightings added up, perhaps there was literally more to them than met the eye. 

I wanted to believe. I really did! More than anything, I wanted Jesus to be alive, so I could beg his forgiveness for running away in the garden. Oh, just to see his face, to hear his voice again! Sometimes during that week, I would be out, and I would see him, talking to someone across the street. My heart would leap! But then he would turn around and I would see it was not Jesus, just someone whose robe was like his. Or I would hear his footsteps on the stair, but they wouldn’t belong to him after all, just some stranger. And at night, after a day of forlornly hoping Jesus would appear to me, I would weep on my bed because I knew Jesus really was gone. 

So, I couldn’t believe my friends. Their sightings were just fleshed out more than mine, but no more real, that was all. For my faith to be reborn, I needed to see his wounds and feel them. But Jesus didn’t come to me, except in my heart’s longing. 

Until that day at the end of the week when Jesus did come. 

We were all in the house and I looked up and there he was! He was standing right there, right in front of me! I couldn’t speak. I think my heart must have stopped. I lost my breath. Was he real? Was this vision really him, or just delusion? And how did he get in here? The doors were shut!

He held out his hands to bless us and said, “Peace be with you.” I just stared. I could clearly see where the nails had pierced his hands. There was no blood or open wound, just scars, but there was no doubt. Then Jesus turned to me and took a step in my direction. He said to me, “Put your finger here and see my hands.” 

I couldn’t move. My throat was so tight I could hardly breathe. Jesus pulled back his cloak and showed me the red scar in his side. It was deeply depressed into his body where the Roman spear had been ripped out. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side,” Jesus said. “Do not doubt but believe.”

I began to cry. I gasped, “My Lord and my God!” And I fell to my knees because I was so ashamed of doubting him, of doubting my friends. I had let Jesus down again. Wasn’t the testimony of my friends reliable? Of course, it was! Yet I refused to believe. 

Jesus asked me, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” I was so ashamed I could only nod. Jesus rebuked me, saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

When I looked up, Jesus was gone. Mary Magdalene was crying as I was. She came over and put her arms around me. Matthew was smiling from ear to ear.

I never did touch Jesus’ wounds. Nor did I ever again think I needed to. I learned that the problem isn’t doubt. I came to know countless devout Christians who were sometimes wracked by doubts. If God was always present in a way that left no room for doubt, there likely would be no room for you or me. The problem is not doubt but dismissal. 

Later when I spread the Gospel to the east, I discovered that the people who came to follow Christ were at no disadvantage in having the same faith as us apostles. They could make the same claim as Mary Magdalene and the apostles made to me: “We have seen the Lord!” They said it because they understood what I finally learned: that the Scriptures, prayer, and the community of faith lead us not to external visions, but to the full experience of God in Christ. The revelation of God in Jesus is grounded in historical events, but the fullness of God in Christ is not trapped in history. Christ is ever new and ever knowable, even by people who never see a vision. The presence and reality of the risen Christ is always available through the work of the Holy Spirit. So, all believers have the same access to Christ as we apostles. 

I never got to ask Jesus to forgive me for running away from him when he was arrested. But I am sure he did forgive me, even without me asking. In later years I would ask myself, did I really see him that day? He was there so fleetingly. 

I know I saw him, but I also know that such a vision is not essential to faith. I never stopped loving my Lord and my God. And I never missed him again because he was always with me, even to the end of time, a crucified, risen and living Lord. 

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Are real-estate investment funds headed for a fall?

 Here are charts relevant to real estate investment; first is the homes sold chart since 2000:

And here is the chart of VNQ, a Vanguard real-estate ETF, since inception in 2005:

Let's zoom in with the sales chart to year-scale the same as the VNQ one. Bear in mind that the VNQ chart's interval is one month, while the sales chart is sometimes one month but usually two months.

I should be no surprise that VNQ rises or falls in correlation to the volume of sales. But I am far from sure that the market conditions today are ones we have seen before, namely:
  • Continuing high demand,
  • Rising interest rates,
  • High inflation
  • Decreasing supply of homes for sale
Why is the supply decreasing while demand is level? Probably because of millions of homeowners like me. We bought our present home in 2017 with a 3.75 percent mortgage. A year ago we refinanced at significantly less than 3 percent. If we sold our house and bought another one, we'd have a mortgage rate, as of today, of 4.5 percent. If we financed exactly the same amount as remains on our present mortgage, and not one dollar more, the new P&I (only) payment would be $268 more than on our present mortgage, or $3,216 per year. Over, say, a 30-year mortgage that would come to almost $100,000. And with inflation nearing double-digits, would I really want to remove that $3,216 from my disposable income?

What exactly is my - and millions of others' like me - incentive to sell other than from actual necessity? Maybe downsizing could be an answer. Near our house they are building duplex condos for retirees. The starting price for them is about what we paid for our separate house five years ago. Because our house has appreciated 66 percent since we bought it (according to we could sell our house now and move into a condo, using the equity to pay way down the costs. Problem is, of course, they are significantly smaller and we do not want to downsize so dramatically. 

I suspect, though, that a lot of men and women a few years older than my wife and me will do so. But who knows? As I said, I do not think the market has ever had a combination of sustained demand, rising interest rate, skyrocketing inflation, and decreasing supply of existing homes. Builders cannot keep up for many reasons, one of which is enormously increased costs of materials and labor, and another being supply-chain difficulties that are still not wholly resolved. It is a good time, I think, to be content with what we have. And I think millions of other will think the same thing.

As for VNQ and similar funds, I would expect its chart to continue to mirror the sales chart, unfortunately. 

Update: "Homebuilder confidence falls for fourth straight month -- Sales traffic has declined amid rising prices and interest rates despite low inventory"
"The housing market faces an inflection point as an unexpectedly quick rise in interest rates, rising home prices and escalating material costs have significantly decreased housing affordability conditions, particularly in the crucial entry-level market," said NAHB chief economist Robert Dietz.
Update: And now, just two days after this post, "Home Prices Have Begun Falling: Here Are the Cities Where They’re Down the Most." Those cities:

Update: A comment on FB at a related post there by a recently-retired homebuilder:
I got out just in time as the cost of building materials is simply insane. One rafter on my last house was almost $100 each. OSB sheathing is almost three times what it was a couple of years ago. People are still building like this is not a problem. Thus existing homes are pricing way up. This last house went for $480k after two days on market with two showings. I have $275k into it three years ago. Sooner or later building material costs will start coming down. At that point, the housing market will implode.

Friday, April 15, 2022

What was the case against Christ?

 If someone were to ask you, "Why was JFK assassinated?" you certainly would not answer, "To save us from our sins." Yet that is usually the first thing that comes to mind when we church people are asked why Jesus died or why he was crucified. 

That answer is correct, of course, but is that really all there is to it? None of Jesus' accusers thought that. Caiaphas, the high priest who turned Jesus over to Pilate, would have thought such an answer to be idiotic. Pilate, a Roman pagan, would never have remotely thought it. None of the crowd who demanded of Pilate, "Crucify him!" thought their sins would be forgiven via Jesus' death on a cross. 

And for that matter, not even Jesus' disciples thought so, despite more than one occasion when Jesus had clearly taught it to them. 

So what was happening in the ordinary realm of human motives and actions that ended with Jesus dying on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem? "Execution Day - The Case Against Christ," is an essay I wrote in 2019 to explore how to answer why Jesus was crucified in the same way we might answer why JFK was shot - who did it, why, and what did they hope to gain? To read, just click on the link. 

Or watch this video I made about the same subject.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

A Last Supper Narrative, based on The Gospels

Today is a high holy day for Christians around the world. It is Holy Thursday, often called Maundy Thursday. 

Maundy Thursday is an alternate name for Holy Thursday, the first of the three days of solemn remembrance of the events leading up to and immediately following the crucifixion of Jesus. The English word "Maundy" comes from the Latin mandatum, which means "commandment." As recorded in John's gospel, on his last night before his betrayal and arrest, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and then gave them a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them. 

The day is significant because it was this night that Jesus brought his disciples to share with them the last meal they would all have together. So that meal is called the Last Supper and the ritual that Jesus instituted during it is still practiced today as the Lord's Supper, called the Eucharist in Catholicism and Holy Communion in most Protestantism. 

The Last Supper, by Leonardo Da Vinci, restored

Following is a narrative for this day that I have compiled using the relevant passages from all the gospels, mostly from Matthew and John. Interestingly, in John's account there is no meal shared. Instead, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, overcoming Peter's protest by telling him (essentially), "If you do not let me wash your feet then you can get out." To which Peter replied, "In that case, wash me from head to toe!" 

In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke the meal they share is either the traditional Jewish Passover seder or it encompasses it. John's gospel, though, begins chapter 13 by saying their gathering was before the Feast of Passover. I discussed this with my friend, Rabbi Daniel Jackson, Ph.D., who taught astronomy in Jerusalem, especially as relating to the Jewish calendar. He said there was no contradiction because there were two calendars in use in Judah in the first century, the regular lunar calendar and the priestly calendar. The latter was used to regulate the times of sacrifices at the Temple, which could only be done during daylight hours. Unlike the ordinary calendar, the priestly calendar measured days starting at dawn, not dusk. So, Daniel said, what we think of as a single day could have been carried as two separate days on those respective calendars. (At least, I think I have relayed this accurately.)

The Upper Room, site of the Last Supper, today. Its present décor and style are Muslim from the hundreds of years that the city was under Muslim control.

I begin this narrative, however, not on the Thursday of Jesus' last week in this life, but several days before in John, chapter 11, which tells of Jesus raising to life a man dead and buried for four days, only two miles from Jerusalem. John presents this event as the pivot point of Jesus' time on earth that led the Jewish priestly Sanhedrin, or high council, to conclude that Jesus was too dangerous to let him continue even if he had to be handed over to the Romans for execution.

This, then, is the story of the Last Supper. 

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb [of Lazarus]. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. AHere is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man to die for the people than that the whole nation perishes.”
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.

On the Tuesday before he was crucified, Jesus said to his disciples, "As you know, the Passover is two days away and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified." About the same time, the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus covertly and then put him to death. "But we shouldn’t do it on the day of Passover," they said, "or there may be a riot among the people."

Not long afterward, one of the Twelve, the one called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I hand Jesus over to you?" They offered him thirty silver coins, which they counted out. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to the chief priests.
On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was the day of Passover, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover meal?"

He replied, "Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, 'The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.'” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.

When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. While they were eating, he said, "It is hard to believe, but it is true: one of you will betray me."

His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, "Ask him which one he means."

Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?"

Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.

"What you are about to do, do quickly," Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.

Jesus said. "The Son of Man will go just as the Scriptures say about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born."
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body."

Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom."

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus told them, "This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: 
   " 'I will strike the shepherd, 
      and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'
"But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee."

Peter replied, "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will."

"Listen to me," Jesus answered, "this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times."

But Peter declared, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the other disciples said the same.
“If you love me,” Jesus told them, “keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever - the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

Then Jesus went with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place called Gethsemane.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Why crucify Jesus?

Here is my video, "Why Crucify Jesus?" It is my examination of the political dynamics at play during Jesus' last week in Jerusalem. Why did the high priest, Caiaphas, decide that Jesus had to die and why did he want Pilate to order it done? Pilate was a very violent prefect who had executed many hundreds of Judeans already, perhaps far more. Why did Pilate refuse Caiaphas and insist Jesus was innocent? And what made Pilate finally yield to the demand? Why crucify Jesus?

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Better You Than Me, Jesus

Mark 11:1-11

11When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 

3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Jesus has been on the road for three years, ministering, preaching, healing, teaching. Now the Jerusalem gate is before him. Behind it are the powerful people who are conspiring to kill him. Around him is the crowd singing his praises and hailing him as their coming liberator. 

On Palm Sunday the crowd lay their cloaks on the road in front of Jesus, a sign of highest respect and honor. Waving palm branches was a symbol of Judean nationalism. By riding in on a young donkey, Jesus was fulfilling a prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, which said, "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." The prophetic fulfillment of Jesus coming to Jerusalem as a prophesied king would not have been lost upon the people, and certainly not on the Jewish high council. 

As a member of the line of King David, Jesus had a rightful claim to the throne of Judea. The throne was occupied by Herod Antipas, a Roman vassal and not even Jewish. The people despised Herod almost as much as Pilate. They wanted to be free of him as well as of the Romans.

The Jews wanted a Jewish King with a legitimate claim to the throne who would rule justly. They thought that Jesus was their man. His works of mercy and compassion were well known, as was the amazing power with which Jesus did them.

David Taylor wrote, 

They had seen the mighty works of this man Jesus. They were witness to Him restoring sight to the blind. They saw the evidence of Him healing the lame. They saw Him feed the multitude with a little boy’s lunch, and had leftovers to spare. They heard about Him raising Lazarus from the dead. They listened to Him teach with authority. Surely, with power and authority like that, Jesus was without a doubt the one who would set them free. So, Jesus came to Jerusalem, and the crowds began to cheer.

Such acclaim would probably not have happened at any time of the year other than when Jesus made this entry. It was a few days before Passover, a holy day dripping with memories and symbolism of liberation. In Passover the Jews celebrated the liberation of their ancestors from chattel slavery in Egypt. If Jesus was to proclaim himself a political Messiah, this was the time. Thousands of Jews had come to Jerusalem from the rest of the country to make sacrifices. Religious and nationalist fervor ran very high. Had Jesus claimed the throne the news would have spread throughout all Judea within one or two days. Jesus was doubtless aware of all of this. The city's residents were pretty much his for commanding.

All the expectations of the crowd will be shattered this week. My colleague in ministry, Paul Larsen, wrote a few years ago of the University of Arizona's loss to Duke for spot in the Final Four. He compared the crowd cheering for Jesus with the thousands of fans who were cheering for Arizona. As the second half progressed, the Arizona fans’ cheers became less strident, less lengthy, less frequent. Finally, they were muted. The Arizona fans departed the stadium in grim, bitter silence. Back on the campus, the people who had cheered for their team turned into a mob. They destroyed university property and defaced buildings.

The difference between a crowd and a mob is thin. Crowds cheer, mobs riot. The turn can be made in just a moment. Jesus surely knew what the crowd expected and just as surely knew he was not their man, not like they wanted. 

The ugliness of fickle faith is nakedly displayed during holy week. Almost everyone who knows Jesus will do one of two things this week. Either they will abandon him, or they will call for his destruction. As for the crowd, they don’t know Jesus personally, only his reputation. And they have molded his reputation to fit their own desires.

The people cheering Jesus don’t know he doesn’t fit their mold and were probably unsurprised when they learned days later that Pilate sent him to the cross. They play no further role in the few days remaining of Jesus’ story.

A smaller crowd, handpicked and stage-managed by the priests, will call for Jesus’ death only five days from now, yelling to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar!” and “Give us Barabbas!” instead of Jesus. Then finally, they will yell, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Not even Jesus’ disciples will remain steadfast. One will betray him; the others will abandon him. Soon after, Peter will deny three times that he even knows Jesus. When Jesus walks his last mile, he will be surrounded only by lethal enemies. And on the cross, as he hangs suffocating in agony, will come the bitterest abandonment. “My God!” Jesus will call. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” 

No one will remain faithful to Jesus after today except a few women. They will approach him as he hangs on the cross. To be fair, so will one disciple, John. But at least three women, probably four, will come to the cross, including Jesus’ mother. They will watch him die. They will help prepare him for burial, a task cut short by the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday evening. Only the women will return to the tomb on Sunday to finish the job.

We call the final week of Jesus' life, "Passion Week." It is the central focus of the Jesus story. The week begins with joy in Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem but then plunges into despair, fear and mourning at his death. In holy week, Jesus was – 

Hailed by the people, 

feared by the powerful, 

watched by the Romans, 

loved by his disciples, but then was betrayed by one and was abandoned by the others, 

arrested by the Jewish police, 

beaten by his countrymen, 

tried and convicted by the Jews and the Romans, 

flogged by the Romans,

scorned by the people, 

sentenced to death and crucified by the Romans,

buried by friends.

Jesus’ encounters with the ruling hierarchies of Judea and Rome was the clash of conscience without power meeting power without conscience. 

Power won. Jesus died. All was lost. 

Had he been an ordinary man, Jesus might have been smitten by his ticker tape reception into Jerusalem and let the people make him their king. He had a rightful claim to the throne, being in the line of King David. Pilate might have even conspired against Herod, whom Pilate detested, to put Jesus on the throne. Herod wasn’t exactly stable. A King Jesus might have been acceptable to the Romans, provided he understood who was boss. 

But we can’t imagine Jesus playing to the crowd, and certainly not playing along with the Romans. Nothing we know about him makes us think it was remotely possible that he could have accepted the crowd’s desire for him to rule as an ordinary, political king of the Jews. It would have been the end of his mission. So, I am thankful that Jesus was who he was and didn’t let anything so trivial as public acclaim lead him away from his mission. 

But I am aghast at my thankfulness, for in my gratitude I am condemning Jesus to the cross. A King Jesus could do me no good. Jesus, king of Judea twenty-one centuries ago, cannot be a savior for me now. Jesus had to become the Christ, “highly exalted” and given the name that is above every name. And that means the cross for him then to give me eternal life now. I am thankful for what that means for me, but I am shocked at what it meant for Jesus. It turns out that the high priest, Caiaphas, was on to something. It is better for Jesus to die than for us to be destroyed, he told the high council. I swallow hard at that, but I have to agree.

So please, Jesus, enjoy your moment in the limelight, basking in public acclaim, but ignore it. Really, just ignore it. If you don’t ignore it, you may live, but I will die! 

And if you do ignore it, you will die.

Better you than me, Jesus, better you than me. 

And can it be,” Charles Wesley wrote, “that I should gain an interest in my savior’s blood! Died he for me? Who caused his pain! For me? Who him to death pursued?

So I cannot join the street celebration of Jesus entering Jerusalem. I want to shout with elation like they did. I want to yell “Hosanna!” at the top of my lungs, and, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” I believe that. I do. But I cannot shout it, not even today, because I know the shouts are wrongly intended. They are political shouts of acclaim that I cannot give voice.

So this Friday, when another crowd gathers before Pilate, I’ll be in it to my great shame. I do not want to yell for Barabbas’ freedom instead of Jesus, but I will if that is what it takes. I won’t scream to Pilate, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” At least, I don’t think I will. 

But Jesus, I’ll follow you up the hill to Golgotha. I’ll even help carry your cross if they want. I’ll stand by as they nail you down then lift you up. And I’ll cry and collapse in grief and despair.

I’ll watch you die, Jesus. I won’t like it. I’ll cry and be ashamed. 

But I won’t try to stop it. 

Because it’s better you than me, Jesus, dying for my sins. 

Better you than me.

Friday, April 8, 2022

The Ukraine War just got much, much bigger

 Last Friday:

Scores of people, including children, have been killed when rockets hit a railway station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk.

Ukrainian officials say thousands of people were waiting for evacuation trains on Friday morning, desperate to flee heavy Russian shelling across the wider Donetsk region.

Both Ukraine and Russia have since blamed each other for the deadly attack.

The railway station was hit at about 10:30 local time (07:30 GMT) on Friday, Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenk told the BBC.

So far, 52 persons are confirmed killed and at least 100 injured. A western aid worker for World Central Kitchen was nearby, helping distribute food at the station at the time. He "counted between five and 10 explosions." 

Ukraine's prosecutor general's office later said that nearly 4,000 people - mainly women and children - were at the station at the time.

With this attack, the latest in several like it - and coming on the heels of the Russian massacre of civilians in the formerly occupied town of Bucha in northern Ukraine - the war in Ukraine has transitioned to a new, much larger stage. Now going on for just under two months, neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians have yet attained their military objectives. That Ukraine has not expelled Russian forces from the country is hardly surprising, but Russia's vaunted land-power war machine is shown to be creaking with rusty obsolescence and incapability, plus poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly supported soldiers. 

And then last Wednesday,

Russia has admitted suffering "significant losses of troops" in Ukraine, as the invasion enters its 44th day.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told British channel Sky News the casualties were "a huge tragedy for us". ...

However, his admission that Russia has suffered significant casualties is striking. On 25 March, Russia's Ministry of Defence said 1,351 of its soldiers had been killed in combat. Ukraine puts the Russian deaths at almost 19,000.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine's estimates of Russian losses can be independently verified - and analysts have cautioned that Russia may be downplaying its casualty rate, while Ukraine could be inflating it to boost morale. Western leaders believe that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed.

Rodrigo Abd/AP -- A woman walks amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha,
in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 3, 2022.

American defense officials said today,

In terms of total losses -- counting troops, tanks, aircraft and missile inventory -- Russia has lost between 15-20% of the combat power it originally had arrayed against Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion, according to the official.

(During my military career, we defined a unit that lost that large a percentage of troops as neutralized, and 30 percent as destroyed, that is, combat ineffective.)

These massacres and casualty levels (on both sides) now mean that a negotiated peace is off the table. For Putin to make such an agreement would be seen by the senior military and civilian Russian leadership as an admission of Putin's personal failure. And Putin would have to realize that making such a peace would be professionally and possibly personally lethal for him. Russians know good and well that the Czar/General Secretary/President is never the one who fails the country, ever. If Putin accepted a negotiated peace, everyone else within the senior reaches of government and the military would know that the scapegoating purges would come quickly. And Putin knows that they would know that. Who would act decisively first - Putin and his inner, purge-immune circle, or the intended victims? 

As for Zelensky, to negotiate a peace with invaders who have mass murdered his people on repeated occasions would also be an admission of failure. Unlike Russia, he would likely remain in office until the end of his term, and even if he was forced out, his exit would have the façade not of disgrace, but of an exhausted hero of world significance, to whom the nation owes its everlasting gratitude. 

Until a point, that is, And that point is if the war simply drags on. Putin cannot relent. Ukraine now must win. Before now, all Ukraine had to do was not lose, but that is no longer good enough. Now it must eject Russia from the country, and not slowly. But Putin cannot allow his army to be so defeated. As Walter Russell Mead put it:

Now both sides are stuck with a war that neither knows how to win, and it is difficult to see the outlines of a compromise peace that both sides can accept. Ukraine cannot accept a peace that leaves it exposed to further Russian aggression and that involves further territorial sacrifice, and Mr. Putin cannot end the war without demonstrable gains at the expense of Ukraine. The logic of warfare now seems to lock the two sides into further, perhaps escalating military, economic and political conflict as each looks for some pathway to victory.

No one had any real hope for the negotiations occasionally held in Belarus, anyway. After the Bucha massacre, "Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Ukraine's peace negotiators and aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said the tone of peace talks had forever changed because of Bucha... ."

As for Russia, just yesterday

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday that Ukraine had presented Moscow with a draft peace deal containing "unacceptable" elements at variance with a previous agreement, comments that Kyiv dismissed as "pure propaganda".

The "peace" negotiations were never more than a kabuki dance to begin with, but with the Kramatorsk attack, the talks don't even rise to that level. 

The Ukraine war has now transitioned into a proxy war between Russia and the Euro-American alliance. Ukraine is tragically caught in the middle. The very difficult and very uncertain task before Europe and the United States now is to manage the war to keep it inside Ukraine. (But remember the caution attributed to Bismarck that starting a war is like entering a dark room, blindfolded, to look for a black cat that is not even there.)

Update: CBS News' report of the Kramatorsk attack:

Update: Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal, Don’t Let Putin Win in Ukraine (excerpted):
It is good in the wake of the Bucha atrocities that President Biden and Europe’s leaders are talking about holding Mr. Putin and his associates accountable for war crimes—once it is possible to collect evidence. Still, one doesn’t have to be Volodymyr Zelensky to notice that these good intentions have little to do with the reality that the current level of help from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization still leaves Ukraine in purgatory, with one foot in Mr. Putin’s hell and the other stretching toward deliverance by the West.

It is increasingly clear that after failing to secure a quick win, Mr. Putin’s Plan B is scorched earth.

Using crudely targeted long-range missiles, land mines and his army’s historic instinct to barbarity, he is simply destroying Ukraine—its people, its economy, whole cities and infrastructure. After the current “pause,” he’ll go back for more.

The consequences of this obviously unexpected scale of destruction are significant for the West’s calculations. At this point all the arguments, such as they are, for affirming a negotiated settlement that turns so much of Ukraine over to Mr. Putin have become impossible to credit.

In the absence of anything but passing press contact with the U.S. president, a question often put to those who interpret for Mr. Biden at the White House, Pentagon and State Department is whether we want Ukraine to win. After this week, I think the better question is: Are we willing to make Mr. Putin lose?

Saying that he’s experiencing a “strategic defeat” is a dodge. Every day—or year—that he is killing and wrecking, he’s winning. Vladimir Putin has to lose in Ukraine, not only in the eyes of the aghast outside world. NATO’s current military and political status quo—the arms flows and ratcheting sanctions—just isn’t enough.

A mass grave behind Bucha’s Church of St. Andrew the First-Called All Saints. (WSJ)

Also, the April 8 sitrep from the Institute for the Study of War.

Finally, some observers, including some actually on the scene in Bucha, say that the civilians killed there should not be uncritically accepted as Russian victims. Whether you agree or not, it is not much arguable against the fact that both sides will lie outright if they think it helps them. 

Rethinking Marriage

What the Christian religion has to do with marriage is a huge subject, so at best this is an overview. I call it Rethinking Marriage becaus...