Faithful Disobedience

I just finished reading “Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Church Movement.” Written by Pastor Wang Yi and others, and edited by Hannah Nation and J. D. Tseng, this collection of essays offers a historical perspective on the growth and persecution of Christian churches in China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The story is unfinished, as the church in China continues to endure despite the arrest and jailing of many of its leaders. Nevertheless, the book provides valuable insights that may benefit Christians in other parts of the world. Here are a few points that caught my attention:

We often think of Christians in China as meeting in secret, and sometimes call them (collectively) an underground church. Wang Yi shuns this label, preferring that they be known as unregistered or unlicensed churches, or as house churches, even though many of them meet publicly in buildings they construct or rent. They believe that the church must maintain a visible presence by meeting and worshiping together as a witness to the Gospel, regardless of whether the government approves. Many American Christians seem to think of witness on a personal rather than congregational level, and it is encouraging to hear a reminder that credibility, visibility, and witness are important on both levels.

Wang Yi traces the history of Christianity in China since the CCP takeover, and observes that over time the Christian churches in large cities gradually sort into liberal and conservative congregations. By his definition, liberal churches drift away from the authority of the Bible while conservative churches adhere to it. The liberal churches eventually accept CCP government oversight and allow the government to select their pastors and priests, decide what may or may not be preached and taught, and even insert CCP songs and “educational” materials into their worship services. In contrast, the conservative churches insist on independence to follow the Scriptures, train and select their own pastors and teachers, worship without CCP control, and evangelize the surrounding community. This is not a judgement; rather, it is simply empirical observation. As Wang Yi recounts the past 70 years of church history in China, he noted that liberal churches in the larger cities have gone through two cycles of compromising, losing their identity, and essentially disappearing under CCP rule. So what happens when liberal churches eventually go under? See the next paragraph.

Wang Yi noted that liberal churches in larger cities have gone through at least two cycles of losing their independence and disappearing into CCP culture. Each time, the Christian community was eventually re-seeded into the cities by Christians coming from Bible-believing churches in smaller cities and towns. This gave me a new perspective on small-town and rural churches in the US. As liberal churches in the US become less comfortable with the Bible and more comfortable with government policies on abortion, sexuality, education, and natural law, it could be that God will use Bible-believing churches to preserve a faithful remnant and re-seed communities as He appears to have done in China.

But what about the title, “Faithful Disobedience?” The title reflects a Chinese house church approach to life under the CCP. Rather than simply doing whatever government demands, as a quick read of Romans 13:1-7 might suggest, Wang Yi points out that if a government begins systematically punishing good and rewarding evil (according to God’s definitions of good and evil), if a government demands a level of allegiance above allegiance to God or sets itself above God, or if a government attempts to remove Christian witness from a community by closing churches and banning evangelism, then Christians will need to consider how they can faithfully and sacrificially disobey. This is not to pull down the government, but to show God’s Gospel in hopes that government officials (and others) will repent. As the Romans passage explains, government authority comes from God, so, if forced to a choice, Christians must obey God first. And, as Wang Yi describes, house churches and Christians in China have been dealing with these choices and their consequences ever since the CCP came to power. Sometimes they fail and other times they persevere, but they remain rooted in God’s love.

Over the past 10-15 years I have read several books about how Christians and the church might respond to cultural, social, and government pressures. In fact, I even wrote a short book on this topic myself. “Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Church Movement” makes a helpful contribution in this area by sharing perspectives that we in the United States might not otherwise see. It was a good read, and I recommend it.

Electrons are Cheap

A few weeks ago a friend pointed me to “Christian Photographers on Facebook” which is a group of, well, Christian photographers on Facebook. With over 1500 members, there are plenty of interesting photos to see, and lessons to learn about creativity and skill with a camera.

Our group holds a weekly competition in which the group admins announce a theme and members may submit a photo that they believe fits the theme. At the end of the week the admins announce a winner and two runner-ups (or is it runners-up?). We thank and encourage each other, and then the admins announce a theme for the next week. Low-key, enjoyable fun!

For your interest, here are the photos I submitted in various weeks of the competition, starting with the most recent:

This theme was “Signs of Spring.” Our lemon and lime trees bloom three or four times per year, including early spring, so I submitted this photo of a honeybee doing his work. I shot this photo in April 2020 using an iPhone 11 Pro.
This theme was “One,” so I submitted an image of the Matterhorn standing in solitary majesty in the morning sun. I shot this photo in 2008 using a Kodak Z712 zoom digital camera.
This theme was “The Heavens,” including sky, clouds, stars, or perhaps anything overhead. My photo shows an evening thunderstorm over Grand Canyon, complete with a fragment of rainbow on the horizon. I shot this photo in 2022 with an iPhone 11 Pro.
For a theme of “Something Old,” I submitted this image of broken cathedral bells in Lubeck, Germany. The bells fell to the bottom of the bell tower during Allied bombing in World War II. I shot this photo in 2019 with a Canon SL2 DSLR.
For a theme of “Action,” I submitted this image of a Union Pacific Challenger locomotive charging up the Altamont Pass near Livermore, CA. I shot this photo in 1992 with a Nikon SLR using film.
For “The Art of Water,” I submitted this image of waterfalls in Milford Sound, New Zealand. I shot this photo in 2017 with a Canon T2i DSLR.

Shameless plug: most of these photos and many more are on display at (copy and paste the address) if you would like to see more of my photography. Better yet, if you want some artwork for your home or office, take a look at my gallery for a good selection!

The Witness of Normal

We live in crazy times. Every day we hear news of people, groups, agencies, or institutions saying and doing things that defy common sense or deny realities we can see with our own eyes. Things are so crazy, in fact, that satire writers at the Babylon Bee have problems coming up with comically outlandish ideas that don’t come true! How are we supposed to respond, particularly when the craziness comes looking for us?

We have several options. Some say we should simply ignore the craziness and withdraw to our own monastic community. Or maybe live in a gated compound if we have the money to pay for it. Others say we need to become activists and go into battle. It certainly is a target-rich environment, but we have only so much time and energy to go around. Both of these approaches have their pros and cons, but there is a third way that holds a special worth of its own. That is to simply live a normal life.

What do we mean by a normal life? Dream about what you want to be when you grow up. Learn to read, and get an education that teaches you how to think, and that teaches rather than indoctrinates. Guard and enjoy your curiosity, a sense of wonder, and a childlike faith. Listen to your elders, and.learn from their strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failures. Find a way to make a living that also does something good for the rest of us. Fall in love with someone of the opposite sex, get married, and raise a family. Nurture your relationships with family, friends, and colleagues, and don’t burn bridges. Safeguard your integrity and your reputation.

At this point someone might ask, “What gives you the right to define normal?” Actually, I don’t claim any such right. But I would point to God, our Lord and Creator, who does have the authority to define what is normal and what is good. Read the first couple chapters of Genesis and follow up with readings in Proverbs and the New Testament, and you can see that not only does He define what is normal; He also pronounces it good, as if “normal” is a blessing from God. Jesus says clearly that He creates us male and female and defines marriage. God gives us work to do, tells us to honor our parents, urges us to seek wisdom, and tells us to work hard enough to be able to share with others. He reveals His truth to us, gives us life at its fullest, and loves us from beginning to end.

So why is living a normal life also a witness? We are surrounded by people who hurt, know that things are not right, or are simply broken. This often describes us, too. However, living a normal life under God’s grace shows others that normal is an understated yet wonderful option, and that it sure beats the craziness. So go ahead and make a counter-cultural witness by relishing God’s grace, reveling in God’s love, and living the normal life that God designs, blesses, and calls good!

Polite Clocks

We have several old clocks in our house, and they are all scrupulously polite. Just as polite people never talk over each other, these clocks never chime at the same time. They wait their turn as if saying, “You go first.” “No, I insist, it is your turn!” I wind them regularly each week, and sometimes reset them to a strict time standard every day or so, but they immediately assert their individuality and within a few hours they once again take turns to chime the hour.

For the curious, here are some snapshots of our four polite timepieces:

This wall-mounted regulator clock is the oldest of the four, and measures about 18″ high. It has a simple chime, and keeps the best time of any of our wound clocks. The pendulum completes one full cycle per second. We think this one may have come from a schoolhouse, and guess that it is at least 150 years old.
Cut-off view of our grandfather clock, also known as a coffin clock because of its shape, or a bim-bam clock because of its chime. This clock is weight-driven and, for some reason, tends to run fast in the winter and slow in the summer. The pendulum is very slow, and makes one complete swing every two seconds.

Office clock that belonged to Dorcas’s grandfather many, many years ago. This one has a melodious Westminster chime, and brass clockworks made in old Germany, and consistently loses about four minutes per day. This clock has a short, fast pendulum that completes two full cycles per second.
Cut-off view of our grandmother clock, which was a gift for our 25th wedding anniversary. This weight-driven clock is the youngest of the lot, and has a glorious Westminster chime. Like the coffin clock, it tends to run a little slow in some seasons and a little fast at other times of the year.

Connecting the Dots

From time to time I teach adult Bible studies. Some studies work through books of the Bible (e.g., Ecclesiastes, Ephesians, or 1 & 2 Timothy) while others focus on topics (e.g., The Royal Priesthood of Believers, A Christian View of Islam, or A Christian Response to Hostility and Persecution). However, last Sunday we finished what was perhaps the most exciting class I have ever taught, and I thank God for the experience. The class, “God’s Mission: Connecting the Dots,” ran for 14 weeks and averaged about 35 adult participants.

I usually develop book studies directly from scripture, using the English Standard Version, New American Standard, and the 1986 New International Version of the Bible, and sometimes consulting The Lutheran Study Bible, the Lenski commentaries, or other materials. Some of my topical classes derive from CTCR reports, while others are “made from scratch” using reliable resources.

The “God’s Mission” class was different in that it roughly followed many of the concepts and scripture references found in “The Mission of God’s People” by Christopher J. H. Wright. The premise revolved around a double question of “who are we and why are we here,” which probably comes up in everyone’s mind at some point in life. The answer to the first question is that we are God’s people, saved by Jesus and grafted into Abraham’s family tree. The answer to the second question is that God uses us in His grand story of redemption. To be clear, none of this is anything that we earn. It is all by God’s grace. He doesn’t do only the heavy lifting; He does all the lifting. But what about connecting the dots?

We start by realizing that God’s grand story of redemption is much larger than me. It runs from the beginning of Genesis all the way to the New Heaven and New Earth revealed in Revelation. The central point of it all, of course, is the death and resurrection of Jesus. With this broad, amazing view as context, the class examined several different ways God interacts with us and uses us in His plans. For example, God blesses His people to bless others. This started with Abraham, continued with Jeremiah’s admonition to Israel in exile, and carried through into, for example, Paul’s service to the churches. We looked at instances of this in the Old Testament, checked examples in the New Testament, and then discussed implications for us. This is what I mean by “connecting the dots.” Similarly, we looked at prayer, praise, witness, redemption, walking with God, proclamation, sending and being sent, and knowing God, all by starting with examples in the Old Testament, moving to the New Testament, and discussing how this informs and instructs God’s people (i.e., us!). Every session of the study reminded us of God’s grace, love, and mercy sprinkled throughout all of scripture, and not just for us but for all of His creation. We had good discussions in every session, and were humbled and excited as we connected the dots to see God’s plans at work.

This quick recap may be more than you wanted to know. Regardless, it was something I couldn’t help but share.

Keeping Up with Correspondence

Our taste in movies varies. We enjoy action flicks, fantasy epics, romantic comedies, historical fiction, documentaries, and other genres according to what strikes our fancy. For example, we recently watched four different movies based on three Jane Austin novels: Emma, Pride and Prejudice (two different versions), and Sense and Sensibility. All enjoyable for their stories, character development, and insights into human nature. They also showed how people lived in those times and places, although I wonder how they found so many production locations without any power lines or the occasional airplane in the background.

As we watched these period pieces, I noticed for the first time how often the characters sat at a desk to write letters to family members or friends. Maybe some of it was business-related, but mostly it seemed to be personal. And with no internet, telephone, or telegraph, how else were they to stay in touch? Smoke signals? Carrier pigeons? Wrong place, wrong time. In fact, it even looked like some of the more well-to-do characters blocked out time each day to write letters and read incoming mail. Keeping up with their correspondence, as they might say.

Although attention to correspondence was a minor detail in the story, it struck a nerve with me. Hand-written letters are few and far between today, and we seem to communicate mostly by email, messaging, or other electronic means. We feel guilty about the screen time involved in corresponding by computer, but maybe our guilt is misplaced. After all, the time spent communicating on line with family, friends, and colleagues is simply the modern version of keeping up with correspondence. And it is nice to stay in touch!

Election Misdirection

Disclaimer: this post involves civics, not politics.

In 2000 Bush won the presidential election and Democrats complained the election was stolen with interference by the US Supreme Court. Remember hanging chads?

In 2004 Bush won reelection and Democrats complained about fairness and integrity.

In 2008 Obama won election and Republicans complained the election was tainted, blaming slanted coverage by corporate news media, among other factors.

In 2012 Obama won reelection and Republicans complained about fairness and integrity.

In 2016 Trump won election and Democrats claimed the election was stolen with interference by Russia (look up Russian Collusion Hoax).

In 2020 Biden won election and Republicans claimed the election was rigged with help from social media and corporate news (see Newsweek’s article explaining the collaboration).

Politics aside, we see a pattern here: no matter who wins an election, the other side cries foul and objects to the results. But after at least six election cycles of such behavior, maybe we need to ignore the posturing and look in a different direction: why are state legislatures and election officials not providing more open, more secure, and more accountable balloting processes so that we can all see the results?

Why are so many state legislatures and election officials resistant to voter ID? We use identification to fly on a commercial airline, buy prescription medicine, cash a check, or drive a car. Fraudulent votes can cancel valid votes, becoming a form of voter suppression. Why not create a voter ID system that uses easily available identification tools to protect the integrity of the voting process, and support the principle of one person, one vote?

Why are so many state legislatures and election officials slow to clean up voter lists (e.g., removing dead voters from the rolls)? Only a few months ago the Wisconsin Secretary of State refused to remove 23,000 dead voters from the rolls until someone filed a lawsuit to force her to do her job. Why didn’t she want to remove dead people from the voter lists?

Why does it take so long to tally votes? Many other countries (e.g., first world countries like France as well as third world countries in Africa) report election outcomes within a day rather than taking weeks. The US has seen more and more use of electronic voting machines and automated tabulation of ballots, but reporting election results gets slower and slower. Why?

How is it that, at least in California, officials can track the millions of ballots mailed to everyone well enough to know that over 10 million of them were not voted in the most recent statewide election, yet remain unable to detect 27 voter registrations at one house. Yes, they eventually found and caught the fraudster who registered to receive 27 ballots, but not until months after the fact. Why not screen the registrations as they come in?

Some of them may not realize it in any but an academic sense, but state legislatures and election officials actually work for us, the voters. We are well past the recent mid term elections and the next national elections are still over a year away. Would it be too much for us to ask our employees (state legislatures and election officials) to up their game, do their job, and give us more open, more secure, and more accountable elections?

Another Winter, Another Spring

The weather has been warm and the daylight hours noticeably longer, but, as the National Weather Service remarked this morning, winter is not quite done with the Bay Area. Two cold weather systems are forecast for the rest of this week, with gale warnings on the coast and four feet or so of new snow predicted on top of the already record snowcap in the High Sierra. In our area, we may see freezing temperatures at night and snow levels falling to about 1000 feet elevation. Towards the end of the week I hope to photograph the snow blanketing ridge-tops around the Livermore Valley (if we get some breaks in the clouds). We don’t experience serious winter weather like our friends and family in the Midwest, but this is probably as close to it as we get.

Despite our weather forecast, fruit trees are well into their annual budding and blooming cycle. Wild bees and honey bees have been out and around to pollinate the blossoms, and we hope for the best when it comes to blossoms surviving the coming winds and cold. Here are some photos to show the progress:

Honey bee pollinating our early apricot.
Honey bee moving from one apricot blossom to another. Note the pollen clinging to the bee’s legs.
Plum blossoms. We have three different plum trees, but the blossoms all look pretty much the same. With this many blossoms open at once, I wonder if we get any wind pollination similar to what happens with corn.
Plum tree in our neighbor’s yard. Notice the large numbers of blossoms along each branch.
Blossoms almost ready to open on our lime tree. Orange and tangerine trees bloom once per year, later in the spring, but for some reason our lemon and lime trees bloom and set fruit three or four times per year, seemingly without much regard for the weather.

Our fruit trees bloom in sequence according to their variety. We have an early apricot that comes first, followed by two mid-season apricot trees that bloom about three weeks later. The earliest plums bloom a week or two before the apricots are finished, followed by a peach tree and then a late plum tree. Each bloom lasts for three weeks, more or less. And careful watchers will notice a few blossoms opening up some days before the three weeks start, and a few late ones linger after the three weeks. I think God designed it that way so that at least a few days warm and wind-free enough for the bees to do their work would occur sometime in that window of time.

Wrapping up, we noticed mockingbirds singing a few days ago. Yes, they are rather territorial birds, but their songs are joyous to hear, and confirmation that spring is upon us. Thank God for rain and snow, and thank God for spring!

Not so Intelligent

You have probably heard about the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. It seems like every day or so we hear about some new AI application in medicine, machine operations, piloting a vehicle, or some other area. Sometimes we even hear about the “rise of the machines” and the threats that machines made smart with AI might pose to humans.

Yesterday I heard from one of my scientist colleagues at LLNL. He was fooling around with ChatGPT and asked it a technical question to see how well it might respond. ChatGPT is a relatively new AI-based computer program designed to interact with humans in a conversation. They call it a chatbot because it is an automated system (i.e., a robot) that “talks” with people.

My friend asked ChatGPT if anyone has used a certain specialized scientific technique and, if so, to give references. It responded with a politely worded yes answer, and gave him three bibliographic references to peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals. It all looked very good, except all three references were bogus! The journal names, page numbers, dates, and paper titles all looked plausible, but while the journals were real, the papers were fake. When he looked up the pages cited in the journals, the content on those pages had nothing to do with the topic of his question.

He tried again, with a more specific question involving research in which (as far as anyone knows) he was the first published author. This time ChatGPT came back with a more extensive answer along with a supporting reference, but the answer and reference were wrong. They contained relevant key words, but a simple check showed them to be factually wrong.

Moral of this particular story: don’t count on ChatGPT for science. Broader lesson: maintain a healthy skepticism about AI applications. And a thought question: If ChatGPT gives plausible but bogus answers to a specific question, how far would you trust Siri or Alexa?

Love and Marriage

“Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.” Or so goes a song Frank Sinatra recorded nearly 70 years ago. Valentine’s Day is behind us, but we can celebrate love and marriage every day of the year.

What does a happy marriage look like? We have seen marriages where one spouse domineers over the other, but that does not seem to be what God had in mind when He instituted marriage in Genesis 2:18-24. We have seen marriages that look like two very independent people living under the same roof; so independent, in fact, that if you met them away from home, perhaps at the grocery store or the airport, you might not even realize that they were married. This may not be what God had in mind, either, but who are we to say?

However, we have also seen marriages that take the “leaving and cleaving” and “become one flesh” concepts well beyond physical intimacy. The husband and wife seem to live in each other’s heart, share each other’s thoughts, finish each other’s sentences, lift each other up, and bring out the best in each other. They become one in so many different ways, yet somehow without losing their uniqueness amidst their unity. A thing of beauty, yet one of mystery, and a blessing from God.

Proverbs 15:22 says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.” I can attest that this is true.