Pie and Biblical Interpretation

1 Jul

PieWhen I first heard the US House of Representatives passed HRES 224 in support of National Pi Day (March 14th), I became very excited. Visions of apple, cherry, Dutch chocolate and banana cream pies danced in my head. Then Ray Caswell explained, “The number pi is a mathematical constant, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, commonly approximated as 3.14159.” I was so disappointed, but also intrigued.

In fact, there are two national holidays for the number pi. March 14th – which represents the first three digits of pi: 3.14, and July 22nd which is national Pi Approximation Day, (22/7 is commonly used to approximate pi.) But why is there a national holiday for a number in the first place?

Pi is a crucial constant in so many formulae in trigonometry and geometry. For example, imagine you are trying to make a table cloth for your new round kitchen table. You will need to use pi (3.14159 …) to compute the area to cover your table (πr2) and you’ll need to use pi to figure out how big around your new kitchen table is (circumference = π × diameter = 2 × π × radius). Mathematicians also point out pi is both irrational (it’s decimal representation never ends and never settles into a permanent repeating pattern) and transcendental (“a number that is not the root of any non-zero polynomial having rational coefficients” – ask Ray).

Over the centuries, mathematicians have competed to solve pi. (You can try it yourself by dividing a circle’s circumference by its diameter. The result will be 3.141592653589793 and on and on and on.) In 2015, using a super computer, scientists solved pi to over 13.3 trillion (1013) decimal places! And that brings up the sad case of amateur British mathematician, William Shanks (1812 – 1882).

In the days before computers, William Shanks spent 27 years calculating the value of pi, by hand, to 707 decimal places. Each new calculation was based on the results of his previous calculation. At long last, Shanks published his results in 1873. However, in 1944, D.F. Ferguson, using a mechanical desk calculator, checked Shank’s math and made a horrific discovery. Unfortunately, Shanks had made a mistake in his math at the 528th decimal place and spent the last years of his life calculating the next 179 decimal places in vain.

Poor Mr. Shanks’ mistake has caused me to wonder about spiritual matters. It is essential we keep an open mind in our interpretations and sometimes examine our assumptions. Could it be we made a mistake somewhere in the past that has dangerous consequences for our interpretations in the present? A fundamental principle of the Restoration Movement is: each generation has the responsibility to examine the Bible’s teachings for itself.

I remember a speaker from my youth who pointed out how a movement can only last for five generations. He held up his hand with fingers spread as he ticked off each generation. The first one “discovers” a basic truth. The children, the second generation, are nearly equally excited about the principles their parents unearthed, but by the time we get to the third generation, tradition begins to take over. We begin doing things because we have always done them that way. By the time we reach the fifth generation the discoveries have grown cold and it is time to resume the quest again.

Jesus warned the church in Ephesus: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first,” (Revelation 2:4, 5).

A Pop Can More Precious Than Gold

25 Jun

aluminumThis week they’ve been re-surfacing the parking lot at Canyon View and that reminds me of an old joke. You’ve heard the saying, “You can’t take it with you!” meaning you can’t take anything earthly with you to heaven. Well there was a rich old miser who showed up at the gates of heaven with a suitcase full of gold. When Peter saw it, the apostle laughed and shook his head and wondered aloud, “Why did you bring a sack full of paving stones with you?” (The streets of heaven are paved with gold. Get it?)

In the 19th century the complexities of refining aluminum ore made the metal more precious than gold or silver. In fact, Napoleon III, the first President of the French Republic, served his state dinners on aluminum plates. Rank-and-file guests were only served on dishes made with gold or silver!

The Turner family has been visiting our nation’s capital and I’m sure they saw the Washington Monument on their trip. It’s a little known fact that the structure is topped with a pyramid 9 inches high by 5.6 square of pure aluminum. At the time (1884) aluminum was a precious metal and many didn’t even believe they could cast the capstone from the stuff. The pyramid was to cost a phenomenal $75, but the final bill came to a whopping $225. (Remember those were 1884 dollars!) Before being placed atop the monument, the capstone was put on public display at Tiffany’s in New York City where visitors could step over it so they could all boast they had “stepped over the top of the Washington Monument.”

The problem with aluminum was how to extract the metal from its ore. Heat extracts iron, but not aluminum. Finally, in the 1820s, a German chemist was able to extract a few precious flakes and people fell in love with the shiny silver metal. In the mid-1800s, ingots sold for $550 per pound! The French government proudly displayed bars of aluminum alongside their crown jewels.

But shortly after the Washington Monument was capped, scientists discovered a very inexpensive way of extracting aluminum from aluminum ore, the most common metal in the earth’s crust. In 1888 Alcoa managed to produce almost 50 pounds of the metal a day. Twenty years later production soared to 88,000 pounds per day! The price dropped from $550 per pound to 25 cents per pound (1850 prices). Today aluminum can be found everywhere from pop cans to baseball bats.

On the spiritual side, I worry about how people value grace. The precious blood of Jesus takes away our sins. Grace reconciles us to God. What could be more valuable? But, perhaps, because grace is available to all, we don’t value God’s gift the way we should. Just because it is free doesn’t mean it is cheap!



Father of the Bride

17 Jun

Papa & GrandsThis is a re-post of an article I wrote many years ago. Charlotte and Paul are still happily married and now have three daughters of their own.

The rental shoes of my tuxedo made a funny noise on the stone floor of the country club. I felt a little self-conscious. People I didn’t know swirled around me laughing and talking. The photographer’s assistant pinned a flower to my lapel and I looked around for a familiar face. The impression was joyful but I still felt awkward. My baby girl was getting married! I knew this was an important moment that I needed to remember but what did I feel?

It was going to be a hot one. What were they thinking? An outdoor wedding in Arizona in summer! But they were passing out fans and water and I knew it would be fine. I reached in my pocket for a handkerchief and realized I forgot it.

There is John Michael and there is Jennifer. But where is Charlotte? Someone pointed me to a door and someone else opened it for … for… “The father of the bride.”

I was quickly pushed through and surrounded by bride’s maids and mothers to shouts of “Door! Door!” It wouldn’t do for the groom to see the bride before she came down the aisle. It didn’t matter to me. I was transfixed by my beautiful daughter sitting on a little stool in the midst of a sea of silk. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. A little veil was pinned to her blonde hair. She held a bouquet of fall colored flowers and she looked up at me and smiled.

Somewhere under all that satin and lace, make-up and under-pinnings was my little girl. She was so happy. I tried to remember her whole childhood at once. The memories flooded past me now: pre-school Charlotte rappelling off the freezer in the garage in her “footie” pajamas, her and her brother scuba diving in the bathtub, learning to ride a “two-wheeler bike” in the park and watching her ride away as I bent over double out of breath. I thought of all the hikes and camping trips: her little teddy bear’s head sticking out of the top of her rucksack, watching her learn to throw a tomahawk and shoot a rifle at scout camp. Sailing together, catching fish, and most of all, reading bedtime stories.

Too soon it was time to go. Too soon we walked down the aisle. Too soon I shook the love of her life’s hand. Too soon I sat and listened to the beautiful words of two young people deeply in love. Warm tears slid down my cheeks. Someone passed me a handkerchief. Then they marched back down the aisle “Mr. and Mrs. Bentz.”

The reception was a giant party. There was food and drink and laughter and dancing and everyone had a wonderful time. I still felt a little lost. I made small talk and ate my cake. I strolled outside and someone tapped me on the shoulder. “It’s time for you to dance with the bride!”

Dancing? I don’t dance! Then I remembered twirling Charlotte in the kitchen. My little girl loved to dance and she judged a skirt by how it would twirl. Of course I will dance with the bride!

Every eye was on us as they cleared the floor. I took my little girl in my arms, kissed her cheek and we began to move. She made me look good and I began to relax. We laughed and her blue eyes sparkled. She twirled once more her skirts flying. I saw my little girl again. She is so much in love!

“Do you want to dip me?” She whispered as the song was coming to an end. “Of course!” I said. Everyone roared their approval and we were blinded by the flashes of every camera in the room. This joyful moment was frozen as I held my little girl in my arms one more time.

Being a father is one of life’s greatest rewards.

Kind & Good

7 Jun


But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

— Apostle Paul, Galatians 5:22, 23

There are two virtues listed in the Fruit of the Spirit that are so close to each other in meaning that they must be dealt with as one: “kindness” and “goodness.” In fact, they can both be translated “goodness,” so what is the difference between the two words?


Let’s start with the second word first (agathosune, ἀγαθωσύνη). Goodness can be harsh. When my little granddaughter asked for “more cookies please.” Her mommy said “No!” Charlotte had to be harsh to be good. When Jesus made a whip and drove the money-changers out of the Temple (John chapter 2), he was good but he was also harsh. God’s goodness can be strict!


“Kindness” on the other hand is an easy and mellow virtue (chrestotes, χρηστότης). Legend says during the “silent years” Jesus the Carpenter made custom yokes for oxen. Later Jesus said:

Matthew 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus uses our word “kind” here when he literally says, “My yoke is kind.” William Barclay comments: “Jesus says: ‘My yoke fits well.’ What he means is: ‘The life I give you is not a burden to cause you pain; your task is made to measure to fit you.’ Whatever God sends us is made to fit our needs and our abilities exactly.”[1]

Jesus uses the same word to describe the good, old wine (Luke 5:39). “He says, “The old is good,” that is it is mellow. It isn’t bitter or harsh.

The Fruit that is Kind and Good

By combining these words as Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit, the apostle is telling us to be good, which sometimes means being stern, but always to be kind.

Let’s illustrate these words with an example. We want to be good parents and sometimes that means drawing the line, but we are always kind, tailoring our discipline to the unique personalities of our children. Remember: there is no “one size fits all” in any relationship! We must be kind and good.

[1] Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 18–20). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.

Slow Me Down Lord!

30 May

“God’s Word refers to the Christian life often as a walk, seldom as a run, and never as a mad dash.” – Steven J. Cole

John on VacationBusy! If I was going to describe the San Diego lifestyle with just one word it would be busy. So much is happening and it seems like everyone is racing just to keep even with the incredibly busy pace of life and that often applies to church (Just look at the Church Calendar!), but once in a while something will happen that reminds us to slow down. This story from Tim Hansel’s book, When I Relax, I Feel Guilty, illustrates this point:

Jimmy Durante was asked to be a part of a show for WWII veterans. He told them his schedule was very busy and he could afford only a few minutes, but if they wouldn’t mind his doing one short monologue and immediately leaving for his next appointment, he would come. Of course, the show’s director agreed happily.

But when Jimmy got on stage, something interesting happened. He went through the short monologue and then stayed. The applause grew louder and louder and he kept staying. Finally he took a last bow and left the stage. Backstage someone stopped him and said, “I thought you had to go after a few minutes. What happened?”

Jimmy answered, “I did have to go, but I can show you the reason I stayed. You can see for yourself if you’ll look down on the front row.” In the front row were two men, each of whom had lost an arm in the war. One had lost his right arm and the other had lost his left. Together, they were able to clap, and that’s exactly what they were doing, loudly and cheerfully.

Slow Me Down, Lord

Orin L. Crain

Slow me down, Lord.

Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind.

Steady my hurried pace with a vision of the eternal reach of time.

Give me, amid the confusion of the day,

the calmness of the everlasting hills.

Break the tensions of my nerves and

muscles with the soothing music of the

singing streams that live in my memory.

Teach me the art of taking minute

vacations — of slowing down to look at a

flower, to chat with a friend, to pat a dog,

to smile at a child, to read a few lines

from a good book.

Slow me down, Lord, and inspire me to

send my roots down deep into the soil of life’s enduring

values, that I may grow toward my greater destiny.

Remind me each day that the race is not

always to the swift; that there is more to life

than increasing its speed.

Let me look upward to the towering oak

and know that it grew great and strong

because it grew slowly and well.



The Sour Saint

18 May

John McKeelEveryone is familiar with the beautiful story of the Prodigal Son – the young man who leaves home angry, and squanders all his father’s money. Then “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17) and returns home to find forgiveness and redemption. You may not be so familiar with the story of his older brother from the very same parable (Luke 15:25-32).

It is said that when the older brother learned his younger brother had returned home and had received forgiveness from his father, the older brother became “angry and refused to go in” (verse 28). Now before we begin condemning the older brother, let’s remember he was the good son. He was faithful, hard working, and did a good job keeping the family farm in order. The father promised the older son “all that is mine is yours” (verse 31). The problem was the older son’s anger. Why was he so upset?

Physiologists tell us anger feels good. It’s part of our “fight or flight” response. Something happens and we just react. We don’t think about it and our body releases chemicals into our body to reward us. Dr. Jean Kim observed in Psychology Today (August 25, 2015): “anger can lead to similar ‘rushes’ as thrill-seeking activities where danger triggers dopamine reward receptors in the brain, or like other forms of addiction such as gambling, extreme sports, even drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines.” The problem is anger has a way of side stepping our rational thought processes and it can override our moral and emotional brakes causing us to act in very uncharacteristic ways. We might feel good when we’re angry, but no one around us does!

Yes, but why was the older brother angry in the first place? The Bible says, “He answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’” (Verses 29, 30). The older brother’s underlying feelings of weakness and insecurity made him angry. He was unwilling to deal with his brother so he just exploded. Sometimes it’s easier to become angry than to patiently deal with the issues. Likewise, did you ever think the older brother might have been a little jealous of his younger brother? We don’t often admit it, but the lure of the “grass on the other side” is strong!

Finally, I also think the older brother was tired. While everyone else had gone to the party, he was still out in the fields working. We can easily imagine him up before dawn and home after dark toiling on the farm, but do you believe his father demanded all of the older son’s busyness or again, did his weakness and insecurity lead him into overwork and exhaustion? Was he overwhelmed by the responsibility and trust of his father, so the older brother drove himself to the point of exhaustion and consequent anger? Anger is often just tired trying to get out. We’ve all seen babies turn red and angry when they get too tired. Adults can be like that as well.

Whatever the reason, the older brother’s anger was keeping him from a relationship with his very own brother. His anger kept him from that most precious of relationships: family love.

So I’d like to imagine the same love that restored the younger brother to the family, restored the older brother as well. I can see the tears in both brother’s eyes and the beautiful smile on the father’s face to see both brothers’ restored. There is a little taste of heaven in this parable.

Lectureship Report

10 May
N.T. Wright and John McKeel

N.T. Wright and John McKeel

The 73rd annual Pepperdine Bible Lectureship is over, but it was a wonderful experience. It was great to see old friends and make new friends. We heard some amazing speakers, listened to some incredible teachers and I was totally surprised by the response to my class.

When Friday came, I was full of trepidation. My class, “Five Minutes on the Back of a Napkin: A Visual Approach to Sharing the Gospel,” was scheduled after lunch on the last day of the lectureship. Many people have to leave early to catch flights home. Likewise, the hour after lunch is the most challenging time of day for a teacher since everyone is full and probably looking for a pillow rather than another class to attend. On top of all that, my class was located in the back of a building and scheduled to run at the same time famous Bible scholar, N.T. Wright was teaching in Smother’s Theater! I really doubted anyone would show up, but, by the time class began the room was at double capacity. There were students sitting on the floor, standing in the aisles and dragging chairs up in the hall. I was amazed and gratified!

In the coming weeks, I’ll try to post more sections from the class for people to follow along with. Meanwhile, I need to catch up on my sleep and massage aching muscles — the Pepperdine campus is laid out vertically. There are 139 steps from the field house to the plaza and I can’t tell you how many times we climbed them, but it was so very worth it!

The 73rd Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectureship

2 May
John guiding in Bavaria 1975

John guiding in Bavaria 1975

This Friday, May 6th, I will be teaching a class, “Five Minutes on the Back of a Napkin: A Visual Approach to Sharing the Gospel,” at the 73rd Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectureship in Malibu, California. Sharing the Good News shouldn’t be a program. We don’t need to learn a “sales pitch” or use some kind of gimmick to share the Gospel. When my daughter was born, I had to tell someone the good news. It was 3:00 in the morning! So I went to Denny’s and burst through the doors shouting, “It’s a girl!” Everyone shared my joy and someone bought my breakfast!

Do you remember the story of the Triumphal Entry (Luke 19:28-43)? When the religious leaders tried to tell Jesus to quiet the Master’s joyous celebration,  “He answered, ‘ I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Likewise, Jesus used this principle with the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). When the man was cured, he asked to go with Jesus, but the Lord said, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.”

The apostles used this principle with the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-22). When the politicians told the apostles not to talk about Jesus anymore, they replied they couldn’t help but speak.

You know your own story of how God saved you, but what many people struggle with is a framework. Where do I begin? What do I need to say? That’s what this class is all about. If you happen to be at the lectureship, I hope you’ll join me. Meanwhile, several people have asked me to share more about sharing the gospel on the back of a napkin. Stay tuned!

The Apostle Paul and the Snake

18 Apr

The life of Paul was full of hardships. In 2 Corinthians chapter 11, he recounts some of his story:

2 Corinthians 11:24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

And all this was before his shipwreck in Acts chapter 27! One of the trials that we often forget to list was after the shipwreck on Malta, dripping wet, Paul made his way onto the beach. There, in the rain and in the cold, the apostle along with some very sympathetic islanders, Paul made a fire to warm the survivors. In the process of gathering wood for the fire, a deadly viper latched on to his hand. In horror, the islanders expected Paul to instantly swell up and die (Acts 28:1-6).

The trouble for biblical interpreters today is, there are no poisonous snakes on Malta. So where did this snake come from and how did the Maltese know the viper was deadly? According to The Times of Malta (February 19, 2014) the islanders have several explanations.

One is that the preaching of Paul caused all the venomous creatures on the island to loose their venom. In fact, the enterprising islanders began selling powdered limestone from the island as a medicinal cure for poisonous bites! The Times wrote this is “proof of Maltese ingenuity rather than the efficacy of the medicines.”

Another theory is the snake was the Leopard snake, Zamenis situla, which is venomous in southern Europe but not on Malta. Of course the islanders would have known that so let’s look at another possibility for Paul’s viper.

Perhaps it was a snake that has since become extinct. That’s certainly a possibility, but there is no evidence that such a serpent ever existed on Malta either in the written record or in the artifacts.

A more likely culprit was the notorious horned viper, Vipera ammodytes. The snake is deadly and inhabits southern Europe and Turkey. It has been known to hitch a ride on ships and is an excellent swimmer or it could have ridden one of the planks from Paul’s ship to shore. The islanders, who often traded with the mainland, would have instantly recognized the viper by its horns (see picture) and reacted as Luke recorded in Acts.

The miracle of Paul’s survival may simply be the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, “they will pick up serpents with their hands; and … it will not hurt them,” (Mark 16:18).

The Horned Viper, V. ammodytes

The Horned Viper, V. ammodytes

Preparing for Worship

10 Apr

“We have met the enemy and he is us!”

Pogo, Walt Kelly’s cartoon character

Driving home after services I had to admit, “I just didn’t connect with the worship this morning.” We pulled up to a light and I continued. “The prayers seemed more like performances and the songs were so disjointed! On top of that, the sermon just didn’t seem relevant. I wonder why I even bothered to get up this morning.”

My sweet wife smiled that knowing-wife smile and chided me. “Maybe you were the problem. Did you take time to prepare for worship?” I sulked as I pulled away from the light and then had to admit, “You’re probably right. I hadn’t thought about that.”

So how do we prepare for the most important meeting of the week? Here are some suggestions that I have found helpful:

  1. Shift Gears. Early on in driver’s training, you learn to shift into a different gear when you start to climb a hill. Before we can truly worship God, we must take a moment to “shift gears” and center our thoughts on Him.
  2. Discover the Power of Gratitude. “Christians aren’t perfect – just forgiven.” As you are preparing for worship, take a moment to appreciate the gift of grace.
  3. Drop Your Inhibitions. A lot of people are afraid of their own voice. They are too self-conscious to sing. We have so many wonderful singers at Canyon View it can be tempting just to sit back and listen but the Lord loves a “joyful noise” and who are you to argue with God?
  4. Tap into the Fellowship. There is an energy in corporate worship. Have you felt it? It’s always there but sometimes our “receptors” are out of order. Reach out and tap into the power!
  5. Confession is Good for the Soul. Sin and guilt make it hard to worship. Confess your sins by name and feel the power of forgiveness.
  6. Be Filled with the Spirit. Paul told the Ephesians (and us) not to get drunk on wine “be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Ephesians 5:19, 20).
  7. Finally, expect great things! What you receive from worship is equal to what you put into worship. If you expect the singing to be bad and the lesson to be boring, I suspect that’s what you’ll receive but if you come expecting great things I promise you’ll receive even more blessings that you anticipated.