Pie and Biblical Interpretation

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

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!



Slow Me Down Lord!

“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 Blood Moon

66796main_overcash1_medTonight after evening services, we stood out on the church lawn and watched the “Blood Moon.” There was a total eclipse and it was awesome to watch. The prophet Jeremiah (who was quoted by the Apostle Peter in the very first sermon on the day of Pentecost) said, “The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon to blood before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day,” (Acts 2:20).

We had some interesting discussions tonight about the end of the world. People are fascinated talking about the end times and that fascination doesn’t just belong in the world of religion. Many “scientists” have erred just as poorly as the myriad of “gloom and doom prophets” who have plagued Christianity.

The appearance of a comet in the sky has repeatedly heralded the end of the world. For example, in April 1910 Halley’s comet reappeared. This was the first time scientists were able to perform a spectroscopic analysis on a comet and one of the substances discovered in the its tail was cyanogen, a toxic gas. French astronomer Camille Flammarion claimed that when the Earth passed through the comet’s tail on May 19th, the gas “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”[1] You can imagine the panic than ensued! People bought up gas masks and “anti-comet” umbrellas and swallowed “anti-comet” pills!

Nine years later Albert Porta warned that the combined effects of a planetary conjunction on December 17, 1919 would destroy the world. History has a strange way of repeating itself. In 1974 two astrophysicists, John Gribben and Stephen Plagemann published a best seller, The Jupiter Effect, which warned about the effects of a similar nine-planet alignment on March 10, 1982.

Likewise San Diegans remember the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide here in March 1997. They believed a giant spaceship was hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet and would take them home if they freed themselves from their mortal shells.

So why are people so interested in the end of the world? It might be because the world seems so overwhelming that a little bit of knowledge feels like power – even if that knowledge means the end of everything. Alex Newton, author of Plan and Prep: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse, wonders if those who hope the world will end need a little excitement in their lives or secretly want society to start over.

Christians believe the world will come to an end and we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth, but Jesus himself taught us not to obsess or worry or even try to predict the end. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only Father,” (Matthew 24:36).

[1] http://www.ianridpath.com/halley/halley12.htm downloaded September 4, 2013.

What Were They Thinking?

In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;” Ephesians 6:16

Roman Plumbata (from Wikipedia) 
lawn dart
Lawn Dart

Recently I was studying the Apostle Paul’s description of spiritual armor in Ephesians chapter six. I wanted to know more about the “darts” of verse 16. I found an example of an ancient Roman dart in a museum. The longer I looked at it, the more it reminded me of a “lawn dart” from my childhood. (“Lawn darts” are now illegal in the United States, although you can still buy semi-automatic weapons and own a flame-thrower in most states.) It’s almost the exact same size and shape!

Isn’t it amazing that most of us survived into adulthood from the 50’s and 60’s? I remember when it was standard operating procedure to load all the kids and the dog into the back of the station wagon for a long family trip cross country. No seat-belts, headrests or padded dashboards required. What were they thinking?

Now we have laws and regulations, consumer protection bureaus and product safety commissions to protect us but there is a far greater danger and no one seems to care. We pay attention to protecting our bodies but not our souls.

When we were children, we had our dads and our moms to watch over us and they did as they best knew how. They might have warned us and scolded us but ultimately, our safety depended on our obedience.

The same is true today spiritually. God – our heavenly Father – disciplines us (Hebrews 12:7) but our safety ultimately depends on our obedience.

Hey! Does anyone want to play lawn darts?

Black Friday

In 1274 A.D. a hospital called “St. Mary of Bethlehem” was established in England. Two centuries later the hospital was converted into an insane asylum. In those days, care of the mentally ill was cruel and closely akin to prison. All day long the screams and shouts and pleas poured out of the doors and windows. It was a sad place of chaos and confusion and the name “Bethlehem” – the house of peace – was corrupted into “Bedlam” and a new word found its way into the English language.

Jan and I found ourselves in Arizona the day after Thanksgiving – on “Black Friday.” Because there is an hour difference between California and Arizona, we were wide-awake at 4:00 A.M. and decided to go to the mall and see what all the shopping fuss was all about. It was cold, raining and pitch black but still we had trouble finding a place to park. Some people had actually camped out on the sidewalk the night before just to be there for the race to the discounted television sets! Insanity ruled as crass consumerism ran unbridled through the mall. Wrong size? Just throw it on the floor and keep excavating. Coupons filled the air. Christmas carols blared and tempers flared.

We sat back and watched the show. There were the scientific shoppers who knew what they wanted and had carefully scouted the terrain the day before. There were team players as mom guarded the shopping cart and sent her minions on missions of consumption. “Mine! Mine! Mine!” It reminded me of a flock of sea gulls fighting over a hot dog bun at the beach. I’d like to report that we rose above the fray but alas I walked out with three pairs of shoes and a microwave gadget that makes hard-boiled eggs “without the messy shell.”

A few years ago Jan and I visited Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Bethlehem is famous for her ancient olive trees and even today shepherds tend their sheep in the hills below the village. And even though there is a massive, ancient church there commemorating the place of the birth of the Lord, it isn’t hard to imagine what it must have been like the night Christ was born. Yes, there was the chaos of the crowded village outside, but in the cave (for caves are still used as stables there), in a stone manger lined with straw, a tiny baby was tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes. That child brought hope and salvation into the world in the most wondrous way. I can’t help but smile as I meditate on that moment and I wish the bedlam of Black Friday could be transformed back into the peace of Bethlehem.