The Art of Taxation

The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.

Attributed to Jean-Baptiste Colbert,  Finance Minister to Louis XIV

Homily for Maundy Thursday

With the end of every semester comes the last day of class. It’s the perfect opportunity to sum up everything that is important about the subject, and leave students with a final word, something so profound that they will remember it the rest of their lives. In over 20 years of teaching philosophy at the university level, I’ve never been able to do it. One of two things tend to happen. Generally, I’m so far behind that I spend the last class period cramming material in that they need to know for the final exam. At the end of an hour, which I spent talking as fast as I could, and they spent writing as fast as they could, I say something like, “We’re out of time. Good luck on the final, and may God have mercy on your souls.” At other times, I’m just worn out at the end of the semester, and halfway through the last class, just say, “I guess that’s enough.” To borrow a phrase from T.S. Elliot, this is way the class ends, not with a profundity, but with a whimper.

Over the past few days, I’ve had the opportunity to think about the context of John chapter 13. My father will be admitted to hospice care tomorrow. He is expected to live for, at most, another week. He is now non-responsive — he cannot speak, and we do not know if he can understand anything we say. So, I am confronted with the realization that, for all I know, my dad and I have already had our last conversation. There is always one chance that is the last chance, but we hardly ever know that it was indeed the last chance. We want our final words to be meaningful, but, because of the ignorance of our human condition, they rarely are.

Fortunately, Jesus had an insight that I lacked. Chapters 13 through 17 of the Gospel of John are called the “Farewell Discourse,” and record his final words to his disciples before the events of Good Friday. John tells us that Jesus got up from the table, took off his robe, and tied a towel around himself. He poured water into a washbasin, then knelt and began to wash the feet of his disciples. When he had finished, he said this to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Then, after he foretold his upcoming betrayal, he got to the heart of the matter. John 13:33–35 records what I believe to be some of the most important words in the Bible:

Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

From this phrase, ‘A new commandment,’ or in Latin, mandatum novum, we get the name for this day in the church calendar, Maundy Thursday. I can picture the disciples nodding their heads in assent as Jesus said these words, for a commandment to love was nothing new. It was already something that every Jew meditated on, and knew by heart: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Jesus though, did not command his disciples to love their neighbors as themselves; instead, he commanded them to love each other as he loves them. This might have looked easy on Thursday, but it became practically impossible once the events of Friday unfolded.

If we are so commanded, it must be possible to fulfill that command. How, though, can we ever hope to love like Jesus? If we only open our eyes to see, Jesus himself shows us what must be done.

When a Jew dies, a small group of people who are known as chevra kadisha prepare the body for the upcoming burial. The body is first, very reverently undressed, and any wounds on the body are carefull cleansed. Any rings, bracelets, and jewelry are removed. The body is then bathed and purified with water, then wrapped in a white sheet and maybe a prayer cloth. The sheet is tied with a sash that is fastened with a sacred symbol. Only then, is this body ready to meet the living God.

When I think of this ritual, I think of Jesus who laid aside his robe and tied a towel around his waist. Today, he is stripped to serve, but tomorrow, he will be stripped to die. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, facing his own impending death, wrote this in his letters from prison: “I think that even in this place we ought to live as if we had no wishes and no future, and just be our true selves.” That is the key, we must strip away all of our pretensions and our pride. We must even, for a moment, forget that there will be a future, and be only who we truly are at this single moment in our lives, with all of our failures, pain, and loss. It is then, and only then, that we can truly love and be truly loved. If we were to live like this, we would find that we never miss a chance for those final words, for we will have been saying them our entire lives.

Amen

Benediction

The benediction from last Sunday’s sermon:

The almighty God who made you
from the dust of this earth,
now sends you out into the world.

Go with faith, hope, and courage,
knowing that he is with you.

He has called you by name,
and you are his.

Amen

Prayer in Times of Fear

God of compassion,

In this week of violence and tragedy,
we mourn with those who grieve,
cry with those who weep,
and sit in silence with those in pain,

But what should never happen even once
seems to happen over and over again,
until we are left with nothing
but bloodshot eyes and numb hearts.

Even so, Lord, this is our witness:

You are with us,
and in your presence,
We will not be afraid.

We will not fear the world,
for it is your creation.

We will not fear the future,
for you have already redeemed it.

We will not fear the unknown,
for surely you have seen it.

We will not fear the stranger,
for that person was made in your image,
even as we are made.

We will not fear our weakness,
for you will give us strength.

We will not fear the darkness,
For we carry the light with us.

You are there,
and we are not alone.

We will not be afraid.

Amen

Homily for Ash Wednesday

Delivered on February 14, 2018 at NorthHaven Church, Norman, Oklahoma.

Like most people, I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with myself, which means that I also have a love-hate relationship with mirrors. When I pass by a mirror, I can never resist the urge to look, but I’m never completely satisfied with what I see. I look into some mirrors, and I’m confronted with the cold, harsh reality — the ugly truth, as it were. I look into other mirrors, like those found at the carnival, and I like what I see; I’m a bit taller, and a bit thinner.

Neither mirror can give me what I need. The first mirror shows me the truth, but only as it is now, whether I want to see it or not. The second mirror shows me what I want to see, even if it could never be possible. What I need is a mirror that shows me what I truly am, but also gives me a glimpse of what I truly could be. That’s the mirror I need, even if it may not be the mirror I want.

We have such a mirror in Scripture. In fairness, we must confess that we can bend and distort Scripture so much that it functions exactly like those carnival mirrors, showing exactly what we want to see, confirming our desires and reinforcing our biases. There are times, though, when I come to the text openly and honestly, and it shows me who I am, as I cry with David in Psalm 51:

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

But Scripture can also show me what is genuinely possible — the beauty of a life lived fully in the Kingdom of God; more than just a glimpse of who I am, but a vision of who God wants me to be.

The book of Isaiah was written when the people of Judah desperately needed both of these mirrors. The small nation of Judah, what was left of the once mighty nation of Israel, had not only been defeated by Babylon, but had been taken away in captivity. The people of God were apparently forsaken by their God — prompting the psalmist to lament, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”

Even in the midst of that despair, however, there is a voice of hope. We hear it in what are called the “servant songs” of Isaiah, found sprinkled in the text, from chapter 42 through chapter 53. In these passages, God speaks of his promised servant, who will establish justice in chapter 42, be the light to the nations in chapter 49, be vindicated in the face of humiliation in chapter 50, and exalted and lifted up in chapter 52.

And so, we sit back and wait for the promised servant, the one who will finally do the will of God. Who is this servant? It is difficult to read chapter 53 and not see Jesus there in the text:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

I do believe that this text speaks prophetically of the Crucified Christ, but that doesn’t mean that the servant songs are simply about Jesus, a point that is made clearly in Isaiah 41:8,

But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, ‘You are my servant, ….’

A message that is repeated in chapters 44, 45, and 49. We will see the servant, if we will but look in the mirror. The reflection that we see, however, is harsh and unyielding. It is a clear picture of what God wants us to be: people who seek justice, something that is mentioned three times in the first four verses, yet seek it in a way that is not self-serving. It is a kind of justice that does no harm to the weakest in society — we are to be the light to the nations, helping the blind to see, and freeing those who are in darkness and imprisoned, in a way that does not call attention to ourselves.

It is, at the same time, a beautiful image of what can be, and a devastating contrast to what now is, one that forces me to ask, what is it that I really seek?

Is it justice, or merely my own advantage?

Is it righteousness, or merely my own rights?

Is it to serve, or to be the one who is served?

This day, Ash Wednesday, is the day on which the church is faced with the truth. The ashes are remnants of the palms that we waved on Palm Sunday, a vivid reminder of how quickly our vows of dedication to God become cries of denial and betrayal.

We come before the altar of God to hear the humbling words, “Remember, you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We come, bringing our pride, our pretension, our vanity, and our feelings of superiority to be cleansed in God’s holy fire. Out of the ashes that are left, God has chosen to raise up his servant.

Thanks be to God, for his mercy and grace.

Amen

Truth Tables in LaTeX

Typesetting truth tables has never been easy. LaTeX is the gold standard for displaying logic and mathematics, but tables are awkward to edit at best. Tables are much simpler in Microsoft Word, but displaying formulas is a horrible experience.1 Here is my current workflow.

The text that I’m using this semester is Introduction to Formal Logic with Philosophical Applications by Russell Marcus. Instead of arrows and the ampersand, it uses the horseshoe, triple bar, and dot. So, I add the following lines to my LaTeX preamble to simplify entering the symbols.2

\newcommand{\lneg}{\mathord{\sim}}
\renewcommand{\land}{\bullet}
\newcommand{\lif}{\supset}
\newcommand{\liff}{\equiv}

Then, I enter the truth table in either Excel or Numbers. For example, this would be a simple one line table determining the truth value of a formula for a given valuation:

Numbers truth table

Copy the cells that you want included in the truth table. Go to Tables Generator, and select “LaTeX Tables” from the top menu bar. Below the top menu bar is a drop-down menu bar. Click on “File” then “Paste table data…” and paste the table data. Table Generator will generate a nicely formatted LaTeX table:

\begin{table}[]
\centering
\caption{My caption}
\label{my-label}
\begin{tabular}{llllllll}
P & Q & R & P & \lif & (\lneg Q & \land & R) \\
1 & 1 & 1 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 1
\end{tabular}
\end{table}

I delete the first four lines and the last line, leaving just the table data and the lines declaring the tabular environment:

\begin{tabular}{cccccccc}
P & Q & R & P & \lif & (\lneg Q & \land & R) \\
1 & 1 & 1 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 1
\end{tabular}

At this point, typesetting will fail because the symbols need to be in math mode. So, I’ve found two options. The first is to put all the commands for the symbols in math mode:

\begin{tabular}{cccccccc}
P & Q & R & P & \(\lif\) & (\(\lneg\) Q & \(\land\) & R) \\
1 & 1 & 1 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 1
\end{tabular}

The second option is to change “tabular” to “array” and put the entire table into math mode:

\[
\begin{array}{cccccccc}
P & Q & R & P & \lif & (\lneg Q & \land & R) \\
1 & 1 & 1 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 1
\end{array}
\]

Arrays are centered on the page. If you would prefer them printed at the left margin, add “fleqn” to the document class options: \documentclass[fleqn]{article} Since the array is in math mode, the letters will be italicized. I use the newtxmath font package, and it has a “frenchmath” option that sets the math font to non-italic. Other math fonts may have a similar option.

Finally, whichever option is used, we need to add two lines. Adding a vertical line character to the table or array formatting options will place a vertical line between the valuation section and the rest of the truth table. Adding the booktabs package to the preamble will allow us to separate the sentence from the rest of the truth table.

This gives us the final version,

\[
\begin{array}{ccc|ccccc}
P & Q & R & P & \lif & (\lneg Q & \land & R) \\ \midrule
1 & 1 & 1 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 1
\end{array}
\]

which produces this:

Truth Table


  1. Apple’s Pages now allows users to add formulas with LaTeX. It’s looking like a good solution for those who like more traditional word processors. 
  2. The AMS LaTeX packages already include a command called “\lor” for entering the vee or wedge. 

Move to WordPress

I’m trying to use the iPad for more things now. I liked using both Jekyll and Hugo for static sites, but WordPress is much easier to use on iOS. Years ago, I had a blog on WordPress.com that was still online, so I moved all of my posts there.

Importing was a little tricky – I had to install a local copy of WordPress, and import everything from my RSS feed. I then exported to a WordPress backup file, cleaned that up with Emacs, then re-imported to the local copy of WordPress. Once everything looked reasonably good, I imported it into WordPress.com.

There are probably still some posts with formatting problems. I’ll clean those up as I notice them.

Prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

A prayer for Mitch Randall’s last Sunday as pastor of NorthHaven Church, before he takes his new position as executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

God of peace and joy,

For centuries,
Israel anticipated
the coming of the Messiah;
and as one expectation
was fulfilled,
another was born,
for we still long
for the day when
that same Messiah
will come again.

Christmas is still a day
when old dreams are fulfilled,
and new dreams are born.

We give thanks for what
this church has become
in the years that Mitch
has been with us:

For those who have
been rejected,
it is a place to feel welcome.

For those who have
felt constrained,
a place to be free.

For those whose gifts
have been denied,
a place to serve.

And so it is fitting
that at Christmas
We share with the world.
this gift that we have received,

And may we, through our
words, actions, and gifts,
declare to the world
that there is still
good news of glad tidings,
for all people, everywhere.

Amen

Ordination Prayer

This is a prayer for the ordination service of Kim Divelbiss at NorthHaven Church on December 9, 2017

God of grace and hope,

We confess that, sometimes,
we are like Israel in Egypt,
overwhelmed by life and
tempted to believe that
you have abandoned your people.

In this, though, we have hope,
though Israel had forgotten you,
you did not abandon her.
Instead, you called Moses
to be her minister.

And so, from the desert
of our dry and parched lives,
you continue to call —
not from a burning bush,
but from within,
from a heart aflame
with passion for
the kingdom of God
and for your people.

Today, we give thanks for Kim,
a minister with such a heart,
who, like Moses,
has answered your call.

Grant her the vision
to see things as they are,
and the spiritual imagination
to recognize what they could be.

May her laughter be joyful;
her anger, righteous;
her compassion, gentle;
her witness, bold;
and her love, deep.

Fill her with the
power of the Almighty,
who took what was
formless and void
and created the universe,
then declared it good.

May her ministry
be the means by which
you continue to take
what is broken and empty,
and create that which is
new, beautiful and good.

In the name of the Father
who gives us our mission,
and of the Son,
whose obedience is our model,
and of the Spirit,
who gives us strength
for our task.

Three persons,
one God,
forever and ever.

Amen