Saturday, July 24, 2004

Thoughts on the Political Conventions

While C-Span and the cable news outlets will give extensive coverage to both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, gone are the days of gavel-to-gavel coverage by the major networks.

There are good reasons for that. The problem with the national conventions--Democratic or Republican--is that the political professionals have bled the life from them.

Once upon a time, the conventions were places where people fought out in the open about policies, principles, visions, and candidacies. It was messy and it was riveting. Not messy and riveting in a Jerry Springer or Survivor-way, though.

Nor did the conventions display the sort of deliberately-impolite games of mutual assault that pass for news programming much of the time these days. No calculated pseudo-outrage. It was real. One only has to remember Abraham Ribicoff's speech at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when he incited the wrath of Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, accusing the Chicago police of practicing storm trooper tactics against the war protesters that had assemble there. The debates at past conventions were genuine and the stakes were authentically high.

Today, conventions are set pieces, pep rallies with sound bites, occasions when everybody smiles for the cameras and tries to appear united for the fall campaign. It is good that the slovenly appearances of delegates to the early-television era conventions have been replaced by people who appear to have bathed, changed their clothing within the previous forty-eight hours, and seem not to be hungover. But media consultants have thrown the baby---democracy in action---out with the bath water.

The parties would do well to get rid of the conventions altogether, along with the expenses associated with them. After all, the free TV exposure they get from them isn't really worth their effort. A shrinking audience, composed of partisan devotees and political junkies (like me) are the only ones likely to be tuning in....and I can't even vouch for me this year.

Instead, the parties could purchase a series of live broadcasts in which the candidates interact with voters and answer their questions. Although I abhor living in this era of reality TV, such a format change might very well reach today's disillusioned voter.

[PS: This isn't the column on God's will that I promised to try and complete and post today. I hope to complete it after I preside over a wedding this afternoon. I originally wrote this post as a comment on Chip Taylor's Miscellany blog. I've made a few minor changes here.]

A Ramble-log Blog

Earlier this week, I sent an email notification to family, friends, and colleagues about a column I'd posted on this site and said that I'd planned on posting a number of new columns throughout the week.

I learned again the wisdom of Father Myke, the NYFD chaplain killed in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him what you're doing tomorrow."

His words echo those of James in the New Testament: "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.' Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring...Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.' As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil." (James 4:13-17)

Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans. (Thank you, John Lennon.) So, this past week, instead of stockpiling columns, as I'd planned, life happened and I wrote one column. (My other posts here this week weren't, for the most part, written for the column I write for the Community Press newspapers. They were posts written just for the blog, like this one.)

One of the reasons I wasn't as prolific as I'd hoped to be was the honest, prayerful wrestling I've done this week with the text on which I'll be preaching---God willing---this coming Sunday morning: Jesus' words in Matthew 5:9. There He says, "Blessed [happy, blissed-out] are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."

The more I studied---in, among other places, commentaries by Lenski as well as Albright and Mann, Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible---the more complicated and daunting these seemingly simple words from Jesus became.

The passage also sent me to a book I hadn't read in many years. To some, it may seem dated, but it spoke to me again and provided a hefty amount of inspiration for me as I prepared my message. It was John and Mary Schramm's 1976 book, Things That Make for Peace. If you can get your hands on a copy of it, this book is well worth the short amount of time it takes to read. It's nothing more than a journal, incorporating reflections on personal experience, reading, and current events. It is in many ways, a very political book and I don't always agree with its politics. But it is at root, a deeply spiritual book written by two people struggling to define how they will live their faith in Christ in the social, political, and economic spheres of life. The book is a period piece, in a way, recalling a time when "Christian political activism" was almost always associated with the political left, the opposite of today. But, in what could be a lesson for today's Christian political activists, right and left, the Schramms begin not from a triumphant, holier-than-thou perspective, but from the cross of Jesus, displaying a humble willingness to take Jesus literally when He exhorts His followers to "take up their crosses and follow Him." You'll see how this book influenced me again with this week's reading of it when I post my Sunday sermon in a few days---God willing.

Things That Make for Peace also referred me another book that has been collecting dust on one of my bookshelves, John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus. I did read it more than twenty years ago, but hadn't cracked it open in a long time. While I only had time to make a small dent in the process of re-reading it, I'm enjoying it too.

I also finished reading an interesting little book this week: Simple Matters: Almost Everything You Need to Know About Life, Relationships, and Knowing God by two guys who write under the names Bruce and Stan. (They're really Bruce Bickel, an attorney, and Stan Jantz, a PR guy for Berean Book Stores, a very good "in" for one who wants get published.) I like the breezy and frankly, simple, style of this book which was probably written to be a gift for high school or college graduates. But people of all ages might read (and re-read) it profitably.

With few exceptions, I like the advice they give on a variety of topics, ranging from "Stuff" to "Patience," from "Goals" to "Conflict." Their advice on "Common Sense" will figure in a column on which I'm working and hope---God willing---to complete tomorrow.

Before going to bed at night (or while waiting to see my physical therapist), I've also been continuing to read Stephen Ambrose's one-volume biography of Eisenhower. Ike has just started his first term as president in my reading. This is a really good book!

I will close now. God bless you...thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

A Plea to End Over-Specialization

My son has forwarded a column by David Brooks to me. In it, Brooks discusses Charles Hill, one-time aide to Secretary of State George Schultz, and a class that Hill co-teaches at Yale.

But, inspired by Hill, the column ends as a plea for a different approach to post-high school education and it's one I endorse.

I have always felt that the primary goal of undergraduate education isn't to produce specialists, but people who know how to think. It's fine for people to have major courses of study during their undergraduate years. But during those years, they should also receive what we once called a "liberal" education, one that liberally exposes students to a range of human knowledge---be it in the Arts, the sciences, social studies and theory, theology, whatever.

It is partcularly important today that our colleges and universities produce generalists rather than specialists. For one thing, the accelerated rate of change is such in today's world, that people who become overly-dependent on a speciality can quickly be rendered obsolete.

For another, the issues with which we wrestle in today's world are insusceptible to single areas of specialtization. Creative multidisciplinary approaches are needed for us to deal with matters as disparate as finding a cure for cancer, defeating terrorists, feeding the world's hungry, or promoting compassion.

Confession time: As an undergraduate at The Ohio State University, I chafed under the requirements that I take classes in fields in which I had no interest. But like the inoculations I got as a youngster to ensure that I didn't contract things like polio or small pox, I know now how good it was for me to have taken classes in statistics, economics, and biology. (Even though I hated taking them at the time.)

More than that, I know now how good it is for societies that undergraduates emerge from their college or university experiences as well-rounded people with a broad sensitivity to what the human race does and doesn't know at the moment they graduate, to have a strong foundation of broad-based knowledge with which to face life, and at the very least, to be able to vote and participate in society responsibly.

One of the books I've been reading lately is Stephen Ambrose's one-volume version of his biography of Dwight Eisenhower. An often-overlooked period of Eisenhower's life is his brief and frustrating tenure as president of Columbia University. Ambrose records an incident from that period:

Columbia was an outstanding university with a brilliant faculty composed of highly sophisticated specialists who were dedicated to their research. They regarded Eisenhower as hopelessly naive. When one scholar told Eisenhower that "we have some of America's most exceptional physicists, mathematicians, chemists, and engineers," Eisenhower asked if they were also "exceptional Americans." The scholar, confused, mumbled that Eisenhower did not understand--they were research scholars. "Dammit," Eisenhower shot back, "what good are exceptional physicists...exceptional anything, unless they exceptional Americans." He added that every student who came to Columbia must leave it first a better citizen and only secondarily a better scholar.
Anybody familiar with the life of Dwight Eisenhower will know that when he spoke of being "exceptional Americans," he wasn't upholding a jingoistic, shallow patriotism. Ike was an internationalist and a small-d democrat. For democracy to function, he was saying, every citizen and especially every leader, must know how to think and have an appreciation for how the world and how democracy works.

At the very least, colleges and universities need to break up the musty air of specialization from time to time by bringing in people like Eisenhower at Columbia or, in the case of Yale University cited by Brooks in his New York Times column, somebody like Charles Hill. They can help students move away from the navel-gazing that inheres in so much scholastic specialization and introduce them to the essential life-skills needed for solid citizenship and effective, sensitive leadership in whatever field of life.

My Bible text for this coming Sunday is Matthew 5:9, in which Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." Of course, this is a complicated text. As a Christian, I believe that real peace begins when we accept the peace between God and we human sinners that God offers to us through Jesus Christ. When that wall of enmity is erased, we have peace inside and we can be creative--even daring and bold--in sharing that peace with others.

But it also seems to me that we ill-equip our children to be peacemakers---whether in their families, communities, careers, or in the international community---when we consign them to specializations that render them insensitive to the thoughts, feelings, experiences, or knowledge of people engaged in other pursuits in life.

So much hangs on the question of how our colleges and universities will train our young. I hope that people like Charles Hill of Yale University are the harbingers of good things to come!

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

An Anniversary That Can Fuel Our Dreams

Today is the thirty-fifth anniversary of one of the most sublime and stunning achievements in human history: the landing of two astronauts---Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin---on the Moon. No one old enough to have watched these events on their television that July 20, 1969, will ever forget Armstrong's matter-of-fact pronouncement: "Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Even more stunning, maybe, was the moment when Armstrong, a native of Wapakoneta, Ohio, set foot on the lunar surface.

A wonderful symmetry attached to this son of Ohio being the first human being to kick moon dust. After all, it was two Ohioans, Dayton natives Wilbur and Orville Wright, who invented powered flight; it was Columbus native Eddie Rickenbacker, the one-time Indy 500 driver and later president of Eastern Airlines, who was America's first flying ace, during World War One; and it was John Glenn, of New Concord, Ohio a Marine hero during the Korean War, who was the first American to orbit the Earth.

The primary emotion this anniversary evokes in me is wistfulness. I pine for what might have been. If we human beings could have spent a fraction of the time, effort, money, and intellectual capital we've spent on war and terror these past three-decades-and-a-half, and instead, built positively on the foundation of the first moon-landing, who knows what progress might have been ours? What new discoveries about the universe and ourselves might we have made? What new technologies and new medicines might have resulted? We'll never know because, to a great extent, we've remained earth-bound, literally and spiritually.

It boggles the mind that an event which Richard Nixon, then president, in a fit of understandable but exagerrated hyperbole described as the "greatest...since Creation," is so widely ignored today.

It's as though we've forgotten how to dream, to dare, to hope, to climb.

I hope and pray that we will learn once again to do these things. I hope that the people of the world will say, "We've been to the Moon. Let's go for Mars. Let's explore the cosmos."

From my perspective as a Christian, I believe that we have a sacred obligation to explore creation, to know it and by the knowing of it, gain a deeper appreciation of the One Who designed it all.

May the anniversary of the first Moon landing compel us to once more let our dreams take flight!

A Good Site to Check Out

The web site for the Dorado Covenant has been expanded. The covenant itself has also attracted many more Lutherans as signatories. This brief document is, in my estimation, a ray of hope that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America of which I am a part, will find its way through the current crisis over the authority of God's Word, to true commitment to the Christ revealed on the pages of Scripture and amplified in the Lutheran Confessions. Check out the site and please consider adding your name to those who've already endorsed the Dorado Covenant.

There are other groups working to reform the church. Among them:


Solid Rock Lutherans

Monday, July 19, 2004

Why We Worship

Often, when I talk with people who have worshiped with us at Friendship Church, I’m told, “I get so much out of the service.”

I appreciate hearing that, of course. But the fact is that what we get out of worship is not nearly as important as what we put into it.

Worship isn’t really about us. The old English ancestor of our word worship is the word, worth-ship. When we worship God, we say how worthy He is of our honor and complete surrender. That’s what we offer God when we worship.

So, some may wonder, what’s the good in that? Is God such an egomaniac that He needs to exact praise from people? Actually, it turns out that we need to praise God more than He needs our praises.

A few years back, I read a true story from a pastor who was visited by a young man going through a tough time. The woman to whom he was engaged had broken things off. This had followed a string of break-ups of other relationships and friendships. He was frustrated because he just couldn’t seem to stay connected with people. It made him feel depressed and inferior.

At first, the pastor was surprised by the young man’s story because he seemed likable. But as their conversation wore on, something began to dawn on the pastor. The young man used the word “I” alot. He was totally self-absorbed.

The pastor got an idea. He told the young man to worship on each of the next four Sundays and then come back for another visit in the pastor’s office.

A month passed, the young man visited the pastor, and in the course of this second conversation, the pastor began to notice a change in the fellow. He was less self-conscious, more interested in others. In a year’s time, continuing this pattern of hour-long conversations with the pastor followed by four Sundays of worship, the changes in the young man were remarkable. In fact, by the end of the year, he had become engaged to another young woman.

Was it magic? No, it was as simple as this: Through regular involvement in public worship, the young man realized that he wasn’t the end-all and be-all of the universe. For one hour a week, He was compelled to focus on God and that influenced the rest of his week.

When we join others to worship God, things happen in us.

First: We get rid of the pressure to be our own little gods. We know that the job of “God” has been filled and we can rely on God to do His job well, including take care of us through thick, thin, life, death, and beyond. We’re also ready to take our marching orders from Him.

Second: Secure in our place in God’s kingdom, we can love others, listen to them, and be concerned for them, giving them the same love God gives to us.

Worship is more about what we put into it than what we get out of it. But because of God’s fantastic compassion for us, it turns out that the more that we put into worship, the more we get out of it.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

The Happiness Project: The People Who See God

Matthew 5:1-2, 8
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 18, 2004)

For six weeks now, we’ve been looking at some words Jesus shared privately with His inner circle of followers one day on a Judean hillside. They appear in the fifth chapter of the New Testament book of Matthew, in twelve verses we call The Beatitudes. In them, Jesus talks about happiness. Interestingly, in the Beatitudes, He doesn’t give us a how-to manual. Instead, He presents a few word pictures of what happy people look like.

Today, He presents a sixth picture of happiness: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” It seems to me that happy people who see God have three main characteristics in common.

First: They give up. I don’t mean that they give up hope. The happy people I know have an eternity of hope. But happy people do give up something.

One of my heroes is the writer and scholar, C.S. Lewis. As a young man, perhaps because of his experiences during World War One and because as a little boy, he had seen his mother die in spite of all sorts of prayers said on her behalf, Lewis was a committed atheist. But in the 1930s, after his scholarship had exposed him to cultures, literature, and myth from throughout the world, he found himself wrestling with the possibility that Jesus Christ really was the God and Savior of the world. One day, while riding in the passenger car of his brother’s motorcycle, Lewis found himself suddenly realizing that he believed in the God we meet in Jesus. He called his coming to faith in Christ as being “surprised by joy.”

Lewis gave up his doubts about God for good reason. I’ve mentioned before the story of two men standing on a pier as a large cruise liner sailed into harbor. The one man tells the other, “You know, nobody made that ship. It just appeared in the harbor one day, every rivet, engine, and deck chair in place. All by itself.” The second man clearly thought that this theory was nuts. He knew that where there is a creation, there must be a creator. We all have doubts and questions about life. But the fact that you and I are living indicates that there must be a God.

And that has implications for our lives. Six years ago, three research psychologists reported in The Journal of Clinical Psychology that people with strong spiritual beliefs were typically satisfied with life, while those without such beliefs were usually unsatisfied with life. Happy people give up on the notion of a world without God.

They also open up. Back in my atheist days, I used to make the most horrible comments about God, about Christ, about people who believed. I couldn’t understand how they could believe in a God you can’t see, especially with so much tragedy in the world. But then, I met real-life followers of Jesus. They were people who had personally dealt with lots of tragedy in their lives--the death of children and spouses, nervous breakdowns, divorces, loss of health, property, income. And yet, they had the power to keep on believing. They had opened up to Jesus, allowing Him to be their Boss and God and best Friend. They knew that only a Savior Who has been through death and gone on to rise again can really be relied upon to help us through all the seasons of our lives. They made me want Jesus in my life, too.

Finally, one night in the study of the house we were renting at the time, I prayed as best I knew how. I told Jesus, “I don’t know everything about You, Lord. But I want to give my life to You.” Jesus didn’t magically answer all my questions about life and He certainly didn’t make me perfect. But for the first time in my life, I felt a peace in my heart.

In the New Testament book of Revelation, Jesus tells us that He is knocking at the doors of our hearts. If we will just open those doors, He will come and be with us forever. Happy people open up to Jesus.

Happy people give up, open up, and they get cleaned up. The word that Jesus uses for pure in the original Greek of today’s Bible lesson is katharismo, from which we get our English word, catharsis. People who undergo catharsis are those who purge themselves of bad things, so that good things can come to them. To be pure in heart is, quite simply, to be a person who lets Jesus Christ cleanse us of all our old emotional baggage, our destructive habits, our ill-advised ways of thinking, and all of our sins. He washes them away and because of His goodness and power, makes us fit to live with God forever.

The famous pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller, once had a terrible weight problem. And it was getting worse because he was incapable of saying no to sweets. He knew that this was a spiritual issue. He knew that his body was a temple given to him by God. He knew that he was allowing himself to be led in life not by God, but by the food he constantly craved. So complete was his dependence on the god of food that Schuller began to doubt the existence of the God we know through Jesus Christ.

One night, he cried out to Jesus in desperation:
“Dear Jesus, I don’t know if You’re dead or alive. I don’t know if You are even real! I have believed it! I preached it! But I can’t prove it by my weight control. Jesus, if You are there, can You help me?”
A calm came over Schuller after he prayed that prayer and he sensed Jesus telling him, “I have snatched you from destruction.” Difficult though it was going to be, Jesus Christ had cleansed Robert Schuller of his reliance on food to make him feel good and fill the void in his soul tha can only be filled by Jesus. He knew that Christ was going to help him regain control of his body.

When we turn from sin--whatever our sin--and turn to Jesus Christ, His love cleanses the sin away and He gives us the power to live changed lives. When we invite Jesus’ cleansing power into our lives, that’s when we see God for sure!

In a nutshell, Jesus tells us today that happy people are those whose hearts and consciences have been made clean by the death and resurrection of Jesus. They’re the ones who have seen that life is too big and complicated to try to deal with it on their own. They see that a Savior Who died on a cross understands the sorrows and difficulties of everyday life. They understand that without Jesus stepping in to be our advocate, friend, and Savior, we would stand naked in our sin before God. They let Jesus cleanse them, washing away all the obstructions that would otherwise keep them from seeing God.

Happy are the people Jesus has made pure. They’re the people who give up on life without God, who open up and let Jesus enter their lives, and who get cleaned up, letting Jesus scrub away their sin. Those are the people who get to see God. No wonder they’re happy!

[The message received some inspiration from a chapter in the wonderful book, The Be Happy Attitudes by Robert Schuller. It's there that he tells of his struggle with weight control.

[C.S. Lewis talks about his conversion from atheism to faith in Christ in his book, Surprised by Joy.

[The 1998 study on the relationship between spiritual beliefs and happiness is cited in The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It by David Niven, Ph.D.]