Saturday, October 02, 2004

Three Bloggers to Check Out

If you check mine and several other blog sites, you're likely to conclude that we've got a mutual admiration society going. Speaking for me, while I have never met the bloggers some of whose recent posts I'm recommending, I can say that I do admire them for their clarity of thought, humility, and above all, depth of faith.

Check out Craig Williams' recent post on C.S. Lewis' helpful critique on the use of myth in democratic politics. Parties and polticians in democracies appeal to our egos and our self-interest. As they do so, they employ the mythology of the inevitability of human progress. This totally overlooks the evidence of human history or the witness of the Bible that apart from heeding Christ's call to repentance (that is, turning away from sin and turning to God), we are in a heap of trouble. The mythologies of democratic politics tend to turn us away from God, often by deceiving us with the notion that there is a particular holy anointing of our preferred philosophy. It's dangerous stuff because it deludes us into worshiping at the altar of counterfeit gods and losing sight of the real God of the universe.

Mark Sides critques American consumerism from the standpoint of the Biblical witness. He deals with the questions he raises there in a later post. But I can tell you that he has challenged me to think and write about how we defeat this monster that threatens our souls. Great!

Mark D. Roberts continues to write great things on the inclusivity and exclusivity of Jesus. He has such a knack for expressing complicate, important topics with simplicity and memorable clarity!

Friday, October 01, 2004

Who Do You Aspire to Be?

On her excellent web log, Rachel Cunliffe asks fellow bloggers, "Which blog or blogger do you aspire to be?"

There are some excellent responses. Mine reflects a struggle that I have had all my life, even as a Christian. Maybe you feel the same way. But I also feel that God is freeing me from that struggle.

My response [I know the grammar is rotten, but I hope that won't get in the way of the point]:

While there are blog sites and bloggers that I admire and from which I can learn, I don’t aspire to have my blog or for me to be like anybody else.

I have spent too much of my life trying to act like others, thinking subconsciously that if I aped them, I would attain their “success.” The only real success that we can have in life is when we surrender ourselves to Christ and let him make us into the best versions of ourselves possible.

“Now,” some saint has said, “by the grace of God, I will become myself.”

Beatifying the President: Stop the Madness!

The attempts by those campaigning for President Bush and some in the evangelical community to equate Christian with Republican is something that disturbs me.

Jesus isn't a member of the GOP and George W. Bush doesn't wear a halo, even if you support him. At the very most, Republicanism is a humanly-created political philosophy about how to run the government, another human institution. It is inherently flawed by the sin that infects the entire human race. (Take a look at Psalm 51. The Bible describes King David, the author of the psalm, as a man after God's own heart. But he was still a sinner capable of making mistakes, something that, according to some it seems, he doesn't share with President Bush.)

The equation of Republicanism with Christianity amounts to idolatry, a violation of the First Commandment, because it makes God over into our image. I don't like it as a Christian, an American, or a Republican.

But these efforts to make George Bush into a Christ-like saint and his philosophy of government an expression of God's reign in the world have reached a new low. Go to Heart, Soul, and Humor, the web site by Deborah White, an admittedly liberal evangelical Christian, for a lengthy description of a new DVD that apparently all but beatifies Mr. Bush.

God cares about who our President is, I'm sure. But how dare we try to claim the great God of the universe as our own ideological buddy? How dare we commit such heresy and violate the holiness of God, all the while wearing pious faces?

Christians may well decide to vote for President Bush.

They may well decide to vote for Senator Kerry or another candidate.

They may do so because no candidate has the corner on God's truth. None is perfect. And politics is only among the many emergency measures by which the world must operate until that day when Jesus returns and sets things right for eternity.

(For a great look at the Christian/Biblical perspective of government, rulers, citizenship, and what's really important and what's subordinate in life and eternity, read Martin Luther's essay on the two kingdoms.)

An Invitation to Use the Comment Button

Several months ago, Site Meter was added to my blog. From it, I have an accurate picture of how many of you are logging onto Better Living and which of the archived articles you're perusing.

As you may know, Site Meter also tells bloggers where the people who are logging onto the site are from, what internet servers and what countries. (I do not receive specific information. I don't know who logs onto the site.) But I've made several observations since Site Meter was installed here in June.

First of all: It may be a byproduct of boredom on American campuses, but an astounding number of the people who log onto Better Living are accessing it from colleges and universities. Almost one-third of my hits are from that source. Colleges represented so far include The Ohio State University, Arizona State University, University of Southern California, Mary Baldwin College, Baldwin Wallace, University of Virginia, and others. I've always been a college-junkie and have long harbored a not-so-secret fantasy of being a college History professor. So, having this cyber-connection to higher education appeals to me!

Secondly: Persons from Finland, Bhutan, France, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Japan, South Africa, and elsewhere have logged onto Better Living. The internet is a truly amazing technology, allowing for more international connectedness than has ever been experienced before. I love that!

But I would like this site to be more of a two-way communication experience. That's the purpose of the "Comment" button you'll find below this and every other post on the site. So, please use it. Use the button to...

Tell me what you like or don't like about the site.

Tell me what you agree or disagree with in a particular post.

Tell me if you've got a question you want me to cover in my continuing "Q-and-A" columns. Is there an aspect of Christian faith that you'd really like me to address?

Tell me about your faith experiences.

Just comment.

I look forward to hearing from you soon. God bless you!

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Okay, So Maybe I Was Wrong About Debates

My worst apprehensions about the debate did not come to pass. Contrary to previous debates, there were no zingers or one-liners. We had a good exchange of views that should be helpful to all of us in making our decisions about who will be the President for the next four years.

True to form, I thought that Jim Lehrer was fair, cool, and firm in moderating the evening.

Late Night This and That

The successful, if harrowing, flight of SpaceShipOne is exciting! In just a short time, I hope, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the US Congress will promulgate the necessary regulations to make commercial space travel possible. (It'll be awhile before I can afford to buy a ticket, though. Estimates are that a seat on a craft from Sir Richard Branson's soon-to-begin Virgin Galactic line will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $190,000.00.) I'm sure that within the next twenty years, businesspeople and tourists will regularly fly from New York to Tokyo in a matter of minutes, making this ever-shrinking planet even smaller...and only increasing our need to learn how to better get along with each other.

I admire people who take risks and embark on new my friend, Ric Barnes, who seven years after starting an exciting new congregation in the Mason, Ohio-area keeps, in Saint Paul's words, "fighting the good fight." If you're reading this and live in the King's Island area and are looking for a congregation in which you can experience the love and power of God in your life, check out Celebration Lutheran Church and its adventurous, authentic pastor, Ric Barnes. Ric and I had a good talk today! Every time we converse, I'm inspired and encouraged to keep on following Jesus!

Another adventurous friend is Nancy Beck, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club in Clermont County. Nancy and friend Jim Ball, both regular attenders at Friendship Lutheran Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, are planning a trip to hike the heights of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa! Nancy is asking for sponsors who will contribute money to the Club based on how great an ascent she makes. She is journaling her preparations here. I hope that you will become a sponsor for this worthy cause and amazing adventure!

After reading the 9/11 Commission's report, I needed to mentally shift gears, reading something a bit lighter or more inspiring. Two books are proving to fill that need:

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Believe it or not, I had never read this book. The narrative is vivid. The characters are memorable. The plot is truly classic. Like so many so-called children's books, even a fifty year old like me can enjoy it.

Living Faith by Jimmy Carter. Undoubtedly, this book is going to inspire some columns. In essence, it's Carter's spiritual autobiography, outlining the development of his faith in Jesus Christ through his experiences and relationships over the years. This book is incredibly honest. Carter shares how his doubts drove him to deeper faith in Christ, how he reconciles his training as a nuclear scientist with belief in the God of the Bible, how his upbringing as a sexist Southern man had to give way to the Biblical call to respectful treatment of his wife, how the racist Southern past fell before Jesus' call to love our neighbors, and so on. We see how Carter's Naval career and the life of his father and mother impacted him. This is an incredibly inspiring book, no matter what your party. last thing. The CD I've been playing a lot in my van these days is Momentum by Toby Mac. Brilliant!

Note for 2008: Dump or Change Presidential Debates

I joked with my brother (comedian Marty Daniels) that my attitude toward presidential debates is akin to that of most people passing expressway car accidents: I don't want to look, but I can't help myself.

Frankly, I'm not a fan of the debates. Owing perhaps to the formats for these quadrennial slugfests, they generate more heat than light. Their point seems less for candidates to present their platforms than to inject, at just the right times, the obviously-scripted one line zinger.

In spite of their lack of substance, these one-liners seem to have given momentum to some campaigns while destroying others. Think about the debates and consider what you remember. It won't be the substantive policy discussions so much as the verbal razors-in-the-candy: "There you go again." "You're no Jack Kennedy."

Sometimes gestures have proved to be most significant. Remember George Bush the Elder looking at his watch or Al Gore impatiently sighing for the umpteenth time? (Note to candidates: Don't appear impatient.)

Young people may be surprised to learn that there were no presidential debates until the 1960 contest between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. They didn't become an institutionalized part of the presidential landscape until the 1976 race between incumbent Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter.

I would prefer going back to the practice of those pre-debate years. I wouldn't mourn the death of presidential debates.

But if that's not possible, then I'd like to see the debates formatted differently: Two or more candidates alone on a stage except for a moderator whose job wouldn't be to ask questions, but keep time. Candidate A would make an opening statement, followed by Candidate B. If there were more than two qualifying candidates, Candidates C through Z would follow suit.

After that, there would ensue a "no-interruptions-allowed" round robin of five minutes from each candidate on whatever topics they chose to address. (Certainly, in the give and take, they would choose to respond, challenge, and otherwise interact with their opponents.)

Macho violations of opponents' personal space---the absurd tactic employed by Al Gore in the town hall-style debate of 2000---would be disallowed. (Would there be less macho posturing if a woman were nominated for president? One can only hope.)

And of course, no Jerry Springer tactics would be allowed either. (In other words, no throwing of chairs. This means that Bobby Knight can never run for president.)

All of this may make too much sense, asking too much substance of the candidates and perhaps, providing less entertainment value to those of us in the TV viewing audience.

And so, once again this year, I'll be making my decision on who will be the next President of the United States based, in part, on an accident from which I wish that I could, but simply can't turn away.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Boys and Girls Club: It Really is a Positive Place for Kids

A few years back, Friendship Lutheran Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, was still worshiping in a school gym and looking forward to the day when God would bless us with a building on our Amelia-area property.

Among the things we hoped to do with a building was offer an after-school program where young people could receive warm welcomes, positive direction for their lives, and homework help.

Christmas Eve, 2002 saw our first worship celebration in our first building.

Since that time, we’ve been able to welcome the community in many ways. In addition to things like worship, Sunday School, and youth group, the building has also seen local agency staff retreats, baby showers, rock concerts, comedy shows, and many other activities.

But there’s been no after-school program. That’s because in Spring, 2003, I received an invitation from my friend and Amelia Elementary School principal Barb Dardy to get involved with a group of caring community people in bringing the Boys and Girls Club to west Clermont County.

I had heard of Boys and Girls Clubs before. No doubt you have too, especially if you’ve watched a nationally-telecast Major League Baseball game at any point in recent years. Big leaguers have gotten behind promoting and raising money for the organization nationally.

But beyond that, I knew very little. Soon, however, the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Clermont County, Nancy Beck, and other committed community leaders had done a good job of educating me.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, I learned, started out nationally as the Boys Club back in 1892 and first came to this county in New Richmond in 1996.

In the eight years since its start, the New Richmond club has had a tremendous impact on the community. Many youth have been given confidence and a sense of direction. Court and law enforcement officials alike say the club has reduced juvenile crime. Educators note that because of the club, students have their homework done.

The New Richmond Club achieved---and continues to achieve---these results through a variety of programs such as arts and crafts, Power Hour homework help, SMART MOVES prevention program, Passport to Manhood mentoring, and the Keystone leadership development program.

The West Clermont group I was invited to join in 2003, saw the New Richmond success story and hoped to replicate it in their neck of the woods. That in fact, dovetailed with the vision the leaders of the New Richmond group had already discussed, that of taking a Boys and Girls Club “unit” to every township in the county.

On January 5, 2004, the new West Clermont Unit came into being. On the strength of a single written notice sent to parents in the Amelia area, average daily attendance at the after-school club hit 50. At present, the average is 85 and is located at the Amelia Elementary School, thanks to the gracious cooperation of the West Clermont Local School District. The Amelia United Methodist Church provides additional space for the club.

Meanwhile, the New Richmond club continues to be strong, serving an average of 50 children every afternoon. A highlight is its Friday evening “Teen Nights.” During the summer, the club is open from noon to five, providing young people with positive activities at a time of year when it is really needed.

Friendship Church decided not to reinvent the wheel, but instead to support the Boys and Girls Club of Clermont County in whatever ways we can, be it volunteering, financial contributions, or prayers.

My personal involvement with the Boys and Girls Club is among the things with which I’m most pleased in my life.

Next column: How is it funded? How can you get involved?

Monday, September 27, 2004

Q-and-A: What is the Christian's Responsibility When It Comes to Voting?

This past week, an acquaintance of mine wrote kind words about my article on the Holy Trinity, one spurred by a question I’d received on the subject. Then, he himself posed a question. Actually, two requests.

First, he wondered if I would write something about what he called “the Christian’s duty to vote.”

Then he asked if I would also write a column telling people how they should vote in the upcoming elections.

I’m dealing with his first request in this article. (I have already addressed the question of whether it's appropriate for a pastor or a church to endorse a candidate or a party here.)

I certainly think that it’s a good idea for Christians and other citizens to vote. Since casting my first votes in 1972, I doubt that I’ve missed more than two general elections and less than a handful of primaries. So, voting is something I regard as important.

For the follower of Jesus Christ living in a democracy, the call to be a good neighbor, I believe, includes responsible citizenship. And responsible citizenship, in turn, can entail voting.

I say that it can entail voting because merely casting a ballot is no sign of being a good citizen.

The right to vote can be abused or misused as easily as other privileges we have in life. To cast an uninformed vote, to vote for a candidate simply because of their party affiliation, or because we like the sound of their name, or because a friend told us that they were going to vote for so-and-so, are among common ways in which we can misuse the privilege of voting. I myself have been guilty of these abuses on occasion in the past.

(Although I’ve never voted a straight partisan ticket in my life. Back in 1972, I remember that accounting for all the races---federal, state, and county---that were on the ballot that year, I voted for six Democrats and five Republicans. I was a registered Democrat at the time.)

So, in answer to my friend’s quesiton about the duty to vote, I say that if we’re basically uninformed about a particular race, we should do the responsible thing and not vote in that contest. A responsible citizen should only vote in those races or on those issues about which they feel sufficiently informed to make a good judgment.

But if we do feel so informed, then we should by all means, vote. One could even say that we have a duty to do so.

This raises another question: What do we do if after fully informing ourselves, we feel so disgusted with all candidates that we don’t want to vote for any of them? (I hear this a lot among Christians and others these days.)

Here are a few points to consider.

First: Remember that politicians are people too. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve heard voters complain that, “This year, the choice is between the least of two evils.” In a way, that has always been the case. Politicians are members of the human race of whom the Bible observes: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one...” (Romans 1:10) Perfection is not the benchmark standard for us to apply to our political leaders. I’m certainly not suggesting that you overlook what appears to be an overtly rotten character in a candidate. But I do suggest cutting candidates some slack for being human. Remember that even George Washington, as great as he undeniably was, didn’t start out out on Mount Rushmore.

Second: Understand that no candidate is the perfectly Christian one. When I ran for nomination to the Ohio House of Representatives earlier this year, I tried to emphasize that just because I am a pastor didn’t mean that I was more Christian than any of my opponents. It’s possible that some candidates who like to tout their Christian faith aren’t Christian at all, but spiritually-proud legalists (like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day) or even worse, opportunistic pols pushing buttons to get votes from a desirable demographic group.

Third: Pray about your vote. Ask God to clarify your thinking. After a time of reflection, decide if you feel pulled to vote for candidates A, B, Y, or Z. Unless you feel that by voting for any candidate, you’ll be encouraging corruption, mismanagement, or political machines (as some of my conservative friends who are Christians are feeling this year), you could quite legitimately decide not to vote.

Finally: “Sin boldly.” This strange bit of advice came from Martin Luther for Christians sincerely weighing decisions. Luther advised Christians to read God’s Word, talk things over with trusted Christian friends, and to pray. If your course remains unclear, do what you think is right. Your judgment could be wrong. But you can have a clear conscience because you know that your intent was to do the right thing. After all, you're imperfect too.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

What to Do About Throwaway People

Luke 16:19-31
(message shared with the people of Friendship Church, September 26, 2004)

Okay, everybody, here’s a little pop quiz. When you’ve identified the person I’m talking about, just blurt out the name.

He co-founded Microsoft. He and his wife dole out millions of dollars to schools every year. [Bill Gates]

At her recent wedding, she might have sung, Oops, I Did It Again. [Britney Spears]

From the time his great-grandfather began amassing a fortune with a business in Columbus, this man and his family have pursued two things: money and political prominence. His grandfather was a senator; his dad, a president; his brother, a governor. [President Bush]

You did well on the first three. Let’s try a few more.

The janitors at your local high school.

The guy who plays the saxophone outside the stadia after Reds and Bengals games.

The cook who prepared your meal the last-time you went to a nice sit-down restaurant.

Not as easy as the first part of the quiz, is it?

In our world, it seems, the rich and powerful are somebodies. We know their names. But, apart from a rather small group of family and friends, we don’t know or remember the identities of the so-called “ordinary” members of the human race.

In today’s Bible lesson, Jesus tells a story about a rich man and a poor man. In it, He does something He doesn’t do in any of the other stories (or, parables) He tells: He gives one of His fictional characters a name. Even more significantly though, Jesus violates our expectations by making the named character not the wealthy, powerful person in the story, but the poor, powerless one.

In the story, a rich man enjoys daily feasting. His clothes are clothing of linen and purple. Because purple dye was rare and expensive, only the wealthiest and most powerful people in the first-century world in which Jesus lived His earthly life could afford purple clothing. The rich man lived on easy street!

The poor man, Lazarus, had a different life. From the original Greek of the New Testament, we learn that Lazarus, incapable of helping himself, was literally thrown down by the gate of the rich man’s estate. As he lay there, begging for help, he dreamed of getting a crumb or two from the rich man’s table. Lazarus’ body was a mass or sores and he was so weak that he couldn’t fend off the neighborhood dogs as they licked his sores.

Jesus says that both men die. The rich man is buried. We can surmise that when Lazarus dies, His body is simply thrown away, an anonymous throwaway in death like he was in life.

The rich man goes to Hades, another name for hell. He agonizes in the flames of eternal punishment. But somehow, he’s able to see in the distance a person he ignored during his earthly life: Lazarus.

Lazarus is in heaven, carried there by angels and set at the heavenly banquet table next to Abraham. Abraham, you know, was a real person who lived about six-hundred years or so before Moses. God called Abraham to become one of the founding parents of God’s chosen people, Israel. God used the descendants of ancient Israel to be the bearers of His love and salvation to the world. From the Jews, the world’s Savior, Jesus, was born.

To be seated next to him was an incredible honor for Lazarus, an amazing thing for a man who’d spent his time on earth as a nobody!

From Hades, the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus with a droplet of water for his parched, burning lips. Abraham said, “No. There’s a big gulf between heaven and hell. You can’t come here and we won’t let Lazarus leave.” And so, Lazarus kept enjoying heaven and the rich man kept suffering in hell.

In the past, I’ve read this story and concluded that the rich man must have been a terrible sinner who’d acquired his wealth by dishonesty or something. Or, that he was a materialist who shafted other people. But Jesus doesn’t say any of these things about the rich man.

The rich man, in fact, had another problem. It’s one that I sometimes have. Maybe you do too.

There’s an email circulating through cyberspace. (Although I found it in a book.) It’s a list of “10 Signs Your Life is Getting Out of Control.” I’ll just read a few of them: Sign #4: You chat several times a day with a stranger from South Africa, but you haven’t spoken with your next-door neighbor yet this year. #3: Your daughter sells Girl Scout cookies via her web site. #6: Your reason for not staying in touch with family is that they don’t have email addresses. And, sign #10: [This is my favorite one.] You call your son’s beeper to let him know it’s time to eat. He e-mails back from his bedroom, “What’s for dinner?”

It is so easy and so tempting for us to keep a low profile in life, isn’t it? We think that if we limit our contact with the outside world or make it as impersonal as possible, our lives will be problem-free. The rich man in Jesus’ story wasn’t a bad man. He just didn’t want to soil his hands or wrinkle his brow with other people’s problems. Jesus says that attitude eventually leads to hell.

But when we let Jesus’ love infect our hearts, we dare to interact with the messy lives of the people around us. We dare to be good neighbors.

A Lutheran colleague told me about an elderly member of his congregation. Her old friends had either died or moved away from the neighborhood in which she’d lived for decades. In their place were people of different races and ethnic backgrounds. She wasn’t prejudiced, but she wasn’t sure that she had the energy she needed to form new friendships with these new neighbors. Finally though, she told this pastor that she’d made a decision: “I may not have room in my heart for these people, but I’m willing to let God make room.”

God makes room in heaven for those who make room for Jesus and for others in their lives and hearts, for those who seek to know the names of their neighbors and dare to get involved in their lives...when we let Jesus so live inside of us that like Him, we laugh with those who laugh and cry with those who cry.

Back in the 1920s, a young man had achieved great prominence in both Europe and America. He was one of those people it’s easy to resent because he was multiply-talented. He was a brilliant theologian, celebrated even in the secular media and a best-selling author. He was an equally brilliant concert musician whose concerts packed houses everywhere. He had been studying this very story from Jesus when he did a seemingly inconsequential thing one day. He got his mail. Among the items in his mailbox was a magazine to which he didn’t subscribe and which was actually addressed to someone else. But he opened the magazine and saw the picture of a medical missionary in the Congo. The missionary said that they had been successful in establishing hospitals in most of the Congo, but one area--known as Gabon--was still in need of help.

Albert Schweitzer later said that at the moment he read that article, he knew what he must do. Although he was a successful Lutheran pastor and college professor, he would enroll in medical school, become a doctor, and go to Gabon. His fiancé, who had expected a comfortable life in Europe, with forays to the most exciting cities on the planet, became a nurse. Together, they went to Gabon. Later, you know, Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize.

God doesn’t call all of us to go to medical school and spend our lives curing disease in Africa. But God does call us to make room in our lives for our neighbor, whether they live next door or in Sudan or Florida or Amelia.

The rich man in Jesus’ story lacked neighborliness, pure and simple. He forgot that each of us really is our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.

What kinds of neighbors are we?

Do we love others as we have been loved by God?

It turns out that there are no throwaway people. No one is anonymous to God and because He loves us as individuals, He calls us to care for and love the people around us who, even if they lack cash or fame or good looks or even good manners, have names and needs. God cares about janitors, billionaire entrepreneurs, the guy busking for contributions with his saxophone, pop singers, cooks, and presidents. Above all, our neighbors need for us to share Christ’s love with them, whether we do it in our words, deeds, attitudes, or prayers. And they all have a name: Child of God. We are their keepers.

This week, would you please pray for what spiritually-disconnected child of God you will invite to be with us on Friend Day on October 31?

And will you look for ways to touch the lives of those who may feel that life has thrown them away?

You could change someone’s life forever. And, as you open up your heart to be a neighbor who loves others as God has loved you, you could change your life forever, too!

["10 Signs Your Life is Getting Out of Control" comes from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion, copyright 2002 by Christianity Today International.]