Saturday, November 13, 2004

Saturday Night This and That

The leaders of Friendship Church and I spent eight hours today working on strategic planning. It was an exciting and absorbing experience and I feel blessed to be the pastor of such a great congregation!

A little bit of this and that...

Articles like this one from the UK, apart from their substance, always entertain me. We and the Brits really are two peoples separated by a common language.

This particular article sent me scurrying for my dictionary. What exactly do such words as mooted, coruscating, and shambolic mean?

Both mooted and shambolic appear to be British slang terms. The meaning of the first is unclear to me, although it may be rooted in the word moot, used of meetings or, of course, to refer to an irrelevant legal or debating point.

When one is shambolic, it means to be in shambles.

, a word that appears in our American dictionaries, is the giving off of sparkles of light.

Could my UK readers enlighten and correct me on any of this?

Articles from the UK also often find me delighting in names which, to my American ears and eyes, seem almost comic (i.e., Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, Lord Tebbit, and Darius Guppy). The latter name certainly seems appropriate for someone involved in fishy business. (It seems that Johnson's full name even seemed a bit hilarious to the Guardian reporter who wrote this piece.)

Whatever the merits or ultimate disposition of Mr. Johnson's situation, this article reads like one of those quoted from the newspaper in a Sherlock Holmes' story. All of which proves that Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, wasn't as creative as I thought he was when I first read his stories back in my junior high school days. Even today, more than a century after Queen Victoria's reign ended, British journalism uses colorful language and covers colorful characters.


If Pakistan and India are this close to working out a peace agreement over Kashmir, shouldn't we also have hope for the possibilities of peace between Palestine and Israel? One can certainly pray for that end!


Tomorrow, I'll be posting my Sunday morning message and I hope, some other things. So, please feel free to drop by then. Feel free also, to explore the other 340+ posts you'll find here and to give me your feedback. God bless!

Friday, November 12, 2004

More Reflections on 'Good to Great'

The elected leaders of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Church, and I will meet tomorrow for a day-long strategic planning retreat. In preparation for that, among other things, I've been reading Jim Collins' fantastic book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't. It had been highly recommended by several speakers at a recent gathering of professional and volunteer leaders of the Boys and Girls Clubs in the Midwest region.

The book had been setting on my shelf for some months. I dug in. Early on, Collins asserts that his findings have relevance not just to commercial corporations, but to other organizations and to individuals. I agree completely.

Some of the principles Collins identifies are as old as the Bible itself. This evening, I sent the Church Council my summaries and thoughts on chapters 4 and 5. Below, I've copied some of what I wrote:

Chapter 4 is titled "Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)." Collins asserts that of course, leaders must have and express confidence in the ultimate success of the aims of their organizations, but they must also be absolutely honest about the obstacles and difficulties. At the chapter's outset, he quotes Winston Churcill: "There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away."

"The good-to-great companies," Collins asserts, "displayed two distinctive forms of disciplined thought. The that they infused the entire process with brutal facts...The that they developed a simple, yet deeply insightful, frame of reference for all decisions." (pp.69-70)

Unlike so many organizations and leaders these days, the good-to-great companies of Collins' research didn't begin with a grand vision. Instead, he says, they "continually refined the path to greatness with the brutal facts of reality." (p.71)

This means, of course, that organizations need to be places in which the truth is told and heard. Collins enumerates the climate of such an organization. He says that it boils down to four basic practices: (1) Leading with questions, not answers; (2) Engaging in dialogue and debate, not coercion; (3) Conducting autopsies,
without blame; (4) Building "red flag" mechanisms by which problems are identified. On this latter point, Collins shared a startling finding: His good-to-great companies did not have access to better information than their competitors. The difference was in how they faced those facts and dealt with them.

The most stunning section of the whole book comes in this chapter. In it, Collins introduces what he calls, "The Stockdale Pardox." For Christians, this concept will be very familar.

Admiral John Stockdale was the highest ranking POW imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam during the war there. He was held for eight years and tortured more than twenty times. After reading about Stockdale's heroic resistance to his captors, Collins met the man.

Collins asked Stockdale how he and other American POWs survived the experience. "I never lost faith in the end of the story," he said. Stockdale simply knew that they could make it and urged his fellow POWs to believe it. He even told Collins: "I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade." (p.85)

After receiving that astounding insight, Collins asked who
didn't survive? Stockdale's surprising response: The optimists. These were the people who were part of the "fake it till you make it crowd," who would try to delude themselves and others to ignore the facts and simply because of a (probably internally-manufactured) feeling, named a date definite when they would be out. But when those deadlines passed, discouragement would overtake them, leaving them vulnerable.

Believe in the ultimate successful outcome of your efforts AND

Be absolutely realistic about the difficulties in your path.

Jesus said something similar to His followers: "In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world." (John 16:33) It isn't always easy to follow Jesus. The difficulty of it can cause us to chastise ourselves for continuing to follow Christ and seeking to do His will when it would be easier to live for ourselves alone. As we follow Him, others may deride us or think us naive. But we know that Jesus Christ has overcome the world in order to let us live with God forever and to liberate us to become our best selves!

We need to apply these sensibilities to our mission as a church. We need to face the harsh realities, prayerfully develop strategies to deal with them. But we must never be bowed by them. We belong to the risen Jesus. We belong to a God Who has brought Friendship further than any so-called expert ever thought possible!

Chapter 5 of Collins' book talks about "the Hedgehog Concept," based on an essay by Isaiah Berlin in which he contrasts the styles of the fox and the hedgehog. Hedgehogs aren't flashy or wily like foxes (read: leaders with charisma). (By the way, one essayist recently compared John Kerry to the fox and George Bush to the hedgehog. Kerry knows about many things, but is perceived as not having a central core of convictions. Bush is perceived as knowing very little--perhaps deliberately so, but having a small set of core convictions.)

Through steady work, evaluation, brutal honesty, and belief that success can be found, hedgehog leaders and companies uncover that one thing or one set of things that their organization can be great at doing. They're like the church I told you about in my last email: They find one thing at which they excel and do it to the max!

For corporations in Collins' study, they came to know their peculiar Hedgehog Concept when they answered three questions:

  • What are you passionate about doing?
  • What can you be best in the world at doing?
  • What drives your economic engine?

It's at the intersection of these three answers that, Collins says, companies find their Hedgehog Concept.

I would suggest that a modification of these three questions might be used for our congregation:

  • What are we passionate about doing?
  • What do we have the potential for doing very well?
  • What ministries/community engagement really floats our current memberships' boats?

Entailed in this process is learning what to say, "No" to. There are a whole lot of good things our congregation could do. But what is the one thing that should be our hallmark? What are the three or four goals we should embrace in the coming year?

Welcome, New Readers!

Hugh Hewitt's mention of this site on his blog has caused a pronounced spike in the numbers of visitors to Better Living. Thanks so much for dropping by!

I also thank Hugh for linking you here. I'm always honored when other bloggers recommend Better Living. It's a particular honor when the godfather of Blogging does so. (It's easy to imagine that on November 3, Hugh, like another "godfather," broke into several verses of I Feel Good, isn't it?)

Let me tell you a bit about myself. I'm soon to be 51 years old, married for thirty years, the father of two children (a son, 23, one semester away from Bachelors degrees in History and Philosophy; a daughter, 19, majoring in International Studies and set to be married next June), a pastor for twenty years, a lifetime politics and history junkie, and one-time candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives (I finished fourth in a five-way race earlier this year).

I was bitten by the political bug at about age 4. (I know; I was a weird kid.) So intense was my interest that when I was five, Mom and Dad arranged to take me for vacation to Washington, D.C. Eisenhower was President and I can remember hoping that he might drop in for lunch at the dime store diner at which we ate one day.

My first job came when I was about six. I sold Christmas cards and address labels door-to-door. Later, I sold potholders that my mother made to order. I also mowed lawns and delivered newspapers in my young days. I held a variety of part-time and full-time seasonal jobs--from loading docks to highway crews, from factory assembly lines to department stores, from fast food restaurants to janitorial services--as I worked my way through high school, college, and later, seminary.

At one time I was an avowed and pretty rabid atheist. But through my wife and the down-to-earth fellowship of her home church, I gradually came to faith in Christ. It changed my life.

But I understand and sympathize with those who find it difficult to believe, especially when they encounter Christian legalism. (That term is really an oxymoron, when you think about it.)

In 1975, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Social Studies Education from The Ohio State University and in 1984, I received a Master of Divinity degree from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus.

After graduating from college, I worked for a time as a substitute teacher and then managed an unsuccessful congressional campaign. For two years, I was a fund-raiser and administrator for the United Way of Frankling County. After that, I worked on the staff of the Ohio House of Representatives. I left there for seminary, having become convinced that God was calling me to be a pastor.

I'm the pastor of Friendship Church (Lutheran) of Amelia, Ohio, a congregation my family and I started fourteen years ago.

One of my most enjoyable activities these days is serving as vice president of the Boys and Girls Club of Clermont County. A few years ago, I was privileged to serve on five different committees for the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Billy Graham Mission. That was a tremendous experience!

For nine years, I've written a column for a local chain of suburban Cincinnati newspapers. Some of those writings appear on the blog. I also post my weekly messages and other thoughts that occur to me about life, current events, sports, education, and faith.

Recently, I've been doing some outside speaking. Just last week, in fact, I spoke to a group at the Cincinnati Woman's Club, an extraordinary organization. In December, I'll be doing special presentations of the Christmas story at shows produced by my brother, the clean comedian, Marty Daniels.

One thing for which I strive to be a stickler in my writing is fairness, something that seems sadly lacking in a lot of media---including new media like blogging---these days.

Another is honesty. If you catch me being holier-than-thou, please call me to the carpet for it!

Ultimately, I really do try to focus on the things that I believe make life better.

I hope that you find the site helpful. Now that I've told you a bit about me, please let me know about you, too. Feel free to leave comments. God bless you!

A Not-So Distant Mirror

Real Live Preacher, Gordon Atkinson, recommended the blog of Rachel Barenblat, The Velveteen Rabbi. (She's not a rabbi, but she plays one in the blogosphere.) I went to her site and found this interesting post on liberals and conservatives in the Jewish tradition. Unable to post a comment on her site, I dropped this email response:

I really love your site. Your posts are thoughtful and thought-provoking. I also love the name for it...Maybe the best name for a blog that I've seen yet.

For some reason, when I attempted to post a comment on your most recent post, the cursor moved along with each keystroke, but there were no letters to be seen. Given my abilities as a typist, it's likely that had I stuck it out, you would have read me saying things like, "vzpglo siunttpr..." Well, you get the idea.

I'm one of those "er Lutherans" you referred to in your post on "Liberals and Conservatives."

By some in my neck of the Christian woods, I'm referred to as a conservative and I am conservative on some issues. By others, I'm seen as a liberal and I am liberal on some issues.

But I think it's generally true that conservatives are less inquisitive about the views of liberals than vice versa. Speaking in reckless general terms, I imagine that in part this can be explained by fear on both sides of the equation. Conservatives tend to be afraid of the new ideas advanced by liberals. Liberals are afraid of being seen as heterodox.

On the other hand, I have seen liberals be as intolerant of conservatives as conservatives can be of liberals.

And people in both camps seem equally capable of disdain.

Good writing!

Mark Daniels

Generally speaking, I try to shy away from labels like conservative and liberal. It's gotten to the point where they may not communicate much. But I think I broadly understand what Rachel is talking about and for those of us who aren't Jewish, her insights are informative and to some extent, provide some of us with a distant mirror on our own circumstances.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Carter's 'Living Faith'

From two Republican veterans (Eisenhower and Hagel), I move to a Democratic one: Jimmy Carter. Carter was a graduate of the US Naval Academy and a Navy nuclear submarine officer. According to his wonderful book, Living Faith, the thirty-ninth President gained much in the way of discipline and a sense of honor from his time in military service.

I've been reading this book lately and today came to Carter's discussion of reaching out to others as part of one's faith in Jesus Christ. In this chapter, Carter begins by talking about one of the low points in his life: his loss in the 1966 Georgia Democratic gubernatorial primary election to arch-segregationist Lester Maddox. Carter thought for certain that this spelled the end of his political career and was angry that God could have let such an evil person win the primary.

In the midst of this bleakness, Carter's sister, the evangelist Ruth, came to visit him. She quoted the words of Jesus' earthly brother, James, found here.

Carter shares that initially, he found James' words nearly impossible to accept, that in spite of his sister's words to the contrary, he couldn't possibly hope to build anything positive from his humiliating defeat.

But Ruth assured Carter:

"With faith, we can make the right choices---measured not by our peers or by societal standards but by unchanging priorities. In adversity, Christ can give us enough courage to take a chance on something new. We are not to be discouraged or selfish, not to exclude opportunities for adventure and excitement but to live constantly expanding lives." (p.203)
Ruth urged her brother to tackle something out of the ordinary, "unrelated to my business or politics," Carter reports. Within a short time, Carter went on a witnessing mission in Pennsylvania. It would be the first of many such faith ventures taken by Carter and wife Rosalynn.

While admitting that "a living Christian faith is both demanding and rewarding," our most overtly Christian President also asserts that, "a lukewarm faith is easy to practice but worth little."

Lest you think Carter is self-righteous, he honestly and rather critically assesses his failings as a person of faith---indicting himself for everything from being self-righteous to failing to connect with poor people in his community.

This is a terrific and inspiring book, the memoir of a man with a first-rate intellect and an incredible work ethic who has been sustained and strengthened by his relationship with Jesus Christ!

An Impressive Guy

I continue to be impressed by Nebraska's Senator Chuck Hagel. He appeared this evening on Chris Matthews' show, Hardball.

Hagel, twice decorated with the Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam, was interviewed about the War in Iraq. Hagel was among the few Republicans who in the ramp-up to the war, expressed concern about it and has expressed chagrin that, as in Vietnam, insufficient numbers of troops were committed to the task. Hagel seems to view the war as a departure from the traditional Republican tack of the judicious use of military force and only committing troops to conflict with an overpowering, sustainable advantage. (That was the Eisenhower Doctrine and after the mistakes of the Kennedy and Johnson Years in Vietnam, it became known as the Powell Doctrine.)

Misgivings or no, Hagel refused to be pulled too far out into political or military autopsy by Matthews, and instead insisted that the task before America now is simply to make Iraq a success.

I appreciate Hagel's candor and refusal to get bogged down in counterproductive finger-pointing, no matter what one's politics. We need more of his brand of non-partisanship in the country, I think.

Bush Won...Really

Unless you believe that John Kerry, the New York Times, and NBC News are part of a vast right-wing conspiracy, bloggers who insist that George W. Bush stole the election nine days ago, need to emerge from denial. This is a non-political statement. None of the allegations of fraud hold up, as a report on NBC's Nightly News demonstrated this evening.

I salute Kerry for the magnanimous statement he and his campaign have issued, affirming that Bush won the election fair and square.

Veterans' Day Reading

On this Veterans' Day 2004, I spent a little time re-reading a book I first read back in high school, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, by the foremost American military leader of the twentieth century, Dwight Eisenhower. After Ike commanded the Allies in the European Theater during World War Two, he became the Army's top general. From there, he became president of Columbia University.

In the section I read today, Ike talks about his experiences at Columbia, beginning in 1948. Among his goals while there was to channel the university's strength "to serve the nation" by addressing what he saw as critical issues surfaced during and immediately following the war.

In particular, he identified three major issues:

"The mental and physical health of our young people. Weaknesses of mind and body among far too many of them had been startlingly revealed during the war years when hundreds of thousands were rejected from the country's service because they were below minimal educational and phsyical standards.

"The role of pressure groups in every area of our social and economic life. I would later make this the subject of my last address as President of the United States but even then the aggressive demands of various groups and special interests, callous or selfish, or even well-intentioned, contradicted the American tradition that no part of our country should prosper except as the whole of America prospered. Unless there were changes, I felt that eventually only the promises of the extreme right and the extreme left would be heard in public places.

"Third--there was a sort of torpor about individual responsibility and a disbelief that an enlightened and dedicated individual could, on his own, accomplish much for the good of all. This seemed to suggest a disregard for the meaning of American citizenship, and its obligations as well as its rights, or an ignorance of the opportunities for self-expression and self-development in our country." (p.348, Eastern National edition)
As a leader who had dealt with many American institutions, possessed a deep knowledge of history, and a genuine patriotism, Eisenhower saw much. His prescience is astounding. The issues he identified as American Achilles Heels still exist and have, I believe, only worsened.

In a sense, diagnosis is easy. Solutions are more difficult.

But I believe they begin with people humbly turning to God, admitting our common flaws, and trusting that God will give us the wisdom and the courage to deal with these problems. Only a country enlightened and enlivened by God can deal with the many facets of the issues Ike saw: academic institutions, social service organizations, government, churches, and other religious institutions.

I believe that only when we let the selfless God we know through Jesus Christ---the One Who gave us the golden rule to do unto others as we would have them do unto us---into the center of our lives can we learn to move from me to we, to take responsibility for the good of others, and strive to become our best selves.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Maurice Clarett's Allegations Against Jim Tressel and OSU Football Program

The allegations by former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett have certainly kept the sports call-in radio shows busy. In a nutshell, Clarett, who was himself found guilty of NCAA rules violations a few years back, claims that the OSU football program is dirty and unethical.

Big-time college athletics is, generally, morally ambiguous and in considering these allegations, I want to be neither a pollyanna or a homer. (I was born and raised in Columbus and am an Ohio State graduate.) But I would be very surprised to learn that Clarett's allegations are true. From what little I know of Jim Tressel, he seems to be a guy of integrity.

Furthermore, given the problems OSU had before he arrived on campus, it's doubtful to me that Tressel would be so stupid as to get himself into an ethical pickle almost immediately after taking over the program. (That's when these alleged violations would have happened.)

Because I was seven to ten years old when OSU's basketball team vied for national championships, I've always been more of an OSU cage fan than football. But Tressel has been great for OSU football. I love watching the games again, after years of being sort of indifferent. He clearly helps players improve and he is, from my perspective, the best game coach in the country.

I hope and believe that these allegations are untrue. Buckeye fans, including me, will be watching how things proceed in coming weeks.

To My Fellow Hypocrites

I’ve been pretty hard on hypocrites lately.

That thought came to me as I was praying this morning.

In my preaching and teaching recently, I’ve talked a lot about the importance of Christian believers living the faith that they confess.

Last Sunday, for example, I preached on the passage of Luke in which John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative and himself a preacher, verbally scorched the throngs who came to be baptized by him.

John was suspicious of the crowds’ motives, thinking that they were more interested in looking faithful than they were in being faithful. He warned them that spiritual hypocrites would ultimately be destroyed by God.

I then excoriated religious hypocrisy. I think I was right to do so. People who genuinely live their faith in Christ make positive contributions to the world and encourage others to follow Christ.

Hypocritical Christians, on the other hand, have an opposite effect. Waiters and waitresses have often told me that the customers they most dread seeing are the churchgoers after Sunday worship. According to the restaurant personnel, most of the post-worship Christians they encounter are pushy, unkind, obnoxious, demanding, and unappreciative.

Yes, that may be an exaggeration. Yes, they may be universalizing from limited experiences. And yes, some of them may begin with a chip on their shoulders regarding Christians in the first place. But even allowing for those possibilities, one can see how spiritual hypocrisy has hurt people and hurt Christ’s cause in the world.

Yet, I have to make a confession. I’m a hypocrite. I say one thing and live another, think another, do another.

In my better moments, I do love God and love my neighbor, as Jesus commands. [Matthew 22:36-40]

But I’m a lot like Saint Paul, who wrote in the New Testament portion of the Bible: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” [Romans 7:19]

From that experience, Paul concluded that a war constantly raged inside himself. It was a conflict between the part of him that wanted to follow Christ and the part that wanted to live only for himself.

In another place, Paul said that from moment to moment, he had to decide which side won this war and that without the help of God’s Spirit, he could never choose rightly. [First Corinthians 12:3]

That’s been my experience too. Those times when I fail to walk my Christian talk have come about when I’ve allowed myself to cave into my selfishness, when I’ve overlooked the clear teachings of the Bible, or ignored the promptings of God’s Spirit within me.

A few years ago, I wrote a column in which I called the Church, “God’s hospital for hypocrites.” The fact is, we’re all hypocrites. We all wear masks of one kind or another. The Church is a place where all hypocrites can gather and tell God, “We’re tired of pretending to be stronger, or smarter, or holier, or more capable than we are. We thank You for loving the people behind our masks. We need You, God, to help us become our true selves, the people You made us to be.”

Just like the recovering alcoholic or drug addict, believers in Jesus who want to follow Him authentically, may “fall off the wagon.” But as long as we recovering hypocrites continue to daily give our lives to Christ and draw strength from the fellowship of other believers, our lives will keep moving in God’s direction.

Those are thoughts with which I console myself. I hope they also help my fellow hypocrites, those in the Church and those outside of it.

And I'll try to stop being so hard on us in the future.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Two Other Blogs That Might Interest You

Here are two other sites I go to regularly...

Hugh Hewitt: Like I was telling my brother the other day, "Even when you don't agree with Hugh, you've gotta read him because he's so stinkin' smart!" If you look up the word "neo-con" in the dictionary, you'll see Hugh's picture.

Musings on the Body Politic: Writing under the nom de keyboard of foxwizard, this is a new blog being written by someone I've known for thirty-nine years. We went through junior and senior high school together. We were on the high school newspaper staff together. I was in his wedding. Like me, he's been a Lutheran pastor. Today, he does consulting work. He's a liberal Dem and committed Christian. (No, that last sentence isn't an oxymoron.) I don't always agree with him. (As you'll see from my comment on his post about President Bush's mandate to govern.) But this is interesting stuff.

Okay, I'm off for a meeting of the local Ohio State Alumni Association.

Please Pray with Me

Let's pray for the safety of the innocent people living in Fallujah, for the US personnel spearheading the operations there, and for the Iraqi soldiers participating. Please also pray for peace to come to Iraq and for wisdom to all leaders. I hope that you also will join me in praying that there can be peace between America and the Arab world.

What Are Your All-Time Favorite Movies?

I'd be interested in knowing what your top five all-time favorite movies might be...and why.

Here's my list. (For tonight, anyway. If I've done anything like this previously on the blog, this list supercedes earlier lists. Like all people with brains, I reserve the right to flip-flop. And no, that's not a political statement.)

1. It's a Wonderful Life

2. Field of Dreams

3. Casablanca

4. [tie] Dave
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

5. The Sword in the Stone

Monday, November 08, 2004

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent: Part 4

She was sixty years old and she was dying of cancer. It had been a long fight with early victories, disappointing setbacks, and now, the end was clearly near.

"Are you angry with God?" I asked her.

"I was at first," she answered honestly. "But then I remembered that He's right here with me. Somehow that helped me."

In the first three installments of this series, I've dealt with the question of why people are subjected to seemingly undeserved suffering. Sadly, suffering happens all the time. Just as it did to the sixty year old woman I visited in the hospital. Just as it happens countless times each day---from hospital oncology wards in every city in America to the streets of Fallujah where, as I write this, a fierce battle is raging. In our world, the innocent do suffer.

Given that reality, "Why?...Why do the innocent suffer?" may not be the right question for us to ask. One of my seminary professors, the systematician Donald Luck, used to say that one question that might more profitably be asked in response to those who ask, "Why?" is, "Why not?"

Why would suffering surprise us?

Why, given what we can observed each day, would we assume that anybody is exempt from suffering?

On this side of heaven, we won't really know why God allows the innocent to suffer. But we can know how to suffer, how to fight our suffering and the suffering of others, how to live and go on in a world where tragedy happens.

We can cope by leaning on the God Who suffers with us. Through Jesus Christ, God knows exactly what it's like to suffer undeservedly.

Seven centuries before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, He was described by the prophet Isaiah:

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
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.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53:3-6]
The New Testament book of Philippians, written by the first century evangelist and preacher Paul, quotes what some Biblical scholars think is an early hymn of the Church:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:5-11]
Through Jesus, God has linked with every aspect of our experience, including our suffering.

Jesus is the very embodiment of the word compassion, a compound word that literally means to suffer with. Through Jesus, God suffers with us and thereby makes our suffering more bearable.

And He doesn't cut and run when the going gets tough. He promises to be with us always.

He also gives us a family called the Church, people who will rejoice with us and cry with us, pray with us and hope with us, sing with us and be silent with us. This is so important!

More than that, the people who surrender themselves to Christ live and die in the knowledge that God gives life beyond our suffering. He gives everlasting life to those with faith in Him. It makes this life and all that can go wrong bearable. It gives this life meaning and purpose!

Karl Marx, the co-creator of Communist theory, used to taunt believers. He called religion the opiate of the people. It can be. But not for a real-life believer in Jesus Christ!

One of the contemporary heroes of Christian faith is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The South African cleric stood against the evil system of apartheid in his country. Each day brought death threats to his mailbox.

Why do you do it?, people would ask Tutu. I can't help it, he would say. I can't help speaking out against injustice. Besides, he said, death isn't the worst thing that can happen to a Christian!

Knowing that they are forever in the hands of Jesus gives a person a courage and a tenacity for living they wouldn't otherwise have. It doesn't make suffering easier. But it does help the follower of Christ to know that...

they don't suffer alone

they have life beyond the suffering

they, like their Savior, can suffer with others

they have the family of the Church to uphold, encourage, and share hope with them

they know that God will never walk away!

There's a passage of Scripture I've told my wife must be read at my funeral. If it isn't, I'm popping out of the box and reading it myself:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:31-39]
I pray God that He will help me to remember that come what may.

Strange Spirituality

Luke 3:7-14
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, November 7, 2004]

A friend shared a joke with me recently.

An atheist was walking through a woods one day, thinking how beautiful it was and how amazing that it had all come together through a series of cosmic accidents. Walking by a river, he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to see a seven-foot grizzly charging toward him.

He ran away as fast as his legs could carry him, but the bear kept gaining on him. After running awhile, the man tripped, fell to the ground, and rolled over to see the grizzly standing over him, reaching for him with his left paw and raising his right paw to strike.

At that instant, the man cried out, “Oh my God!” Time stopped. The bear froze. The forest went silent. Even the river stopped flowing. As a bright light shone upon the man, a voice from the sky said, “You deny My existence all these years; teach others that I don’t exist; and even say that the universe is an accident. Do you expect Me to help you out of this predicament? Am I supposed to count you as a believer now?”

The atheist looked up into the light and said a bit sheepishly, “It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask You to treat me as a believer now. But, could You make the bear a Christian?” “Okay,” the voice said.

The light went out. The river ran again. And the sounds of the forest resumed. Then the bear dropped his right paw...brought both paws together...bowed his head and spoke: “Lord, for this food which I am about to receive, I am truly thankful!”

The point is this: When the blessings of God come our way, our first response should be gratitude.

Sometimes though, we think that we’re too tapped out or too busy to thank God for His blessings. But how we live our lives, even in their most mundane and practical places, indicates not only the depths of our gratitude to God, but also whether God and we really have relationships or not.

Just before Jesus began His public ministry, His relative, John the Baptist, also had a public ministry. John’s whole mission boiled down to this: getting the world ready to receive Jesus as Lord, Savior, and God-in-the-flesh. John said that the way to receive Jesus was to repent. That means to turn away from sin and to live for God.

John’s ministry was successful, if you measure success by numbers. Droves of people went out to the Jordan River to repent and, as a symbol of their becoming clean on the inside, stood in the water and got cleaned on the outside. But John, to put it mildly, was skeptical about the motives, attitudes, and beliefs of all these people.

He barked at them and in the Daniels paraphrase of our Bible lesson, said:

“You snakes! You come out here wearing your pious religious masks, thinking that you’ll trick God into believing that you really want to turn from sin and walk with Him. But if you’re genuine and God’s new life has been planted inside of you, it’ll show on the outside of you, in the ways you live each day!

“And don’t get huffy with me and say, ‘What are you talking about, John? Our daddies, granddaddies, and great-granddaddies were all good Jews [or good Lutherans, or good Catholics, or good Baptists]. Our religion is in our blood!’ God could make good Jews [or good Lutherans, or good Catholics, or good Baptists] out of these rocks if He wanted to. [He could even make a good Christian out of a bear, if He had a mind to.]

“So, get ready. God is going to destroy all the hypocrites who claim to be repentant, but aren’t anything more than unrepentant sinners parading around in their Sunday best.”
You can imagine the reactions that John’s words evoked. No doubt some stormed back to Jerusalem, offended. There were probably nervous titters and sandaled feet shuffling on the Judean rock and sand. Eventually, some shouted or approached him discretely with questions.

The crowds ask, “John, if showing up here doesn’t prove anything, what are we supposed to do?” Keep in mind that this is a spiritual question. But John doesn’t tell them to pray, or go to a Bible study, or spend hours contemplating some religious symbol.

John says, “Share.” “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none,” he says. “And whoever has food must do likewise.”

The senior pastor of a congregation near Dayton has led many of the families there to adopt impoverished families in their area. The pastor’s family, which includes his wife, his children, and him, were connected with a family that also included two kids. At back-to-school time one year, his kids had their lists of needed school supplies as well as new clothes they wanted. But because the family goal was to provide their adoptive family with the same supplies and clothing that they provided for the pastor’s kids, the lists were pared down a bit. That pastor and his family tried at every turn to take John’s words to heart. Grateful for the forgiveness and love that God gives through Jesus, they tried to share.

Let me be honest with you. I wrestle with this whole business of sharing. I worry that if I share too much, there’ll be less for me. But then, I run across things like the letter we recently received from the mother of Sinanzinkosi Moyo. Sinanzinkosi, you know, is the little girl our congregation sponsors through World Vision in Zimbabwe. She lives in a tiny village there. Her mother’s note told a little about Sinanzinkosi. Then she wrote this about their everyday life:

“It had been much cold this winter. I usually warm ourselves with fire and warm clothes. Do you make fire? If you don’t, what do you use to warm yourselves?”
As I read that, I wondered how I could explain gas and electric heat, or air conditioning, or heat pumps, or that we usually only light fires when we want to cook steaks on a grill or create a Christmasy feeling in our fireplace. How could I explain that we don’t have to start a fire to cook our meals? Or, that if at a restaurant she would consider palatial, I’m told that it will be an hour before I get my table, I become impatient?

If the God we know through Jesus Christ has come to live inside of us, our spirituality will include a commitment to sharing.

It will also include financial integrity. Our Bible lesson says that “even tax collectors” were among those being baptized by John. Tax collectors in those times were, of course, dishonest businesspeople who practiced legalized extortion. Some of them who’d come to be baptized asked John, “How shall we live in a way that makes God the King of our inside as well as our outside?” John tells them that they shouldn’t collect more than their due. In other words, don’t steal even in the subtlest of ways. To some soldiers, John gave similar advice.

Now, let’s cut to the chase. All these people asked John a spiritual question: How do we live with God as the King of our lives? John answered by talking about money and possessions. This is a strange spirituality, isn’t it? No, I don’t think that it is.

Imagine that you’re drowning in a raging sea. The only thing standing between you and death is a slender two-by-four to which you’re desperately clinging. Then, along comes a helicopter. From it, a man is lowered at the end of a tether. He hold s out his hand to save you.

Now, folks, at this point, you aren’t going to do a cost-benefit analysis. You’re not going to ask whether this conforms to your personal goals for the year. You’re not going to worry about the risk or the effort. You’re going to let go of the lumber and grab for your rescuer’s hand!

Back in Old Testament times, God gave His Ten Commandments. The first one is the most important, summarizing all the rest. “You shall have no other gods before Me,” God says. Only God can save us from sin and death and futile living. Through Jesus, God has extended the hand of rescue to all of us. That’s why Jesus says, “I am the way...”

When we let anything other than God be our highest priority, it’s like clutching a piece of wood on a stormy ocean. Eventually, its power to save us will give out and only the outstretched hand of God can save us.

That’s why John the Baptist responded to those questions about spirituality with answers about money and possessions. He knew that the gods you and I are most likely to worship (by making them the most important things in our lives) are cash and stuff. To genuinely follow God, we need to be willing to let of our dependence on them and grab hold of God!

You know that we’re beginning our Fall stewardship campaign at Friendship Church, asking our members and regular participants to prayerfully consider how they will devote their time, talent, and financial resources to the mission and work of Friendship Church. There is so much we need and want to do at Friendship...

support missionaries in far-off lands;

conduct mission trips close to home and in impoverished countries;

print brochures to invite people to get to know God through Friendship;

send mass mailings to people in the area, telling them the Good News of Jesus and that Friendship is a place all people are welcome to get to know God;

have a new contemporary worship celebration on Saturdays;

actually pay our musical accompanists, music director, and youth director;

hold community outreach events;

provide dinners and warm welcomes to area residents who might not otherwise get good meals;

and so much more!

One of my favorite movies is The Right Stuff, the story of the Mercury space program. Among the most memorable lines, attributed to astronaut Gus Grissom, is, “No bucks; no Buck Rogers.” Financial resources were essential to the mission of space exploration.

In just the same way, we at Friendship cannot do all the good we want and need to do until we have the financial resources they require. It’s one thing to step out in faith; it’s another to put God to the test. To even attempt to do much of the ministry God is calling us to do at Friendship without devoting increased measures of our time, talent, and treasures would be putting God to the test.

Fortunately, the whole short history of Friendship is a clear demonstration of the fact that when we entrust ourselves to God and do what He calls us to do, He makes great things happen!

So, our stewardship campaign is in part, about supporting the future of our congregation with our time, talent, and money.

It’s also about being empowered to change the life of our community and world by sharing Jesus through our congregation.

Even more importantly, it’s about all of us making the decision that we will have power over our money and our possessions, rather than letting them call the shots in our lives.

This stewardship campaign is about all of us using God’s gifts to respond to God’s blessings with gratitude, with a commitment to sharing, and with integrity.