Saturday, December 18, 2004

A Disturbing Article

This is a disturbing article. Fear can turn us into monsters if we're not careful.

An Excellent Slant on Mary as a Model of Faith in Christ

Tod Bolsinger, a Presbyterian pastor in California, spoke about Mary as a model of faithfulness to Christ on the same Sunday I did. I love his message, here.

The Subversiveness of Christmas

Craig Williams has authored a thoughtful piece on his blog which he calls 'Advent Morality.' It deals with the implications for our lives of Mary's song in the Gospel of Luke's account of Jesus' birth and what exactly God's will is for our lives. Craig avoids what have become Christian cliches and instead upholds what God tells us about His will through the Christ Child. Bravo, Craig!

Also, take a look at my message on Mary, here.

Note to Self: When It Comes to People, Things Change

Note to self: When it comes to people, things change. So don't be so certain that you know what you think you know.

After the November 2 election, I dismissed the assertions of some Democrats that because President Bush won re-election with about 51% of the vote, he lacked a mandate to aggressively pursue the agenda he touted during the campaign.

For one thing, the argument seemed hypocritical. Bill Clinton, for example, didn't receive majority votes in either 1992 or 1996. Yet, I couldn't recall that any Democrat had suggested then that Mr. Clinton lacked mandates to pursue his policies.

Beyond that, I pointed out, the President had received a majority. So, clearly he possessed a mandate.

The President effectively said the same thing when, in his first post-election news conference, he spoke of employing the political "capital" that the American people had just given to him.

How strange it was for me then, shortly thereafter, to begin to see evidence that not only did Democrats disdain the President's mandate, so evidently, did some Republicans.

The first confirmation of this came, for me, when conservative members of Mr. Bush's party, perhaps in collusion with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, tried to scuttle the Intelligence Reform plan that the President said he supported. Whether these members believed Mr. Bush possessed a mandate for his policies or not, their very public opposition to the President appeared to give credence to the earlier Democratic assertions.

Mr. Bush ultimately prevailed in that battle. But it left me wonder if the President was going to have this sort of trouble with a Republican Congress on a national security issue immediately following his re-election, what would the next four years bring when it came to things like Social Security, the enactment of permanent tax cuts, and so on?

Then came the second reason for making the aforementioned note to myself.

In the days following the November 2 election, the member of Mr. Bush's cabinet who seemed to enjoy the most unassailable position was Secretary Rumsfeld. Secretary of the Tresury Snow had, it seems, been reluctantly retained in his slot by the President. But Rumsfeld was the only major cabinet member who had both chosen to stay and firmly endorsed in doing so by the President. Renowned as a bureaucratic infighter, Rumsfeld clearly won that war in the Younger Bush's first term.

Then came Rumsfeld's tour designed to boost troop morale, the question about armor from Spc. Thomas Wilson, and the secretary's response, seen by many (including me) as insensitive and disrespectful of America's military personnel.

Suddenly, several Republicans, representing various wings of the party, stepped forward to criticize Rumsfeld, some calling for his ouster or resignation and others saying they lacked confidence in him. John McCain, Norm Coleman, Trent Lott, Susan Collins, and Chuck Hagel are all Republicans who have said that it's time for Rumsfeld to go.

It's possible, I suppose, that these Republicans are orchestrating their comments with a White House that now sees Rumsfeld as a liability.

But it's more likely, I think, that Republicans in Congress may see the President's election mandate as far less pervasive than Mr. Bush sees it. The Republican Party, now clearly the majority party in the country, has become a big tent inclusive of many stripes of conservatism. In the next four years, Mr. Bush will have to do lots of legislative negotiating to get his way with Congress.

It's not something for the President to fear or rue. His is the common lot of all Presidents who preside during eras when theirs is the majority party. Franklin Roosevelt and his cousin Theodore found similar eras conducive to achieving many of their goals and having effective presidencies. Lyndon Johnson, confronting similar circumstances though, was unable to effectively negotiate their special challenges and opportunities.

Things have changed. The Republican White House, no longer members of the perennial opposition party will have to effectively govern by working policies through an increasingly diverse GOP congressional delegation.

If, within the next few days, the President regretfully accepts the resignation of his Secretary of Defense, it will signal Mr. Bush's acknowledgement of these new realities and his intention to govern as the President of the majority party.

Of course, I could be wrong because, after all, when it comes to people, things change. You can't be too certain that you know what you think you know.

Just for Fun: My Five Favorite Guitarists of All Time

1. The Edge (U2)
2. Eric Clapton
3. Stu Garrard (delirious?)
4. Joe Walsh
5. Mark Knopfler

What do you think?

Friday, December 17, 2004

Where You're At on States' Rights May Depend on Your Being 'In' or 'Out'

How one begins an enterprise has a tremendous impact on how it develops. That's true of companies and colleges, churches and countries. It can be good or bad. It can even be good and bad.

When the European powers colonized the New World, land grants were made to various corporations and individuals. Those varied lands over time evolved into individual colonies, each with their own institutions. Most on the Atlantic seaboard eventually became the domain of Britain.

Along came the American Revolution which saw the British colonies improbably defeating Britain and winning independence. But independence for whom?

There were two major strains of opinion about that question.

On the one hand there was the view of people like Thomas Jefferson. They adhered to what might be called a republican perspective. (Note the small r.) They believed that thirteen individual states, tied together in a loose and voluntary confederation, each of whose governments were closer to the people, had won the right to be independent and sovereign states.

Given the fears of distant, centralized governments, born of the colonists' experiences with Britain, this republican perspective may have been the prevailing view of citizens in the new United States of America. The majority's republican ideology informed the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. It also explains why there was so much resistance to altering them in spite of their ineffectiveness.

A second view, which, according to Joseph Ellis in his new biography, was the view of George Washington, held that the compelling reasons for the struggle to gain independence had less to do with the philosophical niceties of republicanism than the desire to be an independent power. Washington and like-minded revolutionaries didn't share the republicans' fears of a strong central government that could override the policies and laws of individual states. Writes Ellis:
Washington regarded the American revolution as a movement to establish both American independence and American nationhood; indeed, he did not believe that you could have one without the other. Most of the officers in the Continental army shared this view, because they had also experienced the frustrations of trying to fight and win a war without a federal government empowered to provide resources in the reliable fashion of the British ministry. The fear that haunted Washington was not of excessive federal power reminiscent of Parliament's arbitrary and imperial policies, but rather that of a weak confederation reminiscent of the Continental Congress's woefully inadequate performance during the war.
Washington, Ellis points out, in private correspondence expressed his contempt for the Articles of Confederation, adopted at the behest of the republicans. Washington felt that only a strong central government could help the newly independent states attain financial solvency and fend off destruction by other powers.

Eventually of course, a convention originally brought together for the purpose of strengthening the Articles of Confederation promulgated the United States Constitution. Patrick Henry, that devoted republican, condemned the new document, saying that he "smelt a rat." Thomas Jefferson, then in France, was initially quite cool to the Constitution as well. But eventually, the arguments which Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, dedicated federalists, and James Madison, then a bridge figure between the two major views, made in The Federalist Papers, prevailed.

The fact is that federalism and its concomitants, strong central government and states' rights, didn't necessarily result from a philosophically-driven argument about how the new nation could best govern itself, but from the exigencies of history. This is important to remember when considering the claims of Jonah Goldberg in an otherwise-brilliant recent column in the Manchester Union-Leader. There, Goldberg says:
For years I’ve been ranting that federalism is the greatest system ever conceived to maximize human happiness.
Yes, probably. But it's only an accident of history, the result of our colonial past and the needs of two competing bodies of opinion to work out a compromise to keep an embryonic republic (Washington always referred to the new nation as an "empire") from imploding or being beset by foreign armies.

On becoming the country's first President, George Washington had to be careful not to offend republican sensibilities. While he wanted to establish the new central government as the highest governing authority of the country, he was respectful of the tenuous compromise between those advocating states' rights and those in favor of a strong central government embodied in the Constitution. He also needed to be careful not to show any signs of taking on the perquisites or trappings of royalty. (In spite of the great care Washington did show in this latter area, he was increasingly accused of being a latter-day King George during his second term.)

To say that Washington was reticent about legislative initiatives during his presidency would be an understatement. He tended to stay out of and above the fray of legislative wrangling, instead mostly operating as an other-worldly father figure. What this meant was that Washington's federalist views sometimes prevailed and sometimes didn't, depending entirely on who else was championing them.

When it came to establishing a unified national economy, something in which Washington believed, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was a firm, insightful, innovative, and perseverant advocate. Here, the federalist view defeated that of the republicans.

The Constitution had left the organization of the federal legal system and how it related to the laws of individual states fairly vague. Washington wanted a strong body of unified federal law with little variation, if any, among the legal codes of the states. But he could not and did not push his view. In the absence of any spear-carrier for federalism, the states were given tremendous judicial latitude. So, the doctrine of states' rights was firmly established in legal matters.

For much of the country's history, I think it's fair to say that the notion of states' rights has been a convenient tool for those who may not have had particular passions for the doctrine, but wanted to thwart specific federal policies. Thomas Jefferson, for example, authored legislation passed in two different states, claiming that individual states could prevent the enforcement of federal statutes within their domains. Jefferson's notion of "popular sovereignty" was repudiated. Later, in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans, some advanced the cause of states' rights as a means of thwarting that struggle.

Beginning in the late 1940s, signaled by Truman's integration of the Armed Forces and Hubert Humphrey's successful fight to include a strong civil rights plank in the 1948 Democratic platform, the Democrats, genetic heirs of the republicans, came to be seen as enemies of states' rights. Increasingly, Democrats favored using the federal government to address a broad array of issues that might once have been considered the exclusive purview of state governments (i.e., education, voters' rights). Democrats were also seen as advocates of using the federal judicial system to do much more than what their opponents claimed that the Constitution envisioned for the federal government.

The 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate, signaled that their party, the genetic heirs of the federalists (the progression was federalists to Whigs to Republicans), were the advocates of states' rights. Unlike their Democratic counterparts, the Republicans advocated a limited federal government that took a hands-off view of what they saw as state perquisites and responsibilities. They also wanted federal judges who took a "strict constructionist" view of the Constitution, refusing to invent law and always taking into account the "original intent" of the document's framers.

Notice that these were the views of the "ins" and the "outs," respectively. While Richard Nixon succesfully won the White House in 1968 and 1972, he always had to deal with Democratic majorities in the Congress and federal judiciary still full of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson appointees. (In fact, it wasn't until ten years ago, that the House came under the control of the Republicans.) The Republicans were the congenital "outs" and as Goldberg notes in his column, speaking for persons of his own conservative views:
As conservatives have known for decades, federalism is the defense against an offensive federal government.
But now the worm has turned. A "conservative" administration is pushing policies that are seen by some as intrusive. "Liberals" are trying to combat President Bush by appealing to federalism and the doctrine of states' rights. Some conservatives, like Goldberg are disappointed by what they see as decidedly un-conservative use of power to achieve conservative ends. He writes:

The bad news, alas, is that conservative support for federalism has waned at exactly the moment they could have enshrined the ideal in policy. Just last week, the Bush administration argued against California’s medical marijuana law. Bush is also moving ahead toward a constitutional prohibition on gay marriage. After decades of arguments that Washington should stay out of education, Bush has made it his signature domestic issue.

It’s not that the White House doesn’t have good arguments for its policies. But it is impossible to restore federalism unless you start by allowing states to make decisions you dislike. Otherwise, it’s not federalism, it’s opportunism.

Another example of what Goldberg is talking about may be the current battle over the clean-up of nuclear wastes at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington State. The Bush Department of Energy is suing the State of Washington because of a state ballot initiative passed there which, essentially, regulates what the federal government does with the materials there. It's popular sovereignty all over again, it would seem.

What would George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey, and Barry Goldwater think about all of this? I have no idea. But I do know two things:

(1) People tend to adhere to the doctrine of states' rights most fiercely when the other guy is in power;

(2) Our arguments about states' rights and federal power would probably not be so pronounced if the thirteen colonies that won their freedom from Britain had originally been one colony. Proof again that history matters.

For Those Who Live in the Cincinnati Area

We just sent out this press release...

Captive Free, a contemporary music ministry team sponsored by Youth Encounter, will be performing in concert at Friendship Church, 1300 White Oak Road, just off of State Route 125, in Pierce Township, on Saturday, January 29, 2005, at 7:00 P.M. The public is enthusiastically invited!

People of all ages will enjoy Captive Free's inspiring program of Christian music, puppetry, drama, and personal sharing. Captive Free, a talented group of young adults, offers youth oriented music ministry in many churches and schools in our region of the country.

A freewill offering will be taken in order to support the ministry of Captive Free.

Youth Encounter, youth ministry specialists since 1965, is based in Minneapolis and sponsors eight Captive Free teams in the United States and five international teams that tour overseas every year. Youth Encounter is an evangelical Christian organization that offers relational youth ministry resources, including more than fifty junior- and senior-high youth conventions around the country.

The Captive Free team performing at Friendship on January 29, includes seven young people who are giving a year of their lives to this endeavor.

Kerry Boothby is a twenty-one year old who is in the midst of studying Business Sports Marketing at Mount Hood Community College.

James Brandt of Yorktown, Virginia graduated from high school in 2004. He has been extensively involved with other Youth Encounter projects and is an Eagle Scout.

Anthony Celia is a nineteen year old from San Diego. "I accepted Christ into my life when I was sixteen years old," he says, "and since then, my life has never been the same. I am so excited to be team this year and can't wait to see what God has in the future for me, my team, and the people we are going to meet."

Rebecca Huf is an English-born Australian who, for the past two years, has been living in Seattle with her family. There, she has been active in her congregation's music ministry.

Theresa Johnson, of Odessa, Washington, has completed one year of work at Trinity Lutheran College in Issaquah, Washington. She is studying youth and family ministry.

Rachel Johnston was born in Key West, but grew up in Woodburn, Indiana. In high school, she was active in many activities, including drama, the school newspaper, and show choir.

Amanda Topham is a 2004 graduate of Wittenberg University in Springfield, where she received a degree in Psychology.

In addition to the Saturday evening concert event, Captive Free will also be leading the Sunday worship celebration at Friendship at 10:00 A.M. on January 30, 2005. The public is invited for that as well!

Friendship Church is a growing congregation associated with the Lutheran Christian faith tradition. Worship features what members call "relaxed reverence" and people are invited to come as they are in order to experience the freeing love of Christ. Friendship's pastor is Mark Daniels.

For more information about the Captive Free concert or Friendship Church, contact the church office at 513-752-5265.

Baseball Christmas Wish

Randy Johnson looks to be going to the New York Yankees while Tim Hudson is on his way to the Atlanta Braves.

"Dear Santa: In addition to cleaning up the steroids mess, I have two other Christmas wishes for baseball: revenue sharing and salary caps. Baseball's beginning to look too much like 'YankeesBravesRedSoxAngelsDodgers and Some Other Speed Bumps on the Way to the Series.'"

Martinez Millions Major Mets Mystery

Forgive, please, the Variety-style headline. But I am baffled. Pitcher Pedro Martinez has huge problems in his pitching arm. Those in the know about his injury say that his arm is a time bomb that could blow any time. So why have the Mets given him $50-million for four years?

Any theories?

Thursday, December 16, 2004

More on the USN&WR Cover Story on Prayer

When I first mentioned that US News and World Report's latest cover emphasis dealt with The Power of Prayer and What People Pray For, I only had access to an emailed portion of one of the articles. (The online links weren't working for me.) I just read the magazine and both reports (along with the two sidebars) are fascinating...and truly fair to people of all religious persuasions.

Check out the following links:

The Power of Prayer
How We Talk to God
Results of Polling on Prayer
Beads and Blessings

The best book on prayer, so far as I'm concerned was written by Ole Hallesby. Called simply Prayer, it can be purchased from Augsburg Fortress Publishers.

If you're interested in learning more about what scientific studies are showing about the impact of prayer on medical conditions, I would suggest: Healing Words by Dr. Larry Dossey.

Is the Bible's Story of Christmas Reliable?

Mark D. Roberts, Harvard-educated theologian, effectively demolishes the garbage that passes for scholarship and conclusively demonstrates to the satisfaction of any fair-minded person that the story of Jesus' birth, told in the New Testament, is history and not hype. Check out what Mark writes and pass it along to everyone you care about! His series is called: The Birth of Jesus: Hype or History?

Classiest Pro Athlete on Planet Earth

This is a new award I just invented because it suits one guy very well. Cincinnati Bengals back-up quarterback Jon Kitna is my choice for this accolade. Kitna was last year's comeback of the year. Many of his teammates and Bengals fans were upset when, during the offseason, head coach Marvin Lewis announced that second-year QB (and Heisman Trophy winner) Carson Palmer would be his starter. But Kitna has taken the situation entirely magnanimously. Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer, one of my favorite columnists, has a terrific piece on Kitna, which appears in today's paper.

Who Will Be TIME's POY?

There's a lot of speculation right now about who will be selected TIME magazine's Person of the Year for 2004.

Some bloggers, with a degree of merit, are suggesting that what some call the citizen journalists of the blogosphere should be named collective Persons of the Year.

But if TIME's criteria for awarding this recognition remains for the person, place, or thing that has had the greatest impact on life in the preceding year, there are several possibilities that present stronger cases:

George W. Bush: Like him or not, President Bush rolled up a substantial majority in November's election, no mean achievement at a time when the popularity of the War in Iraq was diminishing, the economy was perceived as being sluggish, and his approval ratings never went much above 49%.

Carl Rove: It's unfair to call him Bush's Brain because the President clearly has finely-honed political instincts. But he definitely has been Bush's Strategist and developed an almost-prescient game plan for the President even as the Allied Van Lines truck was delivering his StairMaster to the White House on January 20, 2001.

Socially Conservative Christians: The politicization of Christian faith reached a kind of zenith in 2004, probably providing the President with his margin of victory. Socially conservative Chrisitans voted for the President with a religious fervor that, in their minds, melded the identities of Christian and Republican.

Wealthy Benefactors: Recent reporting in Business Week indicates that the super-wealthy have been giving to charities and causes at unprecedented levels this year.

It's interesting, really, because 2004 offers a dearth of real choices for POY. While cases can be made for bloggers and others, I've concluded the President Bush is the unavoidable and obvious choice.

Here are the takes of some others:
Jim Geraghty
Will Collier
Hugh Hewitt
Steve Rubel
Betsy Newmark

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True: Links to Entire Series

I've concluded my series on Why I Believe Christian Faith is True. My hope is that lots of people will find it helpful either in coming to faith in Christ or in experiencing a deeper relationship with Christ. Below are the links to all six installments.

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 1
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 2
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 3
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 4
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 5
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 6

Comedy (Most of it intended) for Christmas in Columbus

Okay, so my brother, comedian Marty Daniels, can be very persuasive. He convinced me that I should participate in the Christmas shows produced by his company, Bingos Clean Comedy. I said, "Yes" months ago, secretly hoping that Marty would forget all about it. But he didn't.

I won't be doing least not intentionally.

I will be the dramatic relief, if there is such a thing. My role will be to come out and present the Christmas story.

The rest of the show will be composed of Christmas comedy, Christmas music, and I'm told, Christmas magic.

So, if you live in the Columbus area, you might want to come out for an evening of family Christmas fun. Click here to find out more.

If It's Almost Christmas, It Must Be Time for a Commercial

Rob Asghar is talking about advertising, its pervasiveness and whether any of it matters. As usual with everything that Rob writes, it's good.

What is Harry Reid Up To?

Ryan Sager at Tech Central has interesting things to say about Senator Democratic Leader Harry Reid's recent comments on Supreme Court associate justices Antonin Scalia (almost laudatory) and about Clarence Thomas (disparaging).

The tantalizing theory offered up by Sager is that Reid was offering the White House a slam dunk confirmation process should the President appoint Scalia to replace the ailing and presumably-soon-to-retire Chief Justice Rehnquist.

But Sager seems to feel that with the mandate gained by the President in his recent re-election, he may be emboldened to appoint Thomas, seeking personal kudos and credit to the Republican Party for appointing the first African-American chief justice.

It's intriguing stuff. And it all may be true.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 6

Over the course of this series, I've articulated four major reasons for believing that Christian faith represents the authentic means of enjoying a relationship with God. Each of the first four installments have enumerated a reason. In yesterday's installment, I took a side-trip to explain what I saw as the significance of Jesus' resurrection for everyday living.

In today's installment I have two main goals:

1. To provide an overview of three different approaches to the same question I've been addressing--why Christian faith is true and therefore, worthy of our allegiance. Each approach will be represented by a major writer.

2. To lift up a suggested means by which doubters may come to believe that the claims of Christian faith are true and thereby, to enjoy a relationship with God.
The first major avenue to arriving at belief in the truth of the Christian witness is what I would call the empirical approach. This is well represented in a book by Lee Strobel called The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Strobel, holder of a Master of Studies in Law from the Yale Law School formerly served as legal affairs editor for the Chicago Tribune. In the late-1970s, his wife, Leslie, shocked Strobel when she began attending worship, got involved in the life of Willow Creek Community Church in Schaumburg, Illinois, and announced that she had become a Christian. Strobel was initially disgusted and thought that his wife's new-found Christian faith spelled the end of the marriage.

But, after a time, writes Strobel:

...I was pleasantly surprised--even fascinated--by the fundamental changes in her character, her integrity, and her personal confidence. Eventually I wanted to get to the bottom of what was prompting these subtle but significant shifts in my wife's attitudes, so I launched an all-out investigation into the facts surrounding the case for Christianity.

Setting aside my self-interest and prejudices as best I could, I read books, interviewed experts, asked questions, analyzed history, explored archaeology, studied ancient literature, and for the first time in my life picked apart the Bible verse by verse.

I plunged into the case with more vigor than with any story I had ever pursued. I applied the training I had received at Yale Law School as well as my experience...[at] the Chicago Tribune. And over time the evidence of the world--of history, of science, of philosophy, of psychology--began to point toward the unthinkable.
For Strobel "the unthinkable" at that time was that the claims made by the Bible and by Christians through the centuries are true: that Jesus, truly both God and human, lived a perfect life, died on an executioner's cross to atone for our sin, rose from the dead, and today offers forgiveness of sin and everlasting life wih God to all who entrust their lives to Him.

Strobel eventually came to believe those claims about Christ, later becoming a pastor.

The Case for Christ, in a sense, finds Strobel replicating for us the investigation into Christ that he once undertook for himself. Employing a journalistic style, he seeks out experts in a variety of disciplines--psychology, medicine, history, theology, scholarly Biblical studies--to demonstrate the plausibility of Christianity.

It's a fascinating study. But even if one is persuaded--and I mean, conclusively persuaded--by the evidence that Strobel collects and presents, it won't mean that the light of faith in Christ is necessarily going to be ignited in a person. I heartily recommend Strobel's book to all skeptics and doubters. But the most that it will do for you is open you to the possibility that Christian faith is the true pathway to God. Even Strobel, I'm sure, would concede this.

This leads me to consider a second approach, that taken by my favorite author, C.S. Lewis in his great book, Mere Christianity. The core of Mere Christianity's content is from a series of talks Lewis gave on BBC Radio shortly after World War Two. Lewis' is what I call the logical approach to faith in Christ.

He begins with the insight that, across cultures and through the centuries, there has been an amazing consensus about the existence of immutable rights and wrongs. While Lewis allows that there have been some variations in moral codes, what is more notable is the degree to which peoples have agreed on just what constitutes moral behavior and immoral. Of course, the appropriate question to pose in the face of this fact is, Where does this common moral code come from?

This moral code Lewis designates as "The Law of Human Nature" and asserts, I think with justification, that it is ingrained in us. But unlike other natural laws--Lewis mentions gravity-- human beings have the ability to act against it. In fact, Lewis talks about the irony of this Law of Human Nature: Most people, irrespective of their religious perspectives, affirm that it's right to do right, but all of us fail to do so consistently.

Lewis then asserts that it appears that there is "a Power behind the facts, a Director, a Guide," one who has implanted this Law of Human Nature in our DNA. But not even this assertion upholds the notion of God, let alone the Christian God, as Lewis is quick to point out. He has miles to go in his argument before making any assertions about the identity of this Power behind the Law of Human Nature.

Up to this point, Lewis probably describes a point of view to which all but the most rabid atheists--like I once was--could subscribe. As he points out, through the centuries, the vast majority of people have believed in the existence of some sort of Designer, Creator, or God.

From here though, Lewis describes the Christian conception of God. An intriguing argument that he makes comes in response to an assertion that atheist friends and acquaintances of mine have often made. Remembering his days as an atheist, Lewis writes:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too--for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist--in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless--I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality--namely my idea of justice--was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning; just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.
Into this world in which human beings know that there is a right way to live but fail to do so, comes what Lewis calls "the invasion." The world is enemy-occupied territory. That is, it's a place where evil has an upper hand, enslaving the human race, making it susceptible to constant violations of the Law of Human Nature, violations both small small scale (like telling "white lies") and large (like the Holocaust), none of which are inconsequential. The invasion to which Lewis refers is the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Lewis writes:

Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends...
Lewis then talks about the choice Jesus' presence in the world demands that we make. We must decide among three alternative views of Him. Jesus presses His case so emphatically that there is no escaping this choice. We must decide if Jesus is:

  • A liar
  • A lunatic
  • Who He says He is: God in the flesh and Savior of the world
Lewis then deals with the impact of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection and through the balance of this great book (to which I haven't done justice here) elaborates the practical implications for daily life that flow from the Lordship of Jesus.

I first read Mere Christianity shortly after I came to faith in Jesus Christ some twenty-eight years ago. I can't overestimate its importance to me. It articulated what I believed, felt, and thought about the universe.

But, as is true of Strobel's book, to think that Lewis presents a logically plausible argument for the existence of God will still leave the doubter in his or her doubt. Mere Christianity is a classic statement of Christian faith and it is a great work of art, in my estimation. As essential as clear thinking is for Christian faith, there is more to faith in Christ than clear thinking.

Ole Hallesby was a Norwegian theologian who lived until 1961. He is the author of a book I prize as much as Mere Christianity, called Prayer, which I've mentioned on the blog before. (And if I'm blogging fifty years from now, will still be mentioning.) But Hallesby wrote another great book, Why I Am a Christian.

In it, Hallesby talks about the movement from doubt about Jesus Christ to faith and how it happens.

His avenue to faith in Christ is the one that I believe is essential for all people: the experiential approach. The reason that most people doubt Christ and the claims of Christian faith, even in so-called Christian cultures or communities, is that they have never experienced the living and risen Jesus as a reality in their lives.

Hallesby asserts that truly experiencing Christ and thus moving from doubt to faith is not a matter of the intellect or the emotions. The reality of Christ can't be held captive to either thoughts or feelings. If Christ truly is a living being, then He must necessarily have an existence that is beyond our thoughts and emotions, just as the people in our lives have existences irrespective of what we may think or feel about them at any given time.

Faith is a matter not of intellect or emotions, but of the will. Not that we can will ourselves to faith. We can't. In a bad news world, we can't will ourselves to believe the Good News of Jesus Christ. But we can will to subordinate our wills to a Higher Will. We can will ourselves to be open to that invasion that Lewis wrote about, the coming of Christ into our lives.

This voluntary subordination or surrender of our wills to Christ's will for our lives is what the simple song so many learned as children is talking about, "Come into my heart. Come into my heart. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus."

When I came to faith in Christ, it was a slow process because my desire for God-like control over my life was so huge (an impulse that still rears its head every day) and because I am so slow to understand the obvious.

But as I investigated Christ and decided to try some of the pathways that are part of having an intimate relationship with Christ, I found myself moving from atheism to doubt to faith.

As I voluntarily submitted my will to Christ, I made a discovery: The more I submitted to Him, the more apparent it became to me that He truly was there, truly was and is the risen, living Savior.

This is precisely what Hallesby is talking about when he commends the experiential path to knowing God. Ultimately, it marks the path by which all come to faith in Him. Without an experience of Christ in one's life, there can be no true faith.

Hallesby says that there are two kinds of doubters. "First," he says, "there are those who love to doubt, because their skepticism shields them from the accusations of conscience..."

The others are what he calls honest doubters, people who want to believe in, trust, and follow Jesus Christ, but haven't found a way to do so. It's to these that Hallesby addresses the book, assuring them (and us) that it is possible to experience Christ and thereby believe in Him.

Here is the experiential pathway that Hallesby outlines:

"My first bit of advice," he writes, "is this: Read the New Testament." Of course, Hallesby anticipates, some doubting readers will object, saying that the New Testament, with its accounts of miracles and spiritual warfare, is precisely the reason they find it so hard to believe. But Hallesby points out disarmingly:

Jesus never required His listeners to accept and beforehand approve of a greater or lesser number of dogmas about Himself. He urged them rather to come to Him, hear His voice and follow Him.

What happened? All who honestly did so, experienced Jesus and soon became personally convinced of the truth of what He said about Himself. When they later gave expression to that which they had experienced and of which they became personally assured, the result was the New Testament Scriptures.
Contrary to the misguided pronouncements of people like the 'Jesus Seminar' or the stuff written in some popular magazines, the historical accuracy of the New Testament is increasingly affirmed by the disciplines of archaeology, history, literary criticism, and others. The Jesus you encounter on the pages of the New Testament is the real deal.

As you submit to meeting Jesus in the New Testament, accepting what you can and ignoring for a time what you find implausible, you will find yourself moving from doubt to faith. Without knowing what I was doing, I followed Hallesby's prescription and I can vouch that it works!

Hallesby urges, "take your New Testament and read it for the purpose of ascertaining the 'will of God.'" As you observe God's will as seen in Jesus as conveyed in the Gospel books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) or in other writings of the New Testament, Hallesby asks that you attempt to enact that revealed will of God in your life. He says:

If you will begin to do this, you will gain some entirely new experiences, experiences which will help you out of doubt into personal assurance. The reason that people doubt Christianity is simply this: They only think about it instead of living it.
Hallesby then recommends a second means of experiencing God: "My next bit of advice is this: Begin to pray to God. Begin at the same time as you begin to read the New Testament."

Hallesby advises that even if you feel uncertain about prayer or doubt its efficacy, pray anyway. Since prayer is nothing more than speaking "candidly and confidentially with God," Hallesby says that if you are doubter, you should simply acknowledge that in your prayer conversation with God.

Such a prayer isn't unprecedented. Once, for example, a distraught father asked Jesus to help his son, often convulsed by a demon from the time of his birth. The father's request of Jesus--a prayer--from a heart grieved and frenzied was, "'...if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.' Jesus said to him, 'If you are able!--All things can be done for the one who believes.' Immediately the father of the child cried out, 'I believe; help my unbelief!'" (Mark 9:23-24)

Had the man faked a level of faith that wasn't there, I wonder how Jesus might have responded to him. But in his will, this man wanted to believe in Jesus. Just so, Hallesby suggests, if we will honestly pray, indicating to Jesus that we want to want Him in our lives, we want to believe, He will take pity on us as surely as He took pity on that father.

Hallesby also advises that we shouldn't allow the fact that we can't see Jesus get in the way of our speaking to Him candidly. "He is invisible, it is true; but is not the real person in men [sic] also invisible?" he asks.

As you will to make contact with the God we can know through Jesus Christ, you begin to perceive His presence. You start to accept the truth of His promise to be with His followers always.

While employing reading and applying the New Testament and praying as two avenues by which to experience the presence of Jesus, he also suggests:

Search yourself daily before God. To do this, he suggests praying often the "deep and fruitful prayer" found in Psalm 139:23-24:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Hallesby assures that, "Every time you come in contact with the saving truths of Scripture, a sanctifying influence is imparted to your soul." In other words, as we stand under God's Word and let it penetrate our consciences, we're open to becoming more like the people God wants us to be and that we want to be.

A fourth pathway to experiencing God of the Bible which Hallesby talks about is receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Hallesby says, "In the next place, I advise you to participate in the Lord's Supper."

There are many varied understandings of what happens in Holy Communion (also called the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, and other names). In my own Lutheran faith tradition, we take a very literal view of Jesus' words in the New Testament where He's recorded as instituting the fellowship meal. Jesus uses bread and wine and we Lutherans believe in using bread and wine as we do what Jesus tells us to do. Jesus says that the bread is His body and the wine is His blood and we believe that these two elements are mysteriously and simultaneously bread and body, wine and blood, respectively.

But whatever understanding one may have of the elements, there is a broad consensus in the Christian community about what happens in Holy Communion. It brings Christ's presence and it brings forgiveness of sin. It draws us closer to God and to all other believers. As Hallesby points out, its effectiveness doesn't depend on your ability to understand it. Who can understand something so mysterious anyway?

Hallesby says that we shouldn't wait to receive Holy Communion until we understand it or everything about Christian faith. He writes:

You have a spiritual right to attend the Lord's Supper if you are a sincere disciple of Jesus, that is, one who would conceal no sin from Him but openly confesses to Him everything that troubles your conscience, one who trusts in Jesus...
The important thing is not to understand the Sacrament, but Hallesby says, "your confidence in Christ and your obedience to Him" when He says, "Take and eat; take and drink."

"Finally," says Hallesby, "I would advise you to seek the fellowship of people who, you are convinced, live wholeheartedly with Christ."

Speaking from personal experience, it was people like this--people who lived wholeheartedly with Christ--who finally tilted me from doubt to faith. Ordinary, humble people who lived with the same daily struggles, hopes, challenges, and joys that are the common lot of the human race, who were nonetheless empowered to cope and hope because of their relationship with Jesus Christ, made me willing to let Jesus into my life. They also encouraged and supported me as I posed my questions, owned my struggles, and invited Jesus to be my God and Savior.

Strobel and Lewis have, in their works, shown that faith in Jesus Christ is warranted by the evidence of history and by the rigors of logical examination. But until you we allow ourselves to experience the reality of Jesus Christ, faith will elude us.

I invite you to open yourself to experiencing the reality of the risen, living Jesus Christ. If you do, I believe that you will move from doubt to faith, and from faith to deeper faith. You will believe that Christian faith is true. It will be the most rewarding experience of your life!

To summarize the five pathways to experiencing Christ, they are:

  • Read the New Testament
  • Pray honestly
  • Submit to a searching evaluation of your life by God
  • Participate in the Lord's Supper
  • Get connected with those who have a deep relationship with Christ

Christmas Overthrows Our Power Trips!

Craig Williams at tabletalk has a moving piece on the moral and social implications of Jesus' birth, a gauntlet thrown down to our usual notions of what constitutes power. Jesus, Williams shows, is God's act of subversion undermining our standard operating procedures. Writes Craig:
Maybe the moral point is this: See in the humble coming of Jesus God's own values. See his understanding of power and righteousness and justice and mercy and love. Go beyond the sentimentality of the manger and see God's strategy for salvation. It is the antithesis of the worldly kingdoms we are part of.
Great stufff!

A Class Class for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

This year's group of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is impressive: U2, The Pretenders, Percy Sledge, and Buddy Guy! The 2004 induction show will be must-see television.

Has Anybody Seen 'Garden State'?

Rachel Cunliffe is a smart blogger from New Zealand whose judgments I respect. She loves the movie, Garden State. Has anybody else seen it? What do you think of it? Leave your comments below this post.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Just for Fun: My Six Favorite Christmas Movies of All Time

I couldn't reduce the list to five. So, tell me what you think...

1. It's a Wonderful Life (of course!)
2. Bishop's Wife
3. White Christmas
4. The Muppet Christmas Carol
5. A Charlie Brown Christmas (not released theatrically, but whatever)
6. Miracle on 34th. Street (the original)

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 5

In the first four parts of this series, I've discussed four reasons I believe the Christian faith presents a true picture of God and how we can be in relationship with God. The first four reasons have been:
  • The uniqueness of the Christian message, that our rightness with God is secured not by our efforts, but by those of God Who, makes us right with Him as a gift to all with faith in Christ
  • The deity of Jesus Christ
  • The death of Jesus Christ
  • The resurrection of Jesus Christ
In the third installment, I touched on the implications for us of Jesus' death on a cross, chiefly that by being a perfect, sinless human being Who paid the proper penalty for our sin, our debt to God was paid in full. All who receive Christ as God and Savior of their lives gains a full share in what Jesus accomplished on the cross.

But in the last installment, I promised (or maybe, threatened, depending on your perspective) to engage in an excursus to explain what Jesus' resurrection means for the follower of Jesus Christ.

First and most obviously, the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope. Before going to the cross, Jesus comforted His followers:
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?" [John 14:2]
The greatest fear that we have as human beings is the fear of death. But the follower of Jesus lives with the confidence that even beyond death, God will welcome us to eternity with Him. The resurrected Jesus is God's proof that He can give us eternal life.

Secondly, the resurrection of Jesus gives credence to Jesus' claim that one day, He will return, setting all right. In that same good-bye to His first followers, Jesus said:
"And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also." [John 14:3]
Thirdly, the resurrection of Jesus gives us courage. Martin Luther King, Jr. was, like the rest of the human race, imperfect. Since his death, it's been learned that he was guilty of numerous extramarital liaisons. Unfortunately, some of his most ardent supporters scoffed and laughed when he expressed a sense of guilt for his actions, deeming such concerns as quaint. I bring all of this up to say, first of all, that the basic trajectory of King's life was that of an imperfect man imperfectly seeking to follow Jesus. (Not unlike me or any other Christian.)

I also mention it to say that the reason King was able to keep up his peaceful fight for equality in America was because he lived in the certainty of a resurrection offered by a gracious, forgiving God.

On the night of his assassination, King spoke to a Memphis gathering and gave his famous, I've Been to the Mountaintop speech. The thirty-nine year old pastor revealed that like anyone, he would like to live long years. But he had a confidence about his future whether he lived on earth or not.

That's the confidence in which Jesus-Followers can live. They know that Jesus' resurrection victory is their resurrection victory.

Because of the courage that Jesus' resurrection imparts, Christians like King have, over the centuries been incited to fight for justice and "speak truth to power."

This is the same courageous confidence in which the apostle Paul lived back in the first century and about which he wrote:
Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? 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 8:35-39]
I knew a man once who was a regular church-attender and was in fact, actively involved in his congregation. He surprised me one day when he told me, "I'm a Christian in the sense that I go to church and I like the good things that church does in people's lives. It seems to make them nicer. But I don't buy all this baloney about a resurrection. When you die, you die."

I told him that I completely disagreed. "A Christianity without a resurrection is impotent, irrelevant, and a waste of time," I said. "I simply wouldn't be interested in it."

You see, the time-orientation of authentic Christian faith isn't to the past or the present. Christians are people of the future. We're in the orbit of eternity and each day we're moving toward it. The closer Christians align their lives with their resurrection futures, the easier it becomes for them to jettison things like old sins, bad habits, reticence about rocking the boat to advocate for justice, and fear of being different or of loving our enemies. When you know that God has given you a forever future, it's easier to follow the Bible's advice:
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God. [Second Corinthians 7:1]
In the New Testament, Paul addressed a group of people who thought like that man did, that the resurrection was a bunch of hooey. Paul wrote:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain...If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins...If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. [First Corinthians 15:12-19]
Don't settle for a resurrection-less faith. Ask God to help you trust in the promise of Jesus' resurrection and your life will be imbued with greater and greater quantities of hope, the certainty that Jesus will one day return and set all right in the universe, and courage.

China, America, and the Future

There are numerous discontinuities between the foreign and military policies of the administrations of Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger. But one continuity is their apparent benign regard for the Chinese government, its intentions, and its potential long-term threat to America. That's no slam on the Bushes as this was the same attitude displayed by the Clinton Administration.

While stateless terrorist organizations at the service of radical Islam have emerged as a clear threat to the United States, American decision-makers may be neglecting the potential threats of other nation-states, particularly that of China, which appears intent on forging ties with nations hostile to America, like Iran.

That appears to be the assessment of Mark Helprin, here. In this article he offers his inventory of the potential threat to America represented by China and his prescription for what America can do about it now.

One particularly interesting element of Helprin's article: China increasingly competes with America for Middle Eastern oil, thus adding, one is led to believe, to the urgent necessity for this country to develop alternative sources of energy.

Another: Retrofitting the American military for the mission of fighting terrorists may be shortsighted. Helprin suggests that terrorism will not last forever. But China, he believes, will be a threat to America in twenty years.

The President and Congress clearly have a lot on their plates. But, if Helprin is right, America ignores the looming threat of growing Chinese economic and military power, as well as its growing stable of "allies," at the nation's peril.

Who Are You When the Roof Falls In?

The roof of Zion Hill Baptist Church, here in the Cincinnati area, caved in last week. But the people of the congregation are showing the community that a church is made of people, not bricks and mortar.

Climbing Kilimanjaro for Kids!

Nancy Beck, executive director of the Clermont County (Ohio) Boys and Girls Club, is going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro next year. Not only is she undertaking this as a personal project, but because of Nancy's enthusiastic commitment to young people, she's also climbing for kids.

If you go to her web log, you'll be able to vicariously prep for the climb with Nancy.

You'll also find some information on how people can sponsor the climb, the proceeds going to support the work of the Boys and Girls Club!

Prayer in the News

US News and World Report has a cover article on what they describe as the "undeniable urge" to pray.

Intriguing Articles Explore Authenticity of Christmas Story

Mark Roberts, one of my favorite bloggers and the holder of a doctorate from Harvard, is writing a series of blog articles called The Birth of Jesus: Hype or History? They come in response to recent cover articles about Christ and Christmas that appeared in both Time and Newsweek. These are excellent articles and I commend them to you.

Q&A: An Interesting Premiere

While I certainly miss C-Span's Booknotes, the only TV show I rarely missed for years, I decided to watch the new Brian Lamb-hosted Q&A tonight.

Featured was David Levin, a teacher and educational/social entrepreneur, who is co-founder of a program called Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). I was stoked! You can link to the interview--either watching it online or reading the transcript--here.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

A Different Slant on the Kerik Withdrawal

For an interesting, sensitive, apolitical reading on the withdrawal of Bernie Kerik from consideration for US Homeland Security secretary, check out this post by the always-intriguing Michael Main.

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 4

In the first three posts of this series, I've enumerated the first three reasons I have for believing that the Christian faith represents the one true pathway to an eternal relationship with God. Those first three reasons are:

The Judeo-Christian faith tradition of which the Christian proclamation is a part is utterly unique among the religions and belief systems of the world. Rather than calling on devotees to prove their devotion to achieve holiness or a relationship with God, the God of the Bible reaches out to us, accepts us as we are, does the work necessary for us to have new life, and then commits Himself to patiently helping us become all we were made to be. This unique heart of the Judeo-Christian faith is something called grace, an English word that translates a word from the Greek New Testament, charitas. It's from this word charitas that we derive our word, charity, an unearned gift given out of the goodness of a benefactor's heart. This central reality of the faith in the Bible--grace--was summarized by Martin Luther in the last sermon he preached before his death: "We are all beggars." In other religions, people may be seekers or climbers or strugglers. But Christians are beggars, recipients of God's charity.

The deity of Jesus Christ. In some mysterious way, Jesus was both God and human. These attributes co-mingled in Him. He was clearly a man who thirsted, grew hungry, suffered, and died. He was also clearly God, forgiving sin, performing miracles, taking control of the elements, raising people from death, and numerous other miracles of mercy and power.

Jesus' giving of Himself on the cross. Such an act of self-sacrifice on behalf of a rebel human race that wanted Him dead is the perfect picture of love.

Now we come to the fourth reason I believe the proclamation of the Christian faith is true: Jesus rose from the dead. This is the absolutely pivotal distinction of Christian faith.

I'm aware of how difficult this is to accept. It was for me at one time. After all, while we may know people who have been resuscitated after their life signs have gone flat, but I'll wager that no one reading this has ever met a real-life resurrected person.

But consider a few facts:

(1) Jesus predicted that He would rise from the dead. For example, this is what the Gospel writer, Matthew records:
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’ (Matthew 20:17-19)
And in another of the Gospel accounts, that written by Luke:
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near Him, He asked them, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" They answered, "John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered, "The Messiah of God."

He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, "The Son of Man [one of Jesus' characteristic ways of referring to Himself] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third raised." (Luke 9:18-22]
Now one thing in particular interests me about these two predictions (two of several such predictions recounted in the four books of the New Testament called gospels). It's that they don't convey some sugar-coated triumphalism. Death would come for Jesus before His predicted resurrection. So would suffering.

There is evidence to suggest that among the reasons that the crowds who once so relished Jesus turned against Him was that He did not lead a military rebellion against His country's Roman occupiers. So certain were some that Jesus was going to establish a new political order in Judea that some of His closest followers asked Him for spots close to His throne. They wanted Jesus to be triumphal. They wanted an Easter without a Good Friday. Everybody loves a winner. We're not so keen on suffering servants, which is exactly what Old Testament prophecy indicated the Messiah-Savior would be.

Jesus makes it clear that, unlike the expectant crowds as well as His closest followers, His ends are not political. One gets the impression from reading His words closely that He regards what happens in the political arena as so much window dressing. He, on the other hand, is about the total transformation of human beings. That transformation will inevitably be expressed in how a believer approaches politics, of course, just as it will impact every other element of a believer's life. But Jesus refused earthly kingship precisely because He knew it wouldn't ultimately meet our deepest need.

That need, quite simply, is reconciliation with God. As I explained in my last post, we are born alienated from God. That means that we are separated from the universe's only source of life. Through His death, Jesus was saying in His predictions, He would offer Himself to pay the penalty for our sin.

Then, Jesus would rise from the dead, the sign and seal that He had conquered death for all who believe in Him.

(2) The tomb in which the lifeless Jesus was lain was empty. That was the discovery made on the first Easter Sunday morning.

(3) Hundreds of followers of Jesus risked death in order to tell the world that they had seen the risen Jesus. In the wake of Jesus' execution on the cross, it would have been risky business to be associated with Him or His movement in any way. Jesus' followers would have had every reason to believe that Jesus' enemies would like to kill them off, just as they had Jesus. But these once-frightened followers, who had abandoned Jesus on the night of His arrest, seemed to feel no hesitation about telling people that Jesus had risen from the dead.

There was nothing to be gained by them in taking this risk.

The notion that hundreds of people were all suffering from delusions that lasted for the rest of their lives is absurd.

So, too is the theory often advanced that the hundreds who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus were all part of an elaborate conspiracy. Name any conspiracy involving hundreds of people that didn't eventually break down.

In about 55 A.D., the preacher and evangelist Paul, himself once an enemy of Christian faith, wrote to Christians in the city of Corinth:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve [apostles]. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me. [First Corinthians 15:3-8]
When one considers the ways in which rational people like Peter, Paul, James, John, and others acted and how they risked their lives to proclaim the message that Jesus rose from the dead, one must at the very least concede that they believed it to be true. To me, it's inconceivable that all the witnesses of Jesus' resurrection were deluded, demented, or lying.

In my next post for this series, a brief excursus on the meaning of Jesus' resurrection.

Leinart's Heisman Win Proves I Don't Know What I'm Talking About

Regular readers of this blog know that I have occasionally taken on the role of sports prognosticator. Alas, I've been about as successful at this as Madonna has been as a film actress. For example, I predicted that Saint Louis would roll over all opposition to win the World Series this year. And the other day, I said it appeared that Jason White would become the second two-time Heisman Trophy winner. Wrong again!

Actually, I thought that several of the other Heisman finalists presented better cases for receiving the award, but it appeared to me that White's stats were good enough for a sports world that seemed to have installed him as the sentimental favorite.

Anyway, have I decided to give up on sports forecasting? Probably not. But whatever you do, don't put too much stock in my picks.

Tiptoe Through the Tulips

This site has all sorts of links on Ukraine and the Orange Revolution as well as suggested readings for the Advent season. Very cool!

It's Foolhardy to Pigeonhole People

Demographers and pollsters can be credited for having a good handle on the broad predispositions of people of varied nationalities, races, and religions. But it's foolish to think that we have everybody all figured out. This story demonstrates that. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit put me onto it. He, in turn, was led to it by Clayton Cramer.

A Great Way to Help the Troops Stay Close to Home

This post from It is What it Is conveys a great way of supporting military personnel this Christmas season!

This Post Cracked Me Up

There are some incredibly incompetent people trying to pull online scams.

Mary: The First Person to Follow Jesus

Luke 1:39-56
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, December 12, 2004)

It was our first Christmas Eve at the first church I pastored, up in northwestern Ohio. After several years of living in places like concrete block-apartments and fishing cabins, we were living in a house, the parsonage provided for us by our congregation.

We had made wonderful Christmas plans. Ann’s family would come up for Christmas Eve. We would have Christmas dinner and let the little ones open their gifts before the church Christmas Pageant. Then, after that service, we’d go back to the house, where the adults would exchange gifts.

Christmas Eve arrived and everything was going fine. We’d had our meal and the two cousins aware enough of things to do so, including our son, then three, had opened their gifts. I was upstairs, dressing for the service, when I heard a wailing.

It was our son. He’d tried on one of his Christmas presents, a firefighter’s helmet topped with a flashing red light and screaming siren. He’d been tearing around the house with this thing, but found it a bit top heavy. He tripped and fell into the sharp corner of a coffee table. He put a gash in his forehead and we knew that he’d need stitches.

So, my brothers-in-law and I took him to Henry County Hospital in Napoleon. We left in such a hurry, that I neglected to take a diaper bag and in the midst of the frenzy, Phil did what children do when their dads forget to take diaper bags. Here we were on a frigid Christmas Eve, me holding my son close, while one of my brothers-in-law held a cold compress on his cut to stop the bleeding, the windows rolled down to protect us from the stench. It was a wild ride!

Needless to say, my son, my brothers-in-law, and I missed my first Christmas Eve as a pastor. Our son, now twenty-three, still has a scar on his forehead, and our family has a Christmas memory that we recite to one another almost every year. And it underscores an important lesson: In life, don’t take your plans too seriously; expect the unexpected.

Sometimes, the unexpected things that happen in life are miracles from God. John William Smith was a young teacher who taught high schoolers in an old, semi-dilapidated school in the inner-city. Christmas was Smith’s favorite holiday and he determined to make this Christmas a special one for his students. He got permission to put a blue spruce Christmas tree at the very center of his classroom.

Then, he asked all 120 students he taught to bring one ornament from home. He was amazed at how well the kids responded to that request. Some brought homemade decorations. Some had even made special purchases, indicating that they probably had no ornaments at home.

His students were a raucous bunch, apt to fight at the least provocation. They even fought over who had dibs on where they hung their ornaments. If somebody brought no ornament or two ornaments, someone else was quick to pick a fight with them. Smith says that it was a terrible time for him: He wanted this to be a joyous memory for the kids and he feared that it wouldn’t be.

After the tree was decorated, Smith spent an entire school day, each and every period, explaining what Christmas was about, what it meant to him, and what he felt it should be like. In addition, though he didn’t know whether he should do it or not, Smith decided to read aloud to his students the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ birth on the first Christmas (see here and here) and then began to read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Of that, Smith says:
Many of [the students] were moved. I could tell. In one class, one of the girls began to cry when it appeared that Tiny Tim was going to die--not loudly, but someone noticed and ridiculed her. “Hey, look, Brenda’s crying.” “I am not,” she sobbed, “and I’ll smash your face if you say I am.” That’s when Jim [the biggest kid in the class, a kid who was tough but never looked for trouble] stood up....[Jim grabbed the boy who’d made fun of Brenda] the shirt collar. He jerked him out of his seat and held him with his feet about six inches off the floor...[and said,] “You shut your filthy, big mouth. Let her cry if she wants to. I might cry myself, and if I do, you’d better start crying too, or I’ll give you something to cry about. Now, I’m gonna hear the rest of this story, and I mean to hear it without no stops” [from you].
Smith continued reading the story and the kids loved it, for the same reason, he believed, that they had loved the story of Jesus’ birth. As Smith explains it:
“[Jesus] was poor and they were poor, and he was oppressed--the underdog--and they saw themselves as oppressed, as always being the underdogs--and they were. For all their toughness, Jesus and Tiny Tim melted them.”
Smith says that sharing Christmas with these young people brought something unexpected into their lives: the kindness, the gentleness, the love of a God so wonderful and so committed to us that He became a baby who soiled His diaper and years later, went to a cross to die for us, only to rise three days later, opening up eternity to all who follow Him.

God’s love, come to us at Christmastime, is a miracle. Today’s Bible lesson tells us that even Mary, Jesus’ earthly mother, thought so. She might have thought differently. (I think I would have thought differently were I in her place.) Here she was, an impoverished girl of maybe fourteen or fifteen, engaged and not yet married, a virgin, pregnant. An angel tells her that she is to give birth to the Savior of the world. She might have feared that people wouldn’t believe this fantastic story. The law in those days called for women who were unwed and pregnant to be taken outside of town and stoned to death. For much of the rest of her life, Mary bore the derision of many who claimed that Jesus was the result of Mary having sexual intimacy outside of marriage.

Yet Mary isn’t bitter toward God, even though God has handed her an unexpected and almost unbearable change in the plans she had for her life. Shortly after learning that she was to give birth to Jesus, she traveled to see her relative, Elizabeth, a post-menopausal woman who was also pregnant. She was to give birth to John the Baptist. Mary immediately tells Elizabeth how blessed she feels:
“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His Name!”
Mary became the first person to welcome Jesus, to believe in Him.

She understood that the very fact that God had chosen someone like her to be Jesus’ mother signaled something very important: God means to lift up the lowly and bring down those who arrogantly think they can live without God. It’s all there in her words to Elizabeth:
“[God] has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary knew that God is the master of interrupting our plans, replacing them with His plans for everbody's good! She knew what we must know, that in Jesus Christ, God reached down to touch and change us with His tough and tender love.

It was Christmas morning and Mass was being disrupted. A man, who appeared to be a homeless bum, wrapped in a blanket, and set amid the congregation, was snoring loudly. Father John figured the guy had entered the church building to get warm and had fallen asleep. Some church members laughed. Some expressed disgust.

But then it happened. A child asked, “Do you think he had a nice Christmas too, Mommy?” And another wondered, “God loves Him, too, doesn’t He?” Still another child asked, “Daddy, can’t we share our Christmas with him? Can I have some money? I won’t wake him up. Promise.”

A little girl stood up, moved toward the sleeping vagrant, and gently dropped some money onto his blanket. As Father John blessed the congregation signaling the end of the Mass, others--children and adults--moved silently toward the man, placing and dropping ones and fives and tens on his blanket.

Sometime later, the congregation gone, the priest approached the man and gently reached out to wake the man. It was then that Father John recognized him as Chris Gregory, a fireman and paramedic he’d known for years. “What’s this?” Chris wondered, as he saw all the money.

Chris apologized for falling asleep during Mass and explained that he’d been on three different fire calls the night before. The last one included a girl about to give birth who had sought relief from the frigid temperatures by standing close to the fire. She was in labor and Chris delivered the baby right there on the street. After that, he’d gone to the hospital to make sure the girl was okay and stayed longer than he’d planned.

So, dissheveled and sooty, he drove straight to Christmas morning Mass, intending to go home and sleep afterwards. He felt embarrassed that he’d fallen asleep during worship. But Father John made a suggestion. “Suppose we divide the money--all $600.00 of it. Half you take to that poor girl to help with her expenses. The other half I’ll take to the soup kitchen.”

When the love of Jesus comes to us, as it did to that Church one Christmas morning, amazing things can happen. We learn to lay aside our plans and instead, let God make plans for us. And we learn that His plans are always best.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, let’s be open to allowing God to interrupt our plans and to welcome Jesus in whatever ways He comes to us.

[Dealing with this text was inspired by a message by Pastor Michael Foss. The true story of the sleeping firefighter was told by him there. It originally came from Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas Treasury.

[John William Smith tells the true story of his Christmas with inner-city students in Hugs for the Holidays.]