Friday, December 24, 2004

Taking a Short Christmas Break

As you may know, my part of the country got slammed with a huge winter storm this week. My family and I spent much of yesterday digging out and helping others do the same. After taking our daughter to work (the roads were treacherous and she asked if I could do this for her), I stopped at a local establishment for the one last item on our Christmas list. I also had quite a bit to get done in preparation for tonight's Christmas Eve worship celebration and for Sunday morning. So, all these factors, along with exhaustion, prevented me from posting anything yesterday. My plan now is not to post anything here until the day after Christmas.

So, enjoy your Christmas holiday and I hope to be back blogging on December 26!

To all who make visits to Better Living, thanks so much!

And, feel free to check out the archives, if you get desperate for a Better Living fix.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Christmas Eve Message, 2004

Luke 2:1-20

You’d think that by now, I would have learned. Starting with my first year of seminary, I’ve now been presenting Christmas messages every year for twenty-four years. And every year, I try to go through the same process: I study the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth and then ask myself, “What new thing can I say? How can I really grab people’s attention?”

Ultimately though, I ask myself, “Why should I say anything new? Isn’t the true story of what happened on the first Christmas when Jesus was born sufficiently-attention grabbing to not need my added touches?”

So, I always end up deciding that the story of Jesus’ birth is stunning enough and important enough and life-changing enough on its own. I just need to tell it. I feel like the Project Apollo astronaut who, after going to the moon, said that while that experience was amazing, more remarkable to him than a man walking on the Moon was God walking on the Earth.

What’s even more remarkable to me is the way God walked on the earth. In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, writer Philip Yancey talks about sitting in a concert hall in London for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. During the performance, he glanced up at the royal box “where the queen and her family sat.”

Yancey recalled that a short time before, the queen "had...visited the United States, and reporters delighted in spelling out the logistics involved: Her four thousand pounds of luggage included two outfits for every occasion, a mourning outfit in case someone died, forty pints of plasma, and white kid leather toilet seat covers. She brought along her own hairdresser, two valets, and a host of other attendants. A brief visit to a foreign country [by a British royal] can easily cost twenty million dollars.”

Tonight, we celebrate the very event that Handel’s music so grandly commemorates--the arrival of the King of the universe in the Person of the baby Jesus. Jesus' arrival though, stands in sharp contrast to the ways kings and presidents, pop stars and top athletes, and other "important people" arrive, when they show up anywhere in our world.

As Yancey puts it: “God’s visit to earth took place in an animal shelter with no attendants present and nowhere to lay the newborn king but a feed trough...the event that divided history, and even our calendars [BC and AD], into two parts may have had more animal than human witnesses. A mule could have stepped on [Jesus]. [As the song, O Little Town of Bethlehem puts it,] ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.’”

In Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament, a star announced the coming of Jesus. But, in contrast to how we usually remember that event, the star that guided wise men to Jesus, probably got them to Him about two years after His birth. By that time, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had moved out of the cave-barn in which the little one had been born and into a house in Bethlehem.

But in Luke, the only special effects in which God engages for the first Christmas happens when He sends angel messengers to a bunch of shepherds.

Of course, in Old Testament times, Moses had been a shepherd. It was the job he took on after he’d become a wanted fugitive back in Egypt and couldn’t find respectable work.

King David had been a shepherd. But that was only because he was the youngest, homeliest, weakest, and least-likely-to-succeed member of his family.

Shepherds were nobodies. They were, one preacher has said, the people who got rejected from the biker gang. First-century Judean society considered them lowlifes!

Yet on the first Christmas, it was only lowlife shepherds who got the benefit of an angel performance announcing Jesus’ coming that must have made Handel’s Messiah sound like two year olds playing kazoos. No wonder they said to each other, “Let’s get over to Bethlehem and check out this news from God!”

Were they disappointed when they saw a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes laying in a barn? Not on your life and not just because the angels had told them what to look for!

When earthly royalty or leaders meet ordinary people like you and me, chances are they’ll try to dazzle us with their power. Michael Douglas’ fictional chief executive in the movie, The American President, says that the White House and its Oval Office, for example, were designed to be the “biggest home court advantage” in the history of the world, an intimidating display of the power of the President’s office and of America.

When God came to earth, He could have dazzled us. After all, you can bet that heaven is a lot more impressive place than the White House, or Buckingham Palace, or even the new Anderson Township Kroger’s store. Instead though, God laid His power and His perks aside to become one of us. He became a baby subject to the danger of a donkey’s clumsy hooves crushing Him to death before He could fulfill His mission.

It turns out that God isn’t interested in a home court advantage by which He can cut us down to size. Instead, He cut Himself down to our size so that He could lovingly shape those willing to surrender themselves to Him into the people God made us to be!

While our daughter was working with the college program at Walt Disney World, she said that often, she would think about Friendship Church. Frequently, when she did, she thought of the part of our Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship coming up soon. It’s the part that comes just before we sing Silent Night, when I read--as I will again shortly--the prologue to another of the gospels in the New Testament. The Gospel writer John, using terminology that people steeped in either Greek philosophy or Hebrew Scripture would have known back in the first and second centuries, said that God was the Word--the animating Power Who spoke into the dark primordial chaos and brought life into being. And then, John says, almost literally that “the Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us.”

He didn’t do this with luggage or extra plasma or toilet seat covers, valets, or attendants. God became one of us. In doing so, His mission was simple: To be our Savior by spilling His blood on a cross, sacrificing His life to pay the debt you and I owe to God for our sin...and then, rising again so that all who follow Him will live with God forever.

There’s nothing I can add to the incredible story of the first Christmas except to beg you to make it your life style to turn from sin and accept the gift of new living that Jesus offers us...and then to tell you, “God bless you, dear ones whom Jesus loves. Merry Christmas!”

[In preparing this message, I consulted Luke (from the Interpretation Commentary series) by Fred Craddock, among several other sources.]

With Just Two Clicks You Can Help Feed Hungry People

I try to go to this site every day. It's on the up and up and it will only cost you a couple of mouse clicks.

You May Not Have Known That This Organization Existed

Check out the web site of Democrats for Life.

Experiencing the True Meaning of Christmas

Relevant magazine has some great advice on how to experience the true meaning of Christmas. While it may be a bit late to implement the suggestions in time for this December 25, they all can help us develop a close relationship with God and by the time Christmas rolls around next year, the holiday will have a heightened significance for us.

Make Plans...Be Prepared to Have Them Changed

Father Myke, the New York Fire Department chaplain killed in the September 11 attacks, was fond of telling people, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him what you're going to do tomorrow."

Jesus' earthly brother James said something similar.

This time last evening, I was preparing to be part of my brother's comedy Christmas show at a restaurant in the Columbus area. I was to present the Christmas story.

But, we're in the midst of a winter storm that makes roads slow and treacherous. So, here I am, prepping for Christmas Eve worship and the service for the Sunday after Christmas. If God wants it to happen, I'll be there for the second show tomorrow night.

Eyewitness Account of Mosul Attack's Aftermath

An army chaplain has published his account of the attack at Mosul. Whether you support the war in Iraq or not, you will find his telling of the tale moving. You can also post your comments on the site, a great way to assure him and others in Iraq of our prayers for them. (Thanks to Hugh Hewitt and Glenn Reynolds for this link.)

She's Climbing for Kids' Sake!

Clermont County (Ohio) Boys and Girls Club executive director Nancy Beck is training for a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro along with her fiance, Jim. She's seeking sponsors who will make donations to the Club upon her successful completion of the climb, scheduled for next year. For more information, check out Nancy's blog.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

That Little Price-Buster is At It Again

I don't know much about this techy stuff. But this looks like a price break.

Insisting that others cry, "Uncle"...I mean, "Merry Christmas"... is a rotten Christian witness

Craig Williams has a few solid points to make about Christians who insist that clerks at stores they frequent tell them, "Merry Christmas."

When will these Christians---I would describe some of them as latter-day Pharisees---learn that they don't give the world a positive, compelling witness for Jesus Christ when they attempt to employ coercion in order to leverage acquiescence to their preferred cultural customs? (After all, forcing people to say, "Merry Christmas" as we sign our credit card receipts doesn't bring them any closer to Christ's kingdom!)

When will these same Christian legalists understand that Christ is interested in His followers establishing loving relationships with our non-Christian or marginally-religious neighbors so that they can become interested in how Jesus changes lives for the better and so, want to follow Jesus too?

When I opened my Bible to First Peter a few moments ago, I notice that the apostle's words have not been rescinded where he said:

"Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence." (First Peter 3:15-16)

Peter was no wallflower. He had a well-known penchant for shoving his feet directly into his mouth and for getting into dust-ups with people. Yet, through both humiliating experience and the inspiration of God's Spirit, Peter had come to realize the importance of sharing the life-changing good news with gentleness and reverence. (Notice he doesn't say "with arrogance and coercion"?)

That's how we twenty-first century Christians need to interact with our neighbors. Craig is absolutely right on the money!

God Can Be Worshiped Anywhere

The ancient Israelites worshiped God in tents. (I guess that you could say that their worship was in-tense.) Check out the blog of the US soldier in Iraq showing the tent-like structure in which they worship on Sundays and evenings during the week.

Recommended Reading If the Posting Gets Sparse

My days will be wildly busy for the rest of this week. Blog posting may be sparse. So, sometime during your Christmas holidays, you might want to take the time to read posts from my series, Why I Believe Christian Faith is True.

Here 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

Thanks so much for reading Better Living. The readership is growing every day. I appreciate your making it part of your daily dose of reading!

Book Deals with Historical Accuracy of Bible's Accounts of Jesus

Last night I began reading Biblical scholar Ben Witherington's book, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Da Vinci. From what I have read so far, I recommend it heartily. It is a scholarly, yet accessible, refutation of the totally unsubstantiated baloney that masquerades as historical truth in such junk as a recent novel being turned into a movie with Russell Crowe.

Making Room for Portman's Future?

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports this morning that Ohio governor Bob Taft is about to appoint his lieutenant governor, Jennette Bradley, to be state treasurer.

The treasurer's position will become vacant on January 2, when the incumbent Joe Deters resumes his old job of Hamilton County (Cincinnati-area) prosecutor. (Deters ran as a write-in candidate for the job when Mike Allen, current prosecutor, backed out of the race owing to a sexual harrassment lawsuit.) Bradley, who has a background in banking, will take her new job on January 3.

What intrigues me is that this would appear to confirm a rumor that's been circulating on local radio for many weeks. According to the rumor, Governor Taft will appoint Cincinnati-area congressman Rob Portman to be his lieutenant governor. Then, the rumor says, Taft will be appointed by President Bush to an ambassadorship, elevating Portman to the governorship.

Portman is wildly popular in southwest Ohio. In addition, he has strong ties to President Bush. He served in the administration of Bush the Elder and has acted as a stand-in debate opponent for Vice President Cheney. So strong are his ties to the Bush Administration that the House Republican leadership created a special position for Portman. In it, he essentially acts as a liaison between the President and House Republicans.

With two Republican senators and a bevy of statewide Republican officeholders in Ohio--there are no Democrats holding statewide office here, except on the state Supreme Court--the politically-inclined in the state wondered how Portman's political light could be allowed to shine outside of southwestern Ohio. Many feel that he has presidential ambitions or that he ought to have them.

Whether any of this will happen, I, of course don't know. I'm just a preacher and my track record as a prognosticator is, to the say the least, suspect. But it is interesting to watch these events unfold.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Peace on Earth?

Every Christmas season, we sing any number of songs that proclaim, "Peace on earth." But where exactly is the peace that Jesus is supposed to have brought to the world? Tod Bolsinger tackles that question in two recent posts on his wonderful blog. Here are the links:

Peace be with you...Part 1

Peace be with you...Part 2

Soldiers Need Armor...Astronauts Need Food, Oxygen, Supplies

As an afficionado of space exploration, I've welcomed this year's leaps toward privately-funded suborbital space flight. But, as was true when European royalty footed the bill for exploration of the New World, earthbound governments will still be the ones pushing the envelope into the "final frontier."

That means that the work of NASA and other space agencies must remain vital and strong. At the very least, everything should be done to assure that the men and women on the frontlines of cosmos exploration have the tools they need, including food.

I'm praying that the US astronaut and Russian cosmonaut currently aboard the international space station will receive their food and other needed supplies in time to continue their vital mission and to keep them safe and healthy. I also hope that NASA will get the space shuttles up and operational soon, so that the space station can become what it is intended to be: a beginning platform for going to Mars and beyond. Check out this story, too.

Reports from an Almost-Finished-With-Christmas-Shopping Trip

So, I got back from my almost-finished-with-Christmas-shopping trip a little while ago and I can report the following:
  • Most of the mall and stand-alone store parking lots are close to full. But eventually, you'll find a parking spot.
  • The clerks seem extra-friendly this year. One called every store within a two-hour driving distance in order to find the item for which I was looking. It will be shipped here and ready for us to pick up late on Tuesday.
  • Smiling and wishing people a Merry Christmas was universally welcomed.
By the way, Merry Christmas to you! God bless you!

Hooray for John Boehner!

Congressman John Boehner deserves applause and higher office for sticking to his principles when it comes to pork barrel spending. While many of his fellow Republicans spend our tax dollars, in the words of GOP Senator John McCain, "like drunken sailors," Boehner refuses to raid the federal treasury for budget-busting "earmarks."

Sunday, December 19, 2004

God Even Blesses Panicked Preachers

Gordon Atkinson (aka: Real Live Preacher) shows us in this post that, yes, sometimes preachers say things that they shouldn't and that even then, God is gracious. What a great writer Gordon is!

Joseph: The Power That Comes from Forgiving Others

Matthew 1:18-25
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, December 19, 2004)

A theologian and counselor once told the only slightly fictionalized tale of a married couple who we’ll call Ben and Betty. Ben was a man of moral rectitude, one of those somber Christians who was offended by any levity in church and saw it as his role in life to point out everybody else’s faults. Betty was an open, friendly woman who loved her husband as much as he would let her.

One day Ben came home to find Betty in, shall we say, a compromising position with another man. People who got wind of it were certain that Ben would send Betty packing. But out of deference to his wife’s words of repentance and the consequent obligation he felt, Ben chose to proclaim his forgiveness to her.

Though Betty was a good wife and did her best to make their reconciliation work, Ben was eaten up with feelings of resentment, anger, and suspicion. He couldn’t contain his impulse to constantly bring up his wife’s adultery to her. The loneliness and pain felt by Betty became almost unbearable. Ben suffered too. The longer he failed to truly forgive and be reconciled to his wife, the more isolated and hateful he felt.

Finally while offering up his obligatory prayers one night, Ben sensed the still, small voice of God saying, “Stop!” Ben remembered when Jesus said that if on our way to worship, we remember that we have wronged someone, we need to be reconciled to them. Otherwise, God will not accept our prayers, no matter how righteous we may seem. This is exactly why Jesus included the petition, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in the Lord's Prayer.

Ben realized that he had put himself in the place of God, sanctimoniously withholding forgiveness from Betty. Tearfully, he went to his wife and asked for her forgiveness. That was when their relationship began again.

These Advent and Christmas seasons, do you know who gets little notice? The carpenter from Nazareth God selected to be Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph. One Presbyterian pastor wrote a few years back that when he made an inventory of the most prominent Christmas hymns in his denomination's songbooks, he found that the ox and ass in the Bethlehem stable where Jesus was born got more mention than Joseph. (I'm sure the same thing is true of our favorite Lutheran Christmas songs.) Only two of the Gospels tell us the story of the first Christmas, Matthew and Luke. Luke tells the story from the vantage point of Mary while Matthew gets at it from the viewpoint of Joseph. But even Matthew tells us precious little about Joseph. By the time Jesus became an adult and undertook His public ministry, Mary was still on the scene, but Joseph was evidently already dead, a distant and unspoken memory.

We do know something about Joseph though. In our Bible lesson for today, for example, we learn that Joseph was “a righteous man.” But when that phrase is applied to him, it doesn’t mean that he was judgmental or unforgiving, as Ben had been. In Joseph, being righteous meant being in a relationship with God and others. Joseph was a person who sought to love God and neighbor as he knew God loved him.

Matthew tells us that when Joseph first learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he understandably disbelieved her tale of being visited by an angel and being told that that while she was still a virgin, she was pregnant, soon to give birth to the Savior of the world.

Joseph would have been within his rights, under the laws of that day, to have revealed Mary’s sin and demanded that she be executed. Instead, Joseph resolved to quietly end his engagement to Mary. He didn’t think that he could be married to her, enduring the pain of knowing that she had been unfaithful to him. But he wouldn’t cause her death over it either.

But that night, Joseph had a dream in which God told him, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”

I’ve always found that phrasing on God’s part to be interesting: “Don’t be afraid.”

Joseph had a lot of which he could have been afraid. For one thing, the whispers and the putdowns of a close-knit community saying that he and Mary had been guilty of sexual intimacy outside of marriage could have caused him fear.

So, too could other things he might have imagined his fellow Nazarenes saying: that he was a chump for acting as father to another man’s child.

Joseph might also have feared that, based on the evidence of her pregnancy, Mary had a penchant for catting around with other men.

But God tells Joseph, “Don’t worry about any of that. It’s just like Mary told you. She is a virgin. She will give birth to the Savior of the world. Take her as your wife.”

The word for forgive in the New Testament Greek literally means release. When we approach God in the Name of Jesus Christ, seeking forgiveness, God releases us from the debt we owe. “The wages of sin is death,” the Bible says. For our sins, we deserve to pay the penalty of death. But Jesus took that penalty for us. For Jesus’ sake, God releases us from our debt.

When we forgive others, there is also a release. For one thing, we release others from the burden of shame.

Once, while serving as pastor of a church in northwestern Ohio, my family and I had returned from a long day of Confirmation and graduation parties, followed by a visit to the house of some friends. The next morning would bring our five-week long Summer School, in which we taught eighty-five students about the Bible and Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. I had a few last-minute things to do in preparation for that. I went to the church building and entered one room to find a young man I knew, not a member of the congregation, watching a pornographic movie on our newly purchased VCR and TV. I wanted to yell at him and condemn him. Somehow though, I sensed that wasn’t the way to handle the situation. I simply told the young man to leave the building and I promised that I would never tell a soul. Except in this version nearly twenty years later, I never have.

Not long ago, I learned that the young man is a dedicated, almost model husband and father, active in his church and in his faith. I wonder if any of these good things would have happened if I, as a pastor, a respected leader in a close-knit community, had thundered at him and exposed his mistake to the world?

A wise man once taught me that if ever our God has erred, He always has done so on the side of grace and forgiveness, maybe we should do the same. Of course, God never has made a mistake, which should tell us that forgiving others is never a mistake. When we do forgive, it’s possible that we may release the people forgiven from the burden of shame, liberating them to become the people Jesus died to help them be!

When we forgive, we also release ourselves from the wall that our unwillingness to forgive builds up between God and us. In the mythic tale of Ben and Betty, Ben finally released himself to receive the blessings of God when he forgave his wife.

There have been people in my life who have wounded me deeply, sometimes causing me to doubt my own self-worth or my ability to do anything constructive. The wounds have sometimes hurt so badly that I haven’t wanted to forgive. In times like these, I go to God and I honestly tell Him, “Lord, I don’t want to forgive. But because I know Your will, I want to want to forgive others.”

What I have learned is that honest confession has been enough for our gracious God. Somehow, he takes my weak resolve and fills the space between me and those who have hurt me with his forgiving grace for others. Soon, I really do forgive those people and God empowers me to live and love in confidence and hope.

Even before God came to him in his dream, Joseph had resolved to release Mary of her punishment when he decided to quietly end their marriage arrangement. That truly righteous decision shows that Joseph was qualified to undertake the mission God had in mind for him, to act as the earthly father of the Savior of the world.

When we forgive others, it’s like getting heart bypass surgery. The impediments that prevent the power and grace of God from flowing into our lives are removed! The ability of Satan to create static in our relationships is forcibly erased.

So much of what God intends to do in this world depends on the willingness of His followers--people like Joseph and you and me--to forgive as we have been forgiven by God.

It was just before Christmas and Kayleen Reusser was taking her six-month old baby for an immunization shot. Her head ached, leading her to think that she was coming down with the flu. She’d just learned that her husband could soon be laid off from his job. She was in a foul mood as she unbuckled the baby from her car seat.

A honk from the truck behind her expressed impatience that Kayleen was blocking traffic on the one-way street in front of her doctor’s office. When she finally had her little one cradled in her arms, she realized that she had parked in a delivery zone and that the man honking the horn was trying to deliver a package to the building where Kayleen was headed.

Upset that she hadn’t noticed where she was parking, she put her baby back in the car and drove more than a block away before she could find a spot to park. After she managed to parallel park in a tight spot, she got out of a car and found the delivery truck driver standing outside. She braced herself for a tongue-lashing.

Instead, the driver said, “Sorry about that back there.” Kayleen noted a “strong note of apology” in his voice. “I saw you had a baby,” he said, “but there wasn’t a place big enough for me to park in.” Kayleen apologized too. “I’d like to give this to you,” the man said. He held out a mug with his company’s name on the side. He smiled and said, “Merry Christmas” and “sprinted away as fast as he dared on the slick pavement.”

Kayleen writes: “...that mug now has a permanent place on my kitchen windowsill. It serves as a constant reminder to me of the way that driver showed unexpected kindness and forgiveness to me that day. It also reminds me of the way God consistently forgives each of us even when we deserve it the least.

“Seeing that mug each morning as I begin my day inspires me to work on showing that same kindness and forgiveness to everyone I encounter--clerks, cashiers, complete strangers--not just at Christmas, but every day of the year.”

Jesus has come into our lives to bring us the forgiveness of God. May we, like Joseph, live that forgiveness toward others so that we and they are released to live life with all the joy and passion and freedom from fear that God wants us to enjoy.

[I have searched through many of my books in an effort to find where I originally read of the slightly-fictionalized tale of Ben and Betty. But I couldn't find it. I apologize to its unknown author.

[Kayleen Reusser tells the true story of the forgiving parcel delivery man in the collection of Christmas stories, Christmas: Celebrating the Joy of Faith and Family God's Way.]

A Site For Finding Information on Darfur, Sudan

Sudan: The Passion of the Present continues to be a sterling resource for information and inspiration for action in response to the genocide happening in the Darfur region of Sudan. Let's keep praying about this situation, writing to public officials about it, and taking practical steps to end this dreadful crisis!

Another Perspective on US Poll Regarding Treatment of Muslim-Americans and Other Muslims in Country

Deborah White, politically liberal and an evangelical Christian, shares my concern over a recent poll showing many Americans favor what can only be described as the mistreatment of Muslims.

TIME Redeems My Reputation As Prognosticator

After my recent predictions that the Saint Louis Cardinals would win the World Series and Jason White would pick up his second Heisman Trophy failed to come true, my reputation as a soothsayer was, shall we say, suspect.

But with TIME's selection of President George W. Bush as its Person of the Year, I feel somewhat redeemed as a prognosticator. Thank you, TIME magazine. (Of course, it was relatively easy to get this one right. There were no real viable alternative contenders this past year.)

One of my predictions still out there: Donald Rumsfeld will leave the Pentagon within the next several weeks. (I'm using the term "several" because, even 207 weeks, roughly the number left until the end of Mr. Bush's second term could, in other than a strict constructionist view, be described as "several" weeks.)

Congratulation to TIME's Blog of the Year

Powerline, the conservative blog authored by three different people and which broke the story about what has come to be called Rathergate, has been named 'blog of the year' in the issue of TIME magazine hitting newsstands tomorrow. Congratulations!