Friday, April 29, 2005

Great Quote on Christians Agreeing to Disagree

Here is a great quote from today's reading for the 'Forty Days of Purpose' spiritual renewal campaign. It comes from chapter twenty of Rick Warren's fantastic book, The Purpose Driven Life:
It is unrealistic to expect everyone to agree about everything. Reconciliation focuses on the relationship, while resolution focuses on the problem. When we focus on reconciliation, the problem loses significance and often becomes irrelevant.

We can reestablish a relationship even when we are unable to resolve our differences. Christians often have legitimate, honest disagreements and differing opinions, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. The same diamond looks different from different angles. God expects unity, not uniformity, and we can walk arm-in-arm without seeing eye-to-eye on every issue.

This doesn't mean you give up on finding a solution. You may need to continue discussing and even debating--but you do it in a spirit of harmony. Reconciliation means you bury the hatchet not necessarily the issue.

Like Being Peas and Carrots with God

[This is a message prepared for a Women's Renewal Weekend sponsored by our congregation, scheduled for April 30, 2005. The topic is reconciliation.]

Second Corinthians 5:17-19

Have you ever noticed how you feel following a big argument with a friend or family member?

I remember a few years after my wife and I were first married nearly thirty-one years ago, we had a huge fight. It started at home during breakfast and it kept going as we brushed our teeth, got dressed, and she did her make-up. It continued in the car as I drove her to her office and even in the parking lot of her office’s building on a busy German Village street in Columbus. Finally, we both looked at our watches and realized that we had to be going. She got out of the car and walked into the office. I drove away to my job.

I don’t know how my wife felt at that point, but I can tell you how I felt: Like someone was stretching my innards on a rack. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and it felt like I was living on one side of a great yawning chasm while my wife was living on the other.

To be honest, I can’t remember what the argument was about. And my wife is so good at moving on with life that she probably doesn’t even remember the argument. (Sometimes we have arguments over perfectly benign events that I remember and she swears never even happened!) But the point is that our argument of so long ago wouldn’t be a fading memory with us if it weren’t for the fact that somehow, some way, we found a way to bridge that chasm. We figured out how to be reconciled to each other.

I’m sure that apologies played their part. That’s another thing that my wife is always good about and I try to be. Erich Segal wrote in his now-ancient novel, Love Story that, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But I think that John Lennon, appearing one night on The Dick Cavett Show back when Segal’s book was popular probably was more accurate: “Love means always having to say you’re sorry.”

Apologies have a way of clearing away the debris that anger plants in our heads and hearts, debris that can become bricks with which we wall ourselves off from each other if we’re not careful.

If the way we feel after blow-ups with those we care about can be described as deserts, reconciliation is like walking in a lush garden full of fresh water and tasty fruits. (Sort of like the Garden of Eden!) When we’re reconciled with someone we love, it’s like being Forrest Gump and Jenny: We’re peas and carrots and we belong together.

In our Bible lesson, taken from the apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in the ancient city of Corinth, he writes, “So if anyone is in Christ Jesus, there is a new creation…”

That means that from the moment we put ourselves in the hands of the crucified and risen Jesus, God makes us new. It’s like we go back to the Garden and get new beginnings. The chalkboard gets erased, the flub-ups on the computer are deleted. All our sins are forgiven and we get to tackle life with the fresh breath of God filling our every moment.

That’s why Paul says, “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” That’s us He’s writing about, we followers of Jesus! We’re the people of the fresh start.

But how does this happen? Paul explains it this way: “All this is from God Who reconciled us to Himself, through Christ…”

Now, that’s amazing when you consider it. When two human beings reconcile, it’s always a transaction between two sinners. Even in those cases when one person is guiltier than the other, neither side is ever blameless.

But when you think of the chasm that existed between God and us, because of our sin, you see that we are the ones to blame and not God. As someone has said, “If God seems distant, you can be sure that He’s not the one who moved.”

You and I can shove God out of our lives. He respects it when people make that decision. But whenever God moves, it’s always toward us. That's what God has done through Jesus: Moved toward us.

Some of you know that one of my favorite passages of Scripture is another bit of writing from Paul, found in his letter to the first-century Philippian church. Scholars are almost unanimous in saying that in this passage Paul was quoting a song that early Jesus-Followers sang when they worshiped together in their homes. He writes this:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross.

“Therefore God also highly exalted Him and gave Him the Name that is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:4-11)
One of the values of these renewal weekends is that they give participants the chance to stop, take a deep breath, enjoy others’ company, and maybe even find God again.

But you know, the first time I went to one of these, I had to ask myself, “Mark, if you’re finding God again, how was it that you happened to lose Him in the first place?” I don’t mean that I’d completely lost contact with God. I just mean that, in a way, I had misplaced Him, more accurately, left Him out of my life, and coming to this weekend reminded me again that God is always as close as I want Him to be.

There are lots of things that can create chasms between God and us.

Sometimes, like the writers of the Psalms, we get angry with God; but unlike those writers, who kept on talking with God even when they were furious with Him, we cut off communications.

Sometimes, we get busy and feel that we just don’t have the time to be in fellowship with God.

At other times, we become so convinced of our self-sufficiency and ability to handle whatever comes down the pike, that we feel we don’t need God.

And sometimes, we feel so sinful or unworthy, that we convince ourselves we can’t talk with God.

If you’ve ever felt any or all of these things, this weekend comes to you with Good News!

God has built a bridge across the chasm between Him and you. That bridge’s Name is Jesus.

The turmoil in our hearts and spirits, akin to what I felt after that long-ago argument with my wife, can be calmed. It’s simply a matter of confessing our sins and all the other things that keep us from a close fellowship with God, asking Jesus to take them away, and inviting Him to be with us.

When we do that, we are reconciled to God.

It’s like walking in a lush garden.

God and we become like peas and carrots.

God becomes, whether for the first time or once again, our Lord, our Friend, our Shield, our Fortress. Through Jesus, we are one with the God Who loves us more than anybody else ever has or ever could!

Does Blogging, Unlike Conventional Journalism, Invite Engagement and Active Thinking?

Ann Althouse has an interesting post on how blogging, as opposed to conventional journalism and media generally, encourages active engagement, not passivity. It's thought-provoking stuff and I recommend reading it.

Here's the comment that I left on her site:
I understand your point, I think. I find it increasingly difficult to set aside the time to watch a movie, especially when I could be more productive. And that only refers to watching one at home because I haven't been to a theater since the Christmas day a few years back when my family and I went to see the forgettable 'Cold Mountain.'

Years ago in 'Rolling Stone,' Ralph Gleason did a column on Bob Dylan. He focused on Dylan's lyrics, rich enough to evoke ideas, feelings, and memories in his hearers and vague enough to invite such responses from us. Gleason concluded that Dylan was the practitioner of a "democratic art," allowing the listener to move beyond passive consumption to a kind of dialog with the artist.

That's high-fallutin' stuff, but it rings true to me and I think that blogging, with its immediacy and lack of middle people, allows for that as well.

Blogging is, or can be, dialogical. In that sense, it isn't passive, as most other forms of art or communication are.

On the other hand, ultimately, all media are passive. After all, reading a blog isn't like a brisk walk or time spent on the elliptical trainer. We can rifle through the millions of "channels" on the web--or, more likely, revisit the same blog haunts day after day--with the same disengagement that we bring to our TV remotes. (I heard the other day that the average person will change channels on their remote 350,000 times in an average lifetime. I don't know who studies these things, but there you go.)

If we define a lack of passivity as having and exercising options, doing so in the more rapid style that the internet makes possible, you're probably right.

But in a way, and this will seem like cyber-heresy, I think that we lost something when cable, satellite, DVDs and VCRs, iPods, the Internet, and all the rest came down the techno-pike. In the old days when there were three major TV networks and the fledgling PBS, if your set was equipped for it, there were more shared experiences. Revolted or not, Mom and Dad sat semi-patiently through the scream-punctured performances of the Beatles on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' knowing full well that Topo Giggio, Victor Borge, Russian circus bears, or the guy who spun the plates on sticks would be on next. Broad-casting was more than a technical term, it meant presenting omnibus and block programming to a broad audience. If we were to watch TV, we generally were exposed to lots of different things and who knows, might actually have our horizons expanded.

Blogging, at least in the sense of reading blogs, is not usually like that. Unless a blog-reader is an extraordinarily voracious net-cruiser like Glenn Reynolds, my guess is that most of us settle in to reading just the sites that please us or worse, the ones with which we usually agree. Under those conditions, blog consumption becomes a bit like listening to the narrowcasting offered by local and satellite radio these days. You don't have to suffer through anything new or different. And that, it seems to me, is the worst kind of passivity.


Thursday, April 28, 2005

Servanthood, Part 1: The Greatest People on the Planet

Not long ago, I attended a regional gathering for local professionals and board members associated with a major national not-for-profit organization. At one session, a staffer unveiled a proposed vision statement intended to guide the organization over the next few years. It was the handiwork of a committee composed of persons from across the US. The staffer wanted our feedback, which he said would be taken to the committee for possible incorporation into a final draft.

The statement contained one laudable bullet point after another and I was really impressed. Then came an item that, paraphrasing, said something like this:
"We will cultivate a new generation of leaders, providing them with training, support, and encouragement."
That seemed like a fine goal to all of us. Still, something about it bothered me.

After internally brooding over things for a time, I finally realized what it was: Not every person touched by the work of this organization was going to become a leader. Not every one of them even should become a leader. Furthermore, as important as leadership is, the success or failure of anything--nations, churches, social service agencies, families, armies--depends on one essential ingredient. That ingredient is a coterie of willing workers. Another word for these foot soldiers who provide the essential people power behind every human success story is servants.

I therefore suggested another bullet point for the organization's vision statement, that might read something like this:
"We will also cultivate a new generation of team players, people willing to subordinate their own egos for the greater good and do the hard work in the trenches that insures the success of any endeavor. To future generations of willing servants, we will give hero status and provide them with the tools they need to become first-rate servants."
Leadership and Servanthood: Two different terms. One term is marked by glamor, the other by indifference or disdain. One is valued, the other is overlooked. Type in the two words for a Google search and you see what I call "the dazzle disparity." Leadership nets 157,000,000 results; servanthood shows 77,900. And if you go to Amazon, typing in the same two words, you find that the online retailer carries 18,759 book titles dealing with leadership, but only 33 on servanthood.

There are any number of secular and Christian organizational theorists who will talk about servant leadership, a fine and important topic. But I don't know any folks on the lecture circuit, doing motivational talks, or penning best sellers who are focusing exclusively on servanthood. Few aspire to servanthood, for one thing, and most organizations don't seem to sufficiently value the skills or mindset that goes with servanthood to spend time, energy, or money to cultivate it.

But what's usually missed by those focused on leadership is that the very best leaders are servants. Servants, who think about we rather than me and who have the capacity for empathy that comes from doing the grunt work that servants do, seem to make great leaders with the ability to communicate with and inspire those they lead.

Take Ronald Reagan, for example. At Reagan's funeral last year, former President George H.W. Bush told a story I'd never heard or read before. In March, 1981, two months into his first term, Mr. Reagan was the victim of a would-be assassin's bullet and was, for a time, hospitalized. One day, while still in the hospital, Reagan knocked over a glass of water. Afraid that the duty nurse would be blamed for his accident, the President of the United States, then nearly seventy years old, climbed out of his bed and on all fours, began wiping up the water. Just then his nurse came to his room and discovered what he was doing. To me, there is something in that story of a man with a servant's heart that tells us a little about why he was such a popular leader.

But we've always valued leaders more than servants. And usually, we aspire to leadership rather than servanthood. I know that I certainly have for most of my life.

When Jesus lived on the earth, He recruited a group of twelve people with whom He shared a special closeness and who He mentored with intimacy and persistence. These twelve, later to be His apostles--sent ones--were to be charged with carrying the Good News of His life, death, and resurrection to the world.

One day these rather ordinary men got into an argument. The topic? Who among them was the greatest? For the benefit of these Muhammad Ali wanna-be's, Jesus gave an object lesson:
...Jesus...took a little child and put it by His side, and said to them, "Whoever welcomes this child in My Name welcomes Me, and Whoever welcomes me welcomes the One Who sent Me; for the least among all of you is the greatest." (Luke 9:46-48)
The provocative thesis of God-in-the-flesh was that the greatest people on the planet are not the leaders with twenty-four hour limo service and the personal jet, but the servant.

Is that true?

What does a servant look like?

What do servants contribute to our world?

How can we be servants?

I hope to explore these and other questions in this series which I can't promise will appear every day, but will show up with frequency.

Before closing, a confession: I'm not always a very willing servant. I'm taking up this topic as much out of my own need to learn more about being a servant as anything. If you'd like to learn this vital skill with me, I invite you to read these posts and to interact with what I write by leaving your comments.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Service Station of Distinction

The filling station/bait shop in Bena, Minnesota has an incredible pedigree, an unlikely designer. Rebecca Writes has the story (and pictures).

Bush for Ambassador? An Intriguing Idea

Looking for an alternative appointee to be US Ambassador to the United Nations? New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has a suggested candidate:
If President George W. Bush wants a die-hard Republican at the U.N., one who has a conservative pedigree he can trust, who is close to the president, who can really build coalitions, who knows the U.N. building and bureaucracy inside out, who can work well with the State Department and who has the respect of America's friends and foes alike, the choice is obvious, and it's not John Bolton.

It's George H. W. Bush, a k a 41. No one would make a better U.N. ambassador for Bush 43 than Bush 41.

Bush the Elder is eminently qualified. Not only is he a former President, Vice President, Congressman, CIA Director, and Representative to China, he once held the UN post.

On top of that, there is little doubt that George H.W. Bush would speak for the President, which would undoubtedly cause leaders of the international body to listen to him with special care.

Friedman claims a more important reason for wanting Bush the Elder at the United Nations, though. He says that "reforming the UN," a goal he doubts that current Ambassador-designate John Bolton can achieve anyway, should not be the US representative's highest priority. Writes Friedman:
I don't much care how the U.N. works as a bureaucracy; I care about how often it can be enlisted to support, endorse and amplify U.S. power. That is what serves our national interest. And because that is what I want most from the U.N., I want at the U.N. an ambassador who can be a real coalition builder, a superdiplomat who can more often than not persuade the U.N.'s member states to act in support of U.S. interests.

I can't think of anyone better than George H. W. Bush, with his diplomatic Rolodex and instincts, or worse than John Bolton. Mr. Bolton's tenure overseeing U.S. antiproliferation efforts at the State Department is a mixed bag: success with Libya, utter failure with North Korea and Iran. But no one can miss the teacher's note at the bottom of his report card: "Does not play well with others who disagree with him."

I have no problem with Mr. Bolton's being given another job or being somehow retained in the job he already has. He's been a faithful public servant. But why would you appoint him to be ambassador at an institution he has nothing but contempt for to do a job he has no apparent skills for?

President 43 only needs to call home to find the right man for the job in President 41.

Friedman, in short is commending the President's father for the UN ambassadorship because he sees him as a practitioner of realpolitik, committed to the kind of consensus-building that enhances US power and prestige.

Without disparaging Bolton, I like the idea of sending Mr. Bush back to the UN. Despite his age, he would do a good job, I think.

But one wonders how serious Mr. Friedman is when, at the end of his column, he writes:
And if 41 isn't available, well, then maybe he should try his sidekick, 42.
UPDATE: In her Wall Street Journal column of Thursday, Peggy Noonan says that the worst allegation against John Bolton is that he's got a temper. She then offers a catalog of well-known political, particularly presidential, temper tantrums.

Noonan concludes:
If he is confirmed he will walk into the U.N. as a man whose reputation is that he does not play well with the other children. Not all bad. He will not be seen as a pushover. Good. Some may approach him with a certain tentativeness. But Mr. Bolton, having been burned in the media frying pan and embarrassed, will likely moderate those parts of his personal style that have caused him trouble. He may wind up surprising everyone with his openness and friendliness. Fine.

Or he'll be a bull in a china shop.

But the U.N. is a china shop in need of a bull, isn't it? The Alfonse-Gaston routine of the past half century is all very nice, but it's given us the U.N. as it is, a place of always-disappointing potential. May not be a bad thing to try something else.

The 'Mystery' of Time and Learning to Enjoy It (Column Version)

[Here is the version, written for my column in the Community Press newspapers of suburban Cincinnati.]

When I was growing up, one family of comments regularly made by my elders was sure to cause me to roll my eyes all the way to the back of my head.

It included such gems as these:

“Time sure does go by, doesn’t it?”

Or, “You certainly are growing up.”

Or, “It’s amazing that you’re already seven [or ten, or fifteen, or twenty].”

These comments and others like them were all delivered with the same disbelief that Chicago Cubs fans would feel today if you told them that finally, in the Year 2163, their team will win a World Series.

It seemed to me the most obvious thing in the world that time went by and that people aged.

But lately, I’ve begun to think that all those comments weren’t so dumb after all.

Our son, who will be 24 in a few months, is graduating from college and is working for a time before heading off to graduate school. He’s seeing a wonderful young woman; they're obviously crazy for each other.

Our daughter is twenty, a college sophomore who, last year, spent eight months working with the Walt Disney World College program for which she now acts as a campus representative. In June, she and a fine young man from Virginia will be married.

But I can hardly believe it. The time surely has gone by quickly.

Some of the writers of the Bible noticed time’s rapid passage and wrote about it. They did so bravely, with a sense of joy in spite of time's advancement. The prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament writes, “All people are grass...The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)

Here, the prophet was making a bold decision, embodying the great nevertheless of faith. “Time is going by, human fashions come and go” he said, “but I’m going to throw in with God. I know that my life here will ebb to an end. But I stand with the God Whose word made the world and Who’ll be standing long after the world has disappeared,”

James Taylor once sang, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” That’s true as far as it goes, I think. But much depends on how you enjoy the passage of time.

We can try to enjoy it by taking an “eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die” approach. The problem with that is that no matter how happy we may deem ourselves in this life style, we still end up dead and separated from God.

Or we can throw in with the God we know through Jesus Christ, the God Who will give life and purpose and true joy to our time and to our eternity.

I’ve tried living life both ways. And to be honest, my life with Christ these past twenty-seven years or so hasn’t been marked by constancy. I’ve flirted with walking away from God, momentarily caving into the allurements of life lived apart from God. Followers of Christ are like recovering alcoholics: For as long as we live here on earth, we’re apt to “fall off the wagon” or fight the cravings to do so. But God is faithful and constant.

He remembers, as the Old Testament says, that we are dust.

He’s slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Time may go by quickly. But God is in a relationship with us for the long haul. We just have to ask Him to let us walk with Him each day.

I’ve found that having Him around makes the passage of time not only easier to bear, but also more purposeful, more joyful.

The 'Mystery' of Time and Learning to Enjoy It

When I was growing up, one family of comments regularly made by my parents, grandparents, and other elders was sure to cause me to roll my eyes all the way to the back of my head.

It included such gems as these:
“Time sure does go by, doesn’t it?”

Or, “You certainly are growing up.”

Or, “It’s amazing that you’re already seven [or ten, or fifteen, or twenty].”

These comments and others like them were all delivered with the same sense of wonder and mystification that must have been felt by the Israelites when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with that peculiar glow on his face...Or the same disbelief that Chicago Cubs fans would feel today if you told them that finally, in the Year 2163, their team would win a World Series.

It seemed to me the most obvious thing in the world that time went by and that people aged. I thought a bit disdainfully that my elders’ comments had all the profundity of saying that water is wet. “Of course, time moves on and kids grow up,” I thought. “It’s been going on for generations.” Duh!

All I had to do was consider the wrinkled, blue-haired high school classmates of my grandmother, who she still called “Girls.” Clearly, they must have lived a long while before I hit the scene, all the way back to the ancient age when they really were girls. There was no mystery about the passage of time to me. Why was it such a surprise to my elders?

But lately, I’ve begun to think that all those comments weren’t so dumb after all.

Time does go by...and quickly.

Children grow up...and faster than I did, it seems.

Where did the time go? I’m surprised that children I’ve baptized are coming into their early twenties. Children I instructed in Confirmation classes are in college or graduated, in military service, or generally, just living their adult lives. A young man from our church, once involved in our youth group, has been helping me teach Confirmation this year. And he’s twenty-seven, married, about to become a father.

Of course, as deeply as I care about the people of the two churches I’ve served as a pastor these past twenty-one years, the passage of time hits me particularly forcefully when I consider my wife and kids. By now, I’ve been married almost thirty-one years.

Our son, who will be 24 in a few months, is graduating from college next week and is working for a time before heading off to graduate school. He’s seeing a wonderful young woman who has been visiting with us for the past two days and in spite of her leaving only a few hours ago, he just told me, “I miss her.”

Our daughter, sweet and independent-minded, is twenty, a college sophomore who, last year, spent eight months working with the Walt Disney World College program for which she now acts as a campus representative. In June, she and a fine young man from Virginia will be married. They’re considering moving to Florida, which I think would be a good thing for them to do.

But I can hardly believe it. The time surely has gone by quickly.

Some of the writers of the Bible noticed time’s rapid passage and wrote about it. Almost all who did so seemed to take a clear-eyed inventory of their own advancing years and the implications of that, followed by a decision about how they would live through whatever time they had. The prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament is representative of this when he writes, “All people are grass...The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)

Here, the prophet was making a bold decision, embodying the great nevertheless of faith. “Time is going by,” he said, “but I’m going to throw in with God. I know that my life here will ebb to an end. But I stand with the God Whose word made the world and Who’ll be standing long after the world has disappeared,”

James Taylor once sang, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” That’s true as far as it goes, I think. But much depends on how you enjoy the passage of time.

We can try to enjoy it by taking an “eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die” approach. The problem with that is it’s marked by a desperation and selfishness that in ultimately, not enjoyable. No matter how happy we may deem ourselves in this life style, we still end up dead and separated from God.

Or we can throw in with the God we know through Jesus Christ, the God Who will give life and purpose and true joy to our time and to our eternity. This is a truly joyful life that lasts forever.

I’ve tried living life both ways. And to be honest, my life with Christ these past twenty-seven years or so hasn’t been marked by constancy. I’ve flirted with walking away from God, momentarily caving into the allurements of life lived apart from God. Followers of Christ are like recovering alcoholics: For as long as we live here on earth, we’re apt to “fall off the wagon” or fight the cravings to do so. But God is faithful and constant.

He remembers, as the Old Testament says, that we are dust.

He’s slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Time may go by quickly. But God is in a relationship with us for the long haul. We just have to ask Him to let us walk with Him each day.

I’ve found that having Him around makes the passage of time not only easier to bear, but also more purposeful, more joyful.

Tod Takes a Swing at a Little Bit of Everything

Tod Bolsinger is spraying to all fields...and I'm grateful that he hit one of my pitches!

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Tierney Goes to Chile to Study Social Security Reform

As the Senate Finance Committee begins to consider what to do about Social Security, New York Times columnist John Tierney has interesting anecdotal evidence on private retirement accounts from a friend in Chile, where they've had them f0r years. The President has suggested that private accounts are a good idea. Democrats disagree. Republicans appear divided on the issue. Interesting stuff.

Check Out Craig's 'Musings' on Narnian Chronicles

Craig Williams, who may love C.S. Lewis 'Chronicles of Narnia' series as much as I do, is writing a series of 'musings' on them for his blog. Check out Craig's site here. The Chronicles are too rich to be read only by children!

Organization Provides Education to Help Grieving Families

Today, my brother links to the story of The Three Little Angels Foundation, an organization that educates those in the medical community on how to help parents and families afflicted with the loss of little ones. A friend of his is also raising money in support of the foundation.

Soldier's Story Shows Importance of Family, Love, Faith

Jay Briseno was an Army reservist serving in Iraq when, in June, 2003, he was wounded and as a result, became paralyzed. Tonight on the NewsHour, reporter Susan Dentzer shared the poignant story of Jay's life these days and of the loving care he receives each day from his parents. It was a fantastic piece of journalism that took no position on the war, but allowed us to see how one family is coping with having a son who is, by Army accounts, the most severely wounded veteran of the War in Iraq. The transcript and audio can be found here.

The report provides insight into the unique griefs borne by the families of severely wounded veterans, as well as the pride they feel in their loved-ones' sacrifices and heroism.

For those inclined to think that religious faith is passe, the Briseno family offer disarming testimony to the contrary. From the transcript:
SUSAN DENTZER: The Brisenos told us their abiding religious belief gets them through, as does support from their local Roman Catholic Church. Three times a week, Dick O'Connell, a church deacon, visits the Briseno home to bring communion to Jay.

It was moving to see the smile of Jay Briseno's face as he received the Sacrament and the blessing offered by this deacon from his church.

Tonight, before I go to sleep, I'll be saying a prayer, asking God to give strength to the Briseno family and thanking Him for their example!

[Kudos to Dentzer and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer for this outstanding report!]

Monday, April 25, 2005

What Exactly Happens in Holy Baptism?

[Our congregation is currently involved in Forty Days of Purpose, a campaign of spiritual renewal that is built around daily readings from Rick Warren's fantastic book, The Purpose Driven Life. Today is Day 16 of the campaign and yesterday, the readings included several pages on Holy Baptism. It's one of the few passages of Warren's wonderful book where he presents a theological point that is specific to his own denominational tradtion and not something to which all believers in Christ would give their assent. As a pastor, charged with teaching my congregation, I felt compelled to present a Lutheran perspective. I present the email in which I did this, not as a way of engaging in conflict, but just to present a slightly different point of view.]
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Dear Friend:
As I have said for several years, The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren is a fantastic book! I hope that you agree and that you're finding it helpful in your walk of faith.

But there are occasional points in Warren's book where I disagree with him. Nowhere is this more true than in his discussion of Baptism.

Warren, who is Southern Baptist, views Baptism as something believers do to initiate their relationship with Christ. This is why his denomination upholds the notion of "believer's baptism," in which a person must be old enough to understand the Gospel and their need for Christ before being baptized.

Warren and his denomination also view Baptism as being more symbolic, whereas we believe that in it, the Holy Spirit truly comes to us, enters us, and adopts us as God's children.

Lutherans, we would say, take a more sacramental view of Baptism. That is, we see it as something that God initiates and over which we have no control. God acts decisively for us in an act of grace. In Baptism, God adopts us just as He once adopted Jewish babies at eight days old through circumcision (an analogy that Saint Paul draws in Romans 6). Through water connected to God's Word and by Christ's command, the benefits of Jesus' death and resurrection become ours. Baptism marks new birth (John 3:3) and we can readily draw the conclusion from reading the history of the first century church, as found in Acts, that the "whole households" that were baptized included children who would not have been able to say yes or no to God's salvation offered through Jesus.

Of course, for Baptists and for Lutherans, the ultimate issue is whether one believes in Jesus Christ. This is why Lutherans and other Christian traditions have the rite of confirmation, the point at which young persons--usually those between ages fourteen and sixteen--may publicly declare their intention to live in faithfulness to the covenant God struck with them as infants. At Baptism, God promised to be their God. He calls us to faithfully respond to His undeserved love, grace, and forgiveness through a commitment to be His disciples. We can spurn the salvation God has given to us through Christ, mediated to us through Baptism. God allows us to reject Christ and life, even if we have been baptized. So, even though it's a sacrament in which we believe God acts for us, God still respects our right to say, "No" to Him and we must still believe in Jesus. (John 3:16)

Both Baptists and Lutherans would point to the words of Jesus found in the Gospel of Mark: "The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned." (Mark 16:16) For all true Christians then, the pivotal issue when it comes to salvation is faith and in that sense, there is very little distance between us and Warren.

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In today's reading, Warren says that the first four of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship with God and the latter six deal with our relationships with others. This must have seemed odd to many of you.

Lutherans and others reckon the commandments differently. We split them three dealing with our God-relationship and seven with our neighbor-relationships. That's because we combine two in the "first table" into one commandment and others combine our two "covet commands," nine and ten, into one command. In spite of those differences, we manage to include all the same stuff in our renderings of the Ten Commandments.
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I hope that you're getting as much out of this Forty Days of Purpose as I am and that God will use it to deepen our faith and help us all to live for God's purposes for our lives!

Blessings in Christ,
Mark

Leadership Lessons from Pat Brown...and More

Whether LA Times columnist George Skelton is right in using it to criticize California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, his profile of late Governor Pat Brown is fun to read. I loved this observation:

To earn a legacy of greatness, a governor must do truly great deeds that directly affect people — currently and in the future. Spend [political] capital, but not on the frivolous.

The final sentence is probably true for any leader in any context.

It's a tough thing for leaders to remember. After all, whether the leader is a governor, CEO, agency director, or even a pastor, the appointment initially comes because a constituency, decision-making body, board, or voters have expressed their support. The Sally Field Effect can cause the leader to think that because they've been voted in, "They love me. They really love me," in perpetuity.

If you're a leader and do your job, even if you do it well, often because you do it well, you'll frequently lose some measure of support.

Take British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example. The scuttlebutt from Rob of Under the Sun is that British voters are perfectly pleased to vote for Blair in order to retain Gordon Brown as chancellor of the exchequer. Brown is credited with the current strength of the British economy and Blair's occupancy of 10 Downing Street is seen as the unfortunate price to be paid for the chancellor's continued service. I saw a BBC interview with Blair that aired on C-Span last night. In it, he made the observation that the better one gets at being prime minister, the less popular the PM is likely to be. In other words, it takes time to get the hang of the job and by the time you do, you're likely to have expended lots of political capital that could have been put to more effective use.

Even granting that there's more than a little self-service in Blair's comment, there is some validity to it.

That's why it becomes all the more important for political leaders in these times of media-saturation to use their political capital earlier rather than later. Twenty-four hour news cycles, cable news networks, and varied Internet sources of information and opinion give all public figures more tenuous, often severely shortened, shelf-lives. At the very least, it constricts the timelines political leaders have to address issues before being voted off of the island or worse yet, being ignored.

This is especially true for Presidents of the United States, who are term-limited and who operate in the era of the perpetual presidential campaign. C-Span has already begun its Sunday program, Road to the White House, 2008 and it sometimes seems that the presidency of George W. Bush is a fading memory.

I'm convinced that one of the many reasons President Bush has been unable to advance the cause or even the notion of Social Security reform in spite of stating that he intended to spend his political capital in the pursuit of this end, is that in post-modern political terms, he's already a lame duck.

A second term president may have popularity, but in terms of influence, possesses vastly diminished power. Power is much more than Constitutional and legal perquisites; it's that combination of political support, future shelf life, a leader's native communication skills, and legally-assigned authority that give a leader the clout to get things done.

In Bush's case, a Republican Senate, intent on placating the religious conservatives they feel they need, may successfully trash the filibuster when it comes to judicial nominations, paving the way for the President's court appointments and making Mr. Bush happy. But the Republican Congress doesn't seem likely to pass any Social Security reform program, at least along the lines Mr. Bush has discussed. It also is at this time, questionable whether the President's appointment of John Bolton to be UN ambassador is going to make it. The point is that the Republican members of Congress see themselves as pols with a future and they're not sticking their necks out for a President slated to pick up stakes and head back to Crawford on January 20, 2009.

Barring the unlikely reversal of presidential term limits with the passage of another Constitutional amendment, this problem will likely continue to dog future presidents.

But there are two lessons every leader must learn.

First, like Pat Brown, California's one-time governor, use your political capital to get things done.

Second, do it early, while you have that capital.

Putin's Disturbing View of History

Vladimir Putin, the one-time Soviet spy, now president of Russia, apparently waxes nostalgic for the "good old days" of the Soviet Union. An article from CBC reports this about a Putin speech delivered to both houses of the Russian Parliament:

The collapse of the Soviet Union was "the greatest political catastrophe of
the last century," Russian president Vladimir Putin said Monday as he delivered
his annual state of the nation address.

and


The former KGB agent said the 1991 breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist
Republics was a "true drama" that left tens of millions of Russian people
living outside Russia, in breakaway republics formerly under Soviet control.

In one paragraph, Putin describes the end of Communist control of Russia and its enslaved republics as a "catastrophe" apparently outranking such twentieth century tragedies as World War Two and the Holocaust, World War One, and the worldwide depression of the late twenties and thirties, to name just a few events that might rightly be seen as "catastrophes." I might also add the Bolshevik Revolution, the Stalin reign of terror, and seventy years of a Soviet regime as great catastrophes as well. Far from being a catastrophe, the collapse of the Soviet Union is a legitimate cause for rejoicing, except among those who like authoritarianism.

In the second paragraph, Putin seems to be creating the case for Russian military adventurism. Remember that someone named Hitler undergirded his case for invading other countries not only to give Germany "liebensraum," but also to bring into one nation all those Germanic peoples scattered around Europe. Putin, whose popularity has been sagging of late, appears to be appealing to Russian nationalism in the same manner Hitler appealed to German nationalism.

If Putin's statement is simply a bit of red meat thrown at a society bristling under various "reforms" imposed by his regime and looking back fondly on Czarist and Soviet authoritarianism, he's playing a dangerous game. He could very well fuel expectations and movements toward the "bad old days" which, once incited, he might not be able to contain. Frankly, I doubt that he wants to contain them.

I agree with Glenn Reynolds, who cites the CBC article at Instapundit, we need to watch this guy. Great care must be taken that we not become so focused on terrorism that we forget the very real threat to world peace and stability represented by nation states with hegemonic ambitions. In that category I would include Russia and China.

Coyote Sightings and Our Whacked-Out Priorities

Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit, says that his neighborhood email list has carried reports of coyote sightings in his Knoxville-area community.

For several years now, my wife has been spotting coyotes from the window of the suburban Cincinnati elementary school library where she works.

And about a week-and-a-half ago, I saw a coyote standing along I-75 in the Sharonville area, one of the most densely-populated and commercially busy sections of metropolitan Cincinnati.

Some will undoubtedly view these sightings as encouraging signs of success in efforts to re-establish a species in places where it had once disappeared. But frankly, I'm an anthropocentric human and I don't like the idea of our cities and suburbs becoming cozy habitats for predators.

It's one of the enduring ironies of this era that we expend all sorts of energy, time, money, and concern on various species of the animal kingdom, but can't shake off our indifference to abortion, euthanasia, systemic poverty, or the AIDs epidemic, all enormous threats to human beings.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Thinking of Seeing 'Kung Fu Hustle'?

You might want to spare yourself the agony by checking out my brother's review first.

Forty Days of Purpose: Loving God's Family

Colossians 3:12-17
John 13:31-35
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 24, 2005)

About ten years ago, our now twenty-four year old son and I were walking with my father on the street where I grew up in Columbus. My folks had moved out of the house in which we’d lived and taken up residence in my grandparents’ old place, just seven doors down, on the same street. We were walking toward my boyhood home, tracing the same steps I used to take in my walks home from junior and senior high each day.

I couldn't help remembering those earlier walks. As some of you know, my adolescent years were pretty horrible for me. I was obnoxious and had a penchant for rubbing all of my classmates the wrong way. The result was that many afternoons of my junior high years, I was in a fight with two to five other guys. During senior high, I had almost no friends until I hit the twelfth grade. At the end of another hard school day, it was always a relief to walk down my street.

On my later walk, I turned to my Dad and my son and said, “You know, when I was a kid, walking home from school each day, this street seemed to be the most perfect place in the world to me.”

God invented the family to be an oasis of support, encouragement, and discipline to us as we grow up. That’s why it saddens me to know that so many children come home from school in the afternoons to empty houses or houses in which parents or others subject them to abuse. That’s also why I believe so much in the mission and work of the Boys and Girls Club of Clermont County. For a few hours each day, young people who might not otherwise hear an affirming word or receive help for their homework are shown, if I might put it this way, how much they matter in the eyes of God. No wonder one of the kids at the New Richmond club once said, “Walking into the club is like walking into a church.”

That young person was onto something. The Church is meant to be an oasis of support, encouragement, and discipline for followers of Jesus Christ as we grow up and mature. The Church is the family of God and all who follow Christ are privileged to be part of it. Last week, we talked about the first purpose of our lives: to worship God with our whole beings. God created the Church to help us fulfill the second great purpose of our lives: To live and grow within the fellowship of God’s family.

Fellowship is a lot more than having coffee and cookies or cake after worship on Sunday mornings. Fellowship is being God’s family together. The Bible makes it clear that being part of this family is so important that if we fail to be an active part of it, there is no way our life can ever be what God intended for it to be.

The New Testament calls the Church Christ’s body and each of us portions of it. Some people like to say, “I can be just as good a Christian apart from the church as I can be with it.” Well, maybe, but I’m not so sure. You see, as impossible as it would be for a toe or an arm to function without the rest of the body, we are dysfunctional without a vital connection to Christ’s body, the Church.

This idea violates our human pride, our desires to be self-sufficient. But I think it’s true. I’ve rarely seen people grow in their faith or mature as people who weren’t active participants in the life of a church.

Those of us who stand apart from Christ and the Church remind me of what our church's little ones used to say when she was much younger and didn’t want help: “Mine-a do it.” People who insist on “Mine-a do it” living never fulfill their life purposes. In blunt terms, we need each other. We need the fellowship of God’s family. That entails making a commitment of love to the people of our church.

Why is that so important to God? I think that there are three reasons. Let me explain.

I read once about a man who had an out-of-town business meeting. His flight was later that day and all of his suits needed dry-cleaning. He didn’t know what to do and then remembered seeing on the other side of town, a place with a big neon sign that read, One Hour Dry Cleaning. So, he packed everything but his suits and dashed to the place. After filling out the paperwork, handing over his suits, and paying up, the clerk said, “It’ll be ready tomorrow.” “But your sign says, One Hour Dry Cleaning!” the guy replied. “That’s only the name of the place,” the clerk told him, “we can’t have your suits done before tomorrow.”

In our second Bible lesson, part of an incident that happened just before Jesus was arrested, Jesus says to His followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It wouldn’t matter if we hung neon signs around our necks saying we were Christians, if people saw that we were indifferent to those in our church family, it would just be one more example of false advertising.

When people see us truly caring about each other, it authenticates that the risen Jesus is living in and among us. That's the first reason God wants those of us who are part of the church to love one another. The New Testament book of Acts tells us that the early church grew as people remarked, “See how they love each other.” When people see Christians living the love of Jesus, they want to be part of God’s family too.

Another reason that God wants us to love His family, the Church, is that God doesn’t want us to be babies in our faith. He calls us to grow up. The Church is the family in which we help one another grow. And the growing never stops, no matter how old we may be.

In a recent book he wrote with his wife, Barbara, Pastor David Sorenson talks about Lawrence, a ninety-two year old whose wife had recently died. Sorenson visited Lawrence one day and Lawrence complained that few people came by to see him any more. Instead of surreptitiously arranging for a stream of visitors to come see Lawrence, Sorenson came up with a better idea. Because Lawrence still had his driver’s license, Sorenson asked him if he would take the upcoming Sunday’s worship bulletins to people unable to attend. That way, they could follow along with the service as they listened to it being broadcast on a local radio station. Ordinarily, Sorenson explained, they would have mailed the bulletins, but he told Lawrence that a personal visit from him would lift people’s spirits.

Two years later, Sorenson came to see Lawrence, who was dying. From his death bed. Lawrence thanked him for the ministry Sorenson had given him to do. Within the family of God, in a ministry of love for other followers of Jesus, his faith in Christ had grown. Even at age 92! So, God wants us to be actively involved in fellowship with others in the Church to authenticate our faith in Christ and to help us grow in our faith in Christ.

There is a third reason. We see this in the true story I call, ‘Multiplying Mocha.’ It happened at a drive-through coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. A customer asked to pay not only for her own mocha, but also for the mocha of the person behind her. The owner who had taken the order smiled as she told the next customer that her mocha was free. The second customer was so happy that she paid for the coffee of the next person in line. This string of kindnesses went on for two hours and twenty-seven customers.

So, what’s the point? Just this: When you live love, generosity, forgiveness, and kindness, it has a way of multiplying.

When you consider it, the commandment that Jesus gave on the night of His arrest is sort of strange. He made a big point of calling it a “new commandment,” that we in the Church learn to love each other. But months before, Jesus had summarized all the Old Testament laws--by then, thousands of years old--by giving the Great Commandment: Love God and love neighbor. What was so new about this new commandment?

Well, have you ever noticed who you treat the most cruelly and with the greatest unkindness? Or who you most take for granted? Isn’t it usually the members of your own family?

The same can be true of our church family. We can start to take each other for granted, like old shoes that may be comfy but beat-up. The habits of our fellow church members, once so endearing, can become annoying and we can start to pick at others or withdraw from spending time together. Jesus says, “Love these folks just like I love you even though you’ve got your own quirks, foibles, and annoying habits.”

If we can learn to love each other in the Church, sharing the love of Christ among us, this love will become a habit. Jesus’ love will multiply from us in the same way the kindness at that coffee shop did one special morning.

Fellowship, loving God’s family, the Church, is the second purpose of our lives.

It’s important because living the love of Jesus will help the world authenticate the truth about Jesus; because under the loving nurture and discipline of the family of God, we grow as people and as believers in Jesus; and because the Church is the laboratory and training ground in which God prepares us for spreading the Good News of forgiveness and hope and new life that belong to all who turn from sin and receive Jesus as through Lord.

May God help us as we learn more about this second purpose of our lives through our readings and our small groups in the coming week.

More Glee from NYTimes About the Prospects of Overweight People

For the second consecutive day, a New York Times columnist seems to be in the throes of ecstasy over a recent report indicating that, short of being obese, overweight people live longer than underweight ones. David Brooks explains why the research results so please him:
Mostly, I'm happy on an existential level. I like to be reminded that the universe is basically crooked. This is what the zero-tolerance brigades and all the better living gurus never quite get. They're busy trying to mold everybody into lifelong valedictorians, who spend their adulthood as carb counters and responsible flossers - the sort of organized folk who actually read legal documents before they sign them.

In reality, life is perverse and human beings don't get what they deserve. The people with the worst grades start the most successful businesses. The shallowest people end up blissfully happy and they are so vapid they don't even realize how vapid they are because vapidity is the only trait that comes with its own impermeable obliviousness system. The people regarded as lightweights, like F.D.R., J.F.K. and Ronald Reagan, make the best presidents, while you - so much more thoughtful and better read - would be a complete disaster.
True or not, it is funny, an opportunity for those of us deeply ensconced in middle age to laugh in the face of our expanding waistlines.

[Check out an earlier column I wrote about my cackling metabolism thingy.]