Saturday, May 07, 2005

Okay, Class, Turn to the Chapter on 'Highway 61 Revisited'

Professor Althouse has convened a class in Dylanology. Being the suck-up I am, of course, I agree with her assessment of the Pride of Hibbing, Minnesota. (No, the other 'Pride of Hibbing, Minnesota.')

Vatican's Forced Resignation of Editor is Disturbing

Yesterday, I applauded an independent Catholic Cincinnati prep school for rescinding a speaking invitation it had issued to a pro-choice politician. I upheld its right to be consistent in the signals it sends about what it deems to be right and wrong.

But this morning's New York Times brings the story of a disturbing action by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The action was taken by that unit in March, when it was headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

The Congregation forced the resignation of Thomas J. Reece, a Jesuit, from his position as editor of the Catholic news magazine, America. The charge: That the magazine had published articles critical of current Roman Catholic teachings or encouraged debate on them.

Reese has been a good soldier, utterly submissive to the Vatican orders, offering his resignation and saying that he is looking forward to his next orders as a Jesuit.

But when Church bodies are unable or unwilling to sustain debates on doctrine and teaching, that is an unhealthy sign.

I utterly agree with the current pope who, just before the most recent conclave of the College of Cardinals, delivered a homily in which he railed against the contemporary idol of choice, relativism. He suggested that there are non-negotiable truths about what is right and what is wrong.

The problem that I have with Pope Benedict XVI and also with his illustrious predecessor is that they seem to believe in a rather extensive list of non-negotiable truths. I think that the list is far smaller than they do and that much of what they deem foundational is nothing more than cultural accretions or personal preferences.

There are for example, sound Biblical reasons for the ordination of women, for the end of priestly celibacy, for a repudiation of the special status granted to "saints," particularly Mary, and for a different approach to church-state relations. The Roman Catholic Church could change its positions on these and other matters and do no violence to their proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord. The essential core of faith would remain, indicating that some of the things that have so riled the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger are what the theologians call non-salvific, having no bearing on one's standing with God or one's salvation.

Besides, debate often leads people back to the very truths they question while debating. If truths really are true, founded in Scripture, God's revelation of truth, then there is absolutely nothing to fear from debate conducted by people who share a common faith.

Reece is familiar to many Americans for his frequent appearances on TV during the recent transition between John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I wish him well.

Learning to Keep Our Traps Shut

A friend of mine and I were talking after a meeting last week. Our discussion, as is true any time friends chat, was agenda-less, quickly flitting from one topic to the next.

The name of a prominent person in our area came up, a person widely--and I think, fairly--regarded as being so self-centered that other people are seen as speed bumps on the way to personal aggrandizement. In this person's universe, others are either good friends or enemies, being so defined by whether the others stand in this person's way or not. My friend and I discussed this person's latest elbow to the chops of "an enemy."

That was fine, I think. But then I crossed the line, sharing an unkind quip made by another acquaintance about this person. My friend smiled, but said, "That's evil."

"What?" I asked in mock offense. "I'm only repeating what I heard."

My friend's good natured response was that just because I heard a thing didn't mean I needed to repeat it.

While my friend didn't mean for her comment to pack a wallop and in fact, was later surprised that I'd thought any more about it, it did. As far as I'm concerned, it was a message from God.

One of the commandments given by God to the human race through Moses on Mount Sinai says, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." We Lutherans reckon this as the Eighth Commandment and in his masterful little document, The Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes:

We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.
Luther shows us that there is more than a "thou shalt not" in this command, there is also a "thou shalt." Thou shalt either try to see the positive attributes in the person with enemy's lists and who sees others either as impediments or supporting actors in the pursuit of their ambitions or keep thy trap shut.

Does God therefore want us to be pollyannas who never say a mumbling word of complaint or opposition when we encounter behaviors or opinions we find objectionable? Hardly!

But he does call us to the following:

(1) When we've got a complaint against someone, we're to talk it over with God and then talk it over with the person with whom we've got the beef. You talk it over with God because after you've prayed for someone, it's hard to maintain irrational rage. God also has a way of helping us to actually love the people for whom we pray. We talk to the person with whom we're aggrieved because they're the only ones who can change the behaviors that have offended us, not some third party. (Matthew 18:15-20)

(2) When you do confront someone for an offense, do so with an attitude of love. (Ephesians 4:15)

(3) When in doubt about whether to speak about someone behind their backs, don't. Remember the destructive power of words. (James 3)

(4) Of course, only followers of Jesus Christ have a handy, compelling answer to the question, "Why bother with doing points 1, 2, and 3 above?" Through their faith in Christ, they're the beneficiaries of fantastic gifts from God. They're freed from the power of sin and death over their lives because their sins are forgiven. So, forgiven themselves, they have the freedom from bitterness that results. They have the power to resist grudge-holding, can forgive as they've been forgiven, and move on productively with their lives. We also know that witholding our forgiveness from others blocks God's forgiveness for us. (Matthew 6:14-15)

When we consider how much God forgives us--every sinful thought or action we've undertaken is worthy of a death sentence, our gratitude will lead us to want to forgive others and not rail against them.

The day after I chatted with my friend, I dashed off an email to her. I said, "You know, you were right. I was out of line in what I said and I hope that you won't extend the life of my sin by passing on any of my foolish words. Thanks for calling me to the carpet for it."

Confession is a good thing. It lets God's forgiveness flood into our lives and that clears the chaff from our lives, allowing God's love and power for living to have fuller sway in our lives.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Three Cheers for Summit Country Day!

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius has deep roots here in the Cincinnati area. She was raised here, graduating from Summit Country Day preparatory school. Her father, whose family has been prominent in Cincinnati church, business, and political life, is former Ohio Governor John Gilligan.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported today that Summit Country Day, which had previously asked Sebelius, sometimes mentioned as a potential vice presidential nominee for a future Democratic ticket, to speak at the school has now "disinvited" her.

The school is an independent Catholic institution. While not under diocesan control, the head of the school contacted Cincinnati's archbishop for guidance after the school had been asked by a pro-life group not to have Sebelius come here, owing to her pro-choice stance on abortion. The archbishop said that Sebelius would not be a speaker at any diocesan institution.

There are some who no doubt will look at this askance. But as the pastor of a Lutheran congregation, I can tell you that I would never invite some advocate of religious legalism, or a fomenter of hate--just to use two examples--to speak at our church. It's absolutely appropriate for a school, a church, or any other organization to withhold or withdraw invitations from speakers whose views are diametrically opposed to their own.

Taking a stand in these PC-times can upset folks. But, as is said, if you can't take a stand for something, you'll fall for anything. Three cheers for Summit Country Day!

TR: Leadership and the Call for Sacrifice

James Chace's, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs--The Election That Changed the Country is one of several books I've been reading over the past few weeks. Near the end of this enjoyable work, Chace speculates on how Theodore Roosevelt would have performed as a war-time president, as opposed to Woodrow Wilson, whose term collided with the outbreak of World War One in 1914 and US involvement in the war, starting in 1917:
TR came to believe that his greatest misfortune--as president and in 1912--was in not having had a war that called for heroic leadership. He looked back to Lincoln and understood that Lincoln's greatness rested upon his confronting and resolving a great national crisis like the Civil War. As a wartime leader he could have roused the people to self-sacrifice, to renounce the materialism he so hated, and to rise above the class divisions that had been growing so apparent in the early years of the twentieth century. [italics mine]

(Ironically, as he began his term, Wilson devoutly hoped that foreign affairs and war would not become central to his presidency because he thought himself peculiarly fitted for addressing domestic issues. Neither he or TR got their wishes and both were probably right in their assessments of themselves.)

After reading Chace's insight into Roosevelt's thinking and leadership style the other day, I read something by a major columnist, one who supported the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism. He lamented that President Bush hasn't asked American civilians, presumably apart from reservists and their families, to make sacrifices.

And the columnist makes a point, I think. There have been no rubber drives, metal drives, or war bonds sales. We Americans have, for the most part, been allowed to go on with our lives in spite of being told that we were engaged in a desperate fight for our freedom as a nation, the world's fourth great world war. (By that reckoning, the Cold War was the third world war.)

President Bush and his administration seem to have made essentially the same decision embraced by Lyndon Johnson as he took America deeper into the Vietnam War: They both believed that we could have guns and butter. While dangerous federal budget deficits have mounted higher and higher, both presidents have seemed to tell us that we could have it all.

Perhaps for fear of arousing a genuine, pervasive antiwar movement that penetrated middle America--those who inhabit the middle class, the middle west, and the middle ground in politics and life, both presidents have fought huge wars without asking most of us to change the way we live our lives.

One of the greatest mistakes I have made as a leader over the years has been to ask too little of those I lead. If everything is humming along fine in a country, an organization, a company, an educational institution, or a church, the members, citizens, or constituents have little motivation for making the extra efforts and the authentic sacrifices needed to bring genuine, gratifying success. When leaders ask little of people, people decide that the causes they enunciate aren't really that important.

Leaders who don't seek help and commitment from those they lead will never call forth greatness from their constituents...or from themselves.

Does the failure of the Bush Administration to call most of us to any sacrifices beyond spending more time in airport lines, reflect some insecurity about their case that the war in Iraq has something to do with the war on terrorism? I don't know. But I think that TR, one of the greatest of all Republican presidents and a leader who only grows in stature in my mind as I learn more about him, would be agitating for Mr. Bush to lead us in a selfless and focused national effort to combat terrorism that would involve us all.

[For more about presidential leadership, see here and here.]

Why Was Labour Returned to Power?

As I begin to write this, it's about eight o'clock in the morning in Great Britain, the day after British elections. Tony Blair and his Labour Party have been returned to power in the House of Commons.

As the commentators have been saying, this is unprecedented; it's the first time Labour has received a third term ever.

Most seem to feel that Labour's victory has been given begrudgingly by the British electorate. Britons hate the war in Iraq and seem to feel that Blair lied to them about the intelligence surrounding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in the run-up to the war. But, it's thought, Britons like the relatively strong economy that Labour and particularly, it's said, that chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown, have given them.

I heard CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, reporting from London yesterday, say that Britons were probably going to return Labour to power, but had decided that Labour should have a dramatically reduced majority in Commons. Now that this has happened, Schneider and others will seem prescient.

Frankly, I question some of the wisdom in this pool of commonly accepted ideas.

(1) First of all, who orchestrated this elaborate conspiracy hinted at in Schneider's (and others') analysis? In which constituencies were voters who were unhappy with Blair told, "Okay, throw your votes elsewhere" and in what others were those going to the polls given the message, "In spite of your misgivings, vote for Labour. We don't want to turn them out of power, just give them a message"?

People vote for a variety of reasons and their votes usually send messages. But their mode of operation is rarely as sophisticated as Schneider's theories would indicate. It's doubtful that most British voters were thinking, "I want Labour back in, but with a reduced majority." No, unlike what's being proposed by the US Senate's Dems for votes on the confirmation of judges, voters give political candidates simple up or down votes. In British elections, you don't vote directly for the prime minister. You vote for the party's candidate for the House of Commons with the understanding that if your MP candidate wins, he or she will vote for their party chief to become prime minister. People who elected Labor MPs voted for Blair, whatever their misgivings. People who voted for Conservative or Liberal Democratic candidates were voting against Blair. Those straightforward votes were the messages of individual voters. Period.

(2) If Britons as a collective electorate hate the war as much as it's said that they do, they would have turned Labour out. In saying this, I'm not suggesting the existence of a "silent majority" who support the war. I really believe that a huge majority in that country hates the war in Iraq. But they hate other things more: unemployment, high interest rates, inflation.

For all their misgivings about the war, Britons voted more from their pocketbooks than anything else. That may or may not say horrible things about them. But it's the truth.

(3) Undergirding just how relatively insignificant the war was in this election are the tallies of Labour's two major opposition parties. The Conservatives, who supported British entry into the war in spite of misgivings about the government's decision-making process--echoes of John Kerry--has thus far padded its contingent in the House of Commons by 33 seats. The Liberal Democrats, the party adamant in opposing the war, has only gained 11 seats.

The election turned on the economy and also, it seems, immigration issues. But not the war.

One wonders, Is this what democracy has become, an ongoing referenda in which the lab rats who are sated give the power of the purse to those who feed us most?

After all, if the British are as convinced of the reprehensibility and murderous futility of the war as they say they are in all the polling, how could they in good conscience return Blair and Labour? Did fat wallets trump body bags as a symbol for this election? If so, it's not a pretty picture.

Please understand, I am not making an argument for or against the war here. I'm only suggesting a massive disconnect between what the British are saying about the war and how they voted in yesterday's election. By their votes, for good or ill, they endorsed the war in Iraq. It's no longer just Blair's war, or Bush's war, or that of the United States. It's their war too and it doesn't matter if the average Labour voter would argue that they were voting for their own prosperity, not for Britain's participation in the war. It was a twofer and in returning Blair, they said that the economy was more important to them than what happened to the British soldiers, the fate of whom they may claim to be at the root of their opposition to the war. Sanctimony is no longer an option for British "opponents" to the war in Iraq who voted for Tony Blair's party.

Whether Blair was right or wrong on the war, when the bottom line is the bottom line, people are saying that they put a higher value on money than human life. All in the western democracies have traveled a long way down this road of hedonism. And clearly, we in the United States have led the way.

But the British elections yesterday demonstrate that we're not alone.

Sometimes Tears Come

I admit it. My voice cracked and my eyes misted a few times as I delivered my message at Kathy's and Tom's wedding yesterday. (See here.) But it was such an amazing moment to see these two people I have known so well all these years come together to form, along with their four children, a new family!

This is one of the occupational hazards of being a pastor. If as a pastor, you're blessed with spending some of your life with a group of people, you all become part of one another's lives. When grief comes to one, everyone grieves together. When happiness comes to one, all laugh with each other.

If pastors aren't careful, they can, after a certain amount of time ministering to and with a congregation, become blubbering fools every time they preach or lead worship. It's important that pastors be on their guards against such displays. I feel that people have the right to expect that I won't be self-indulgent, turning worship into something like my own personal therapy session with Dr. Phil.

But pastors shouldn't be "above it all" either, residing in some spiritual netherworld in which they neither experience or acknowledge the pedestrian feelings of parishioners, newcomers, or guests.

My model in this is Jesus. When His friend Lazarus died, Jesus, in spite of knowing that He was going to bring Lazarus back to life, wept. Whatever lay behind His tears--whether they came from the spiritual slowness of Lazarus' mourners, the grief He observed, or the grief that He felt over the phenomenon of death among human beings generally or the death of a specific friend--they bespoke empathy, engagement, connection.

This cuts to the very heart of Who Jesus is and what He was about. The New Testament Gospel of John calls Jesus "the Word," the God Who was around even before the beginning, the energizing Being behind creation. Then, it says, more or less literally, "the Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us."

God has broken into our worlds. Not just our theoretical, cosmic worlds. But into our worlds--the places where diapers get changed, sales are transacted, children plop teeth under pillows for tooth fairies, and old people reminisce in nursing homes. That day in Bethany when Jesus wept says that God gets it. He understands what it's like to be human and that sometimes, tears are a way we respond to the human situation.

So, I don't apologize for the tears that have rarely, but occasionally, made unexpected appearances during my times of public ministry. I struggle and pray mightily to not let that happen, just as I'm sure the president of the seminary I attended, Fred Meuser, did. But I also remember that some of the most affecting (but un-affected) sermons I've ever heard came from Fred as he talked about the depths of God's love for us, given through Christ, or when he spoke of God's call on our lives as Jesus-Followers, and tears showed up on his face.

Self-indulgence in a preacher is evil. But may I never be so "professional" that I fail to experience the beauty and the power of God reaching down to His children in times of joy as well as sadness, and find my heart touched. When that happens, I stop, regain my composure, and refuse to conceal the simple fact that our God truly is an awesome God, awesome because of His very presence in the "here and now" moments of life!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Marriage: Laying Aside, Putting On

[This is a message I prepared for a wedding I'm performing today, May 5, 2005. Tom and Kathy are two wonderful members of our congregation, Friendship Church.]

Kathy told me the other day that I may be the only person here who knew both she and Tom fairly well before they got together. From that unique vantage point, I want to tell the two of you something: You both are very blessed!

Kathy: Tom is a man of extraordinary character. When he loves, it’s with more than mere words, but with every ounce of devotion and commitment that a person can muster. All you have to do is consider Paul and Katie and you know that’s true.

Tom: Kathy is someone who never gives up. Her faith in God has sustained her through good times and bad. Her capacity for friendship and for providing nurture, especially to Kyle and Koby, are wonderful attributes that she willingly shares.

And both of you have another characteristic which you bring to your marriage and to forging this sextet you form today into a family: A sense of humor. Don’t ever lose it. Don’t ever get too serious.

As a more-than-interested bystander, I must tell you how happy I am for all six of you today! And Kathy, I can’t tell you how excited I am that this moment I told you would come—the moment when I got to preside over a wedding confirming that the man of your dreams had entered your life—has arrived. (I just hadn’t realized how close at hand the man of your dreams would be!)

Now, a brief word from God’s Word. Actually, two brief phrases from the Bible. The first phrase I want to mention is lay aside. It appears in the wonderfully mysterious sermon that composes the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. It says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” (Hebrews 12:1)

I like the fact that we’re gathered in a circle today. Before this cloud of witnesses, you affirm your intent to live in the marriage covenant invented by God.

The writer of Hebrews would say though, that along with God and us, another cloud of witnesses views what is happening here right now. Those witnesses are in heaven and I am sure that they are smiling.

And, according to Hebrews, what God and all His witnesses call you to do today is commit yourselves, day in and day out for as long as you both shall live, to lay aside every bit of arrogance and self-will, every scrap of self-centeredness and egotism, every feeling of inferiority and every ounce of neediness, every grief and every sin.

God says that we should lay them aside and hand them over to Christ. He died and He rose for you so that you need not be weighed down by any aspect of your past, so that sin no longer is a wall between yourselves and God or a wall between yourselves and others. Lay those things aside so that you can be fully responsive to the starting gun for the race God lays before you today.

Now, here’s the other phrase: put on. The apostle Paul, writing in the New Testament book of Romans, says, “…put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:14)

What’s he saying? Just this: After you’ve laid aside sin and the corrupted, dead-end ways of this world, cover yourselves with the risen and living Jesus Christ.

Earlier, in a parallel passage, Paul helps us understand what he means a little better: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” (Romans 13:12)

In other words, God calls us—and God calls you, Tom and Kathy--to cover our lives in the forgiveness, the hope, the power, the life, the wisdom, the insight, the power to resist wrong, the capacity for pursuing right, and the love—the good stuff of God—that never ends. He offers all of that to you today as His free gift, offered to all with faith in God-in-the-flesh, Jesus.

And day in and day out, as your life together progresses, the call will be the same: To lay aside the sins of the past and to put on the righteousness of God.

When the fairy tale stories end, they always say, “And they lived happily ever after.” Most of us reach a certain age and can’t help chuckling at that phrase a little. After all, one view of “ever after” must include the full complement of events—big and small, happy and unhappy, exciting and mundane—that can come our ways in life. It makes the phrase, “they lived happily ever after” hard to swallow and a bit ironic.

But in another way, I believe those fairy tale words. I believe them very much. When we lay aside our sinful impulses and inclinations and we put on Jesus Christ, God infuses us with the capacity for compromise, the facility for forgiveness, and the new beginnings that every marriage and every family needs for them to be all that we want them to be…and all that God wants them to be. You can be happy ever after even when the laundry piles up, the toilet overflows, the kids have the flu, and the bills need paying.

More than that, I believe that those who commit themselves to this lifestyle of laying aside and putting on, who let Jesus be the Lord of their lives as well as of their marriages, will spend ever after happily with God. Marriage can be a great laboratory of godly love and forgiveness and patience. When it's that, there will be times when we look into our beloved’s eyes and catch a glimpse of heaven.

Kathy and Tom, laying aside sin and putting on Christ, may you spend your lives together, looking into your beloved’s eyes, and seeing heaven.

Kaleidoscope Superior

The other day, I pulled out a fistful of CDs from a stack to which I hadn't listened for awhile and took them to my car. The first one I slipped into the player was Kaleidoscope Superior by Earthsuit.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this 2000 release. Imagine a band that combines techno, hard rock, reggae, soul, jazz, rap, and what we used to call "head music," and you begin to get a feel for the sound of this interesting band. One second they remind you of Pink Floyd, and the next Earth, Wind, and Fire, and the next Rage Against the Machine.

Of course, my vehicular jamming got me to wondering whatever happened to Earthsuit. I'd not heard anything about them since their debut. The band's web site no longer exists, an ominous sign. But this piece indicates that they did release a recording in 2003. (Here's what has about them.)

I hope that they're still around.

But if you can find a copy of Kaleidoscope Superior, snap it up!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Servanthood Series Resumes Later

Frankly, I began writing my series on servanthood before I was really ready to tackle it. I will have at it again when I feel more prepared to do so.

One of the beautiful things about blogging is that it gives one the freedom to delve into a topic and sort of find out where you land in the process. Mark D. Roberts is a master at this. But this is such a challenging subject--and so important--that I must defer for awhile. I'm going to be studying and praying about the subject of servanthood (and hopefully, also doing) in the coming weeks and months. I will write more as I feel it's appropriate.

Thanks for reading 'Better Living.'

Two Carnivals To Illuminate, Aggravate, and Entertain

Two carnivals are up and worthy of your perusal today.

The Carnival of the Vanities presents a variety of blog entries. The link to this week's list is here.

The Christian Carnival is here.

While at the respective carnivals, please take the time to thank the hosts. A lot of work is involved in putting these collections together!

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Another View of Britain's Blair

Anthony Stuttaford, a Briton living in the US and a contributing editor to National Review Online, has an altogether different view of Tony Blair from that presented by New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman. (Cited here.) Stuttaford accepts the conventional wisdom that, no matter the considerable case he develops against Blair, the British prime minister will be re-elected on Thursday.

Lessons Learned from Newly-Awakened Firefighter

The case of Donald Herbert, the Buffalo, New York firefighter, thought to be brain-damaged and utterly unresponsive for most of the past ten years, should teach us all a few things.

Whether Mr. Herbert, about whose recovery doctors are cautiously optimistic, will remain or progress in his miraculously awakened state, his sudden communicativeness that began on Saturday demonstrates that we can ill-afford to be so flippant about taking the lives of those diagnosed as being brain-damaged.

The cases of Herbert and of Terri Schiavo are undoubtedly different in many particulars. Yet, for nine-and-a-half years, Herbert sat perched in front of a TV set, unable to speak and seemingly oblivious to the world around him.

On Saturday, he spent fourteen hours becoming reacquainted with family and friends from whom he originally assumed he'd been absent only three months.

The only conclusions I can draw are that we're not as smart as we think we are and our lives rightly belong in the hands of God! After all, we can't tell what amazing surprises God may have up His sleeve.

From Eulogies to Euphoria

As I write this, I look out the windows of my house and see a gloriously sunny, if nippy, spring day. The sunshine lifts my spirits. But it's not the only thing contributing to my outlook as I take in the new morning.

One of my windows frames a view of a six-foot tall Buckeye tree that we planted last fall. It stands in a spot formerly occupied by a Box Elder we were forced to cut down in August.

God is amazing! In His infinite realm, death can be succeeded by new life, eulogies supplanted by euphoria, mourning turned into morning, Good Fridays followed by Easters. The Buckeye tree springs green where once a proud, dying tree stood.

Sometimes, when I look into the mirror, I catch a similar sight. Oh, my exterior may be deteriorating. That's the way it is with the things of earth. They die.

Yet God has created and is creating a new me, one that will live on and on. The old me still rears its nasty head and does things that are heedless of God and of others, that are imbued with death and lovelessness. I hate observing those things when I look through the window into my soul.

But the once-dead, now-risen Savior of the world has also taken up residence in my life. He lives in me and with me and, helping me to live in what Luther called, "daily repentance and renewal," this Savior--Jesus, true God and true man--has set a grand reclamation project into motion.

The old Mark is dying. One day, I'll go the way of the old Box Elder.

The new Mark is rising. God is causing me to grow and one day, when I see my Lord face to face, I will be new and as pure as the One Who died and rose for me.

Truth is, God already made me new and one special day, I'll be newer still. When I look at the Buckeye tree this morning, reaching out to the sun, I remember that.

PS: My beloved OSU Buckeyes football team hasn't lost a game since we planted the tree!

Time for All of Us to Get Riled Up Over Darfur Genocide!

Although the quote he attributes to John Kennedy is actually a mangled version of something Robert Kennedy said while citing the Greek poet Aeschylus, Nicholas Kristoff's concerns about the continuing genocide happening in Darfur are well-founded. The whole world needs to be roused on this issue, including me, because I have been silent for too long. For more information, go here.

A Compromise on Social Security?

Robert Pozen suggests a compromise Social Security plan that he thinks Republicans and Democrats can accept.

Monday, May 02, 2005


The Reds blew a six-run lead in the top of the ninth inning to lose to the Cardinals 10-9 tonight. Please, Reds Front Office, deal some of our offense to get some pitching! Or, if you can't do that, take a chance by bringing up some of the prospects from the farm system. Those younger pitchers can't do worse than our current stable. The potent and reliable hitters of the Reds deserve better than a pitching staff with an average 6.50+ ERA.

He's Back...And I'm Glad!

After a month-long hiatus from blogging, Gordon Atkinson is back with a wonderful reflection on what children teach us about worship. Gordon is one of the most wonderful writers around!

PS: It's only been a few days since another fantastic writer, Rob Asghar, indicated that a church conflict was preventing him from blogging. But I've got to tell you, I miss Rob's insightful, honest epistles. I'm praying that the conflict will soon be positively resolved and that Rob will soon be able to share his gift with us again. But, if you've never read his writing, I recommend going to his blog and checking out some of the pieces in his archive. Click here.

How Church People Can Fight Fair

The prolific and interesting Mark D. Roberts is posting a helpful series on how Christians should deal with conflict situations that arise within their congregations.

Isn't Don Imus' Fifteen Minutes Up?

Michelle Malkin ran this piece detailing Don Imus' inappropriate comments about an MSNBC news reader. Imus' comments at a White House press gathering during the Clinton years were in horrible taste and he's majored in nastiness ever since. Still, the high and mighty Washington elite bow and scrape to him, apparently deeming his classlessness to be hip or something. Isn't it time the guy got the axe?

Blair and Labour Look to Win in British Elections

The Daily Kos has some interesting stuff on the British elections, coming up on Thursday. I am so into the Brits and their electoral process that I stayed up until 2:00 this morning watching C-Span's showing of last Thursday's special edition of the BBC program, Question Time. Prime Minister Tony Blair, Charles Kennedy, and Michael Howard, heads of the Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Conservative parties, respectively, made individual appearances in which they took questions from a rather rude and petulant crowd.

My read from across the pond: The British electorate loathe the War in Iraq, although opinion polls have shown it to be in about the fourteenth position of voters' concerns. It may have shot up higher this week with the revelation that Mr. Blair's attorney general, while ultimately judging that British participation in the war was legal, had stewed in the run-up to the war about getting more United Nations legitimization of military action.

If the British loathe the war, they only like Mr. Blair marginally more.

Because Howard and the conservatives supported the war and their positions on other issues appear so out of synch with the electorate, the Tories have been unable to mount a credible campaign to take control of the government.

Truth be told, most Britons seem to be sympathetic with Mr. Kennedy and the Liberal Dems, but appear to have concluded that because that party can't win, they won't "waste" their votes on them.

Mr. Blair's ace-in-the-hole is the strength of the British economy, deemed the handiwork of Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

The British elections are interesting to observe. The premises and assumptions from which British voters operate are in many ways, diametrically opposed to those operative among Americans.

A case may be made, for example, that US voters are fundamentally conservative. When Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912, he squeaked through because the Republicans were split between the party's standard bearer, President William Howard Taft and the former Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, that year the nominee of the Progressive Party. Prior to that year, Republicans had held the White House for forty-four of the previous fifty-two years. Wilson held the office for eight years and was followed by twelve years of Republican government.

With the Great Depression, one of the great political operators of all time, the wily and often-underestimated Franklin Roosevelt took over, guiding the country through both the Depression and World War Two. FDR and his successor Harry Truman held the presidency for the Democrats a total of twenty years.

After that, a little partisan ping pong was played. Republican Dwight Eisenhower was president for eight years and John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson occupied the presidency for the Democrats for the next eight years.

Since then however, the Republicans have been basically ascendant Eight years of Nixon and Ford, twelve years of Reagan and Bush, interspersed with a total twelve years for Democrats Carter and Clinton, and capped by four-plus years for Mr. Bush.

Barring scandal or economic catastrophe, the Republicans are the party of choice here.

I think that the same thing can be said of Labour in Great Britain. Mr. Blair appears to be viewed by his countrymen as less than honest. But they like much of what his party has done and are ready to swallow the war they don't like.

So, unless polling set to be released tomorrow shows that the recent revelations about pre-war Labour cabinet deliberations have become a major turn-off to voters, it looks like Tony Blair, once Bill Clinton's bosom buddy and now, the wartime ally of George Bush, will be returned to 10 Downing Street.

What's Funny? Nobody Knows

What's funny? Richard Lawrence Cohen holds out the tantalizing revelation that somebody once knew the answer to this question and then says that this wisdom has been lost for the ages. Comedians the world over, including my kid brother, will be disappointed. It would be so easy to mix up a batch of fresh laughs if they only knew the formula. Rats!

Hybrids, Bridge to Better Days?

With China and India making notable strides toward economic parity with the so-called "first world" and China aggressively driving toward becoming a truly menacing military power, steel supplies are in shortage in the US and fuel prices are way up there.

As it relates to fuel, will it be that the high prices we're paying at the pump will finally cause we Americans to adopt alternative means to power our travel, ones that are less expensive and friendly to the environment? Maybe.

Given that countries like Saudi Arabia are churning out fuel at record levels and could only increase their capacity by investing billions into new exploration efforts, adding still more to the price paid by consumers, from motorists to airlines, maybe it's time for the world to get serious about finding efficient, clean sources of energy.

As a Christian, I definitely see a stewardship issue, as God has called the human race to take care of the Earth.

As an American, I see a national security issue, as I don't want free nations at the mercy of anybody else, the way we are right now.

Hybrids may be the bridge to energy technologies that are clean and renewable. That would be good for everyone--at the pump, in the air, and in the security it would afford America and others.

Check out the US News and World Report article on hybrids. It's pretty exciting stuff!

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Your Opinions of Disturbing '60 Minutes' Report?

This 60 Minutes story about alleged torture of terrorist suspects was disturbing, to say the least. If any of the allegations being made by a former translator for the US Army are true, it at the least, puts the US in a bad light. Read the transcript of the report and tell me what you think.

Servanthood, Part 2: The Linchpins of the World

I once worked in the corporate offices of a major company. My job: Making certain that copy machines were maintained and office supply cabinets stocked. It was a part-time job. But it gave me a bird's eye view of how a big organization functions.

I noticed the execs could be gone for weeks at a time, attending meetings with other decision-makers or making pitches in other parts of the world, and back at corporate offices, things would keep running smoothly. Product was created. New lines were introduced. Items were shipped. Suppliers were paid. Vendors sent their money. The bottom line was padded.

In part, this productivity in their absence could be attributed to the fine work done by the globe-trotting leaders. They had overseen the training of an efficent organization. Leaders, as the gurus remind us, should always be working themselves out of jobs, so infusing their organizations with abilities, vision, and a sense of duty, that their organizations can function without them.

But I noticed something else.

These were basically pre-computer days, the only computers around being those huge room-filling monsters requiring elevated floors and lots of air conditioning which could only really churn out inventory reports. Apart from face-to-face meetings, all communications were by phone, snail mail, or courier. There were no beepers, cell phones, or PDAs.

A guy named Ben, working by himself, was in charge of taking in all the postal mail and freighted items delivered to the corporate offices and distributing them throughout the complex. He also was charged with seeing to it that the huge volume of inner-office correspondence got to the appropriate people and with picking up and sending all outgoing mail and parcels.

One guy did all of this! Today, I wonder what sort of mileage a pedometer would have shown Ben racking up each day. He was like a busy doctor making hospital rounds. As soon as he finished one round of the building, distributing and picking up items, he would be back to the loading area, preparing for the next round.

Truth be known, most of the execs had no idea that a person named Ben existed. If you'd asked them who was the MVP of the company, they might have nominated themselves or someone on a higher rung of the corporate ladder. But if you asked their secretaries or the lower functionaries who resided in the endless rows of metal and cork cubicles that filled the building, there would have been one name consistently on their lips: Ben.

Ben was the guy who facilitated the decisions that those self-important executives made. Ben was the one who got the memoes for revision to and from the secretaries. Ben was the one who got the marching orders to those functionaries.

I found out how valuable Ben was one day when he had to be out of town. I was recruited to put in an eight-hour day in order to do his job.

Have you ever seen the episode of the old I Love Lucy sitcom in which Lucy and Ethel get a job in a candy-making factory? All these candies went by them, rapid fire, on a conveyor belt. The two of them simply couldn't keep up. That's how I felt on the day I filled in for Ben. I wondered how he was able do all that he did.

By two o'clock in the afternoon, people with whom I'd once had friendly relations, who had been so supportive of me as I began the day, were using my name as a less-than-complimentary term. I was peppered with questions and telephone messages when I returned to the loading area. "Have you got that memo from A for me yet?" "Where's the package from UPS?" "How long before you're back on six?" "When did you say Ben was coming back?" My answer to most questions was, "I don't know." But my response to the last one was, "Not soon enough."

This is what I learned: Ben was the linchpin of that corporation's existence. Before the changes brought on by technology, if Ben had quit without a properly-trained successor, it would have taken the company a long time to recover.

What Ben did could be described as "grunt work," I suppose. It's the very workaday stuff most of us do every day, not just on our jobs, but with our families and at home. Someone has to take out the trash, dust the furniture, do the dishes, clean the toilets, see that the gutters are cleared, get the oil changed, run to the grocery, pack the lunches, paint the house, treat the deck, run the errands, and pick up the kids from ballet or baseball or MENSA meetings.

There is no apparent glory to this sort of work. No Nobels or Pullitzers or MacArthur prizes are awarded to those who faithfully see to it that recyclables are put out on the curb every Tuesday night.

Nor is it likely to be noticed by the world when we make a call to a lonely person, send a card to someone who's ill, drop off food at the home of a grieving family, contribute clothing or toys to a homeless shelter, rake the lawn of an elderly widow, take lemonade to the guys re-doing our roof, interrupt our schedules to listen to a child, volunteer to help kids with their assignments at the local elementary school, or thank a teacher.

But I'm convinced that it's the amalgamation of all these collective acts of service that help this world, to the extent that it does so, move in the right direction. It's true of the service we render as part of our duty on the job. It's even truer of those acts of service we take on voluntarily.

I don't think I'm alone in this conviction.

It was the night when Jesus was to be arrested. It was a night that the twelve men who had been following Him most closely would remember for the rest of their lives. You can be sure that, as God-in-the-flesh, Jesus knew how important this night was. It was therefore critical for Him to give these men, His disciples (disciple being the English translation of the word from the original Greek of the New Testament, mathetes, meaning student), an important lesson.

What follows is a somewhat lengthy quote from the New Testament account of John of what happened next. I hope that you'll patiently read it. It's important. John writes:
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.

And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.
For many of us, it may be difficult to understand what an act of servanthood Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet was. If that's true for you, imagine someone who has spent an entire hot day trudging through a desert in sandals. These were what the twelve sets of feet Jesus washed at that moment were like.

Imagine still further that washing the feet of travelers who had come to dine with you was the task assigned to lowly servants.

On top of that, consider that even to this day, Semitic cultures like that of Jesus and His disciples in first-century Judea, believed the foot to be the dirtiest part of the body. A westerner who allows the bottom of his foot to be seen by an Arab friend is guilty of a great insult. (That, by the way, is omething that CBS correspondent Dan Rather learned, when he carelessly showed the bottom of his foot to Saddam Hussein a few years back.)

Yet, Jesus, Who never demurred at the titles of Lord and Teacher, Who claimed for Himself the designation, I AM, the very Name God claimed as His own to Moses, and Who let people worship Him as God, nonetheless willingly took on the role of servant, cleaning the disciples' filthy feet.

By this seemingly simple act, Jesus was signaling the significance of what He was about to accomplish through His death and resurrection. Jesus didn't have to do any of these things. He didn't have to go through scourging, beating, derision, or death. He didn't have to reclaim life on this earth through His resurrection. But He did them all, becoming our servant, in order to win us back from death and hell. The "wages of sin is death," Romans 6:23 tells us. But Jesus tears up the check stubs of all sinners who turn to Him and willingly become the undeserving beneficiaries of His sacrifice of self for us. With Paul in the New Testament, those who have surrendered to Jesus have reason to marvel:
...while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person...But God proves His love for us in that we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
For our purposes here, Jesus service to us tells us several important things:

(1) No matter how high we may rise in esteem or status in the world, we never outgrow the call to be servants, just like God-in-the-flesh.

(2) Servants are the linchpins of the world. (Indeed, no one is worthy of the title of leader who isn't, above all, a servant. Leaders who aren't servants will, eventually, find themselves without followers.)

(3) There is nothing more jarring to our sense of self-sufficiency, our sense of entitlement, or our penchant for "looking out for number one" than encountering a genuine act of service.

A few years ago, I joined my buddy, Steve Sjogren, in going into local businesses and asking for the "opportunity" to clean their toilets. Later, some of the people from our church and I did the same thing.

The reactions of business managers and customers were mixed. Most people could hardly believe that we wanted to do this most distasteful of tasks. Some giggled at our stupidity. But, when they asked us why we were cleaning toilets and we explained, as Steve had taught me, "We're just trying to share the love of God in a practical way" or, "We're Christians trying to serve our community," the giggling and derision usually stopped. When we serve others with no thought of selfish gain, especially when we do it to honor the God we know through Jesus Christ, we help people realize that we human beings were built to live in relationship with God and with our neighbors. I think that's part of what Jesus demonstrated to us all when He washed the feet of His disciples.

In my next installment, I hope to address the question of just what servants look like.

Forty Days of Purpose: Growing to Be Like Jesus

[I rarely do this. (Only about four times in the past twenty-four years.) But this message is a re-run of one I did on the same subject a few years ago.]

Ephesians 4:22-24
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, May 1, 2005)

The next few weeks will bring important events to the members of my family. Our son will be graduating from college and begin applying for entry into graduate schools. Our daughter and her fiance will be married in June. All of this of course, will bring changes to the lives of my wife and me and, because of them, each of us will be making important decisions about what’s next for us. How will we live the rest of our lives? We’ll really be deciding on the next steps to take in the process of growing as human beings.

We confront similar decision points when we follow Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God has given us new lives. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead so that all who surrender their lives and wills to Jesus can have forgiveness of sin, unshakeable joy, and everlasting life with God. But as Jesus Followers, we need to ask ourselves this question: Now that we have this salvation, what do we do next? How will we spend the rest of our eternal lives?

The answer to that question is found in many different words throughout God’s Word, the Bible. But the New Testament book of Ephesians says that we’re to “grow up in every way into [Christ]” [Ephesians 4:15].

Right now at Friendship, we’re looking at God’s purposes for us as human beings.

The first purpose for all of us is to worship God with our whole lives.

The second is to live and grow in loving relationships with our fellow Jesus Followers.

The third purpose for us is to submit to the process the Bible calls sanctification. That means to become holy, to be more like Jesus. Another word for it is discipleship.

We’re to be Jesus’ disciples, students and enactors of Jesus’ way of living life. Our purpose and our call from God is to keep growing up with Jesus as our model for living.

Sometimes though, I have the feeling that many of us–sometimes including me--want just enough of Jesus to avoid going to hell, but not so much of Jesus that it actually changes anything about our lives.

But it is as true of us spiritually as it is biologically of even the smallest organism: We’re either growing or we’re dying. We’re either holding onto Jesus and growing up or we’re forgetting Him and falling away from God. If we’re to fulfill our purpose for living and know the joy that goes with a vital relationship with Christ, we need to commit ourselves to discipleship, growing up spiritually.

Growing up in any area of our lives can be a painful, demanding process. It’s so demanding, in fact, that often, people decide that they just won’t grow up at all. That's why the Church is filled with so many spiritual Peter Pans! But today, I want to urge you to make a commitment: "With God’s help, I will grow to be more like Jesus."

This isn’t an easy commitment to keep! The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the third volume in C.S. Lewis' wonderful Chronicles of Narnia novel series. These are often referred to as children's books and of course, children can read and enjoy them. But don't let anyone ever tell you that they're just for children.

The whole series is a metaphorical telling of God's salvation of the human race. A lion named Aslan is a Christ-figure who dies for the sins of the people who inhabit an alternative place called Narnia. He's the "son of the Emperor Over the Sea," the emperor being a representation of God the Father.

In this third book, a particularly loathesome boy named Eustace accompanies two of his cousins, who have been to Narnia before, in traveling to that magic land. For many weeks after his arrival, Eustace is selfish and hurtful and pouty. At one point, he goes off by himself and ends up in the seemingly-abandoned lair of a dragon. There, he ogles jewelry and other treasures. He puts one bracelet on his arm and, while he sleeps, is turned into a dragon.

In this form, he's lonely and miserable and he begins to realize how horrible he has been to others. While regretting his past, the lion Aslan comes to him and urges Eustace to rid himself of his dragon skin. Eustace takes off several layers. But he doesn't make much progress, representing the futility of our own efforts to improve ourselves or get rid of our sins on our own.

Finally, Eustace submits to allowing the lion to tear away his dragon skin. This represents our submission to letting Christ take away our sin. It's painful for Eustace at first. But in the end, he is freed to become his new and better self, precisely the ongoing process of forgiveness and growth God wants all of us to undergo through Christ!

In his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by a Nazi firing squad for his opposition to Hitler in the waning days of World War Two talks about cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace is that quick and thoughtless forgiveness we give to ourselves in which we ignore the real sins we commit and the real pain we cause God and other. Costly grace is the grace that God grants through Jesus. God gives forgiveness and new life as free gifts to all who follow Jesus. But, if we're to take those gifts, it will cost us our old lives. We need to submit to the sometimes painful process of allowing Christ to rip all the old sins and addictions from our lives so that the new people God wants us to be and--that, deep inside--we want to be can emerge.

That's why Bonhoeffer says about being a disciple, a follower of Jesus: "When Christ calls a man [sic], He bids him, 'Come and die.'"

And so, when we allow Jesus Christ to help us become more like him, the process isn’t always easy. We will confront things about ourselves we may not like. But for all that, our lives will be better. We’ll be walking with God!

So, what exactly does it mean to grow up into Christ? Our Bible lesson for today seems to say that it consists primarily of three things.

First, we’re to put away our old sinful ways. We’re to daily turn away from sin and embrace living God’s way.

Second, we’re to let Christ renew our minds, our ways of thinking. We need to change our priorities, moving from our me-centered universe to a Christ-centered life.

Third, we’re to clothe ourselves in the new identities God gives to followers of Jesus. We’re to let the forgiveness and godly ways of Jesus cover every part of our lives.

Fine, we might think. But how do I do all that? Rick Warren, in his book The Purpose Driven Life reminds us that there are three ways God routinely helps those who have decided to grow up as Christians to do just that.

First: God uses His Word, the Bible. A few years ago, I went to spend some time with my Aunt Betty and cousin Susie, who were living in Cincinnati for a few months. Susie is a very intelligent person. She’s a neonatal intensive care nurse certified in twenty-eight states and she contracts to work in various hospitals for several months at a time. But in the course of our conversation, she told me that she had just bought a new VCR-DVD combo and couldn’t figure out how to install it. As we pulled out the box, I asked her, “Did you read the instructions?” She laughed and said, “Of course not!” I told her that might have been her first mistake.

God has given us an instruction manual for life. It’s called the Bible and the habit most of you are pursuing as you daily read The Purpose Driven Life during these forty days can be easily transferred to daily Bible reading with a devotional guide like Our Daily Bread, which we provide for free. Temptations, tragedies, blessings, and ego boosts are all things that God can help you handle when you remain in regular contact with Him through the Bible.

Second: God uses people to help us grow. Sometimes they confront. Sometimes they comfort. Sometimes they do both. One night in my seminary days, I was really angry at a group of people who I felt had taken advantage of me. My mentor, Pastor Schein, happened to see me in this mood. When he asked me what was wrong, I was at first going to say nothing. But he wouldn’t put up with my evasiveness. “Are you going to let that stuff stay inside you and poison you?” he asked. He pushed me to deal with the issue, to speak with the people who had offended me and hold them accountable, and then to forgive them. God used Pastor Schein to help me grow up as a Christian.

Third: God uses circumstances to help us become more like Jesus. In his book, The Pursuit of Holiness, author Jerry Bridges talks about moving to a new community. While doing his taxes at the end of the year he moved and he discovered that he had neglected to pay the taxes he’d owed in his former community. For a second, he was tempted to just forget about that tax liability. He was sure that the people in his former town wouldn’t find out. But he realized that he had to do the right thing. Christ had always paid his taxes, even though the government of his time was oppressive and dictatorial. So, Bridges calculated what he owed, wrote a check, and dropped it in the mail. The New Testament book of James reminds us that God is not a monster...God will never tempt us to sin. But God will use the circumstances of our lives to build our characters, to help us become more like Christ.

Every time we read God’s Word, have a perplexing or enjoyable encounter with people, or confront circumstances that demand decisions of us, Rick Warren reminds us that we need to ask some simple questions:

What is God trying to teach me here?

How is God challenging me to grow?

And then, ask God to give you the faith and the character to pursue God’s third purpose for you and me: to grow to become more like Jesus!

When the Bottom Line is the Bottom Line...

...rational business people will pay homage to ludicrous superstition.