Saturday, May 21, 2005

One Representative Who Refuses to Chase Pork

An exception--perhaps the only one in the 435-member US House of Representatives--to congressional pork-chasing is John Boehner. Boehner represents a district contiguous to the one in which I live here in the Cincinnati area.

When he was first elected in 1990, Boehner said that he would not seek pork barrel spending for his Eighth Congressional District. He said he felt that such spending was irresponsible budget-busting.

Boehner has been true to his word and the consequence, as you can see here is that some locals, including office-holders from his own party, criticize him.

Whatever your feeling about his politics, you have to hand it to Boehner for consistently adhering to his principles.

Why Americans, Who Hate Congress, Love Their Own Representatives

Ann Althouse, noting the diminishing regard of the public for the US Congress, as noted in an article in today's New York Times, says that personally, she'd rather see pics of Saddam Hussein in his underwear than watch the bickering that passes for debate in the Congress. While I'm inclined to agree, I've also noted something which I discussed in a comment on Althouse's fantastic blog:
It's become conventional wisdom, one supported by polling data, that people disdain the Congress--presently, they do so at an alarmingly high level--but love their own Representative. I've found this to be true in every congressional district in which I've lived.

Here in the Second Congressional District in Ohio, we're without a Representative at present. Ours, Rob Portman, was recently made US Trade Representative. We're holding a special primary in June and a special general election in August. Rob Portman was absolutely loved here, routinely pulling 70% of the vote every two years.

My guess is that people love their members of Congress--at least on the House side--for two reasons:

(1) Most districts are severely gerrymandered, meaning that there's a high probability that a congressional representative will reflect the party affiliation and worldview of the overwhelming majority of her or his constituents. They're built-in cheering sections for their representatives.

(2) Members of Congress who are successfully re-elected have a hand in bringing some pork to their districts. Americans hate pork in the federal budget. But money and projects that their Representatives bring to their communities aren't budgetary pork to them. They refer to pork as "set-asides," federal largesse they regard as legitimate expenditures to strengthen their communities and the country as a whole, money to which they're entitled. So, they especially love the Congresswomen and Congressmen who rain federal revenue on them. (That's why the upcoming fight over the proposed military base closings is going to be so messy.)

I wish I hadn't seen Saddam in his underwear. But, I grant you, that may be preferable to seeing the infantile posturing of Congress.

As long as we Americans allow ourselves to be bought off by politicos bearing pork though, we're apt to be left with the sort of Congress we have right now. Sigh.

In Touch with My 'Feminine Side'?

I have no way of checking this, but I have the impression that the audience for this blog tilts decisively toward female readers. All of the commenters today, for example, have been women.

So, I'd like your feedback. Is Better Living the work of a blogger in touch with "his feminine side"? Or are most of the men lurking? I'd really be interested in knowing.

Savoring a Beautiful Day

By now, the story of King George III's diary entry for July 4, 1776 is well-known. Unaware that some three-thousand miles away, upstarts in North America had publicly declared thirteen colonies independent of Britain, George wrote that nothing of great importance had happened that day.

Today was a day when, given the instant access we have to world events modern media give to us, I can safely write that nothing of grand geopolitical significance happened.

But for me, it has been a splendid day, drenched in the simple blessings that can make life so rich and wonderful.

One thing making it so was the brilliant sunshine that filled the sky here much of the day. And then there were the mild temperatures and low humidity. It was, in short, a perfect spring day.

Then, there were the things that happened that made it so perfect.

This morning, I wrote my message for tomorrow's worship and afterward, spent some time in conversation with our son as he got ready for work. We laughed as he quickly popped in and out of my bed room just after I'd showered to announce: "It's Saturday and I don't want to go to work...I just needed to get that off my chest."

In the early afternoon, a friend gave me a box full of books and CDs, some of which were meant for me and the rest to be doled out as gifts to others as I see fit. It was a treasure trove of neat stuff, including Hugh Hewitt's book on blogging, which I've been wanting to read ever since it was published.

After my wife's return from work, we went to Half Price Books. There, we hit the jackpot in several ways. First off, we got a whole eight bucks for some books my wife had gathered to be sold there.

Then, we found some books to give as gifts and for next to nothing, I was able to buy Peter Robinson's amazing book, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, which I'm already enjoying.

Tonight, savoring the day as the sun began to sink, I took a walk and, along the way, talked with a neighbor. "Hey, I hear that your daughter is getting married," he said.

"Yep. Next month," I replied.

"Well, whoever the fellow is, he's a lucky guy. She's a sweetie!"

"Thanks. We think she's special. We really like her fiance too."

"Do you? I'm glad about that."

After my walk, I returned to the house where my future son-in-law, wife, and I watched the Reds play the Indians on TV. Even though the Indians won, evening-up the weekend set they're playing right now, it was a fun game to watch.
As you can see, there was nothing special about this day. And yet, that's precisely what made it so special. At every turn, there was good conversation with really great people unfolding under a canopy of sunshine and renewing, blossoming life. It was a day lived at the speed of spring, a rare opportunity to step off this rapidly-moving vehicle called life and just live.

My wife, knowing that I had been feeling a little sorry for myself earlier in the week, said to me today, "You really do have a wonderful life, Mark."

"Yes," I said, feeling a little like George Bailey after Clarence had worked his angelic magic. "I really do. I know that I am exactly where I'm supposed to be and that I'm doing exactly what I should be doing."

My heart aches for people who live in places like Darfur, Afghanistan, Iraq, Zimbabwe, in tough inner-city locales across our country, in those pockets of poverty that dot the landscape of rural America, and elsewhere. I feel for those dealing with tragedy, divorce, joblessness, and all the other misfortunes that befall the human race.

During my walks under this springtime sky, I pray that these victims of life's horrors will have peace.

I occasionally donate to organizations that bring relief to people in places and situations like these.

I offer a listening ear and a shoulder.

I volunteer my time to organizations that strive to make the life of the world better, gentler, more imbued with love.

I wish that all the six-billion people who inhabit this planet could enjoy days of simple pleasures like the one I have had today.

But I have two thoughts as this day comes to an end.

First: I take no credit for the wonderful day that has come to me. I don't feel that I deserve it. I have no sense of personal pride for the life that I enjoy. It is pure gift. And I know that in a world in which bad things do happen, not all my days will be like this. Indeed, one day, my life here will come to an end. But by the grace of the God I follow through Christ, I have the hope that I will live a day a bit like this that never ends. That's a hope I live to share with others every day I have on this planet.

While here, I pray and give, listen and volunteer, in hopes of sharing days like these and to give the eternal spring Christ grants to all with faith in Him to others.

Second: As a follower of Christ, as I say, I'm committed to praying and working for the justice by which all God's children might enjoy days of simple pleasure. May that day come soon. But it would be the height of ingratitude for me not to be thankful, not to relish, not to enjoy, or not to take advantage of gift days like this one. So, as long as God lets me have them, I will live them with eager thankfulness.

Friday, May 20, 2005

A Simple Way to Help Hungry People...For Real!

When you take the time to click on The Hunger Site each day, you help feed hungry people. Go here.

Check Out Purple Kangaroo's and Friends' Paraphrasing

Purple Kangaroo shows us some paraphrases of a passage from the opening words of the New Testament book of Titus. They were written by the members of a small study group of which she's a part. Check it out. You might find some inspiration. Here's the link.

Paraphrasing Biblical passages, particularly after consulting several different translations, is a great way of coming to a deeper understanding of them. I often do this while preparing my sermons and often, my sermons are nothing other than extended paraphrases of the passages on which I preach, in a way.

"This Bottle of Elmer's is Tired Today"

So, says the Crazy Woman. And the rest of what she writes here is worth the read too, especially for anyone trying to perform a similar balancing act.

Meanwhile in the Tristate...

Here in the Cincinnati area, the main topics of discussion, appear to be (and in this order):

1. What are the Reds going to do, if anything, about their pitching?

2. What is the University of Cincinnati is going to do, if anything, about men's basketball coach Bob Huggin?.

3. Who are the Republicans going to nominate in the special June 14 primary for the Second Congressional District seat recently vacated by Rob Portman?

Reds fans are almost uniformly apoplectic when talking about the team's abysmal performance so far this year. Offseason moves and the accompanying escalation of the team payroll led to hopes for a good season. In recent years, the Reds have had a strong, longball-laden offense and poor pitching. The result: Teams that held or hovered near the top of the National League Central Division until just after the All Star break and then, plummeted precipitately.

This year, in spite of seeming improvements in the pitching staff, that pattern has been broken. The offense is still formidable. But the pitching is atrocious, with only a few bright spots here and there. The result this year: The Reds are cellar-dwellers.

Many Reds fans are willing to part with some of the offensive cogs in the Sputtering Red Machine in exchange for some pitching that will provide "defensive support."

For the past several weeks, Reds general manager Dan O'Brien has issued escalating warnings that some players, giving no evidence of notching up their performances, might be expendable.

Attendance at the ballpark is showing the increasing frustration of the fans. This is saying something. The Reds are an ingrained part of this town's culture and it's probably safe to say that other than Saint Louis, Cincinnati has the most dedicated baseball fans in America.

In recent seasons, once it became clear that the Reds weren't going to the playoffs, the team engaged in wholesale horsetrading, referred to here as "fire sales." Those fire sales have brought some good pitching prospects into the Cincinnati farm system. Whether the organization deems it a good time to bring those young arms to the majors or they find veteran arms for which they can trade, I think that something is going to happen soon.


The same can't be said at the University of Cincinnati, where men's basketball coach Bob Huggins has pointedly not been offered an extension on a contract that has two years left on it.

Clearly, UC president Nancy Zimpher, an able and experienced educational administrator who recently came here highly touted, wants Huggins to go.

Huggins, a coach who put UC back on the map and whose program foots the bill for much of the university's athletic programs, doesn't want to leave.

For years now, the university has routinely offered to extend Huggins' contract. But he was suspended last year following a DUI conviction, the basis for which was documented in a frequently-broadcast police videotape. It was after that incident that the president indicated she wanted to review things before deciding whether to extend Huggins.

Still, Huggins did his time for his crime, so to speak, and it's doubtful that incident would have been enough to cause Zimpher to want the coach to be on his way. But there have been a number of other incidents during Huggins' tenure which, to some, indicate a program that is out of the coach's control.

In letting Huggins know recently that she would not extend his contract, Zimpher, who was supported by the university's board of trustees, was hoping that Huggins would resign and save her the trouble of firing him. But Huggins isn't going softly into that dark night. He had a press conference this week in which he said that he was going to coach at UC for the two years left on his contract.

Sentiment in this town seems to be overwhelmingly in favor of the guy people around her affectionately refer to as Huggs. I listened to a sports radio call-in show for quite awhile last week while doing some housecleaning. The host knew that he had a hotbutton issue and accused Zimpher of being a liar, seeing her forestalled decision on Huggins' status as making high school players the coach has recruited this spring the victims of a deception designed to lure them to UC under false pretenses. The host encouraged callers to engage in some nasty and base name-calling toward Zimpher. Many happily complied.

There's scuttlebutt in the neighborhoods all around town about this too.


The special congressional primary in June and the general election in August are occasioned by former Representative Rob Portman's appointment to be US Trade Representative. The Second District is safely Republican. Nonetheless, not only are 11 Republicans running, so too are seven Democrats.

The real race is among the GOP candidates, from whose number the next Representative will emerge.

There are really only three, maybe four, viable candidates: Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine; State Representative Tom Brinkman; former Representative Bob McEwen; and former State Representative Jean Schmidt.

The district covers portions of several counties and the percentage of the district population in Hamilton County (where Cincinnati is the county seat) has shrunk dramatically in recent years. This potentially creates opportunities for someone from outside of Hamilton County to be elected.

But at present, DeWine must be seen as the frontrunner. He has a proven track record of winning elections in Cincinnati and Hamilton County, he has the name recognition that goes with being the son of Ohio's senior US Senator, and access to lots of campaign money. After weathering a scandal in his primary battle to become county commissioner last year, DeWine has probably left the questions raised by that situation behind him.

Brinkman will have solid support for his crusades against taxation and has recently received the endorsement of a major gun advocacy group.

Schmidt is the only candidate from Clermont County, the population of which has increased dramatically in recent years. She is a formidable fund raiser. She also will have solid support from the pro-life movement. But last year, in her bid to move from the State House of Representatives to the State Senate in Columbus, Schmidt lost the Republican primary narrowly, mostly because she lost in her home county. The county Republican Central Committee, which endorsed her in last year's primary for the State Senate, has also endorsed her in this race.

Every time I see the amounts of money raised and spent in these campaigns, it makes me sick. Think of how much good could be done with the money generated in these campaigns. And what, exactly, do these donors think they're buying when they make their campaign contributions?

I don't blame candidates who are only dealing with a system they had nothing to do with establishing. But the need for change not only in our laws, but in our attitudes about politics, government, and public office is obvious. Meritocracy has never existed in this fallen old world. And ultimately, who among us can claim to be truly meritorious?

But do we have to continue suffering under the politics of the highest bidder?

UPDATE: Chip Taylor at Miscellany has some insightful observations on why people contribute to political campaigns here. Chip has lots of interesting things to say on his blog.

Good Bye, Reggie Miller, I Literally Didn't Know Ye

I haven't watched a game in the NBA since one in which Jordan led the Bulls against the Rockets in the playoffs some years ago. So, other than highlights on SportsCenter, I've never seen a single game of Reggie Miller's. But this appreciation of the now-retired Indiana Pacer by Ed Brayton is worth a read. You'll find a plethora of varying views of Miller in the Comments section.

Girls, Bikinis, Boys, and Hormones

Amanda Witt posts a funny conversation about girls, bikinis, boys, and hormones that she had recently with her three kids. Of particular interest is one son's pre-adolescent vow never to like a girl who would be so silly as to dress just to attract a boyfriend. "Hold that thought," Witt tells her son. "Hold that thought." Read her entire post. (It was Adrian Warnock who put me onto this piece.)

Why Go 'Above and Beyond'? Dealing with My 'Dark Side'

When people ask me why I do things that are in the "above and beyond the call of duty" category, like writing this blog, I tell them things like...

"I enjoy writing."

"I want to present what I hope is one little voice of reason and moderation in the world."

"I hope to show people a different face to Christian faith than they might see otherwise."

All of those statements are true.

But, when I'm honest with myself, there are undoubtedly other reasons.

Part of the reason is hubris. Writing can be and often is, an act of monumental presumption in which we bid, for however long it takes, to hold people captive while they read what we write.

Another is the desire to be recognized as competent, intelligent, and wise.

A small part of me also hopes that somebody somewhere will read what I write and say, "Hey, that guy's got good stuff to say. Let's offer him a book deal."

Frankly, I pray about my motives not just for writing, but also for my public ministry as a pastor and about my involvement in local organizations and activities every day. Am I doing these things to serve God and my neighbor or to serve my ego? I beg God to help me to live and act from purer motives.

The fact is, of course, that this side of heaven, my motives--good and bad, loving and selfish--are inextricably woven together in my fallen but redeemed psyche. Even the tender acts of love I render for my children, seemingly selfless, are in part motivated by the hubris that goes with calling them my children, my progeny, the product of my nature and nurture. (Of course, I know that this is all rot. Children are God's gifts to us, as are spouses, home, and productive work, to name just a few other examples. But ego pays little heed to fact when it's on a roll.)

As a follower of Jesus Christ who strives to live in daily repentance and renewal, I know that on this planet and in this life I am, at best, only in the process of becoming like Christ. Until then, I see through a glass darkly. Sometimes very darkly.

But in this blog entry of yesterday, Gordon Atkinson confesses another motive for his busy-ness, one that may be true for me as well. For all my sincere proclamations of being saved from sin, death, and futility not by what I do, but by my faith in what God has done for me in Jesus Christ, I still can fall into the trap of trying to prove myself. Thanks, Gordon, for giving me something else to repent. (That's only partially sarcastic and mostly sincere.)

Bolsinger Book Wins Major Recognition

Tod Bolsinger is a fine writer and thinker. His book, It Takes a Church, has received major recognition. Read about it here. Congratulations, Tod!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

You Go, Rob!

Rob Asghar's new Creators Syndicate column debuted today. Anyone who reads this blog knows what a fantastic writer I think Rob is. I'm sure that Rob is going to be a great success.

His premier column commends what he calls, "xenorealism" for America as we confront the possibility of terrorism. As usual, thoughtful stuff, Rob!

Rob's blog is called Dimestore Guru and is one of my usual stops in cyberspace.

The Newsweek Koran Story and the Question of Bias

I'm getting in as much New York Times column-reading as I can before the eminences there impose their punditry-for-a-price policy. Today, David Brooks writes a "plague on both your houses" piece directed at those with facile, ideologically-driven takes on the Newsweek Koran-desecration story.

Writes Brooks about his fellow conservatives who believe the whole story was the result of philosophical bias:
Many of my friends on the right have decided that the Newsweek episode exposes the rotten core of the liberal media...

...but this is craziness. I used to write for Newsweek. I know Mike Isikoff and the editors. And I know about liberals in the media. The people who run Newsweek are not a bunch of Noam Chomskys with laptops. Not even close. Whatever might have been the cause of their mistakes, liberalism had nothing to do with it.
Of liberals apparently disappointed that the story isn't true, Brooks says:
...the left side of the blogosphere has erupted with fury over the possibility that American interrogators might not have flushed a Koran down the toilet. The Nation and leftish Web sites are in a frenzy to prove that the story is probably true even if Newsweek is retracting it. This, too, is unhinged. Would it be illegal for more people on the left to actually be happy that a story slurring Americans may turn out to be unproven?
I've written on this site about what I think lay behind the colossal lapse of judgment at Newsweek that led them to run a poorly-sourced story with such grim implications. I don't think it reflected a liberal bent, but a post-Vietnam-Watergate bent toward believing the worst of the US government, whether its caretakers are Democrats or Republicans; a bunker-mentality created by the interaction of mainstream media hubris and the sniping of bloggers; and the constant pressure to get the big stories out first.

Hopefully, the events surrounding Newsweek's story will cause the media to be more careful about checking their facts in the future. In a shrinking world of instant communication, the stakes are too high for news providers to be careless.

The Bushfish, Part 4: Why I Find the Bushfish So Objectionable (Third Objection)

God was meeting with Moses on Mount Sinai, giving Moses, the representative of God's chosen people His law. Meanwhile, those same people, the Hebrews, were encamped in the flatlands below. Like children at the beginning of a vacation, the people asked things like, "Are we there yet?" and "Why is it taking so long?"

The Biblical account of the Hebrews' restiveness and their ensuing actions begins this way:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron [Moses' brother and right-hand man], and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ [Exodus 32:1]
It's important to make note of several things about this passage:
1. When the Hebrews became upset with the seeming slowness of God's timetable, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

2. The first thing they did was go to someone in authority, Aaron, and appeal to him to take on more authority, whether it was faithful, authorized, or sensible or not. Aaron knew that he was to wait for Moses' return and that Moses had been placed in leadership by God. All the Hebrews had witnessed and benefited from their miraculous deliverance from bondage, yet they felt certain that they could push events forward positively if they took control of things themselves.

3. Most reputable Biblical scholars agree that the Hebrews' intent was not to create false alternative gods, but physical representations of the God of the universe. They didn't intend to engage in idolatry, placing their faith in something or someone other than the one true God of all. In spite of their intent however, the golden calf they created was an idol. Instead of praying to and relying on God, they were looking to this hunk of metal to help them.
Martin Luther once pointed out that whatever is most important to us is our god. That includes innocent things like our families, homes, lawns, cars, pensions, savings, investments, jobs, baseball card collections, heirlooms, antiques, computers, i-Pods, Palm Pilots, Blackberries, favorite TV shows, sports, reputations, spouses, children, parents, friends, vacation destinations, and any of a zillion other things we can give priority in our lives. None of them are intrinsically bad. But they become bad when we allow them to supplant God as our ultimate loyalty, ultimate concern, or ultimate ground of purpose, meaning, and significance in our lives.

It's even possible for us to turn God Himself into an idol. That's apparently what the Hebrews did as they caved into impatience in the wilderness. (It's certainly what some so-called Christians do when they treat Jesus like a sort of talisman, insisting that as long as a person believes in Jesus enough, they won't get sick. That's not faith; it's superstition. It's not faith; it's idolatry. The Jesus I know never promised our lives on earth would be trouble-free. But He did promise to be with us always!)

So, what's behind this jaw on idolatry? It's about my third objection to the Bushfish. The Bushfish, you know by now, is a car magnet. Employing the most ancient symbol of the Christian faith--the fish, it attempts to equate the policies and person of the President with Christianity. An attack on (i.e., a disagreement with) Mr. Bush or his policies is seen as an attack on Christian faith, as though the President were an authorized political embodiment of God's political preferences.

The Bushfish marketers make the connection between GOD and GOP explicit by emblazoning the President's last name on the fish. In previous posts, I've mentioned two major objections I have to the Bushfish:

First: It equates being American with being righteous people of God. More specifically, it equates the policies of a particular politician with the righteousness of God.

Second: It sends a signal that Christian faith is an attainment, a work, or a particular set of behaviors, in this case, a proscribed way of voting. It says, "If you vote this way, you're in the righteousness club and if you don't, your out of the club."

My third objection is my most serious one. It's this:

The Bushfish commends an idolatry, not perhaps of President Bush, but of his policies

I doubt that's the intention of the creators of the Bushfish. Nor will it be the intention of those who may purchase it. But I believe that the creators of the Bushfish have unwittingly fashioned an idol, a competitor for people's ultimate allegiance as surely as the Hebrews unwittingly fashioned an altar with that golden calf. It commends what Canadian composer and Christian Bruce Cockburn calls the "idolatry of ideology."

Why do I say this?

1. All we Christians feel that we live in the wilderness, in a manner of speaking. The New Testament tells us that followers of Jesus are strangers and aliens and that our true home is in heaven.

Christians have the promise of Christ's continual presence with them. But the world, with its violent, selfish ways can sometimes seem menacing, intent on forcing us to do things that run contrary to God's desire for human beings. Christians become frightened, anxious to see differences in their own lives and in the world in which we live.

This can lead to the sort of impatience that I discussed in my last installment. Rather than submitting to the often arduous process of transformation that Jesus says we must undertake--gently wooing others to follow Christ, rather than beating people with Bibles, laws, or political power plays--they try other methods. They take matters into their own hands, when what they should be doing is patiently employing the methods God has given to us: prayer, service, love, compassion, witnessing, and such.

The Hebrews made a golden calf. Some enterprising businessperson, reflecting the impatience he sees in some constituencies, has made the Bushfish.

2. The Hebrews appealed to Aaron to "get off the dime" and advance their interests in accordance with their understanding of them. They were tired of waiting for Moses, God, and God's timetable.

The Bushfish represents the sentiments of some evangelical Christians who believe that US politics ought to be steered in a particular direction. During the waning days of Terri Schaivo's life, some members of the pro-life community conveyed threatening messages to President Bush and to his brother, Governor Jeb Bush. The Bush brothers were told that if they didn't usurp power that they were not authorized to wield, there would be political hell for them to pay down the road. What good does it do, Randall Terry, one of these people, asked, if pro-life people are elected to office and they don't abuse their power to do our bidding?

This isn't that different from what the Hebrews said to Aaron. "Moses is gone, Aaron. We don't care about things being done properly. You take over," they told Moses' weak-willed brother. Aaron acquiesced because he had more regard for the people than he did for God.

The not-so-subtle assumption which underlay the Hebrews' request of Aaron was that God wasn't big enough or powerful enough or shrewd enough to take care of the Hebrews. They saw God as a puny being who needed to be defended, prodded, prompted, and helped. They even thought that God was a lousy marketer. That's why they made the cow. That's why some will likely buy the Bushfish magnet.

3. Many contemporary Christians, whether conservative or liberal, are holding God hostage to their own policy preferences. As such, they violate one of the commands that God gave to Moses to present to the Hebrews. In my tradition, we call it the First Commandment:
You shall have no other gods.
In his book, The Small Catechism, Martin Luther explains the meaning of this commandment:
We are to fear, love, and trust God above anything else.
Luther also says, and I think rightly, that violating every other one of God's commands entails violating the first. When we steal, gossip, or kill, we really are telling God, "To hell with Your authority."

In a very real sense, every time we worship an idol, it's really ourselves that we worship. Whether it's a cow or a magnet we think represents God in some way or any of the other things we can give primacy in our lives, our elevation of them is a subtle or overt way of saying, "I'm in control. I know what's best. I am God."

The Bushfish is an alarming act of ungodly hubris and I hope that its manufacturer will think better of it and cut off production.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Althouse on Mailer's Huffington Post Conspiracy Rant...and My Comments There

Ann Althouse disses Norman Mailer's "theory" that the Newsweek Koran-desecration story was created by functionaries in the Bush Pentagon. I join her in that, pointing out a few features of Mailer's "journalism," in the Comments.

Great Series on Forgiveness from Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts is writing a fabulous series, When Someone Sins Against You, on his blog right now. I recommend it highly!

More Tragic Upshots of Newsweek Story

This report from MSNBC demonstrates the likely impact of the now-retracted Newsweek story which had alleged abuse of the Koran by US interrogators at Guantanamo.

Consider this paragraph:
"The damage cannot be controlled by the belated retraction from Newsweek under U.S. government pressure," said Qazi Hussain Ahmad, leader of the major Islamic party alliance in Pakistan, interviewed by telephone from Islamabad. "The desecration of the Holy Koran by U.S. soldiers shows that the United States is on a path of clashing with Islam."
Irrespective of the actual facts, millions of people who were previously convinced of US hostility toward Islam see the retracted tale of Koran-desecration as a fact confirming their suspicions and Newsweek backpedaling as the result of government pressure. They will see a cover-up. What a mess!

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Bushfish, Part 3: Why I Find the Bushfish So Objectionable (Second Objection)

I used to be an atheist.

Because I had never seen God, I concluded He didn't exist.

I wrote off those who confessed faith as weak people who needed a crutch.

More than that, I deemed believers--particularly Christian believers--as fearful infants who spent their lives trying to placate an angry God.

Over time, I came to regard the proposition that this world came into being on its own as intellectually suspect.

I came to believe also that life is sometimes so scary, that it's sensible to have a crutch and that God is a better one than booze, drugs, money, status, or any of a thousand other dependencies we may develop. As a friend of mine once told another friend of ours, "Pray to God and rely on Him. If you're right, the result is that you'll be with Him forever. If you're wrong, what will you be out?"

But my last objection to Christian faith was the least informed and the most off-base. That was my dismissal of those with faith in Christ as "fearful infants who spent their lives trying to placate an angry God."

You see, I thought that Christian faith was like all the other religions of the world. All other religious systems, whether aimed at bringing a person to absorption into God following a long chain of reincarnations, or satori, or nirvana, or going to heaven with a harem, or winning the Lottery have one thing in common. They all believe that human beings can and must work to advance themselves spiritually to achieve these lofty heights. Under these systems, adherents must do certain good deeds, go through proscribed rituals, make specified sacrifices, say parroted prayers, attain vaunted behavior patterns, do a penance, or buy a ticket.

The Judeo-Christian tradition, expressed ultimately in the person and lordship of Jesus Christ turns all such notions on their heads.

The first thing that a person who comes to follow Jesus Christ admits is that no one, including themselves, is capable of the perfection that all other religious systems say we must strive for.

The second thing a follow of Christ admits is that we need a Savior or Advocate Who can fill the gap between the goodness we desire to evidence and the place where we are. More than that, we admit that Christ is the One Who can give us this new life, not our efforts or goodness.

Thirdly, to become a follower of Christ and beneficiary of His blessings is not a matter of our doing. It's a matter of our surrender. We surrender to the God we know in Christ and ask Him to imbue our lives with the righteousness, forgiveness, purpose, and everlasting life that He gives to those with faith in Him.

The book of Ephesians in the New Testament portion of the Bible says:
For by grace [literally, charity, in this case, God's charity] you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God---not the result of works, so that no one may boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9]
The Christian believes that we have a relationship with the eternal God of the universe because of what God has done for us through Jesus' death and resurrection and our simple trusting faith in Him. As the most famous passage of Scripture puts it:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life. [John 3:16]
This leads to my second objection to the Bushfish, a car magnet which appropriates the most ancient symbol of Christian faith--the fish--to promote or agree to the politics of President Bush:

It sends a signal that Christian faith is an attainment, a particular set of political behaviors, a proscribed way of voting. It says, "If you vote this way, you're in the righteousness club and if you don't, your out of the club."

Don't say that I'm overreacting. I have heard people say this overtly and the Bushfish is a symbol of this sentiment.

As such, the Bushfish represents one of the worst of all Christian heresies, what Martin Luther called "works righteousness."

Works righteousness is the common human notion that can only enslave us, that tells us we are righteous once we adhere to a certain code of behavior, such as voting for or supporting conservative Republicans, or condemning liberal Democrats as faithless secularists. (Keep in mind that I am a conservative Republican. But I don't believe that as a Christian I must be a conservative Republican and that I'm free to vote for Democrats.)

Works righteousness also insists that if you can get people to adhere to a certain set of propositions or proscribed behavior patterns, you will have made them "righteous," irrespective of any inward difference in their consciences or their relationship with God. This was the very approach of the Pharisees so often condemned by Jesus. The Pharisees were religionists who should have known better, but who cheapened Biblical faith by boiling it down to a kind of mercantile transaction between a Clerk-God and "customers" who bought him off with their deeds.

Works righteousness is really the religion of the devil, designed to get us caught up in looking good (what that Ephesians passage would call boasting), rather than humbly submitting ourselves to the Lord Who, as we surrender to Him more each day, can begin to make us good from the inside out.

Works righteousness leads to smugness, judgmentalism, and self-righteousness.

Righteousness as a gift from God leads to humilty, graciousness, and love for God and neighbor.

You can tell from the language on the Bushfish web site which of these two divergent paths it represents. It writes off all opposition to President Bush, even that expressed by evangelical Christians, as un-Christian secularism.

Not only is this intellectually suspect, it's flat-out wrong.

There are thoughtful Christians who believe, for example, that it may not be a good idea for we Christians to force the Ten Commandments down the throats of our fellow citizens on public property. I'm one of those Christians. The government entity which can today force the Ten Commandments down a community's throat, may be forced to swallow someone else's creed tomorrow. People cannot be made Christian by majority vote or by being forced to read Commandments.

Jesus has proscribed an entirely different method for helping others to know the new life He wants to give all people.

Just this past Sunday, Christians all over the world celebrated the third great festival of the Church Year: Pentecost. (The other two festivals are Christmas and Easter.) On the first Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus' resurrection and ten days after His ascension back to heaven, God sent His Holy Spirit to Jesus' praying followers, turning them into the Church and empowering them to lovingly share the good message--the Gospel--of God's free gifts of forgiveness and new life offered to all who follow Christ!

The process of sharing Christ is what the Bible calls evangelism--good newsing. It takes time, patience, love, and absolute reliance on God to see it through. Through political activism, it's impossible for you to get a majority in the Congress, take control of the White House, or pack the Supreme Court and then pass laws or get judicial rulings that will magically make America a Christian nation.

Becoming a follower of Jesus Christ is a matter of people allowing their wills to bend to the Lordship of Jesus. It cannot be commanded of them, just by making them adhere to laws that we think--and which may or may not be--Christian.

Peter, one of Jesus' first followers and a guy known for being rather pushy, realized this. That's why Peter's recommendation for introducing people to God-righteousness rather than works righteousness is so striking. Peter says:
Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. [First Peter 3:15-16]
Frankly, the sorry spiritual state of America today is not attributable to a dearth of evangelical political activity or a failure to get the right judges in our courts. Many of the pieces of legislation and lots of the judicial rulings that have upset or angered us as Christians would not have even been thinkable had we as a Church not grown so lazy about fulfilling our primary mission of sharing Christ with unbelieving people and so, making disciples for Him. On this, we have been asleep at the switch.

More than that, if Americans were reconciled to Christ and seeking to do God's will, it wouldn't matter how many heinous things our laws allowed us to do. America will not change until Americans change and that is a matter of people's hearts, minds, and wills being surrendered to the good God we know through Christ, not who's on the Supreme Court. It's perfectly possible for Christians to advance a political agenda, even electing a President and controlling the Congress, and still lose America for Jesus Christ.

America's spiritual somnambulence has only grown more acute the more deeply we Christians have mixed our "faith" with partisan politics.

We need to give up on works righteousness and embrace the righteousness that comes from God alone. It's fine for us to have political opinions. (God knows I have enough of them!) But we must not allow our proclamation of Christ to become a sideshow.

Nor can we allow it to be subordinated to a particular set of political propositions or partisans.

And we must not let our faith relationship with God be boiled down to a list of do's and don't's, no matter how laudable.

Our message shouldn't be, "Vote for Bush and be a Christian," but more along the lines of what Paul wrote to the first-century church at Rome:
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)

It's Not Just Losing Parties That Need to Know What They Stand For

Two articles in the latest issue of The Economist have particularly interested me. Their diverse topics bear some relationship to one another.

The first, a piece triggered by the Labour Party's victory in the May 5 British elections, addresses the future of the Conservative Party--the Tories--there. One intriguing paragraph:
The best thing that can be said for this near-disaster [the party's declining ability to connect with the electorate because of its barrenness of ideas] is that the Tories are beginning to talk seriously about ideas. There has long been, lurking below the surface, an ideological split within the party; and now that it is visible, it has become the battleground for the fight over the soul of the Tory party.
Parties that are out of power must, of course, do some soul-searching and often, poll-searching, to determine what they stand for and how to best present themselves. This is the very process many Democrats in this country are recommending be pursued in their party.

But do parties in power need to undertake a similar process? Another fascinating article in The Economist deals with the legacy--or lack thereof at the national level--of Barry Goldwater, godfather of Republican conservatism, an advocate of small government, who disdained what he regarded as government intrusions into people's lives, including saying or doing anything about abortion. (In fact, looking at Democrats and Republicans historically, pro-life would seem more natural as a position for Democrats to take and pro-choice more naturally at home with Republican history. Pro-life Democrats and women's movement leaders who are opposed to abortion often make this same argument.)

I came under some criticism when writing a few months ago that the legislation that Congress passed and the President signed relative to the Terri Schaivo case that, however laudable its intent, represented a final, firm departure from traditional American conservatism by this President and this Congress.

But the facts pointed out in The Economist article show how far big-government conservatism has traveled from the conservatism of Barry Goldwater, the founding father of modern conservatism. A sampling:
[The current Republican Party's] love affair with big government has been inflamed by the experience of power...The congressional Republican Party, once a brake on spending, is now an accelerator. Congress trimmed Mr Clinton's budgets by $57 billion in 1996-2001; in Mr Bush's first term, it added an extra $91 billion of domestic spending...

Even if you strip out spending on defence and homeland security [in the wake of 9/11], Mr Bush still wins the prize as the biggest booster of public spending for three decades.
What all this suggests is that America's conservatives need to do some soul-searching as well. Do today's Republicans embrace Goldwater's legacy or not? Does it believe in keeping government spending under control or not? And who exactly do we think that the godfather of conservatism would support in the 2008 election: John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, John Hagel, or...Sam Brownback?

With no clear successor to President Bush looming on the political horizon, the British Tories and US Democrats won't be the only political parties needing to figure out what they really stand for over the next several years.

A Who's Hu of Repression?

John Tierney's New York Times column cataloging some of the repressive policies of Chinese Communist leader Hu Jintao demonstrates that Asian nation's leadership has not given up its bad old past. With its massive population, aggressive campaign of economic development, and steady military development, I will say what I have said before: Dealing with China is the most important foreign policy, economic policy, energy policy, and military policy matter with which the US government must deal.

Repressive regimes love exporting their despotism and the current Chinese government is increasingly menacing. US policy must see and address these facts.

The Bushfish, Part 2: Why I Find the Bushfish So Objectionable (First Objection)

Okay, let me put a few things on the metaphorical cybertable.

1. I am an evangelical Christian. Don't laugh! Lutherans were the first ones to call themselves evangelical. We're people who believe in the Good News--the euangelion--that new life and forgiveness come to all with faith in Jesus Christ. Lest some be quick to dismiss what I say, I assure you that I'm a grateful forgiven sinner saved by the grace God grants through Christ to all who are born again.

2. I'm a conservative Republican, a pro-government conservative as identified in the recent Pew Center survey. I'm a Republican in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, with hat-tips to antecedents like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Henry Clay.

3. I am alarmed by how far from God our individualistic, narcissistic culture has gone.

4. Symbols' meanings can be changed . At one time, long before a guy named Hitler took it for his Nazi movement in Germany, Native Americans used the swastika to symbolize different things. Churchill's V-for-Victory two-fingered salute became, several decades later, a peace sign for antiwar activists opposed to the conflict in Vietnam.

5. As a general rule, I'm not much into signs or symbols. When I pray personally, I never use candles, beads, religionspeak, visual aids, or ritualistic formulae of any kind. I just talk to God, believing that God has made Himself accessible to all with faith in Christ; that's what Jesus was telling us when He told us to pray in His Name. I realize that such symbols and signs can help some people pray and if you're one of them, that's fine. But it's important for what I'm going to say here that you know that they aren't part of my faith life.

Knowing some of this about me, it may have surprised some people to read my comments on the Bushfish at Rob Asghar's blog last week. The Bushfish is a car magnet in the shape of a fish, the most ancient symbol of Christianity--more ancient even than the cross--with the last name of the President in the middle of it, imprinted on a field of red and white stripes.

The company's web site asks at the top of its page, "Do you believe God belongs in government?" Well, duh! I want God to be part of everything we human beings do. I pray about that every day, I ask God to help me share the Good News of Jesus so that hearts and lives are changed by His goodness, and as Jesus directs, I ask God to send "workers into the harvest," committed Jesus-Followers willing to share Christ with those ready to meet Him.

The company marketing the magnet goes on to say this:

If this country's legislature and judiciary are supposed to
reflect the values and beliefs of The People, then send them
a message that they are WAY off course!

If you are tired of secularists telling you that The Lord has no place
in our government and our public institutions, then show them that
you disagree.

This symbol, this site, and this car magnet have been created for the
millions of Americans who support the President and his vision for a
government that embraces religion, morality, and family values. It
shows worship to the Lord, respect for the President, and hope for

Join the millions of Americans who believe that President Bush’s faith-
based administration presents the best hope for America’s future.
The future is in your hands. Stand up and be counted!

Order a BushFish for yourself or a loved one today.

God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
Now, whether meant as a genuine expression of belief or a bald attempt to play to people's sentiments and rip them off, I find the Bushfish deeply offensive. Here's why:

First: It equates being American with being righteous people of God. More specifically, it equates the policies of a particular politician with the righteousness of God.

In this, it overlooks a very important fact. During last year's presidential contest, I had several people approach me, disturbed by the campaign being waged by President Bush and his operatives. These people are committed Christians, who believe in Jesus, read their Bibles daily, worship, tithe, and use their gifts and abilities to volunteer many hours in sharing Christ with the world through their actions, words, and lives.

But they didn't support George W. Bush. They voted for John Kerry. They didn't agree with every policy proposal made by Kerry. I daresay that not all of Bush's supporters agreed with everything the President said either. But these good Christian people backed Kerry in part because of their moral beliefs, rooted in their faith in Jesus.

Yet, the campaign waged by many on behalf of President Bush discounted the faith of those who would support Kerry as inauthentic, that true Christians would only back Bush. "How can they say these things?" one man asked me. "They're just writing me off as a Christian because I disagree with them politically."

The Bushfish carries this theme deep into the first year of Mr. Bush's second term. Let's be clear: George W. Bush seems to be a personally decent man. I am glad that he prays each day and that his relationship with Christ is important to him.

All the same things could be said of Jimmy Carter, a small-government, moderately liberal Democrat. And it's stupid to argue, as author Tim LaHaye does, that Bush's policies are more reflective of his faith than Carter's policies were of his. I'm pro-life and conservative, but I believe that a solid case can be made for the Christ-rootedness of Carter's policies--from his emphasis on human rights in foreign policy to his insistence on equality of opportunity for all Americans. One could also make the case that many of the current President's policies are un-Christian.

But politics and political principles, after all, are only temporary arrangements. The United States of America, as much as I love it, must itself be conceded to be only a temporary arrangement.

Only three things are going to last forever: God, God's Word, and human beings. To suggest that there's eternal righteousness in one person's policy decisions and that all who disagree with him are "secularists" is arrogant, smug self-righteousness and I am sure, not of God!

[More tomorrow]

Monday, May 16, 2005

Farewell to Everybody Loves Raymond

Tonight brought the final episode of Everybody Loves Raymond and I watched it. I loved this understated and typically funny sendoff of my favorite dysfunctional TV family. May ELR live on in syndication for as long as the other great sitcom it emulated, The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Reactions to Newsweek Koran Story

It would be pure hubris for me to feel as though I have something intelligent to add to every discussion that's big in the world at any given time.

But when religion and politics collide, most regular readers here are going to expect me to say at least something.

The sad story of the allegations made in a short article that appeared in the May 9 issue of Newsweek magazine is just such a collision. But frankly, it eluded my notice initially. It hasn't been until today that I have felt reasonably up to speed on the story.

So, several reactions from several different angles of vision.

First: As an observer, consumer, and frequent defender of journalists, I have to say that Newsweek showed an appallingly casual attitude about sourcing for the story. Apparently one source deemed reliable indicated that they had seen an official report from Guantanamo Bay, where detainees from the war on terrorism are being held, saying that a Koran was flushed down a toilet. This was said to be a ploy used by interrogators to intimidate Gitmo prisoners.

It seems to me that these allegations were of such gravity, the implications so severe, that more than one source should have been required by Newsweek before running the story. Back when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were tracking down the facts surrounding the Nixon Administration's assault on the United States Constitution, their Washington Post editors and they agreed to a protocol requiring them to get at least two independently corroborating witnesses or pieces of evidence before running their next story.

In the superheated atmosphere surrounding Guantanamo Bay, the fact that Osama bin Laden and crew appeal to Muslim religiosity, and the possibility that a religion was shown such disrespect, Newsweek should have applied a similar protocol, at the very least.

Yet, the magazine seems unbowed. Jon Meacham, Newsweek's managing editor--whose book on the friendship of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill I loved--told Reuters:

"This was reported very carefully, with great sensitivity and concern, and we'll
continue to report on it. We have tried to be transparent about exactly what
happened, and we leave it to the readers to judge us."

I don't think they get it yet.

Second: As a person of faith, I also think that Newsweek should have been very specifically more concerned about the religious sensibilities that would be aroused and the people who would feel violated before running such an inadequately vetted story.

I wrote earlier today about the misuse of a Christian faith symbol by a company equating faith in Christ with support for President Bush's politics, something which I find highly offensive and hurtful as a follower of Christ. Newsweek apparently never considered the pain and offense that their sloppy journalism would cause, not to mention the risk to which a story, the accuracy of which could not be authenticated, would subject Americans and Muslims throughout the world who have sided with our country in the war on terrorism.

Third: As an observer and participant in the life of the Internet, I know that because of the Worldwide Web, news sites, and blogs, there are now no news cycles. The gathering and dissemination of information and punditry is a constant and instantaneous thing.

This competition from "small fry" news and opinion sources (and the frequently giddy, self-absorbed, self-righteous sniping that these sources generate) has put "legacy" news organizations on the defensive, intent on proving their relevance and reliability, more anxious than ever to beat non-traditional news presenters like Drudge or whoever else, with the story.

Over the course of the day, there is no doubt that The New York Times, MSNBC, and other legacy organizations can deliver more news, more accurately, and with more sourcing than Joe Hoohah working after hours in the attic-converted-to-blogging-office at his house. But the army of Joes pecking away at their keyboards around the world aren't utter dolts either. Nor are the independent and informed bloggers like Glenn Reynolds and others, who show a remarkable facility for sifting through tons of information each day and presenting it, largely unfiltered (except for an occasional, "Heh") to their audiences.

The point is, one is correct in wondering if Newsweek and other news organizations aren't relaxing their standards in order to get the scoop. This seems to me a far more grave problem today than any overt philosophical bias that might exist in big time journalism.

Fourth: As a follower of Christ, I would say, "Check out the power of words!" This is something that the Bible affirms positively and negatively all over the place. God is portrayed as saying the word and creation happens. Jesus is called The Word, the very creative Power of God.

Words, when carelessly wielded by human beings, are also seen as things that can bring death and enmity.

The Bible seems to know what it's talking about! At least sixteen people died and 100 were injured as the result of this probably inaccurate Newsweek article. Words can have a tremendous impact. So, as a big-mouth myself, I must constantly ask God to help me to remember to choose and use them wisely. Words misused can have a terrible impact.
The story's told of a woman who visited a Medieval monk, a man highly regarded for his holy and sensible advice. The woman realized that she had become a terrible gossip, the purveyor of careless, hurtful words. She went to the monk to get his advice. He heard the woman out and told her what to do. She should go through the village and bag all the goose feathers she could find. Then, he said, she should lay a feather at the doorstep of every person about whom she had gossiped. After that, she should return to the monk.

The woman dutifully did what the monk told her to do and knocked at his door. The monk said, "That's wonderful. Now go back to each of those doorsteps and collect the goose feathers you left behind. Then, come back here."

When the woman returned for yet another visit to the monk, she reported that, all the feathers had been blown away by the wind.

"That is the point, of course," the monk told her. "We can be forgiven the sin of gossiping about others. If you repent for it, God surely will forgive you. Those you have violated may do the same. But no matter whether you are forgiven or not, the damage has been done. Gossip spreads as though carried aloft by the wind and you can't bring it back."

Newsweek's careless report, a rather small item in its 'Periscope' feature, had an impact in many countries around the world. Their apologies are appropriate and laudable. But the initial report will probably cause some to doubt the genuineness of their regrets, written off as face-saving or as caving into government officials with something to hide, no matter what the truth may be.

Fifth: As an American, I simply hope that the investigations that will unfold--both governmental and journalistic--as a result of this story, that none of it is true. Insulting people's religion makes Americans and Christians little better than the hate-filled people who use religion to endanger the world. America should be better than that.

Health and Longevity Examined in NYTimes Article

The New York Times is doing an excellent series on class in America and its impact on various aspects of our lives. Today's installment deals with health, looking at the experiences of three different New Yorkers who suffered heart attacks last year. Their ensuing lives reflect the financial and social differences that go with money when it comes to health and longevity. It's interesting reading.

The Bushfish, Part 1: What the Fish Means for a Christian

[Today, I begin a short series on the so-called Bushfish. I'm sure that this desecration of Christian symbolism has nothing to do with President Bush or his operatives. But the misuse of a Christian symbol to make a political statement is highly offensive and fraught with horrible implications. Blogger Rob Asghar first brought this to my attention.]

It's not uncommon for symbols of faith to be trivialized or worn out from misuse and overuse.

The cross is one such trivialized symbol. Worn by people who have nothing to do with Jesus Christ, employed by artists who like the cruciform but not the crucifixion, and portrayed in sentimental kitsch that's only marginally Christian, the cross is often rendered in trite ways.

This is far from how the Bible portrays the cross: A place of execution where Jesus of Nazareth, God-enfleshed, took our punishment for sin in order to open up eternity for all who place their faith in Him.

While people are certainly free to use it in any way they wish, for Christians, the cross is a symbol of God's goodness and fierce love for humanity, as well as a sign pointing to the new life and freedom from sin all can have when they surrender to Christ.

But we live in a world that tries to put a price tag on everything. As long as there are people who want to make a buck unscrupulously, meaningful symbols will be torn out of context, drained of the meanings with which they were first rendered by committed people, and exploited for commercial advantage.

A new example of this has come to my attention, which is particularly offensive.

The oldest symbol of Christian faith, the archeologists and historians tell us, is the fish. The ancient meeting places of Jesus-Followers, pursuing their faith underground because of persecution, was the fish. The symbol, carved in stone or wood or dirt, told ancient believers that here, they could worship and fellowship in safety together.

The background, of course, is Jesus' statement to some of His earliest followers, who were professional fishermen. When He first called them, Jesus said, "Follow Me, and I will make you fish for people." (Matthew 4:19)

To fully appreciate these words, you have to understand first of all, that the fishing done by these fisher folk was a gentle proposition. No hooks or rods and reels. They used nets, with which they scooped the fish out of the waters in which they trolled.

You have to understand something else as well. For the ancient Judeans, the sea was a place of dark and foreboding mystery. It was the place where they thought the most horrifying of creatures lived, the leviathan.

Part of what had made the Old Testament story of Jonah so amazing to these people was that God had delivered the life of a man who not only had been thrown into a stormy sea in which he would have been expected to die, but used a great fish as the instrument of his rescue!

To fish for people is to gently embrace people who would otherwise die, out of the evil into which we're all born in this world.

A Christian who uses the fish to symbolize his or her faith is then, expressing gratitude that God has saved us from sin and death and caught us in His nets of love, goodness, forgiveness, and grace. The fish tells the world that through Christ and our faith in Him, God has welcomed us into His Kingdom and that He can do that for anyone.

Today, Christians put the fish on their cars, doors to their homes, and on their computers as screen savers. Often, Jesus' Name is printed in the middle. Frequently though, a transliteration of the word appears, Ichthus. Ichthus is a Greek word that means fish. (We get the English word, ichthyology, the study of sea life, from this word.) It's a way for the Christian believer to acknowledge that, "'I once was lost, but now am found' and I owe it all to Christ."

[Next post in this series: A consideration of the Bushfish itself.]

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Prayer for Healing? One Approach

The mailing that came to my house last week got my attention. It wasn't printed on slick, multi-clored paper with flashy pics and graphics, just plain printer stock that had been run through a copier.

A pastor of whom I'd never heard, Mark Dahle, from La Jolla Lutheran Church near San Diego, it was announced, was going to offer an hour-and-a-half program at several locations in southern Ohio.

It wasn't fetching advertising or the credibility of a well-known presenter that intrigued me when I read the mailing. It was the topic: Praying for Healing. (That, and the price of admission: It was free!)

Anyone who has ever prayed for the health and well-being of people, as I often have and still do, can point to miracles and answered prayers. But we can also recount the cases of people whose health was not restored, who died in spite of a lot of fervent, faithful prayer for them.

The material announcing Dahle's appearances here in southern Ohio acknowledged that not everyone for whom we pray will receive healing. It further conceded the simple truth that all of us are going to die.

As obvious as those truths are, they're rarely mentioned by the gang who hype what they call "prevailing prayer." People of this ilk act as though God intends for us all to be immortals on the earth and hint that there's something wrong with the faith of pray-ers who don't get the healing they seek.

The mailing I received from Mark Dahle promised that we can pray for healing for people with the expectation of great answers to prayer. And, it said, those who don't receive the healing we seek can nonetheless experience God's presence with them in the most trying situations any of us face.

I went to the building facilities of Dayton's Zion Lutheran Church to check out Pastor Dahle's presentation. I tried to do so with an open mind. Enhancing the credibility of the program from the start was the fact that the pastor of the hosting congregation, Rick Hinger, is a guy I respect.

I won't go into details because you might want to take the opportunity to attend Mark Dahle's presentation if he comes to your area. (To be notified of when he may be coming your way, contact him at LAJOLLALUTHERAN@AOL.COM.) He's also going to be doing a three-day retreat in California this October.

But among the most important things I got out of Dahle's approach to praying for healing is that we begin with God. So often, when we pray for someone to be healed, we focus on their disease or problem. Dahle's method suggests that we begin by focusing on the One Who is bigger than our problems, glorifying Him and acknowledging that He can do great things.

Another important take-away gathered from his presentation is that a good part of prayer for those who ask us to pray for them should be spent in listening. Dahle says that you and I are receiving all sorts of messages, in our subconsciouses, in others' body language, and even in our own bodies, all the time. Many of those messages are from God.

Our prayers for healing should always begin with praise to the God Who can heal. After that, Dahle says that we should be silent, attending to what God is trying to tell us about the person who desires healing. Knowing whether a thought or impression is from God is something we discern in part by trial and error, Dahle says, and there is no downside to not getting things absolutely right. When in doubt about our impressions and their origin, we should always compare it with what we know about God from the Bible, the authoritative source and norm of the Christian's life, faith, and practice.

In this connection, Dahle also suggests that we pray with our eyes open, allowing us to pick up on signals sent by the person who wants healing.

Toward the end of his seminar, Dahle asked those who wanted prayers for healing to remain seated and those of us willing to pray for them to stand. I ended up praying for a man, the specifics of whose situation I obviously can't divulge for ethical reasons.

As I stood with the man desiring healing--for his wife, it turned out, we began as Dahle recommended. But I felt a bit frustrated, like we weren't getting at the real nub of what he needed me to pray for him. So, I began asking some questions about his life, his wife, and so on.

He had begun by saying that he had stood up, feeling that it was his wife who needed praying. "But obviously, I need prayers too," he told me. He just didn't know what he needed. He just sensed that he needed prayers.

This really isn't much of a surprise, when you think about. Often we become so consumed with concerns for those we love that we lose touch with our own needs, concerns, fears, and dis-eases. The rush of daily events can sow confusion in our lives.

I think it's confusion about our needs that's behind what Paul writes in a remarkable passage in the New Testament book of Romans:
...the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but...[the] Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, Who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for all the saints [the Bible's word for the people who believe in Jesus] according to the will of God. [Romans 8:26-27]
In other words, prayer is just one more compartment of life in which we don't have to be perfect. God takes our simple, indistinct impulse to call on Him and counts it as prayer for the needs that He understands even more clearly than we do.

As I questioned this man, my hand on his shoulder the entire time, I learned more about him and a distinct impression washed over me. A single word came to the fore, describing the condition of his heart and mind. I said, "Excuse me, would you mind if we prayed again?" "No, not at all," he told me. I began to pray about the very condition represented by the word that had impressed itself on me as I listened to the man. As I prayed, with my eyes opened, the man shook his head affirmatively with some vigor. It seemed at that moment that his spirit was agreeing with the signal I felt that I'd gotten from God's Spirit as I listened to him. His affirmative head-nodding told me, "That's it! That's what my wife and I need right now!"

As a general principle, even apart from the issue of healing prayer, I think that I learned something else tonight. I learned the importance of taking time in my praying, not just to read God's Word and pray my concerns, but also to be still and listen to what God might want to tell me with that still, small voice, sounding like silence, that He can use to speak to us. It was a good lesson and I hope that I apply it faithfully.

I'm not ready, on the basis of two-hours spent in Dayton, to give a blanket endorsement of all that Mark Dahle might teach or believe on this topic. But during that time, I found nothing objectionable to what he said from a Biblical perspective and I appreciated his genuineness and his humility. He made no extravagant claims. He seems to be a guy with a passion and a ministry and I appreciated what I heard and saw.

Mark Dahle will give presentations and pray for healing during appearances at All Saints Lutheran Church, 445 Craig Road, Cincinnati on Tuesday evening from 7:00 to 8:30 P.M. and Saint Paul Lutheran Church, Columbus (New Rome), also from 7:00 to 8:30 P.M.

UPDATE: The links presented by Purple Kangaroo in the Comments section below are definitely worth checking out. For anyone of faith who has been upbraided by the ignorant or fearful, claiming that illness or adversity is the result of no belief in God, her story is an emphatic and gracious affirmation of you and a refutation of your detractors.

Forty Days of Purpose: The "E" Word, Made for Mission

Acts 1:3-8
Acts 2:1-21
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, May 15, 2005, Pentecost Sunday)

Shortly after we moved here, my wife worked as a classroom aide at Withamsville-Tobasco Elementary School. One day, a little girl approached a teacher there. The girl was upset. “So-and-so,” she said, “called me...the E-word.”

The E-word. The E-word? The teacher turned that over in her mind for a little while, trying to figure out what the E-word could possibly be.

Finally, she said to the girl, “What do you mean by the E-word? What’s the E-word?” The girl said that she wasn’t allowed to say words like that. Her parents wouldn’t let her.

“I’m sure that your parents would let you tell me what this other girl said to you. What’s the E-word?” After a little hesitation, the girl told her what the E-word was: Idiot.

We have an E-word in the Church.

It’s a word that we hate to hear.

And it’s a word that describes an activity about which we have great fears and apprehensions.

That word is evangelism.

It’s the word that describes the fifth purpose God has for all of our lives. The word comes from the Greek term euangelion, a compound word which literally means good news. When the Old English got hold of that Greek word, they translated as Good Spell or God Spell, from which we get our word Gospel.

The Good News or the Gospel that all followers of Jesus Christ build their lives upon is summarized in that passage in the New Testament book of John that Martin Luther called, the gospel in a nutshell, where Jesus said that God loved us all so much that He gave Jesus to us and whoever entrusts their whole selves to Him will be with God for eternity.

Every follower of Christ knows that we’re supposed to tell others this Good News. Most know that this is such an important part of our lives that the New Testament quotes Jesus in five major places commanding us to take up the mission of sharing the Good News.

But, let’s admit it: We’re afraid of doing it. We’re afraid that we’ll offend someone or get the words wrong.

But there are lots of ways we can share Jesus with others, fulfilling God’s fifth purpose for our lives--being evangelists. As long as we rely on God and our intentions are to honor God and help others, there is really no wrong way to do evangelism.

From our two Bible lessons for today, we extract several important points to remember about the E-word.

First: Evangelism--sharing the Good News of Jesus by our words, lives, and actions--is a nonnegotiable element of being a Jesus-Follower. Jesus repeatedly tells His followers not to hoard our relationship with Him, but to share Him with others. This was the command He gave in our first lesson to the eleven losers we now call apostles. Within twenty years or so of Jesus giving this command, those loser and their friends had established churches throughout the Mediterranean basin and through Thomas, tradition says, in India. Tradition also says that Mary Magdalene, the woman from whom Jesus exorcised seven different demons, preached the Gospel and established the Church in France.

We’re to share Jesus. People who hoard Jesus experience something like what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness when they tried to hoard the food, called manna, which God provided for them. God told them to only gather what they needed for a given day and twice as much on the Friday before the Sabbath when they were to rest and not do any gathering. (Just their “daily bread,” in other words.) Some dolts got the idea that they should gather extra manna and hold onto it. But all the extra they gathered rotted.

Our faith in Christ may be personal, because each of us must decide about Jesus for ourselves, but it is not a private matter.

When we turn our faith into a private affair, failing to share Jesus with friends, family, coworkers, classmates, business associates, and others, our faith begins to rot.

It becomes selfish.

It focuses more on rituals and traditions and the things that make us comfortable than it does on Jesus and our neighbors and making our faith accessible to those who don’t know Jesus.

Ingrown Christianity is a religion heading for hell.

Christianity focused on God and others is a living relationship with a living God.

Second: Anyone can do evangelism. If you know how to gossip or teach a child to tie their shoes or give someone directions to your house, you know how to do evangelism.

On that first Pentecost Day, one-hundred-twenty believers in Jesus, opened their mouths and talked about the most important thing in the world: How God loves us all and that everyone who will humbly turn from sin and let Jesus be the Boss of their lives can have a full life that starts now and keeps going through eternity. You see, when you evangelize, instead of misusing the gift of speech to gossip, instead of using it to just talk about everyday things, you use it positively to give the life and love of God away to others.

That’s what those first Jesus-Followers did on the first Pentecost and I guarantee that they were less well-groomed, less sophisticated, less wealthy, and less educated,than any of us here this morning. Anyone can do evangelism...including you and me!

Third: To be a faithful evangelist, you need to depend on God. Before that motley crew of 120 hit the streets of Jerusalem on the first Pentecost, they had been praying, helplessly begging God to send them the power to do the right thing.

They were afraid--afraid that the people who had killed Jesus might kill them, afraid that they might say the wrong thing, afraid that they’d look ridiculous.

God sent His Holy Spirit to them and filled with the fire of inspiration, they threw open their locked doors and were empowered to tell others about Jesus in ways that made sense to each listener.

God will do the same thing for us when we pray and depend on Him. We’ll be able to share the Good News in ways that make sense to the people with whom we share it.

Fourth: We can only fulfill this purpose for our lives by getting out of our Christian ghetto and establishing relationships with the bigger world.

In a way, this business of evangelism is the most important of God’s five purposes for us. God uses the other four purposes for our lives to prepare us for being evangelists, people who by sharing Jesus with others, reproduce themselves as disciples.

The Church really is the only organization in the world that exists for nonmembers! We need to be out there in the world telling others about Christ and living for Christ among them. My home pastor had a plaque in his office that said, “The holiest moment in the worship service is when the last song has been sung and the people carry Christ into the world.” I think that's true!

You and I are God’s Pentecost people. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we’re called and powered to share the life of Christ with a dead and dying world. We have a simple and important message to share. It’s the same message that Peter shared on the first Pentecost: “All who call on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.”

The mission and ministry fair happening after worship will challenge and call each of us to be God’s Pentecost people, committed to telling the world about Jesus. Let’s share the message of new life from Jesus and watch how God changes people’s lives--our lives and the lives of those we befriend in the Name of Jesus!