Saturday, June 11, 2005
It’s always wonderful to see two special people get together. So, I think that I speak for all of us when I say that I am very happy for both of you today. I hope that this wedding, nestled in the Ohio River Valley, will be as much of a mountaintop experience as the one you had at Mount Kilimanjaro a few months ago.
I wish that I had some pearls of wisdom with which I could dazzle you and everyone else who’s here today. But I’ve found that most of my wisdom is of the imported, downloaded variety, not original with me. I hope that it won’t surprise you that most of it has come from the Bible and has, without any exception that I can think of, been confirmed by my experiences in life.
One of the most beautiful passages in Scripture is one that Devon and Michael read earlier, First Corinthians 13. It wasn’t originally written about marriage. It’s part of a letter written by the first-century preacher and evangelist Paul to a congregation in the city of Corinth. There was a conflict going on there because some of those good church people thought that they were better than other members of the church family. They were spiritual snobs. It’s to these folks that Paul addresses his reminder of what love is.
“Love is patient; love is kind,” he says in part. “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.”
If we had a referendum here and asked people whether those words represented a fair approximation of love in their view, I feel confident that it would win by a landslide.
But a funny thing often happens to love when it comes time to share it: It runs into a brick wall called us.
At least, I know that’s what happens in my case. I read what Paul has to say about love and, realizing that it has application not only to my relations with other church members, but also with my wife and children, the young man I call my soon-in-law, and with the whole great world, I resolve to be loving. I promise myself that I’ll not envy others or be a braggart and generally, avoid all the rotten things that Paul says are emphatically not characteristic of love. I resolve that I will be humble, kind, considerate, and patient. Two seconds after I make my resolution, I blow it in one way or another.
Which leads me back to this business of importation or downloading. When I blow it again in my life, I realize again what I need to do. I need to ask God to fill me with love I simply cannot muster on my own. And a God Who went to a cross and rose from death, all because of His passionate and unconditional love for us, is fully capable of filling us with the love we need to make our marriages and other important relationships work.
After nearly thirty-one years of marriage, this is one thing that I have learned: The best way to begin a marriage is by asking God to help us to love each other fully and unconditionally, even when we may be displeased with one another. And the best way to keep it going and strong is by asking God to help us love each other fully and unconditionally, even when we may be displeased with one another.
As we’ve been reminded today, the two of you have taken long journeys to get to this point. I’m happy to be here with you for this part of it and we all pray that it will be a lifelong happy trip for you and your families. But if I could summarize my message for you today, it would be this: Go into the import business. Keep importing God’s love into your lives and your marriage and the wonderful love that exists between you today will only keep growing!
People ask me how I feel about that. "How are you doing?" they ask, as if they suspect I'm dreading the day or that, like Tevye, I'm going to break into Sunrise, Sunset at the wedding.
But, at present anyway, no such bittersweet emotions well up within me. My wife and I (and our son) like our soon-in-law, he and our daughter are happy together, and, after all these months of preparation, my wife and I are both ready to say, as the Mercury astronauts used to before liftoff, "Light this candle!"
I'll be co-presiding over the wedding with a friend. She, her husband, and I graduated from seminary together. Our families have spent a lot of time together through the years. The wedding will be in the facilities of the congregation where my friend is a pastor, as will the reception.
The kids wanted a no-frills wedding. That includes a small guest list. "We want our friends to be there, Mom and Dad, not yours," our daughter told us.
That was fine with us. After presiding over tons of weddings in the past twenty-one years, I can tell you that one of the worst things that parents do is turn their children's weddings into their weddings. Mothers of the bride seem particularly prone to this. Maybe it's because their own mothers did the same thing to them and they feel the need to compensate for what they missed out on. I have seen many a M-o-t-B dictate the particulars of their daughter's weddings to the point that several brides have sought me out for counseling and encouragement. "If I kill my parents now," they ask, "would it be justifiable homicide?" (Actually, none of them have asked that. But they've probably wanted to.)
My wife and I have taken a completely different approach to wedding preparations. This is not our wedding, after all. The bride and groom, to their credit, are more focused on the marriage than the wedding. Simple has been the watchword and that has made it easier on all of us. As my wife has said many times in the process of going over the guest list and working out details, "Can you imagine how hard this would be if this were a big, formal wedding?" I shudder at the thought.
Our daughter asked for only one of the standard-issue, money-eating wedding expenses: A dress the cost of which would make a downpayment on a nice empty nest villa for my wife and me. I gasped when I heard the price. But after I'd recovered, I told my wife, "She's asking for nothing else. We can go all-out on this one." It turns out though, that I had no idea what "all-out" for a wedding dress is and that our daughter had actually picked a dress that's on the lower end of exorbitant.
But, as to the event itself: How will I feel? Yesterday, before a meeting of the Boys and Girls Club board of directors on which I serve, one of the other members told us that his son had been married last weekend. "I didn't tear up or get sad at all," he said. "I was just happy. They love each other and are happy together. So, why should I be sad?"
My wife has been saying, "If I do get sad, it won't be because I dislike what's happening. She's marrying a wonderful guy who loves her very much. Any tears will be from considering the passage of time." I think that's right.
Frankly, when all is said and done, I suspect that my prevailing feeling next Saturday night will be relief that the many months of anticipation are done and the new marriage can begin. I think the couple will feel that way, too.
But there's one other emotion I'll be feeling: Confidence. From the moment my wife informed me that she was expecting our daughter and three years before that, our son, I've presented a prayer to God almost daily. It's gone something like this, "Lord, grant that one day, our children will have and be faithful spouses. Grant that they will have strong marriages, filled with joy and happiness and You. Grant that they will never go through the agony of divorce and that their children and every generation that proceeds from them will know You, follow You, and have Your joy and presence in their lives."
I don't know how God intends to answer that prayer as the generations unfold. But for now, from my perspective, God seems to be doing okay with that request. And that, folks, makes me very happy.
Friday, June 10, 2005
Here's the email:
This week has been an important one, and we have promising news to report back to you.
On Tuesday afternoon, President Bush announced progress towards an agreement with the UK on 100% debt cancellation for the world's poorest countries -- AND promised to do more for Africa.
The President went so far as to say: "And so when I say we're going to do more, I think you can take that to the bank."
And now today, the U.S. and UK are poised to announce a bold debt cancellation proposal that will erase over $56 billion in debt-- and quite literally save millions of lives, once the rest of the world's wealthy nations agree.
Thank you for adding your name to our letter to President Bush, urging him to do more for those with less. President Bush acted this week because Americans like you care deeply about fighting AIDS and extreme poverty. More than 160,000 people have signed the letter, and the White House is responding.
Please take a minute to ask three friends and family members to sign on to the ONE letter to President Bush.
Even now, crucial meetings and negotiations continue. Today, seven of the G8 finance ministers meet in London to finish a debt cancellation agreement and discuss what could be a historic plan to make poverty history at the July 6 G8 Summit. On the table is committing to more and better international assistance, debt cancellation and trade reform. Even only a few years ago, it would have been almost impossible to influence these meetings.
Today, we can learn about the issues at stake and use every opportunity to make our voices heard as ONE. On Tuesday night, Brad Pitt appeared on ABC's Primetime Live, speaking with Americ a about the emergency in Ethiopia and all of Africa, reminding us that for the cost of only ONE CD, we could send a child to school for ONE year.
Whether it is a TV program seen by millions, keeping watch as finance ministers huddle around a table, or a conversation you have with ONE friend or neighbor-- together as ONE, we can win the fight against global AIDS and poverty.
The ONE Team
P.S. Click here to learn more about the important issues to be discussed at the G8.
Thursday, June 09, 2005
This wonderful memoir by one of the greatest Americans of all ends just before his first run for the presidency in 1952. The last chapter talks about his role in establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), one of the key ingredients in the long-fought and ultimately victorious battle to kill the Soviet Union.
In light of recent history, a few passages that I read today cracked my wife and me up:
From the first, the small countries in NATO agreed with the idea [of not amalgamating each nation's military into multinational units, allowing their units to be part of larger corps and armies]. Originally, Mr. Churchill was opposed. And the plan, largely designed by the French, soon ran into opposition---from the French.You might recall that the European Union constitution was largely the brain child of France and recently was defeated in the Netherlands---and France.
By early spring of 1952, all the [NATO] governments, except France, were ready to sign the protocol for an international military organization with unified commands. Sometimes the French seemed to believe that only they had any military experience or possessed any real military knowledge. To some of us in NATO Headquarters, this seemed strange in view of recent history...These critical words came from a man who was known for his diplomacy and tact.
One other thing: In an earlier post about the French and Dutch repudiation of the European Union constitution, I discussed what the implications might be for the US and mentioned that historically, the US has supported greatet European unity. I also mentioned that Eisenhower was a strong advocate of that unity, asserting that was largely a military judgment on his part, Certainly, the military aspect of things held sway with Ike. But re-reading At Ease reminded me that his belief in European unity was for more than just military reasons. There, he wrote:
Personally, I have no doubt that one day a kind of political union will eventuate...
My own message to the NATO governments never varied--I hammered it home everywhere. If we could make a go of a practical pact permitting common military plans, procurment, organization, and control of the forces of NATO, the security of Western Europe would be assured. The region would then become a complex which would be, militarily, economically, and politically, as powerful as any other in the world.
Beyond the military advantage, there was my conviction that European unity was both possible and necessary to the full achievement of its destiny...
Containing the Chinese regime must be the highest foreign policy priority of the US government because it is the greatest threat to the US and the world, both economically and militarily.I may be a blind squirrel. But I found a nut on this one.
Today's Washington Times says that a government report shows that the US intelligence community has repeatedly missed or ignored signs of the Chinese government's aggressive and menacing military build-up.
This is alarming, to say the least. If a preacher in Cincinnati understands that the Chinese government is the major threat to American peace and security today, how is it that our intelligence community missed it?
Among the most haunting passages in the Washington Times article:
"This report conceals the efforts of dissenting analysts [in the intelligence community] who argued that China was a threat," one official said, adding that covering up the failure of intelligence analysts on China would prevent a major reorganization of the system.
A former U.S. official said the report should help expose a "self-selected group" of specialists who fooled the U.S. government on China for 10 years.
"This group's desire to have good relations with China has prevented them from highlighting how little they know and suppressing occasional evidence that China views the United States as its main enemy."
One of my Old Testament professors at seminary, Ron Hals, once told the story of when he and his wife were doing their morning "devotions"--reading a section of Scripture and then, praying. They were working through one of the dry lists that play such a big--and yawning--part in the Old Testament book of Numbers.
"Ron," his wife asked, "is this really very important?"
"Must be," Ron replied in his typical clipped and ironic style--when he lectured you could tell that Ron was a big fan of the comic storyteller, Myron Cohen--"it's all in there."
Sometimes, when I read genealogies like the one that opens Matthew's portrait of Jesus in the New Testament, I want to skip over it. (Confidentially, sometimes I do.) But it must be important: It's "in there."
Matthew's list of the generations between the great figures of Hebrew history, culminating in the coming of Jesus, is perfect in its symmetry: from Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish nation, to the great King David, a man after God's own heart, fourteen generations pass; from David to the Babylonian Exile, critically important because it demonstrated to the people that God was faithful even when they weren't in possession of their home land and that God was God of all the world; and fourteen generations from the time of the exile to the birth of Jesus.
Some commentators make note that every parenthetical mention of a woman in this genealogy represents pairings that, according to God's will for His people, shouldn't have happened. The heir produced by them resulted from incest, adultery, fraternization with a foreigner, and consorting with a prostitute.
Yet, this line of generations kept returning to God and to the hope for a Savior. Eventually, in spite of the sin and the errors of this family tree, it became the cradle into which the baby Jesus was placed.
I read that and it gives me hope that God can reclaim the rotten places in my life, doing good things in and through me.
An interesting observation about Matthew's list is that he gives Jesus' family history from the vantage point of His earthly father, Joseph. Luke, the other New Testament book that tells about Jesus' birth, gives a completely different genealogy, one written from the perspective of Mary, Jesus' earthly mother.
This chapter also tells the story of Jesus' birth. Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married. Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant and knowing that he isn't the father. In those days, the law said that a woman guilty of adultery was to be taken outside of town and stoned to death. Joseph doesn't want that. So, he decides to quietly sever the formal commitment to marry her.
But then, everything changes for Joseph. Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph had dreams from God. In this one, Joseph hears God tell him:
"Joseph, Son of David, don't hesitate to get married. Mary's pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God's Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus--'God saves'--because he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew, chapter 1, The Message paraphrase)Matthew underscores that this is what the Old Testament prophet Isaiah had said all along, a virgin would give birth to a Savior, nicknamed Emmanuel, God with us.
Joseph was utterly obedient, although he could have opted out of marriage to Mary and acting as Jesus' earthly follower.
This conforms with a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament and can already be seen in the genealogy of Matthew: God chooses to pursue His good plans for us through human beings. Every one of them could have said, "No" and for as long as each of them take to deliberate over whether to be obedient to God's will or not, heaven waits with baited breath. Later on in the story, God the Father will wait in silence to see whether Jesus, God the Son, will press on to the cross for which He was born into the world.
All of this demonstrates the great risks God is willing to take out of His love for us. Sting once say that if we love somebody, we must set them free. God sets us free to say, "No," as I've said elsewhere, because it's only then that our "Yes" to Him has any meaning. Only love freely arrived at is worthy of the name of love.
[For the next installment, check out Matthew 2]
[Here is the first installment of this series.]
We went to a local mall food court for dinner and conversation. Then, we went to the Apple Store and dreamed of upgrading.
Before we left the mall, he found great deals on the first seasons of both Rocky and Bullwinkle and Frasier.
In the same store, I spied Ringo Starr's new CD. It looks promising. There are duets with Billy Preston and Chrissie Hynde. There's also a documentary on it. It was produced by Mark Hudson, who did such a great job on Ringo's previous studio release. I didn't buy it at the mall store, where it's bound to be way too expensive.
Then, it was off to the main event for the evening: A stop at Half-Price Books. I spent most of our time there in a comfy chair reading the first twenty pages of a biography of Elizabeth I.
But I found several treasures for purchase: CD versions of The Police album, Synchronicity, and Sting's solo debut, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. I love both of those releases. I have the original vinyl version of Synchronicity and Turtles on tape. But here's the unbelievable thing: They were $7.98 and $4.98, respectively!
As if that weren't enough, I also found Walter Brueggeman's commentary on the Old Testament Psalms for only two bucks! Brueggeman is a fantastic Biblical scholar and a good writer.
My son found some treasures there as well.
Good conversation with my son. Time spent with books and music. Finding great bargains. A good evening, for sure!
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
President Bush has inched closer to the position of his good ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair on bringing debt relief and the real possibility of assisting Africa in getting out from under post-Colonial debt and various pandemics. I'm praying that as the President and America's G8 Partners meet on July 6 in Scotland, they will enact the program of The ONE Campaign, details of which you can read about here. While on that site, please prayerfully consider becoming a signatory to a letter to the President.
Less than 1% of the United States' federal budget goes to foreign aid. But aid to African can be seen as a selfish investment on our country'a part: A prospering Africa will be a market for US products and decrease the appeal of terrorism. In addition, the US will be protected from the "splashback" of medical disasters emanating from the African continent.
Above all, we will be saving lives that are unnecessarily threatened by a poverty which is so oppressive that at present, Africans have no hope of providing for their children or averting the ever-present threats of famine and starvation.
The ONE Campaign program is simple. It's also Biblical--in Old Testament times, God's people regularly forgave all their debtors owed them during so-called Jubilee Years. Here's how The ONE Campaign is explained in the letter to the President that you can sign onto at the campaign's site:
Because:Christian leaders like Billy Graham, John Stott, Rick Warren, and others have joined people of other faiths in endorsing this important initiative.
* ONE billion people around the world live on less than ONE dollar a day;
* The US government spends less than ONE percent on overcoming global AIDS and poverty;
* Citizens are uniting as ONE across political and religious divides to support action to overcome the emergency of global AIDS and extreme poverty.
At the G8 leaders meeting on July 6th we urge you to:
* Help the poorest people of the world fight poverty, AIDS and hunger at a cost equal to just ONE percent more of the US budget on a clear timetable;
* Cancel 100% of the debts owed by the poorest countries;
* Reform trade rules so poor countries can earn sustainable incomes.
Please, make your voice heard and go to the web site to commend The ONE Campaign to the President!
Americans are a forgiving lot.
Do you mangle your syntax? That's okay.
Were you once a drug or alcohol-abuser? We can forgive you.
Did you leave your wife for no good reason? Those things happen.
The trick to getting American forbearance and forgiveness is to honestly admit, "I'm a human being and I've made mistakes. I'm not the most brilliant person in the world. But I do my best day-in and day-out and I hope that I learn from my errors. Since I'm not running for pope, I don't have to be perfect and I don't think the American people expect that of me. Next question?"
In other words, those who stake out superiority--be it mental, moral, or otherwise--are setting themselves up for big problems once some chink in their supposedly perfect armor is found. Pols who are thought to be trying to delude us about their characters and abilities pay a higher price with the public than those who openly proclaim their humanity.
If you're a seriated adulterer, bedding down one lover after another, don't yammer about how devoted you are to your spouse.
If you beat your kids, don't talk about family values.
Hypocrisy is what a lot of people have detected in John Kerry's brighter-than-thou attitude toward President Bush. Turns out that as an undergraduate at the same institution, Yale, the two men had very similar grades: Undistinguished
Apart from Kerry campaign derision of Bush's brain power and Mr. Kerry's previous reticence to release his records to the public, this would be a so-what story. He made it a bigger deal than it needed to be.
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
1. These verses open a section of Genesis which shows the impact of Eve's and Adam's rebellion against God. In rebelling, they invite sin into the human experience and its effects worsen the condition of the human soul. Sin brings a deterioration to God's good creation.
2. There is a false impression that the Old and New Testaments of the Bible present two different versions of God. The Old, it's said, shows God to be a vengeful judge while the New shows Him as the gracious Savior. This distinction is not true. In both segments of the Bible, God is seen as both just and charitable.
An early demonstration of the presence of both these elements is seen in Genesis 3:22-24. God is just and so the sin of Adam and Eve will have its consequences. They must be banished from Eden.
But God is also charitable. He makes it impossible for them to reenter the garden, where they might take a bite from the fruit of the tree of life and so, live forever in sin and alienation from God.
3. In this section, we're told that Adam "knew" his wife and later Cain, Adam's and Eve's son, "knew" his wife. This, of course, is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. But it's more than that. In knowing one another, the two couples have intimacy. The souls of the marriage partners are transparent to each another.
4. While the name of Cain is like a Hebrew word meaning get or produce, it's also likely related to a word meaning spear. Given the violence that Cain will perpetrate, this may also be meant by the name.
5. Abel's name--hebel in Hebrew--has a two-pronged and interrelated meaning: breath or futility.
You may remember from my earlier Genesis post that we talked about ruach, that Hebrew word that can mean wind, spirit, or breath. God's ruach moved over primordial chaos in Genesis 1 and life came about. God's ruach was breathed into the nostrils of the dust that became the first man and man came to life. In that case, breath was something strong and enduring, the life or Spirit of God.
But hebel is a vulnerable wisp, here today and gone tomorrow, hinting at the vulnerable and short life of Adam's and Eve's second son.
6. The German Biblical scholar, Gerhard von Rad, says that the separate functions of Adam's and Eve's sons--Cain is a farmer and Abel a shepherd--show one consequence of sin: Humanity divides itself by functions with their own world views. The fact that each son makes separate offerings to God is further evidence of this division.
7. Why was God pleased with Abel's offering and not that of Cain? Apparently, scholars are divided or stymied by this question. It may be a product of my simplicity, but I'm not baffled by this.
Cain gave God the leftovers from his crops. Abel gave God the cream off the top of his flocks, his "firstlings."
We cannot earn God's love, forgiveness, or blessings. But what we give to God is a measure of our faith. When we give to God off the top, we're saying that we trust Him to take care of us with the rest of His blessings to us. Cain may in fact, have given God more than Abel did; we don't know. But we do know, it seems to me, that he only gave to God after he was sure he'd taken care of himself.
8. But it's Cain, not God, who becomes angry. He resents the positive regard God has for Abel's gifts. Yet God pulls Cain aside and says, "You need to watch out, Cain. Sin is just outside your door, waiting to pounce on you. You have got to be vigilant about fending it off."
It's interesting that God's words to Cain speak of sin as something outside of Cain, something that might invade his psyche and cause him to do wrong. In The Small Catechism, Martin Luther summarizes the fuller understanding of sin that one discerns when taking the entire Bible into consideration: sin resides in "the devil, the world, and our sinful selves." Von Rad speculates that the exteriority of sin in this passage (Genesis 4:7) has something to do with the freshness of sin in the human experience, that it has not become fully incorporated into human beings, although it has a foothold that will cause it to grow.
9. The ensuing scene--Genesis 4:8--shows how unsuccessful Cain has been at defending himself from the temptation to sin. With forethought, he invites his unsuspecting brother into the field to kill him. Humanity has sunk another level.
10. Immediately after Eve and Adam rebelled, God showed up and asked Adam, "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:9). Now, after Cain's sin, God shows up again and asks a different question: "Where is your brother?" (Genesis 4:9) Of course, both are rhetorical questions. But each present the questioned men the opportunity to own up to their sins, to repent, and to be forgiven.
11. When Adam was questioned by God, he tries to fudge a little on his answer, but eventually comes clean. Not so Cain. Cain begins with a flippant response (Genesis 4:9) that could, I'm told, more literally be translated, "Am I a shepherd to the shepherd?" In this response, Cain shows unrepentant cold-heartedness and even contempt for God. The answer of course, is that, "Yes, we are our brothers' and our sisters' keepers." (Which is why I support The ONE Campaign. Our government spends less than 1% of the annual federal budget on foreign aid. We can help our brothers and sisters by bumping that up a percentage point and forgiving foreign governments' debts to our government. End of editorial.)
12. God says that Abel's blood is crying out from the ground, the very ground that Cain was charged with tilling as a farmer.
13. The Biblical view of blood is not so different from ours, I suppose. The Bible sees it as conveying life itself.
This is why at the Passover, the blood of a lamb was smeared on the doorposts of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt: Its life fended off the angel of death.
It's also why at the annual Day of Atonement in Jerusalem, the blod of the perfect, unblemished sacrificial lamb was sprinkled on the people: The lamb was the surrogate for a people who recognized that their sins warranted death and its blood covered them with the renewed life God was now giving them.
By pouring out His blood on the cross, Jesus, the "Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world" was offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin for all who believe in Him, "once and for all."
Today, Christians all over the world receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, being re-membered, re-newed in their life with Christ, through the bread and the wine, simultaneously the body and blood of Jesus.
For the ancient Hebrew, the life force in the blood was almost palpable. They would have readily understood how Abel's blood would cry out to God. Perhaps we can understand it too.
14. Cain, who became the founding father of the Kenites, is consigned to a world of wandering. The name of the land to which he's sent, Nod, literally means fugitive. I like Eugene Peterson's rendering of the name, No Man's Land. The Kenites, in fact, were worshipers of Yahweh, the God of the Bible, before the Hebrews. But they were a wandering people who always lived on the fringes and were removed from God and the soil, just like their ancestor, Cain. It was as though just as Cain and they were rootless, they never put roots down in God.
15. Cain's response to God's condemnation is filled with self-absorption. There isn't a hint of repentance.
16. But God is gracious, creating the possibility of repentance and renewal for Cain, protecting him from being murdered himself.
17. Who were these other people who concerned Cain and where did they come from? I don't know and I don't know.
18. Lamech shows that the brazen sinfulness, including unrepentance for murder, is even worse in him than in his forbear, Cain. Arrogant, unrepentant parents taught Lamech, probably more by example than anything else, how to be haughty, selfish, impudent, and such.
19. Another line of descendants comes from Adam and Eve when they have another child, Seth. From his line, eventually, comes Noah and his family.
20. Of particular note in the geneaology found in Genesis 5 is Enoch, the only one not said to have died.
Finally, I was asked this evening, what a good study Bible might be. Several points:
1. We need to make a distinction between versions, translations, or paraphrases, on the one hand, and editions, on the other.
2. A translation is the work of a group of scholars, who approach their work prayerfully and carefully, who have looked at the ancient manuscripts. A paraphrase is, to varying degrees, a version of the Scriptures in modern vernacular. The word version can be applied to translations or paraphrases.
3. My favorite translations, both because of accuracy and ease of understanding, are the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), The New International Version (TNIV), and Today's English Version (TEV, also called the Good News Bible).
4. My favorite paraphrase is Eugene Peterson's The Message.
5. I like The Student Bible, the Oxford Study Bible, and the Life Application Bible, each of which have helpful study notes, footnotes, maps, and tables. Each can be purchased in NRSV and TNIV editions.
6. There is nothing wrong with the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, although it is not as accurate a translation and it's certainly not as accessible to the modern reader as other translations.
[Hallesby was a twentieth century Norwegian Lutheran theologian. In his writings, you detect a man not only of great intellect, but of a deep and warmly loving faith. Do yourself a favor and buy one of his books today!]
Perhaps some one of my readers is saying to himself: "I have not experienced this new creation. My religious life is a heavy, burdensome duty, which I often neglect and which I must force myself to perform. Often I do it in an absent-minded and spiritless manner. Dead works! That is without doubt the right name for my Christianity.[I love Hallesby's way of making things clear and how he does so with such compassion and heart!]
How can I get life with God?
What must be done on my part in order that God may perform this miracle within me?
My friend, it is not difficult to tell you what you must do. You have nothing to do but to turn to your Saviour and confess to Him that you love sin and not God, and ask Him to perform the miracle in your heart.
The moment you truly do go to God in this way, He will perform the miracle of regeneration within you.
I am prepared to hear somebody say: "I have already done this some time ago. But I did not experience what you have described above as the effects of divine regeneration. I have not felt the nearness of God of which you speak. Not the joy and bliss. Nor the peace and inward calm. Nor the dislike for sin. Nor the desire to do God's will. So far I have experienced practically nothing but restlessness and fear, now and then exceedingly great distress. Between times I have had a few brief periods of calm.
What is the matter with me?
What shall I do further in order to experience what you have described?
In reply to this, permit to say, first, that every birth is a painful process. Spiritual birth is no exception to the rule. The spiritual pains you are experiencing, in the form of restlessness, doubt, fear, and anxiety, are birthpains.
The Holy Spirit of God is at work creating something new within you. But the new life can not be born within you except the old die at the same time. It is God who killeth and make alive (Deuteronomy 32:39). Paul says in the account of his conversion that he died (Romans 7:9-10). He has reference to the painful process by means of which God through His holy law convicted him of sin, "that sin might be exceedingly sinful" to him (v.13). Or, as he expresses it in another place, "that every mouth may be stopped and the sinner be brought under the judgment of God" (Romans 3:19).
What you are now experiencing in your spiritual distress and restlessness is this life's first beginning: death...
You must first see the sin in your heart and life, which sin must die. Just to see this is a painful and fearful experience, enough to fill a soul with hopelessness and despair, because men [sic] do not realize how sinful they really are...
This experience becomes still more painful when one not only sees the wickedness of one's life, but also discovers, when trying to battle against it, that one is not able to overcome one's sins, either in word or deed, and still less in thought and fantasy...[Paul writes in Romans:] "Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me out of this body of death?"...
If you have begun these inner experiences, do not permit yourself to become frightened or confused. It is the Lord's work in your soul. It is painful, to be sure. All such curative experiences are distasteful to our pampered natures, but they are necessary. Give thanks to the merciful God, who in this way has begun to put to death your old life...
...what God has shown you of your sin should...drive you to your crucified Saviour, make you hunger for the grace of God and seek salvation, and become one of those whom the Lord calls blessed: "Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled. Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3-6)
After the Lord has put to death, He also makes alive.
Be calm, therefore. Let the Lord Himself take full charge of this work. He Himself will perfect the good work which He has begun in your soul. When He sees fit, the veil will be drawn aside, and you will rejoice in salvation with unspeakable joy. You will experience God's blessed presence, peace, and rest. You will be given an inward dislike of sin and a holy desire to do His will.
Meanwhile, wait humbly and patiently for the Lord. Plead your distress before Him each day. Read His Word and cling to His promises.
Remember this: You expereinced the new birth the moment you turned to your Saviour and honestly confessed your sins. What you have felt so far has been principally its mortifying and painful aspects. But that...is a part of the vital mystery of Christianity.
Seven years ago, after a dispute with her mother over poor college grades, Stahr went missing and had not been heard from since. Then, a few days ago, the Texas native was discovered to be living and working in the Cincinnati-area community of Florence, Kentucky. She had made no attempt to conceal her identity and used her own name and Social Security number for her work at a Sam's Club there.
Federal law prohibits law enforcement agencies from getting hold of people's tax information.
So, Big Brother isn't watching you after all.
[For more details, see here and here.]
Bob was a big-hearted thirty-something, a professional who had joined our congregation maybe ten years before. One day, as the post-worship fellowship time was dying down to its last few participants, I sat in a corner with him. We'd talked about a lot of things--our families, college basketball, work. The conversation drifted into faith issues and Bob became serious.
"Mark, I believe. I really do. Always have. But sometimes, I just don't feel it."
"Welcome to the club," I told him. "I don't always feel my faith either. But we can't hold valuable relationships, whether they're with our families or with Christ, hostage to our feelings. Sometimes I don't have the most wonderful feelings for my wife or kids or friends, but hopefully I keep loving them and remain committed to the relationships. Relationships depend on commitments, not emotions."
"I get that," he said. "But that's not exactly what I'm talking about. I mean that I don't always want to live for God or please God. I don't always want to express thanks to Him for what He's done for me. Deep down, I'd rather tell my boss to go to hell. Or, sometimes, just leave the responsibilities of wife and family behind."
Bob winced as he said these words. I think he expected me to start preaching fire-and-brimstone at him.
I smiled. "You're a lot closer to God and a lot healthier than you think you are, Bob."
"Absolutely! The Bible says that God knows all of our thoughts and that He never disdains people who are honest and forthright about their struggles with the temptations to do wrong."
"Well, how do I deal with it? Because--and this is going to sound hokey--I really do want to be close to God. I really am grateful for Christ and the cross and the resurrection and I know that life is better with God."
"Start out by telling God what you just told me. Tell God that you want to be close to Him and that you struggle with the impulse to do things that could ruin your closeness, things that could put up walls between you and Him. Then, every time you confront these impulses, just breathe out a little prayer or say it in your mind, 'There it is, God. Help!'"
Poor Bob, I was on a roll now. "Look," I said. "We say that coming to faith in Christ is being born again. Well, birth is a painful, sometimes ugly process, although it always results in a new life. It's even uglier, messier, and more painful when it comes to being born again to the new life Christ gives. Because, the Bible says, every new birth is preceded by a dying. The old self, with its sinful inclinations and selfish, greedy impulses, must die. But our old selves like those old sins and like Freddy Krueger, the old self sticks around, like a body stuffed in the cellars of our psyches our whole lives. The normal human being may spend years nursing selfish fantasies. It's a hard habit to break."
"Can it be broken?"
"It can if we ask God to help us. But we're like recovering alcoholics, Bob." At this, I stood up and extended my hand to him, "My name is Mark and I am a recovering sinner. As I make myself transparent before God and I ask his help--through regular prayer, worship, fellowship with other believers, and regularly receiving Holy Communion--God gives me the power day-by-day to live the new life He makes for me. There are hiccups and down times along the way, times when I do things I regret. But as I keep asking God for help in these ways, day by day, I grow closer to God. It's happening in your life too. This conversation proves that!"
Monday, June 06, 2005
She, in turn, forwarded the "meme," as it's called onto novelist and blogger Richard Lawrence Cohen. Richard thought it would be a good idea to simply ask all his readers to respond to the questions.
Go check out what those two wrote and then come back here, if you will.
1. Total number of books I've owned:
This number is incalculable. It has to number in the thousands. At least once a year, sometimes twice, I donate my old books to Goodwill Industries. (Occasionally, we'll take smaller stacks to Half Price Books to be sold.) It's hard for me to part with books, basically because I like to go back through them, comparing things I've read in older books with my newer ones.
2. Last book I bought:
1776 by David McCullough. I haven't started reading it, but it's in the satchel I carry between home and office. I've had several other things to read first, though.
3. Last book I read:
I usually try to keep between two to four books going at any given time, in addition to the Bible. Early this morning, I finished reading Blog by Hugh Hewitt, which I reviewed above. I'm also in the midst of re-reading two old favorites: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (which I first read thirty-seven years ago) and Why I Am a Christian by Ole Hallesby.
4. Five books that mean a lot to me:
Although the top two choices are a snap, picking others makes this a very tough question. I'm sure that as soon as I publish this, I'll think of another book that has meant a lot to me. But here goes...
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Lewis changed my life! Struggling against letting God turn me from atheism to faith in Christ, Lewis's writings, starting with The Screwtape Letters, convinced me that it was okay to have a brain and to believe. Mere Christianity, although certainly susceptible to logical arguments of refutation, presents a simple, logical, and down-to-earth case for Christian faith from the standpoint of one who, like me, moved from atheism to faith. Lewis, as a professor of English literature once told me, wrote like an angel.
Prayer by Ole Hallesby. I didn't really know how to pray until Hallesby's book taught me. He was a Norwegian Lutheran bishop of enormous intellect and simple faith. Real prayer, Hallesby taught, only happens when two conditions are met in us: (1) We have enough faith to believe that God hears us; (2) We're utterly helpless, without personal resources for making happen what we ask God to do.
The Chronicles of Narnia also by C.S. Lewis. I know this is seven books. But they can easily be taken as one unit, which is how I usually read them. If you think that these are just children's books, you haven't read them. Lewis has such a sure handle on life and human nature and it shows throughout these books. There are passages, especially in the culminating volume, The Last Battle, that even after many readings, bring me to tears of joy, yearning for "the new heaven and the new earth."
The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the seventh grade, much to my chagrin, my classmates outvoted me, deciding that we should read the stories that composed The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I came to love Holmes, his intellect, and his honor. I also fell in love with England. Doyle's character, along with the Beatles, opened up a whole world for me, one that included Chaucer, Shakespeare, Churchill, and Ellis Peters, to name a few. I am an unrepentant anglophile. One of my great thrills was being able to go to England back in 2000, when our kids' high school choir did a concert tour there.
The Friendship Factor by Alan Loy McGinnis. In this and other volumes, McGinnis taught me at a critical time in my adulthood--my early thirties, as I pastored for the first time--how to befriend, serve, collaborate with, and lead people.
I'm already thinking of other books I might want to add to this list. Rats!
5. Tag five people and have them do this on their blog:
I'll just issue a general invitation to readers here. Put the links to your responses in the Comments section.
I find it helpful then, to periodically allow myself to fall in love with Jesus all over again, the way I did back when He turned me from an atheist to a believer.
How do I do that? By spending time with Him. I've found that when it comes to Jesus, to know Him really is to love Him.
One of my "projects" for this summer is to deliberately set aside some time during my daily prayers and devotions to read a chapter from the New Testament Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. [The New Testament is a portion of the Bible composed of 27 books, mostly letters.]
I also made a couple of decisions about my approach to this "project."
First, I decided that if I missed a day, I wasn't going to beat myself up for it. The whole idea is to get to know Jesus, the Loving Liberator, not to lay another legalistic guilt trip on myself. I'm starting to believe that it's possible to be disciplined and intentional about having a relationship with Christ without turning Him into another unholy obligation.
Second, I made a decision based on my past experiences not only with reading the Bible, but with things as mundane as driving to work. The meaning, significance, and guts of something can be ripped right out of them from daily use. Sometimes, we need to look at old companions and familiar settings with fresh eyes. I decided to take my trip through the four New Testament Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--using Eugene Peterson's wonderful translation/paraphrase, The Message. Peterson isn't just a Biblical scholar and former pastor, he's also an accomplished poet. He presents the entire Bible in fresh, eye-opening language.
Third, I decided to invite you to take this journey with me. If you want to do that, you can read Peterson's rendering of the Gospels too, if you'd like. Or you may want to read them from another translation. My favorite is the New Revised Standard Version, which is presented online in several places. You can Google them or other translations you might prefer. Whichever one you choose to use, I hope that it will be one that you don't ordinarily read. Remember, the idea is to try to see Jesus with fresh eyes, to fall in love with Him all over again. Or, maybe for you, you'll be getting to know Him for the first time.
One other thing before we begin this journey in earnest together. This is addressed to those who don't believe that Jesus is God as well as a human being, who think that the stories of miracles He performed are far-fetched, who can't accept His resurrection, or who may have some other problems with the Bible's accounts of Jesus, but you would like to believe:
I used to be just like you. I understand how you feel and I respect your feelings. Please do me and yourself a favor, read the Gospel accounts, one chapter a day and maybe read the notes I put here from time to time. Before you read them each day, tell God something like, "God, I don't even know if you're real or not. But I've been told that the best way to get to know you is to get to know Jesus. So, unclutter my mind right now. Help me to believe what I can and not worry right now about the things I can't. Help me to get to know Jesus." Then, just read the chapter.Hopefully, as we progress, I'll have more hints and pointers for you. I hope that you get a lot out of this exercise. I know that, having already gotten to chapter 12 in Matthew's Gospel myself, I'm already getting a lot out of it.
If you'd like to join me, try starting with Matthew, chapter 1, tomorrow.
[A link to one translation of Matthew 1 can be found here.]
The ruling probably raises as many questions as it answers and leaves the door open to further battles between the states and Washington. We've not heard the last of this issue.
Don't get me wrong. I want us [the US] to do the right thing. I don't think there should be a policy that permits interrogators to treat the Qur'an like it was, oh, a Bible discovered in the Saudi airport customs line. But when it comes to the revelations of these Gitmo tales, I cannot care as much as they would like me to care. I cannot. Not to say we should treat the Qur’an with casual disrespect. But if an infidel touches the book with the wrong hand and people react like a two-year-old whose peas are touching the mashed potatoes, well, I understand why this matters, but when measured against the sins of headchoppery and carbombs, it pales to an evanescent translucence.Even if one thinks that the detainees ought to be accorded the treatment anticipated under the Geneva Convention, the penchant for the media, through its post-Watergate eyes, to always view the US as villainous, unjust, and suspect plays right into the hands of terrorists. But then, so does the perception that the nation fighting for freedom misbehaving, even to the smallest degree, at Guantanamo.
But Lileks is absolutely right in saying that the desecration of a book, however holy or esteemed, cannot compare in offensiveness to the savagery committed by terrorists against masses of human beings, most of whom supposedly share their own religion.
That's not a self-righteous assertion of virtue, mind you. The reason I never did dope is that I couldn't stand the thought of being out of control.
But, in fact, I always thought it was a bad idea to decriminalize marijuana use. Backtrack from a hard and fast societal condemnation of the stuff, I reasoned, and we could never change our minds about it. So, what follows is no pro-weed screed.
The US Supreme Court has today told states that even in the case of grass that's homegrown and not, therefore, a commodity of interstate commerce, the feds may prosecute users who light up under doctor's orders.
It's interesting because this ruling was sought by a Republican administration and rendered by a Republican Supreme Court. Conventional states' rights thinking, one surmises, would say that Republicans would side with the ten states that provide for the legal use of marijuana in medical treatment. States' righters would simply be expected to take a hands-off attitude about state laws in a matter that doesn't seem to be under federal jurisdiction.
But of course, the values wing of the Republican coalition seems to be trumping traditional conservatism a lot lately. They are radically reworking the definition of "conservative" to include behavioral micromanagement which, I feel certain, would be condemned by Ronald Reagan and especially by Mr. Conservative himself, Barry Goldwater.
After Congress' midnight passage of special Terri Schaivo legislation a few months ago, I wrote:
...the legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President this morning confirms what has been increasingly obvious in the past four years: Conservatism, as the core philosophy of the Republican Party, is now, if not dead, completely moribund.It doesn't look like things have changed. Two of the three dissenters from the medical marijuana ruling today were Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O'Connor. These two Arizona associates of Barry Goldwater, the one appointed by Richard Nixon and the other by Reagan, are vestiges of conservatism as it was once defined. Their breed has been replaced by big government advocates who don't mind deficits or federal intrusion as long they're the ones doing the spending and the intruding.
There are lots of pracitical tips on blogging and he presents a reasoned case for the proposition that the rise of the blogs has the potential for democratizing culture the way the printing press once did.
I particularly liked Hugh's checklist for producing a blog of "success and significance." ('Better Living' even seems to conform to some of these.) Here's Hugh's list:
- Post often
- Link freely
- Be generous in praise and attribution
- Don't be long-winded too often, if at all. Brevity is the soul of blogging when you are getting started.
- Paragraphs are your friend
- Profanity loses audiences
- Avoid feuds and flame wars
- At least at the start, skip the comments sections. You end up with the problem of nuts if you are any good
- Keep the title short and easy to remember so that it is easy to recall and type into the space at the top of the page
I suspect that when the history of this era is written after all of us who were alive during the period are gone, a more complicated picture will emerge. A few of its elements...
Felt himself was imperious and arrogant, believing that the imperatives of national security allowed his beloved FBI extra-legal latitude, latitude which they might have been granted before Vietnam and Watergate shook Americans'
almost-unquestioning deference to the federal government.
Nixon and his Admininstration regarded the government as their plaything and the Constitution so flexible that it should have made these self-described "strict constructionists" blush.
The criminality of Nixon and Crew was so pervasive that, having become aware of all the crimes being committed, Felt had no official to whom he could take the information. (Irrespective of what Pat Buchanan has said.) The Attorney General was in on the conspiracy. So was the FBI director. Access to a grand jury would have been controlled by the Administration at the time. He had little choice but to go anonymously to Woodward or some other investigative reporter.
Conclusion: Felt may have operated from all sorts of mixed motives, as he and his family may be doing now in trying to cash in on his being Deep Throat, but he provided an indispensable service to the country.
The "good news" of Watergate was articulated by Gerald Ford on the day Nixon left the White House and Ford was sworn in as president:
Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.Would that we could still make that assertion so confidently, but the actions of subsequent Administrations, both Republican and Democrat may make us wonder.
By whatever route that Mark Felt arrived at his decision to be Woodward's and Bernstein's deep background resource, he played a pivotal role in an event which cleansed our political system, at least for a time. For that, he may be regarded, if not as a hero, as someone who, in this instance anyway, did his duty.
At one point in the interview, Felt is asked if he is Deep Throat. In retrospect, his answer is interesting. No, he says, I'm not Deep Throat. But, he goes on, it wouldn't be such a bad thing to be that person because he helped Woodward do an important thing for the country. Two things I would have noticed had I been smart enough and watched that interview when it was originally broadcast (I don't remember that I did):
1. Felt applauds Deep Throat. He sees him as a kind of hero. Given the vanity Felt displays in the interview, that should have been one indicator that he really is the guy.Taken together, these two things probably should have been a tipoff as to Deep Throat's identity.
2. He only cites Woodward, not Bernstein. That seems a little curious, although the publication of All the President's Men, Woodward's and Bernstein's memoir of their reporting of the scandal, had already made clear that Deep Throat had met solely with Woodward. Nonetheless, if a person were not Deep Throat himself and were commenting on the Watergate
scandal, he would be expected to attribute things to Woodward and Bernstein, don't you think?
I myself had given up years ago on trying to identify this person. But I had always taken Woodward and Bernstein at their word that he was one person, not a collection of people, and that they would identify him after he had passed away.
From the Face the Nation interview, I derived several, perhaps incorrect, impressions of Mark Felt:
1. He was brilliant and amazingly self-assured, perhaps too self-assured.Now that we know who Deep Throat is, looking at the Face the Nation interview makes me wonder why we hadn't definitively guessed it long ago.
2. He was utterly unrepentant about the role he played in authorizing break-ins of certain groups' offices--the Weathermen Underground and PLO offices were mentioned. When, during one exchange, Fred Graham described them as "illegal," Felt said that he preferred calling them, "extra-legal," a rather Nixonian/Clintonian verbal sleight of hand.
3. He seemed unconcerned by the prospect of being indicted, something that did eventually happen, and claimed that he would use the imperatives of "national security" as be his defense. (Felt was eventually pardoned for all wrong-doing by President Reagan.)
Sunday, June 05, 2005
(The large box elder you see over my left should is one of the trees we had to take down, which I wrote about here.)
We like to go to the Mexican fast food place for lunch after Sunday worship. The menu appeals to our whole family and it's quick enough for us to eat something we enjoy before our son has to be off for work.
Or, before my wife has to be gone. A full-time school librarian, as I dove into my Steak Bowl, she was already off to her other job at a greeting card store today. She drove to the store immediately after worship was done and she'd had the chance to chat with a few of her friends, who had visited our church for the first time.
Our daughter, to be married in two weeks, was also eating with us. She too, has a job that sometimes take her away on Sundays. But not today.
Our daughter's fiance and our son work for the same airline, our soon-in-law during the days, our son at nights. It's not their ultimate life ambitions. The soon-in-law has a degree in Business and Accounting. The son just picked up his degrees in History and Philosophy and is earning money for now, with plans for going to grad school.
Our son's pronouncement, "Summer has arrived," wasn't a mere statement of fact.
Nor was it said with any appreciation.
The Cincinnati area, which sets deep in the Ohio River Valley, is notorious for its summers: hot, muggy, sticky. As my wife has said many times in the nearly-fifteen years we've lived in Cincinnati, "It's hard to imagine why people decided to move here in the first place."
What makes it worse is that summer in Cincinnati usually begins within a week of the start of the baseball season and continues through August. It's five months in a sauna! I've been in San Antonio in August; Cincinnati's not that bad. But then, who would perspire...uh, aspire to that, anyway?
Lifelong residents will tell you, "In Cincinnati, we just skip spring."
Except this year. This year, but for a tad too little rain, something that concerns farmers all across Ohio, we've had a beautiful spring: Day after lovely day of temperate weather, clear skies, bright sunshine, gentle breezes, and robust walking punctuated by lovely talks with neighbors and friends. I've almost been giddy with the unprecedented pleasure of it.
The young men of our family have been pleased beyond expression, their emotions like kids who've gotten away with something they shouldn't have done.
Their jobs take them into the bellies of the planes to drag out passengers' luggage. Even in winter's cold, they have to strip down to their street clothes while doing this. It's too hot otherwise.
My son started his job there in January and so for months, has been hearing seasoned veterans tell him, "Wait 'til the summer, P-Diddy." (His work nickname is P-Diddy, a bit of an improbable moniker for a kid whose musical tastes run to organic rock and classical music. But that's what they call him and he loves it.)
Now, waiting to go to work, at a job he's been surprised at liking so well, he was bracing himself. Summer has arrived. When I arrived at our church building today, more than a half-hour before the early birds, the place was already hot and humid. As the morning wore on, temps were in the 90s and the humidity was up there in swamp territory. P-Diddy wasn't looking forward to crawling into the innards of those planes.
My future son-in-law walked in the door here a few moments ago. "How was it?" I ask. "The heat and humidity were killers today," he says. "I bet I drank about a gallon of Gatorade." Then, referring to the prospect of moving to Florida, something he and my daughter sometimes discuss, he tells me, "It reminded me: This is what Orlando is like."
There are some jobs I've had in years gone by, my primary memories of which are sweating. I sweated while repairing guard rail for the Highway Department, building air conditioners in an un-air conditioned factory, and so on.
As much as I love summer, I don't envy those who have to be out in it when summer is at its hottest--roofers, blacktoppers, construction workers, and...airline baggage handlers. Drink lots of Gatorade...and, I hope that you've got people praying for your health and saftety the way I'm praying those gifts into the lives of the two baggage handlers in our family this summer.
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, June 5, 2005)
Lawrence of Arabia was a real person whose larger-than-life story was turned into a classic movie. In her book, Jesus: CEO, Laurie Beth Jones, one of my favorite authors, tells about an incident from Sir Lawrence’s life.
It happened as he and his army struggled through the desert to an oasis. They finally arrived, nearly dead from dehydration. There, they discovered that they were missing a camel boy. Lawrence immediately said, "We have to go back and find him!" But his native soldiers refused, saying, "Master, it is the will of Allah that the boy not return with us. His fate was written by God. We must not interfere."
Lawrence angrily remounted his camel and rode off into the desert. His soldiers stood there, shaking their heads and saying, "Now we have lost him too." Later, they looked up and saw Lawrence with the camel boy. The soldiers shouted as they ran to Lawrence and the boy. Lawrence, having given the exhausted and dehydrated boy over for care, turned to his troops and said, "Remember this: Nothing is written unless you write it."
Before Jesus Christ entered our lives, the stories of our lives were written and none of them had happy endings. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul writes in the New Testament book of Romans, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Maybe the greatest thing to come to those who turn from sin and death and turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and new life is that He gives us the freedom to rewrite the scripts for our lives.
Our Bible lesson for today shows Jesus giving some unlikely people that same freedom. It begins with Jesus calling a man named Matthew to follow Him. It happens at Matthew’s tax office. Jesus says, "Follow Me" and without hesitation, Matthew leaves his office behind and follows.
We know very little about Matthew. He’s only mentioned by name in a couple of places in the whole New Testament. We’re not even sure that he wrote the book that is attributed to him.
But we do know that his life was forever changed when Jesus came into his life.
As you know, tax collectors in those days were unsavory characters, extortionists who overcharged the people from whom they received tax payments. They were granted the tax-collection franchise for a region who had the blessings of the Romans to collect as much they wanted to, so long as the Romans got their specified amount.
The people of first-century Judea where Jesus lived hated the tax collectors. They did so not just because of the money the collectors took from them, but also because people like Matthew worked with the occupying Roman Army to keep the Judeans under the Roman thumb. If you just imagine how the average Frenchman felt when, during World War Two, they saw French people collaborating with the Nazi army, you get a feel for how first-century Judeans viewed the tax collectors.
The Judeans also would have regarded the tax collectors also as ritually impure, religiously tainted because they had contact with Gentiles.
You can imagine too then, that the only people likely to want to hang out with guys like Matthew were prostitutes and other notorious crooks, thugs, and sinners.
But after Jesus had called him to follow, Matthew had a party at his house. All his sinner friends were in attendance. So were Jesus and His disciples. Archaeological digs of houses like the one Matthew probably owned tell us that he could have fitted about thirty to forty people in his home and that it would have been airy and open, the shutters only closed at night. It would be easy for others in town to observe the party at Matthew's place.
That explains what happens in our Bible lesson. Picture it. Here are Matthew and maybe twenty-five to thirty of his unsavory peeps. Jesus shows up and Matthew, excited to see Him, welcomes Jesus to the head table. But the disciples with Jesus, good Jewish folk and not accustomed to fraternizing with people like Matthew’s friends, may have held back, taking places on the fringes of the party, close to the unshuttered windows.
From outside, beyond the open windows, they might have been questioned by their fellow Jews, the hyper-religious Pharisees. “Pssst,” they may have said. “Simon, what’s up with Jesus? Why is He hanging out with notorious sinners?”
But Jesus hears them and says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means [Jesus quotes the Old Testament here], ‘I [that is, God]...I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
“Being religious gets you nowhere. I’m really proud that you’ve memorized the books of the Bible, the Apostles’ Creed, Luther’s Catechism. I’m happy that you’ve got the worship liturgy so emblazoned in your brain that you know when to stand and when to sit and how to look appropriately pious even when you’re not listening. But, I, Jesus, God-in-Skin, don’t care about any of that! I want people to be merciful, not religious!” And then, Jesus says, “I’m not here for the good little churchgoers who think that they’re too good for anybody else. I’m here to help the sinners and the riffraff get the new life I offer to all who follow Me.”Jesus wants to empower everybody--riffraff and the holier-than-thou alike--the chance to rewrite the scripts of their lives with His grace, goodness, and love. Jesus welcomes outcasts...even outcasts like you and me. And He calls us to welcome other outcasts into His Kingdom, His Church, and our lives.
Barbara Johnson is a Christian writer I know nothing about. But I read this past week about something that happened at a conference at which she was a speaker. At the end of her presentation, she distributed buttons that had this imprinted on it: SOMEONE JESUS LOVES HAS AIDS.
Shortly after her talk, Johnson was grabbed by an event organizer. A prostitute, running away from her pimp, was upstairs in the convention center, threatening suicide. The police were on their way. But the woman insisted on speaking with Johnson, probably because of the buttons Johnson had distributed. You see, this woman had full-blown AIDS.
Johnson writes, “She was about 35 years old, dirty, and smelly from sleeping in a dumpster. Her pimp was trying to kill her because she wanted to stop turning tricks. The jagged scar on her face and the bullet hole in her leg were evidence.”
Johnson first handed the woman a button and they talked. Within a short while, this woman had improbably accepted Christ as her Savior.
At that, Johnson and the five women she had taken with her, sprang into action. They helped clean her up and gave her new clothes. When Johnson saw a fresh wound in the woman’s chest, she suggested that they take her to a hospital. The woman said no; she needed to get out of town. So, Johnson and the others scraped some money together to buy the woman a bus ticket. They gathered around the prostitute and prayed for her before she left.
Just as she started for the door, she turned around and said, “Wait! The button.” After the woman had climbed into a taxi that would take her to the bus terminal, Johnson told her, "If you get to heaven before I do, look for me. I'll meet you there!"
Because Johnson and a group of women had been open to an outcast, the way Jesus always was--and is--that woman’s life was changed. And that was true whether the man who wanted to kill her caught up with her, or if she died of AIDS soon thereafter, or if the wound in her chest killed her. She had a new life with Jesus Christ because a few women refused to accept that the script for a prostitute’s life was written in stone.
Surrender to Jesus Christ is not fatalism; it's faith that God will stand by us always and open up an eternal future with God to all who trust Christ!
You and I can be the agents by which God changes people's lives. In the power of Jesus, we can embrace the outcasts so that, like us, they know our life-changing Savior.
It may sometimes entail risk.
It may involve consorting with unsavory characters, something which, from my middle-class American vantage point, I don’t find very appealing.
But Christ has welcomed us and we can welcome others in His Name.
The displays from our Mission and Ministry Fair are still up. Each one represents an opportunity for you and me to extend Christ’s welcome to others. I urge you to sign on to one ministry, a service you render within the congregation, and one mission, a service you render to others in the community, before you leave here this morning. By changing the scripts of our lives in this way, we may also change the scripts of others who don’t know Christ yet. That’s exactly what Jesus has called us to do!
[The story about Lawrence of Arabia is one I've read many times in Jones' book. But the sermon of a pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church of Burnsville, Minnesota reminded me of it. I'm grateful.]