Saturday, June 18, 2005

"The Little Woman Who Started the Civil War"

So Abraham Lincoln is reported to have responded when first introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was said to have crystalized northern hostility to slavery and southern defense of it, helping to harden attitudes to the point of making conflict inevitable.

Even today, authors can have a huge impact on public opinion and public policy, changing minds or confirming judgments.

In today's New York Times, James Brooke profiles a survivor of North Korea's brutal prison camps, Kang Chol Hwan, and the apparent impact the former captive's book is having on President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and other members of the administration. The book, recommended to the President by former State secretary Henry Kissinger, has won the President's enthusiastic endorsement.

Writes Brooke:
On Monday, Mr. Kang, 37, received the ultimate book endorsement when he was ushered into the Oval Office for a 40-minute meeting with Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley. On June 10, Mr. Bush had allotted only a few more minutes for a meeting with South Korea's president, Roh Moo Hyun.

"He was more interested in the pains North Koreans are going through, more so than I had previously thought," Mr. Kang said in a telephone interview on Thursday, after returning to Seoul from Washington. "He kept on repeating how deeply sorry he was about the situation. To hear a president say these deep things made me feel that he cared."
He later points out:
Mr. Bush has displayed similar enthusiasm for other books, notably "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who is now an Israeli politician. Subsequently, it was widely noted, the theme of promoting democracy, especially in the Middle East, ran through the Inaugural and State of the Union addresses.
The upshot, as chronicled by Brooke:
In late April, the president's reading of "The Aquariums of Pyongyang" seemed to bolster his longstanding hostility toward North Korea. As American diplomats tried to revive stalled talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, Mr. Bush told reporters in Washington that Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, was a "dangerous person" who ran "huge concentration camps."
Since then, Bush administration officials have said that any package solution for North Korea's nuclear weapons program will have to include progress on human rights.
"I felt that he agreed with me in that the human rights issue was more important than the nuclear issue," said Mr. Kang, who directs a rights group in Seoul called the Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag.
The role of propagandists, whether as authors of books, pamphlets, or now, blogs, is venerable. Thomas Paine played an important role in inciting thirteen English colonies on the shores of the northern Atlantic to declare their independence and later, in inspiring George Washington's disspirted colonial forces to stick it out for the long haul during that fateful winter at Valley Forge. (Washington brought his troops together there to hear Paine's latest epistle read.)

Martin Luther's pamphlets promoting the Biblical teaching that human beings have a right relationship with God and with themselves as a God-granted gift to all who turn from sin and turn in faithful surrender to Jesus Christ, stirred an entire continent and then the world, to shake of the legalism of religion and live by faith. He started the Reformation, which had not only spiritual, but political implications.

Charles Dickens, whose novels appeared in serialized form in the mass circulation papers of Victorian England, challenged the gruesome conditions under which the poor of that era were forced to live.

Hwan stands in that tradition, with his memoir of his imprisonment and his activities promoting awareness of the crimes of North Korea.

He and others who are part of that tradition should inspire all of us who are writing at the birth of the new printing press, which is what I consider web logs or blogs to be. We can have a positive impact on our world, even if our goal is nothing more than to bring some gentleness and understanding to planet which often appears bent on devolving into constant, unproductive, and downright destructive conflict.

Interesting Post-Mortem on Schiavo Post-Mortem

Rob Asghar wonders why the dearth of commentary on the Schiavo autopsy and engenders an interesting discussion in the Comments section of his blog. Check it out here.

By the way, if your local paper doesn't run Rob's syndicated column, why not send the editor a link to some samples here.

Friday, June 17, 2005

I'm Not the Only One Who Thinks Orman's Schtick is Looney

Ann Althouse has engendered an interesting discussion about TV personality Suze Orman and her goofy schtick. Go there to read the discussion. Here's what I wrote:
Suze Orman was just a name to me when, a few years back, my wife and I saw her on Oprah Winfrey's show. Winfrey announced that her production team had sent Orman to consult with a Chicago-area couple who had evidently found it difficult to save money in spite of their both being professionals of substantial income. (I forget what profession the woman pursued. The man was a lawyer.)

Orman went to the couple's house and almost immediately opened their closet. She found it to be lacking in neatness and professed in this, to have found the key to understanding their failure to save money. "Money," she told the couple, "doesn't like to go where it's not welcomed. Your cluttered house doesn't welcome money." (I'm paraphrasing, here.)

The couple greeted this stupid counsel with all the credulity of four year olds.

My wife and I rolled our eyes and turned off the television.

There have been two long-term results from that brief exposure to Orman:

(1) Whenever we see her face on TV, we switch the station.

(2) We made mental notes to remind ourselves that no matter how educated people may be--including ourselves, they can still be suckered.

Mistakes Help Make Weddings Memorable

The main reason for the sparser posting these past few days is that our daughter will be married tomorrow. I've taken the week off in order to prepare for the wedding and to spend time with the family of our soon-in-law. (I'll have to come up with a new anonymous designation for him after tomorrow.)

One of the things I tell couples whose weddings I perform is that, "With every hitch, there's at least one glitch." I say this in order to reassure them. "Please know that even if not everything goes according to plan," I say, "you'll be just as married and God will bless you just as much as would be the case in a perfectly-orchestrated ceremony." (Sometimes I remind them that Prince Charles and Princess Diana enjoyed a perfect wedding ceremony and then, a perfectly awful marriage. More recently, when I've told couples this, they've asked me, "Who?" "Never mind," I tell them. "The point is that wedding mistakes aren't fatal to marriages.")

To underscore this, I usually tell the story of when our son, known here as P-Diddy and now twenty-three, served as ringbearer for the wedding of one of my sisters. This meant, of course, that he stood before the altar with the bridal party and the three clergy as the service unfolded. He was four at the time and understandably, grew bored with the ceremony.

While I preached a short homily, he got down on one knee with the pillow to which two fake wedding rings were secured by two ribbons tied in a bow. (The real rings were in the Best Man's pocket, thankfully.) He proceeded to untie the bow, sending the pseudo-rings "heaven-knows-where" and then, clamping the ends of the untied ribbons between his teeth, swung the pillow back and forth like a pendulum. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth his head went with increasing speed, causing the pillow to jump from side-to-side like one of those carnival spaceships.

My wife, sitting in the second row, viewed this with rising mortification and I did my best to ignore it while I delivered my pearls of wisdom. The videographer recording the wedding panned away from bride, groom, the other clergy, and me to show P-Diddy's antics. Then, he focused on my wife, who furiously, silently tried to signal our son to come and sit next to her. But our son didn't understand her signaling and instead, called out with something louder than an inside voice, "What Mom? Whaddya want? Huh?"

Finally, my poor wife buried her face in her hand and simply waited for the end of the service.

After recording all of this, the videographer went back to showing what was, after all, supposed to be the main event, the wedding itself. The shot was taken from somewhere down the middle aisle, behind my sister and her husband-to-be. One would think that, by this time, they would be ready to strangle their little ring-bearer. But when you look at the video, you see their shoulders moving up and down in laughter, their previous nervousness displaced by P-Diddy's antics.

So, a second thing I tell couples is that often, the glitches themselves are the things that, in subsequent telling, we laugh and enjoy so much about weddings. Glitches allow us to be human, providing relief in the midst of our pompous pretense and stress. They stamp joy on our memories.

I don't know what glitches will happen tomorrow as our daughter is wed. But whatever they might be, I'm going to remind everyone to just do their best and when our humanity shows, enjoy the moment.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Brooks' Thoughts On the Deterioration of Middle-Class Culture Has Me Thinking

Here, David Brooks laments the debasement of American culture, the willful turning from anything that might take us--lab rats in a Sims game--outside and beyond ourselves. It's a great article.

Parenthetically, one word used for demonic or evil in the Bible has the meaning of being turned in on oneself, away from God and away from neighbor.

The rising coarseness, narcissism, and utilitarianism of America's middle class is not only evil, though. It also bodes ill for the future. An educated, empathetic, and industrious middle class is the glue of a culture going places. Our current course, unless reversed, will spell our doom.

Self-indulgence is never the path of greatness. It is the way of the jungle.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Message from Port Reality: Today is All We've Got

I'm waking up, my eyes still closed, my brain not yet docked at Port Reality. I turn in bed, fingertips brushing across my expanded waistline. In microseconds, an internal dialog between two unknown Me's take place.

"You didn't used to be so thick around the middle," observes A.

"I know," says B, defensively. "I'll take it off."



"How? How will you take it off?"

"I don't know. I mean, I wasn't always like this. I can be what I was, can't I?"

"Not necessarily."

It was here, on the heels of this rude insinuation that full wakefulness came over me. It came with the realization that for all its blessings, memory is also a curse. Memory can delude. Memory can paralyze.

I remember a time when I was thinner, when I wore a 32 and not a 36 pant, when I cruised the outfield with, if something less than blinding speed, at least without taxing my lungs. I remember and in remembering I underestimate the passage of time and its effects. Memory and the preposterous notion that because I can remember being thinner, I will be thinner once again, was mocking me without my being aware of it.

Memory causes us to live carelessly.

Remembering being in shape makes you think that you can easily be in shape again.

Remembering the first kiss and the fact that she's been there next to you every night for years can make you heedless of nurturing the relationship that only began with the kiss.

Remembering the first day of the little one's kindergarten makes you less sensitive to the passage of time, of all the nameless subsequent moments to which you also need to attend.

Life is more than milestones. It's a profusion of unique, unfolding moments.

Memory makes us think that we can go back to where we were before. But we can't. We can never go back. Yesterday is dead. Today is all we have. We can remember the past and anticipate the future, but now is the only theater in which we can perform. And we can't control the future, either. But we can live now with every ounce of ourselves or let it pass unmarked, un-experienced, un-infused with our commitment or passion.

I believe that this heedlessness of time is something that goes with a collective or almost-genetic memory with which we're all born. Eternity, according to the Bible, isn't forever and ever so much as it's the absence of time. Before the rough encroachments of sin on human experience, we, who were made in God's image, weren't meant to experience time, only eternity, only now. But that's not the reality we inhabit now, is it?

Day-in and day-out, our eternally-biased memory collides with our everyday reality. In spite of what memory tries to delude us into believing, we realize, as I did in waking to my interior conversation, that there are no do-overs.

But I also realize that, thank God, there are start-overs.

"God," I pray, as I throw my feet over the side of the bed and stretch them for the floor, "thank You for my memories, good and bad. Help me to use them today. Help me to make the most of these now moments because, right now, I realize that they're all I've got."

Borgman Conveys A Lot!

I hope that this doesn't violate any copyright laws. But the Cincinnati Enquirer's Pullitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jim Borgman's cartoon for today is delicious.


Bono has played a fantastic role in causing the G-8 to effect major debt-relief. It could be worth a Nobel Peace Prize.

[For more great Borgman cartoons, go here.]

Check Out This Blog

This Too is a blog I just "discovered" through Richard Lawrence Cohen's. Jean, its author, is developing as a photographer and displays a good eye for it! Her snaps of sights in England make me wish that my wife and I can visit there again someday soon. [Sigh.]

Jackson Jury Wasn't Dazzled by Celebrity

Ann Althouse, substituting this week for Glenn Reynolds at, reports that Court TV and CNN Headline judicial talking head, Nancy Grace, dismissed Michael Jackson's acquittal of ten charges for child molestation amounted to "not guilty by reason of celebrity."

This was not only intellectually lazy, but condescending toward the jurors. They, apparently unlike Grace, who should know better, understood their job: To presume innocence for these specific charges unless guilt was proven beyond all doubt.

Their statements after the trial indicate that they took that responsibility very seriously and that, though they may suspect Jackson to be a pedophile, they weren't charged with judging a suspected pattern of behavior. Nor were they asked to judge whether his sleeping with boys was wrong, weird, or ill-advised. They were to pass judgment on ten charges only, charges that were founded largely on the testimony of witnesses they did not find credible.

While driving around yesterday, I had the misfortune of listening to California-based sports talk show host Jim Rome for a few moments. (What can I say? I was desperate to listen to something on the radio.) He lamented that the jury couldn't have at least found Jackson guilty of something. "How about just for being Michael Jackson?" he asked.

Thank God we live in a country where idiotic logic--reflecting a judicial philosophy that might be more at home in the late Soviet Union or in Saddam's Iraq--doesn't prevail.

Jackson is weird.

He's probably a pedophile.

Anyone who would leave their kids with him is nuts.

I doubt that any jury of ordinary Americans would disagree with these three sentiments, including the one in Santa Maria that rendered its verdicts this week.

My guess also is that any randomly selected group of us, aware of Jackon's history and the strange statements he has made in defense of his lifestyle, would be predisposed to throw him into prison and maybe, to be resentful of his wealth and celebrity. In this case, Jackson was probably, in fact, disadvantaged by his weird celebrity.

But it's a tribute to these jurors that they didn't employ Nancy Grace, Jim Rome-justice. They were instead, Americans. And good ones at that!

Why Schmidt Won and DeWine Lost in the Ohio 2nd. Special Primary

Because I live in Ohio's Second Congressional District, where we had a special primary election yesterday to select Republican and Democratic candidates who will vie for Rob Portman's vacated seat in August, I read this from Hugh Hewitt with particular interest:
Pat DeWine, son of Ohio Senator Mike DeWine, gathered only 12% of the vote in yesterday's special election primary to fill an open seat in Congress, and finished fourth on the GOP side of the ballot. Given the size of his loss, it is difficult to argue that his father's decision to join the McCain Caucus on the judges' 'deal,' cost DeWine the chance to move to D.C., but DeWine the Elder's defection on judges clearly did not help DeWine the Younger. Senator DeWine, facing re-election in 2006, and Senator Graham, up in 2008, have to ask themselves how badly they miscalculated in throwing in with McCain et al and undercutting the GOP leadership.
With all due respect to Hugh, I think he's got this wrong. I just wrote him the following:
Take it from one who lives in the Second District, DeWine's loss had more to do with these factors than with his father's participation in the judicial filibuster compromise:

(1) The small turnout. Only about 11% of the eligible Republican voters showed up for this special election. McEwen, Schmidt, and Brinkman all did superb jobs of getting their constituencies out, magnifying their showing in a small-turnout election.

(2) Poor campaigning. DeWine's organization was seemingly non-existent, turning out no mailers, as far as I can remember. McEwen sent two, Brinkman sent at least two, and Schmidt sent at least eight to Republican voters in the district.

Furthermore, DeWine made the mistake of "going negative," violating Reagan's Eleventh Commandment, "Thou shalt not attack a fellow Republican." He went after Schmidt and more especially, McEwen. He did so, I believe, because of his own personal problems, trying to get voters to focus on something else.

(3) DeWine's personal problems. Pat DeWine left his wife for another woman and allegedly, secured a position with a major corporation for that woman. In the larger turnout primary of last year's county commissioner race in Hamilton County, there were sufficient numbers of "mainstream Republicans" that he wasn't hurt by this. Such behaviors turn people off in Clermont County, where I live, and the other counties of the district. The "turn off" factor was heightened by the low turnout and the high percentage of "values Republicans" voting in this special primary.

(4) Schmidt had a strategy, one I had underestimated. Its first component was keeping all other Clermont Countians out of the race. The county is nearly as important in the overall composition of the district as Hamilton County is. It was akin to the old single-shot voting ploy. She also understood that in the daylight savings hours when people spend more time outside and less in front of the TV, the best advertising was to be done through the mail. Only McEwen, with his old name recognition and shrewd use of ads on the radio featuring James Dobson, came close with a wise strategy for this one. DeWine didn't realize--as I hadn't fully realized--that a special primary in June could not be won with tons of money and high name recognition without a strategy that would get voters out for him.

(5) In Hamilton County, this was DeWine's third consecutive year on the ballot. He ran for city council in 2003, county commissioner in 2004, and congress in 2005. More than a few voters, interviewed at the polls expressed disgust with his spending so much time running for office, believing that in doing so, he was neglecting his duties.

As to your contention that DeWine's loss represents a repudiation of his dad's participation in the deal that has resulted in a clean sweep for six of Mr. Bush's judicial nominations since it was struck, I would say two things. First, among the small contingent of ardent values Republicans who showed up at the polls yesterday, that deal may be unpopular, although I know of no polling indicating that. Second, Pat DeWine specifically repudiated what his dad did in the compromise, emphatically, repeatedly. I heard from some voters who didn't like this, seeming opportunistic and disloyal.

Bottom line: Pat DeWine took his Cadillac name and ran it into a ditch. When his dad runs for re-election in 2006, I predict that, barring his being tarred, along with other Republicans, by Governor Taft's problems at the State House, he will win by a landslide in this district and throughout the state.

Of course, I could be completely wrong about all of this. But then, so could you.

Okay, I've got to go: I'm preparing the bulletin for our daughter's wedding on Saturday.

One point I should have made with Hugh that I make here: Riffing off of Tip O'Neill, almost all elections are local. That was certainly true here where Jean Schmidt, with her fairly solid local organization, won. Her win is the bigger story than what Pat DeWine's campaign did to lose.

As always, my predictions are to be taken with a grain of salt.

Several Blogoversaries to Mention

I allowed the third anniversary of this blog to pass unobserved several weeks ago. My first post--actually, a column about U2's lead singer, Bono, and his faith--appeared here on May 29, 2002.

This week does mark another anniversary, the first of the installation of SiteMeter on this blog. While Better Living is not among the "big time" blogs, its average daily audience has more than quadrupled in the past year. I thank all those bloggers who have linked to posts on the site. I would acknowledge all of you here, but I'm certain that I would forget someone. (I try to acknowledge all "linkers" when the linking happens anyway.)

Thanks so much for dropping by and for your comments. Please tell your friends to come to Better Living and spend some time perusing three years' worth of blogging archives.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The ONE Campaign Makes Progress in Bringing Relief, Hope to Africa!

Like many of you, I hope, I received this joyous email today:

Dear Friend,

Together as ONE, we have helped do something incredible!

This past Saturday, the U.S. joined together with other wealthy nations to free millions of people in some of the poorest countries from crushing debts. The finance ministers from the 'Group of Eight' or 'G8' nations agreed to write off billions of dollars of debt, and in return for cancellation, the qualifying countries will invest these savings in their own people -- to help with more schools, health clinics and wells.

Debt cancellation will quite literally save millions of lives -- but this deal was struck by only eight men huddling around a table. Eight men and the millions of us watching them, asking them to do the right thing. You called for this, with one voice, and they got it done.

The finance ministers' meeting was just a warm-up act, a down payment on an overall historic breakthrough. Let's keep up the positive pressure for the main event, when President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and the other G8 leaders meet on July 6:

Sign a letter to President Bush

Ask for his support at the upcoming G8 meeting for a comprehensive debt-aid-trade deal for the people in the poorest countries.

If you've already signed, please take a minute to ask 3 friends and family members to sign on.

Whenever we add more voices we get louder and more powerful! With your help, we will be the generation that looked extreme poverty in the eye -- and said no more.

Thank you,

The ONE Team

Please do contact three friends and family members right now--send them a link to this post. Let's keep fighting for lives through our support and prayers for The ONE Campaign!


Can stuff like this actually be happening in America today?

'Scholars' from the East (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 3)

[Based on Matthew, chapter 2]

George Washington died from an infection which today would have been cured quickly with the prescription of antibiotics. What treatment did the Father of Our Country receive? The most conspicuous was that he was "bled," his doctors twice substantially draining his body of blood. One of Washington's biographers, Richard Norton Smith, reports that the Mount Vernon bedroom in which the first US president died "reeked of blood and stench and sweat."

Were his doctors incompetent quacks? On the contrary, they were among the best practitioners around. They were men of science, who applied the most advanced medical knowledge to the case at hand. But they also employed treatments--like bleeding their patients--which had no sound scientific bases, that were in fact, based on nothing more than superstitious guesswork.

I mention Washington's doctors because they're a bit like the wise men whose story is told in Matthew's account of Jesus' birth. They were, probably, among the most informed and learned people in the near-eastern world, conversant in many spheres of knowledge. At one level, they were prototypical men of science, astronomers who had made studies of the natural world. From the evidence presented in Matthew, chapter 2, they were probably also experts in the field which we today call Comparative Religion. Though they were from "the east" and therefore from beyond the realm of God's people, the Jews, they knew the Jewish Scriptures and its prophecies foretelling the coming of a Savior.

But these erudite scholars also believed in the unverified assertions of blind superstition. The astronomers then, were also astrologers, convinced, like so many credulous people down through the centuries, that distant stars controlled events here on earth.

Perhaps, in their defense, they didn't believe that the stars or other heavenly bodies controlled earthly events. Maybe they thought that they were all like the wild animals in those countries hit by the tsunami last December 26. Scientists have marveled that while the bodies of countless people drowned by the horrific storm washed onto many shores, no such carnage was recorded among the dumb beasts. Unlike thousands of we humans, they somehow sensed the coming cataclysm and went inland away from the waves. Maybe the "wise men" believed that the heavens were like those beasts, that when some cataclysmic or volcanically important event was about to erupt in the world, the heavens , "feeling" it the way a spider feels the slightest movement on a strand of its web, would react.

Whatever the case may be, after the birth of Jesus, these wise men--in the original Greek of the New Testament, literally magoi, magicians, because they also practiced this superstitious art--came to Jerusalem. Biblical scholars today believe that it may have been as many as two years after Jesus' birth. In Jerusalem, they went around town explaining that they had seen the new Savior-King's star and they wished to pay homage to Him. Their aim was to worship Him.

This is remarkable for several reasons:

(1) Coming from the east meant that they were not part of God's people, the Jews. Yet, they saw the new King as being a Savior not just for the Jews, but for the world.

(2) Their interest in this King was pointed to from the vantage points of both religion and dumb superstition. God is able to use any sign imaginable to point us to Himself.

The fact that these followers of foreign gods who engaged in the kinds of superstitious practices condemned by the Bible--the Bible emphatically condemns astrology or dependence on anything or anyone other than God--underscores a truth I try to convey constantly to my Catechism students: Either God gets His way or God gets His way. God was going to make Himself and His will known to the world, even if He had to use unorthodox and unbelieving people to do it. Later, Jesus will tell that even if those who give Him the accolades appropriate for Him as God and Savior were stifled, the very rocks would cry out praises to Him. Like water running down a hill that surmounts its obstacles by finding a different pathway to keep flowing, God always finds a way, finds the people who are open to Him and willing to do His bidding, to get things done.

The king of the Judeans (the Jewish people) was a particularly loathesome and awful man named Herod the Great. If you read non-Biblical accounts of Herod, you'll find that Matthew paints an accurate picture of him. While the Romans were the ones who ultimately called the shots in this conquered territory, as their local sycophant and figurehead, Herod was given tremendous latitude, a privilege he exploited ruthlessly. If you think of people like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Idi Amin, Slobodan Milosovic, or Saddam Hussein, you begin to get an idea of what Herod was like. You can imagine that he didn't greet the news of a new King with appreciation.

He set up a meeting with the wise men, where he told them to let him know where they found this baby Savior so that he could worship Him as well. Of course, that was nothing but a malevolent ruse.

The wise men ventured on, found the baby and worshiped Him. By this time, the child--Jesus--and his family were living in a house in Bethlehem, where He had been born.

The gifts presented by the wise men, of course, each had their symbolic meanings. Gold, of course, is still a valued thing, having more of it connoting greater power and importance for its owners. Gold was thought an appropriate gift for a king.

Frankincense is a gummy substance produced by trees in the Arab lands. Powder from it had a sweet aroma and was used in worship among the Judeans. For this reason, it was seen as a gift to be given to a deity.

Myrrh is another gum or spice. It comes from a bush. It had a bitter taste, but was often ground up to make perfumes. It was often used on those about to die. Jesus was the God-King Who had come to die for our sins.

After the wise men presented their gifts, God told them in a dream to go back home another way, not letting Herod know that they had found Jesus.

A messenger from God--the word angel literally means messenger--came and told Joseph to take the child out of Judea. This is yet another example of a long and repeated motif in Biblical history. When all seems lost and that God's designs can't be executed, God will step in to win the day. Without Jesus being able to fulfill His mission at the time set by God, we would have no prospect of forgiven sin or everlasting life. But Jesus is spared for His mission.

So, off Joseph, Jesus' mother, Mry, and the toddler Jesus go to Egypt, into exile. Herod, enraged that the wise men have not fulfilled his request of them, having determined that Old Testament prophecy called for the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem, arranges to have every male child under the age of two executed there. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, this sort of savagery would have been typical of Herod.

[For next time, you might want to read this translation of Matthew, chapter 3.]

Part 1 of this series is here.

Part 2 of this series is here.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Your Reactions to the Jackson Verdict...Here's Mine

What do you think of the Jackson verdict?

Here's my quick take:

Tom Sneddon presented a weak case, one that depended on the word of a family that appeared to have attempted extortion of several celebrities. Whether they did so or not, the prosecution's case depended on their credibility. Obviously, the jury didn't buy it.

One can only hope that Jackson won't regard the verdict as a vindication of his questionable lifestyle and that he will, in the future, refrain from inviting children into his bedroom.

See 'Spanglish'!

I wasn't prepared for my reaction to Spanglish, which my family and I watched last night: I loved it!

Had I paid attention, I would have realized that it was written and directed by James L. Brooks, a tremendous filmmaker, adept at blending the comic and dramatic elements of life through characters that are realisitcally drawn and putting them in situations that fully explore the implications of their personalities. His credits include Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets. Brooks' involvement alone, had I paid attention to it, would have caused me to give this film a chance. But its original release last year barely dented my consciousness.

As it is, some friends of ours recommended Spanglish and loaned the DVD of it to us last night. I was truly stunned by it.

For one thing, there are the characters and the actors who play them. Who knew that Adam Sandler could act with the kind of winsome subtlety that marks his performance here? I certainly didn't. But his portrayal of John Clasky, a successful chef and a decent man, married to the deeply insecure and manipulative Deborah Clasky, played by Téa Leoni, is wonderful.

Leoni, playing a part that could have devolved into cartoon caricature, manages to keep Deborah realistic as she is, by turns, comedic, villainous, pathetic, and chastened.

Two other players round out the starring cast. Paz Vega, as the Mexican emigre who is housekeeper for the Clasky family, Flor Moreno, turns in a stunning performance. As she battles against being overtaken by the machinations of Leoni's character, struggles to learn English, fights to keep her daughter, and deals with an explosion of unexpected emotions, she is endearing and strong. Frankly, this is an Oscar-worthy performance. It's that good!

Cloris Leachman is fantastic as Leoni's on-screen mother. An alcoholic and one-time jazz singer, she manages to grab sobriety long enough to talk sense to her daughter.

None of the characters in this amazing movie are perfect. That's why I liked them so much.

But here's why I came to love them: When confronted with the possibility of doing the wrong things, as easy it would be to do them and as difficult as doing right will likely be for them, they choose to do the right things.

This is the best film I have seen in a long time. See Spanglish and tell me if you don't agree.

Kissinger, in Impressive Article, Is Unrealistic About China

In this article, former Nixon/Ford Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believes that all indications are that the US has nothing to fear from the policies of the government in China.

In an impressive survey of US-China relations and the emergence of the Pacific as the prevailing center of world power, he says that the US must patiently foster deeper relations with China. He dismisses policies military containment and certainly, preemptive war, on the part of the US.

By inference, Kissinger ascribes a lack of sophistication to those concerned about China's multifaceted threats to US and world security. But debating cartoon opponents doesn't make Kissinger's arguments any more impressive.

Of course, the US should not engage in a preemptive war against China, a suicidal expression of a stratagem that, many feel, is inconsistent with US principles and traditions anyway.

Kissinger also dismisses containment, associating that with a campaign of ideological fervor akin to that of the Cold War, an approach he says would only turn off useful national partners in the region. (He specifically mentions India.)

But Kissinger reveals an oddly unsubtle approach in setting up these straw men to knock down. There is no reason that a US policy of containment of China must necessarily mimic the containment policies pursued by the US toward the late Soviet Union.

Nor does a policy of containing China preclude being fully engaged with that country, as Kissinger recommends doing.

The US must be shrewd and realistic in its relations with China. The government there is still despotic and while it may have no desire to launch a military assault on us or on its Asian neighbors, it clearly has a policy aimed at dominion over the emerging international center of gravity.

It clearly is menacing Taiwan.

It clearly is establishing ties with terrorist states.

It clearly holds an alarming number of financial IOUs from the US.

As it rises economically, its absorption of larger amounts of scarce natural resources threatens us. (While at the same time, driving home the necessity for the US to develop alternative, renewable sources of energy.)

And, in spite of Kissinger's rather rosy view of things, China may as well decide that safety along its borders requires them to back North Korea as well as hedging that strange country's nuclear ambitions.

These are facts that cannot and should not be ignored by policymakers.

Kissinger makes some important points. But he here forgets an important principle for anyone wishing to pursue foreign policy realism. It was articulated by a President whose policies probably drove Kissinger nuts: Trust but verify. US policymakers should trust the Chinese insofar as they are able to verify that the Chinese government's deeds match their words.

The era in which we now live means that nations must be adept at two kinds of warfare or competition. In each of these spheres, the US needs to be aggressively defensive: economics and military. It is nation-states like China that pose the greatest threat to the US on the economic front. It is non-governmental terrorist groups that threaten us most militarily. China represents threats on both fronts: Not only are they aggressively building their military, they are also establishing ties with groups that are hostile to the US.

Subtlely and realism are Kissinger's stock in trade. He fails on both counts in this article, I feel.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Nicolosi on Books She Loves

Barbara Nicolosi, motion player scribe and blogger, addresses the "book meme" that I first mentioned here. Interesting stuff on an interesting blog.

'Morality' As Marketing Ploy for Dems? No, Says Ex-Dem

A web site I'm enjoying these days, Neo-NeoCon, is presented by a lifelong Dem who changed her partisan affiliation after the 9/11 attacks.

She looks at Dem Chair Howard Dean's expressed intention of using "morality" as a means of winning over disgruntled ex-Democrats and concludes it won't work. Read why and follow the comments section for the ensuing discussion.

At Least No One Has Suggested 'Song Sung Blue'

That ludicrous song by the usually insipid Neil Diamond hasn't been on any of the lists I've seen today on Ann Althouse's blog. Riffing off of an article about the twenty-five saddest songs ever, readers of Althouse have been making their suggestions all day long. My choices: For No One, recorded by the Beatles, written by Paul McCartney and Another Grey Morning by James Taylor. Check out the comments on Althouse's blog...good discussion.

White Christian Democrat Says Dean Should Shut Up or Quit

Deborah White, a fantastic writer who is a Christian and a Democrat, was deeply offended by Howard Dean's recent dismissal of the Republicans as the party of "white Christians." She says that Dean should either shut his trap or resign as Democratic National Committee chairperson.

Some of her reasoning:
I felt deeply offended by Dean's thoughtless, demeaning remark because it stereotypes both Democrats and Republicans, and excludes white Christians, like me, who believe that the Democratic philosophy reflects the teachings of Jesus.

It's also stupid political strategy to slice and dice partisan voter bases by race and religion. It's the kind of exclusionary strategy that lost Democrats the 2004 Presidency when John Kerry skipped campaigning in entire segments of the US.

...this kind of commentary basically stereotypes a whole party which again is what partisans may believe but the DNC party chair's job isn't to just appeal to partisans. He is supposed to help BUILD the party. And that means adding to its numbers, not just reinforcing what's there."

Howard Dean needs to absorb some professional polish and tact, and dump his religious bigotry, or he should be ousted as DNC Chair. The sooner, the better.

Stanley Tackles Why and How We're to Forgive Others

There are two especially difficult things that God calls every Christ-Follower to do:

(1) Admit our need of and to ask for forgiveness from God;

(2) To give forgiveness to others.

In this message, Milton Stanley does a fantastic job explaining the how and the why of forgiving other people.

Welcoming the Frenzied

Matthew 9:35-38
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, June 12, 2005)

A few years back, I had an interesting conversation with a man with whom I had become friends. This is a guy who radiates kindness and goodwill to people.

He’s one of the first people I’d call if I needed help. I know that one way or another, he’d either provide the help himself or lead me to someone who could.

He has a great sense of humor and every time I run into him, he seems to have learned a new joke since the last time I saw him.

I had known him for a time already when, in this particular conversation, he began to tell me about his childhood. It turns out that he had been subjected to much emotional and psychological abuse as he grew up. Occasionally, it became physical. He catalogued his experiences with feeling--he obviously had been hurt.

There was also a tone of forgiveness in his words, though. “I see now that my parents did the best they could,” he told me. “When I look at all that they went through in their lives, they probably did well.”

“But,” he went on, “as I progressed through my childhood, I was dogged by feelings of inferiority. Regularly derided for being stupid or inept in one way or another, I wrestled with the feeling that I could never make it in life.”

It was hard for me to hide my shock--and near-disbelief. The man who sat before me seemed confident, easy-going, and devoid of any “baggage,” as it’s called.

My friend read my face. “You want to know how,” he said. I did: I wanted to know how my friend overcame a painful childhood which, he told me in his early adulthood, had led him to try all sorts of things to prove himself to the world and to himself. I wanted to know how he became the man I knew him to be now.

“The answer is simple,” he told me. “It was Jesus. When I realized that Jesus gave me His approval, I didn’t need anyone else’s approval any more.” As he let Jesus take charge of his life, the frenzy, the feelings of inferiority, and the need to prove himself evaporated. He was free to become his true self.

In our Bible lesson for today, Jesus looks at crowds of people who were like what my friend must have been like before he let Jesus into his life. Matthew, the writer of the lesson this morning, describes the crowds as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” They were, as some of us would say, “chickens with their heads cut off”: people uncertain of their reason for living, dogged by the need to prove themselves, and afraid of all sorts of things--afraid of being poor, of being alone, of being incompetent to do their job, of how things are going to turn out for their kids, and on and on.

Jesus looked on this crowd of people and “felt compassion for them.” These were the people--people like us--for whom Jesus came into the world to die and rise. They--and we--are the reasons that He “went all about their cities and villages, teaching..., and proclaiming the good news [that all who turn from sin and turn to Him will have life forever with God], and curing every dis--ease [all the things that put people ill at ease] and every sickness.”

The world is filled with crowds of “harassed and helpless” people who need Jesus Christ. I know. I used to be one of them.

But I also know from observing the people who surround me.

She called me on the telephone. “You don’t know me,” the woman said. “A friend of mine knows you and I read your column in the paper. I needed to talk to someone. Would you mind if I remained anonymous?”

I was a little uncomfortable with that. But I could hear the desperation in her voice. “That’s fine,” I said.

“I am married to the most wonderful man in the world,” she began. “I love him very much. But a few years ago, a man at work began paying attention to me. He was so nice and I found myself powerfully attracted to him. Anyway, we had an affair. It lasted all of five days. My husband never suspected a thing and I don’t think anybody else ever knew about it.”

She began to choke up. “I’ve asked God to forgive me a million times and I know that He has forgiven me. I’ve asked for God to help me in my commitment to my marriage. I don’t want it to end. But I feel so ashamed. I can’t sleep at night and sometimes, I think, I’d like to run to the man with whom I had the affair. That only makes me feel more ashamed. What can I do?”

Just so you know, we talked for quite some time and I gave the woman the names and numbers of several good counselors. We prayed--one of the few times I’ve prayed for someone anonymously--and I never heard from her again.

But my point is that the world is filled with people like my friend and that woman. Whether their pain has been caused by others or it’s been self-inflicted, they feel harassed and helpless. And for each of them, the place for them to go for compassion, for help, for the cure for their dis-eases, and for the healthy sense of self-worth that comes from having the approval of God Himself is the same. They need to go to the God we know through Jesus Christ.

After seeing the desperate crowds of people around Him, Jesus turned to His disciples and said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”

Translation: We’re surrounded by people whose lives and experiences make them ripe for knowing Jesus. They need Jesus. Pray, Jesus says, for people who care enough about others that they’re willing to bring them to me. Who care enough to pray for them. Care enough to invite them to worship or a small group. To invite them out for coffee and conversation, or give them a book like a study Bible. Pray for people who will continue my work, who, everywhere they go, will teach people about Me, tell others the Good News of new life for all who follow Me, Who will bring healing and help to everyone.

What’s interesting is that right after this, in chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel, having told the disciples to pray for workers to go into the harvest of harassed and helpless people, Jesus then calls His twelve disciples to be the answer to their prayers.

You’ve heard me tell the story before of the guy sitting in worship one Sunday when, moved by the call to follow Jesus with his whole life, he blurted out, “Lord, use me. Use me!” Then, thinking better of it, he added, “In an advisory capacity.”

Brian Stoffregen, a Lutheran pastor, observes that there probably isn’t a church in the world that doesn’t want to grow or whose members don't pray that God will help them reach out to others. But, for most churches, the desire isn’t very great and the prayer is just something that they say because, unlike the disciples Jesus called, they aren't willing to be the living answers to their prayers.

I have to tell you, folks, that one of my greatest fears as pastor of this congregation and something I pray about a lot, is that we all aren't so in love with each other that we forget why God called us together. Remember: It’s not about us. It’s about God and it’s about others. God calls us to love each other, of course. But He hasn't called us to be a mutual admiration society to the exclusion of that world of people beyond our doors for whom Jesus Christ gave His life!

The mission of Friendship is something we talk about a lot:
“Friendship Church is a welcoming and caring people who seek to share the kindness of God so that all metropolitan Cincinnati may grow in the faith, hope, and love of the living Jesus Christ!”
There is no room for in-crowds or cliques here. We need to be resolutely focused on reaching out to others.

How do we do that? Let me make a few practical suggestions:
(1) Do what Jesus says: Pray that God will send the right people to the harassed and helpless of our world, people who can tell them about and show them the love of Jesus.

(2) Be open to being God’s answer to that prayer.

(3) Make it your goal to invite one unchurched person to worship with us at Friendship or to a small group in which you participate every month for the rest of your life.
Jesus has compassion for the crowds of people who surround us. Our call is to be His representatives in this broken world, to compassionately share Jesus with them.

The worst that can happen when we do that is that people will say No to Jesus.

The best that can happen is that they will turn out like my friend: They will be people who say Yes to God’s Yes to them and so, be healed of past hurts, empowered for real living, filled with the goodness of God, and primed for eternity.

That sounds pretty good to me. How about you?