Saturday, August 27, 2005

Parental Transitions: The Gain is Worth the Pain

A mother, taking her youngest to college, talks about it and recounts the story of another child's parting from his mother:
...her son, impatient to evade her attentions on the day he was delivered to college, whispered to her, "DING! Your child is done!" as he disappeared into a flock of freshmen.
It reminded me of partings from our own children through the years. When our son, the oldest, climbed on the bus for the first day of Kindergarten, I went back into our house and cried like a baby. Thirteen years later, having gotten through saying good-bye to the Kindergartener-then-college-freshman the previous day, I sat in front of our home computer, crying quietly.

"What's the matter with Dad?" our daughter, who'd caught a glimpse of me from the other room, asked my wife.

Three years later, that same daughter, who had previously decided to stay at home and commute to a nearby college, left in the middle of her freshman year to work in the college program at Walt Disney World. I was composed while helping her move into her apartment. But as we left in the predawn darkness to come back home, my wife at the wheel, I turned my head toward the passenger window, looking at the miles reel behind us through a father's tears.

I often tell younger parents facing these transition times in the lives of their children--first day of school, first date, college, marriage--that the kids aren't the only ones who need to grow up. Facing the changes, not only in our kids' lives, but in our relationships with them, we parents must grow up too.

From the moments our children come into our lives, our jobs as parents boil down to one simple task: Letting go of our kids and empowering them for that.

To equip them for those moments when, gradually, they take more responsibility for themselves, I believe that we're called to do two things:

First: We're to introduce them to the God we know through Jesus Christ Who loves them as they are and is committed to helping them to become all they can be. Interestingly, we never demanded that our kids go to church or that they believe. Parents can't coerce faith...and shouldn't try to do so. But our kids believe nonetheless. What confidence it brings to a child who can say, with the apostle Paul, "I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me." Or, "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Or, to remember Jesus' words, "With God all things are possible!"

Then: The second thing we need to do as we let go is teach them to take responsibility for their own lives. I often tell parents that when loving discipline is imposed on children early--that is, when we expect them to do unto others as they would expect others to do unto them, children are likely to adopt that responsible lifestyle as their own when they reach adulthood. They see that while taking responsibility for ourselves can be burdensome, it's also exhilarating!

Our kids are now in their twenties--our daughter married and continuing her schooling while working part time, our son graduated from college and living with us while saving money for graduate school. It's wonderful relating to them as adults.

Letting go of our children in all those pivotal transition points of life is painful. But to see them confidently living as their own adult human beings makes the pain worth it, believe me.

[By the way, thanks to Tamar for linking to the piece that inspired this post.]

Friday, August 26, 2005

Roberts Sets the Record Straight on Benedict

It seems that much of the media is intent on portraying Pope Benedict XVI as an intolerant religionist. Presbyterian pastor and scholar Mark Roberts compares the story line conveyed by much of the media regarding the Pope's recent speeches in Germany and contrasts it all to what Benedict really said while there. This is truly worth reading, as everything Mark writes is! Pay particular attention to Parts 4 and following; that's where Mark picks up the story of the Pope's recent journey to his homeland.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Need to Know History

Today, while driving from a hospital to my office, I listened to the Diane Rehm Show, hosted this week by Susan Page. Page interviewed the Pullitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff, who has written about Benjamin Franklin's time in Paris during the American Revolution.

Page asked Schiff what set Franklin apart from the other Founding Fathers. First, Schiff said, he was much older than the rest. That's true.

Next, she said that Franklin was an utterly committed democrat, who believed in complete equality for all. Maybe, but whether Franklin was the only one of the founders who felt this way is a point not worth quibbling over, I guess.

Third, she said, that Franklin was the only Founding Father who was not college educated.

Whether this last point is true of all the others who led the Revolution, I can't say for sure. But I can say emphatically that George Washington had no college education and in fact, had less formal education even than Abraham Lincoln, whose sparse schooling, coupled with his massive intellectual attainments often cause us to marvel. Among the Founders, Washington, no less than Franklin, was a man who constantly bettered himself.

There are two reasons I think that this is important:

(1) Washington regularly and chronically doesn't get his due. Garry Wills has said that Washington was the greatest political leader of all time. I agree. Twice in his life, Washington did something unprecedented before his time: He walked away from the possibility of exercising absolute, unquestioned executive power. While people like Jefferson talked about democracy, Washington lived it. The measure of the impact of Washington's self-denial is that today in America and in many nations mimicking our example, the peaceful transition of power is taken for granted. Before Washington, the transfer of executive power occasioned succession battles that resulted in war, unless a nation had adopted a system of hereditary royal rule. For helping the world break from this centuries-old approach to things, Washington is surely worthy of study.

(2) When a Pullitzer Prize-winning historian doesn't get this fundamental fact about the Founding Father right--actually, ignoring him--it tells us something about the quality of our society's awareness of our national history.

A recent piece by Clive Davis of revealed that the people of Great Britain, our nation's closest ally, have an overwhelmingly negative view of America and Americans, no longer regarding our country as worthy of emulation by democracies. He said that Britons were reacting more to American mass culture than to our history or our institutions.

I believe that this is true of most Americans today as well, especially our young people. There is so much cynicism and such a sense of entitlement that prevalent in America today. But I believe that if young people were introduced to the history of this country and what a precious heritage of freedom married to mutual responsibility we have in America, some of that cynicism would evaporate and young people would see how precious a gift we have as citizens of this great country. They would understand that America is more than a swath of geography that has a lot of money. They would understand that America was and in many ways, remains, the only country on earth that has ever been about something.

If we want good citizens, we need to do a better job teaching History. From it, we all will learn what America is about and how important it is for each of us to make our contibution to its well being. Passing on this history is one of the most important things we need to do as a society!

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 7

[Tuesdays with Markie is a weekly Bible study I convene for our congregation. Currently, we're studying the Old Testament book of Genesis. Below this latest installment, you can find links to the six previous parts of the series of blog posts.]

Genesis 19, 20, 21

1. Genesis 19 tells what happened when the two angels who accompanied God for his visit with Abraham and Sarah at Mamre, went on to Sodom, the place where Abraham's relative, Lot, and his family had settled.

2. It's interesting, in fact, to compare and contrast the narrative of the two events (see: Genesis 18:1-15 and Genesis 19:1-11). Consider the following...

Hospitality: The hospitality afforded by Abraham and Sarah is complete and appropriate. But even ancient Israelites would have deemed Lot's offer of his virgin daughters to the Sodomites who want to have sex with the messengers from God, as a warped version of hospitality. (The offer is particularly ironic in light of how their virginity will be ended later.)

Visitation: In the first visitation, the guests are God and two angels. In the second, the two messengers--referred to as men--are those angels.

The Point: In the first, a promise is brought to Abraham and Sarah. In the second, judgment is brought to Lot and his family. In both cases, the righteous actions of God in the life of human beings is shown.

This underscores something that I have tried to emphasize repeatedly in the past. There is a false notion current among many that the two sections of the Bible--the Old Testament and the New Testament--somehow portray two different versions of God. In this view, the Old Testament God is seen as one of judgment and the New Testament God is seen as one of grace and promise. But the simple fact is that God, in both Old and New Testament, is a God of judgment and promise, of law and grace. God desires for all people to turn from sin and receive forgiveness, hope, and life. But God also allows the unrepentant to live, eternally, with their choice to ignore Him.

Miracle: In Genesis 18, God reiterates the promise that the elderly, post-menopausal Abraham and Sarah are going to be gifted a child through whom they will become ancestors of a great nation. In Genesis 19, you see a miracle: the deliverance of Lot from those who would rape or kill him.

Reaction of laughter: Sarah laughs that she will become a mother at her advanced age. Lot's prospective sons-in-law think that Lot is joking with them about the impending destruction of Sodom.

A few years ago, a cynical and bitter elderly woman asked me, "Mark, what is the point of our lives?" It was clear that the question wasn't posed with a real desire to uncover an answer. She was a person who believed that there was no answer, that all of life was a futile exercise.

I told her that we were made in love by God and He made us for a relationship of love with Him and others. When I said this, she nearly burst out in a guffaw and clearly disdained my answer. This, I think, was akin to the reactions given God's plans in these two accounts. The woman, like Sarah and the prospective sons-in-law, was so ingrained in the ways of the world--so convinced that this world was all that there was to life in this universe--that she found it difficult to believe God could act to change things or give her life meaning. Her laughter was sad!

3. The narrative in Genesis 19 has, I believe, a somewhat limited application to the debate over homosexuality today. The men in Sodom were not as interested in having sex with Lot's guests as a homoerotic act as they were in dominating them. Their aim was rape, wrong in either a homosexual or heterosexual context.

But it does bear some relevance to the contemporary discussions within the Church. (It bears, I believe no relevance to public policy discussions.) The German Biblical commentator, Gerhard von Rad, on whose work I am heavily dependent in my preparations for these studies points out that in other places in the Old Testament, Sodom is remembered for various acts and attitudes of decadence. Isaiah 1:10 and 3:9 cite the city's barbaric justice. Ezekiel mentions its "pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease," indictments which might well sting us in the United States if we care to pay heed to them (Ezekiel 16:49). And, says von Rad, "Jeremiah speaks of adultery, lying, and unwillingness to repent" (Jeremiah 23:14).

In other words, the Sodomite men's desires for sex with Lot's male visitors is an act of selfishness that goes with a society long bent on living life untethered from the standards of respect and love for God. Sodom, in its ways, was like Babel, worshiping itself and its own power and equally liable to judgment.

4. Grace, you know, is the Biblical word that describes God's undeserved charity toward us. Lot, however fitfully and inconsistently, believed in God and God had determined that while the whole world was crying out against Sodom--just as the murdered Abel's blood had once cried out to God against his brother, Cain--He would nonetheless save Lot and His family if they would let Him save them.

But in Genesis 19:15-26, we see the faith of Lot and his family undergoing a severe test. It's one they only partially pass and where they fail, it has tragic consequences. "Get out of here!," God's messengers tell them. As we've already noted, the men engaged to Lot's daughters laugh and stay in the city. Lot himself hesitates to leave and as the men pull him and his family members away, he babbles in terror, seemingly afraid not only to leave this adopted hometown (a place whose native citizens still regard him as an unwanted foreigner), but also not wanting to go to the hills to which the men had directed him. It's another sign of God's grace that when Lot asks the men to allow him and his family to go to the tiny town of Zoar, instead of to the hills, his request is granted.

Of course, Lot's hesitation to leave Sodom is apparently not as great as that of his wife. Although solemnly warned by the men sent from God not to look back at the city they're going to destroy, Lot's wife does just that and is turned into a pillar of salt. (There are massive salt deposits in this area today.)

Why is this? Some years before, Lot had traveled with his relative Abraham as he, his wife, their servants, and all their livestock undertook a mysterious journey with an unknown ultimate destination.

All they knew when they left Ur of the Chaldeans, in what is probably modern-day Iraq, was that God wanted them to get going, to not be tied to this place, but to be tied to God. For Lot, the journey was easy at first. Like a child going with his parent, he was simply part of his relative's entourage.

But as he matured and asserted his indepedence and later, took a fertile piece of land in Canaan as his own, Lot and his family became less like nomads following where God took them than established residents of a particular place. They had forgotten, as we are apt to forget as we live this fleeting life, not to fall too much in love with the stuff this planet has to offer. They forgot to be ready to pick up stakes and move on without notice. They were more in love with Sodom and the ease and comforts of this life than they were with God. And so, Lot hesitated to leave and his wife turned back to see what had become their hometown.

This has direct application for us. There's an old song that the people of my former congregation loved to sing: I am but a stranger here, heaven is my home. The New Testament tells us that followers of Jesus Christ are sojourners and aliens in this world. Our real home is in the new heaven and the earth with God. We're called to be "in, but not of" this world. The call of a Christian isn't to look back, except as a means of learning about our present and our future; our call is to look up and out and ahead: up to God, out to our neighbors, and ahead to the future as the source of our identity and purpose each day. The call of the Christian too, is to be ready, by living in a lifestyle that Martin Luther called "daily repentance and renewal," to "pick up stakes" and leave this world any time.

5. The instability of Lot's and his daughters' faith is seen in the final time any part of his story is told in the Old Testament (Genesis 19:30-38). Previously anxious to escape to Zoar, he now takes his daughters to live in a cave.

Afraid that they will never have children, his daughters hatch a scheme to get their father drunk and on succeeding nights, have sex with him to conceive children. Their children, according to this passage, become the ancestors of two nations that come to hate God's people, Israel.

Often, we may become impatient with God and inclined to take matters into our own hands. If we will trust God and familiarize ourselves with His Word in the Bible, He will give us a sense of when to act and when to wait. Lot's daughters impatience isn't the only time people of faith have done things that they shouldn't have done, as we've already seen in Genesis. (Sadly, I've seen it plenty of times in my own life of faith!)

6. Genesis 20:1 presents Abraham is an antitype of Lot: Unlike Lot, too enamored of his adopted city, Abraham moves on. That is an act of faith.

But like Lot, he's inclined to take matters into his own hands and fails to remember a lesson he'd once seemingly learned. Abraham says that his wife is his sister, a half-truth since she is his half-sister. The local king, Abimelech, takes Sarah into his wife to be his concubine, but hasn't had sex with her when God tells him to not touch her; she is Abraham's wife.

Now, an aside: Sarah is really old here and yet Abraham is afraid that people will kill him to get to her because she's such a beautiful woman. What's up with this? Several possible explanations: (1) This may be a narrative of something that happened earlier which later editors simply stuck in here; (2) If you are of a more conservative bent, you might be inclined to think that in an era in which human beings seemed to live longer, one would assume that the aging process would evidence itself differently. Frankly, I don't think it's terribly important to solve this mystery. Of greater interest are these two points:
(1) In spite of God's promises, Abraham is afraid that he won't live to become the father of a great nation;

(2) Even a giant of faith has his doubts and tries to push God along.
7. Given all the adventures, journeying, and close-calls which Genesis has shown coming Abraham's and Sarah's way, the narrative of the fulfillment of the promise in the birth of their son, Isaac, is amazingly understated. Isaac, which means Laughter, is an appropriate name.

8. Genesis 21:8-21 shows Sarah's continued insecurity when she looks at Ishmael, the son born to Abraham through Sarah's servant, Hagar and Abraham's weakness in not standing up for his son and his acquiescence to Sarah's demand that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away.

But, in an event that foreshadows something that will happen in Genesis 22, we also see God's graciousness and goodness, as He provides for the well-being of the boy and his mother.

9. Genesis 21:22-34 simply shows how powerful and how like a king Abraham has become.

[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6]

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Brock Peters: A Remembrance

In 1971, a group of my high school English classmates and I attended a performance of William Shakespeare's Othello on the campus of Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. The drama tells the story of a dashing Moor and how a duplicitous friend named Iago alienates him from his love, Desdemona, resulting in tragedy.

The production of Othello was part of a series of plays presented at the small Methodist school in those days. They featured well-known actors supported by students from Otterbein's drama department. The lead role was played by Brock Peters, with his majestic bearing, deep bass voice, and dark skin. He was magnificent and memorable.

But I remembered something else about that performance when I learned today that at age 78, Peters, who spent six decades as an actor on stage, screen, and television, had died.

My memory was of a scene in which the ebony-skinned actor took the blonde-haired, very Caucasian student who played Desdemona into his arms and kissed her. Ours was an interracial high school, the percentages of whites and blacks roughly reflecting their proportions in the country back in those less racially cosmopolitan days. There were even a few interracial dating relationships.

But as we sat in the theater that spring night, only three years had passed since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and twice in our senior class' three-year stint at the high school, school days had been canceled owing to racial tensions. An African-American classmate of mine and I routinely elicited nervous laughter and fearful glances when, at opposite ends of hallways between classes, he would yell out to me, calling me the N-word and I responded by calling him Honkie. As tame as that seems now, in 1971, we were really pushing the envelope. Or we thought we were, anyway.

That night, when Brock Peters and his Desdemona kissed--a long, romantic, gentle kiss--I'll never forget that a white classmate of mine, sitting some three or four rows behind me, let out a loud, involuntary combination of a gasp and a groan. The sight of a black man and a white woman kissing had offended him. "Ohhhhhhh!" he said.

I was embarrassed. And afraid. And angry.

Today, as this memory crossed my mind, I realized that it wasn't just the audience who heard my classmate's racist reaction. So had the actors on the stage, including Brock Peters. I thought too, of how brave it had been for him, the people at Otterbein, and our teachers to have all come to the theater that evening and with Shakespeare's play as their weapon, gently and emphatically challenged the sin of racism among us. They might well have anticipated the very reaction given out by that classmate. But the performers didn't miss a beat and carried on.

Peters and other black actors of his generation did this repeatedly: Exercising talent, poise, and self-control, they challenged a racist society's sensibilities, usually with subtlety and like King, the eloquent preacher who cited America's prevailing religious creeds and its political compacts to make his case for racial equality and justice, used the very cultural heritage that white society claimed to revere to make the same case.

Peters seems always to have retained his dignity. He was not as well-known or as accepted by white American audiences as his equally-talented contemporary, Sidney Poitier. No matter; his gifts as an actor and his ability to play the beautiful instrument that was his voice were unmatched.

But when I think of that night, now so long ago, it's not Peters' talents as an actor I remember so much as his courage as a human being, as well as his ability to channel the volcano in his soul that seemed always just below the surface, to not only entertain, but also to enlighten us.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

'Haven't Found' is Both Pras Remake and New Work

Pras, rapping member of The Fugees who already successfully flew solo back in 1998 with his Ghetto Superstar LP, has created a fabulous new cut, which is to appear on his new collection, Win, Lose, or Draw.

On Haven't Found, Pras and a group of talented singers use the U2 song, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, expressive of the universal yearning for God and purpose in life, for its hook and inspiration. Pras' rap lyrics and the impressive video for the song, which you can hear and see here, expand the things we're looking for to include peace with God, with others, with ourselves, and among nations. Yet, the song manages to not be heavy-handed.

MTV reports that Pras and the other members of the Fugees are working on a new CD, ten years after their last collaboration. That's good news.

'Jenny Wren' and 'Promise to You, Girl'

The push pin board at is getting fuller. Just added is a video for the first single, Fine Line, from his new LP, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.

Also added are audio versions of two more songs.

Jenny Wren is an acoustic ballad which McCartney says is a sequel to his Beatles classic, Blackbird. That 1968 tune was meant to be an ode of encouragement to a young African-American woman facing injustice. This 2005 song, with very strong lyrics, appears to be a similar bit of encouragement for a woman confronting war and other hardships in Africa. Given McCartney's long-standing concern with justice issues, that would make sense.

Promise to You, Girl is an uptempo love song. It features a Beach Boy-like vocal arrangement at one point.

The three cuts on the McCartney web site fit the advance billing given to the LP by the musician's press release announcing Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. All three songs are more organic and sparsely produced, reminiscent of his first post-Beatles solo effort, the 1970 release, McCartney. Yet the songs I've heard so far are a bit different from anything McCartney has ever released before. Like the 1970 LP and the far less-satisfying McCartney II (1980), McCartney plays virtually all the instruments and does all the vocals on this new release.

The plan is for all songs to eventually appear on the push pin board at the McCartney site, with the LP to be released in September.

California Supreme Court Ruling Doesn't Threaten Marriage

In the wake of yesterday's California Supreme Court rulings on three cases involving lesbian couples and parenting, some identified as "social conservatives" worry that the rulings will lead to acceptance of gay marriage. Ann Althouse asks:
I'd like to see a quote from a traditionalist who wasn't the lawyer in this case. Do social conservatives really want to privilege the birth mother's relationship but also cut her off from a source of financial support? Lesbians will have babies, whether you like it or not. Why is it worse to preserve that child's relationships and preserve private sources of funds for raising it? Or do we already know social conservatives are total pushovers for slippery slope arguments about the dreaded gay marriage?
I felt compelled to respond in her blog's comments section (I've made one grammatical amendment to the comment as it appears there):
Every time I talk about these issues, I get hammered from both sides, but here goes.

Most of the "social conservatives" who are fearful of the slippery slope moving toward gay marriage are Christians. I suppose that one would consider me a "traditional Christian." When the denomination of which I'm a part, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, recently voted not to allow the performance of same-sex unions or to ordain practicing homosexuals, I was relieved. This has nothing to do with a desire to single out one behavior or lifestyle as more sinful than another or to say that I'm less of a sinner than every other human being. And God knows that I would prefer not having to fly in the face of what is politically correct and culturally accepted. But I feel that the Church would be failing God and people if we acted as though some behaviors opposed by God were okay.

Having said that, I cannot understand why some Christians feel that their marriages or even the institution of marriage as established by God is threatened by the prospect of a state-established marriage-like institution for gays and lesbians. No member of the Christian clergy could be compelled to perform ceremonies of union for such couples. Nor would the Church be compelled to recognize such relationships as anything other than legal arrangements.

The Times' article you cite, Ann, notes that the California justices were forced to address issues to which current law had little relevance. That's too bad, because the fact is that, like it or not, people are entering such relationships. For the sake of children who may be involved and to decrease the financial tangles that can happen when homosexual relationships, like those of heterosexuals, go bust, it seems to me that the state and society in general have an interest in regulating homosexual as well as heterosexual relationships. So long as the rights of others are not impinged upon in any way, I can't imagine why Christians should feel threatened if states establish a marriage-like institution for gays and lesbians.

An analogy suggests itself to me. Many Christians are opposed to the consumption of any alcohol; but the sale of wine and beer doesn't threaten their lifestyle. Drinkers pursue their societal rights; non-drinkers do as well. The same could be true of those who believe in and those who oppose homosexual marriage.

Christian faith is not coercive. Authentic faith in Christ is the result not of having that faith drilled into us. We are convinced to follow Christ as the result of persuasion, empowered, we believe, by God's Holy Spirit.

Therefore, Christians have no interest in establishing a sort of theocracy or in imposing our particular brand of morality on others, even if we believe that brand of morality represents God's revealed will for the human race.

If we Christians are really interested in having an impact on the way society conducts its business, the answer is not to force our views down others' throats. The answer is to lovingly share Christ with others, precisely as Christ has commanded us to do.

Authentic Christian faith is utterly countercultural. When Christians choose to try coercing others into doing things their ways, they're engaging in conventional, bullying power politics. Such tactics may, for a time, cause people to acquiesce to our pushiness, but we'll be far from accomplishing what Jesus has sent us into the world to do: Helping people move close to God by sharing Christ with them and allowing them the freedom God wants all people to have, the freedom to choose between following Christ or going our own ways. I'm convinced when people have the choice, prompted by God's love, they'll follow Christ. So, why would I be worried if the state establishes gay marriage?

Robertson's Comments: Bad Theology, Dumb Politics

Hugo Chavez is a bad man. But ruminating on the advantages of his extermination, as Pat Robertson did, is not only questionable theology from a Christian perspective, it's also not very smart.

Robertson's spokesperson attempted to explain the comments by saying, "We are at a time of war and Pat had war on his mind when he made the comments." Maybe, but last time I checked the US is not at war with Venezuela. Mr. Robertson's attempt to link Venezuela to both communism and Muslim extremism was bizarre, to say the least.

Christians believe that the Bible is the revealed Word of God. It tells the human race not to kill, although it recognizes that because of the sin that pervades our beings, there may be times when nations are forced to defend themselves. When soldiers asked Jesus' cousin and herald John the Baptist, for example, what to do in order to align their lives with the will of God, he didn't tell them to give up soldiering; he only advised them to not use their power as a pretext for treating others unjustly or to practice extortion.

But there can be no possible Biblical justification for a Christian to call for the execution of a leader of a nation with which our country is not at war.

From a political perspective, Mr. Robertson's comments were unwise. He is seen by those in other countries as being part of the ruling elite in America, although for the Bush White House he may be deemed an expedient, though potentially embarrassing, contact and among Christians I know, he has zero influence. Nonetheless, his remarks are impolitic, playing into the hands of America's enemies, giving them propaganda to prove notions that America is out to conquer others and take their oil.

As a Christian, I am far more concerned about the potential impact that Robertson's un-Biblical comments could have on the perceptions of faith in Christ. None of us is perfect, of course. We all say things that we shouldn't. The sad thing is that Mr. Robertson says these sorts of things a lot and has a powerful megaphone.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, Pat Robertson apologized for his remarks.

Two Losses and Prayers

Within a twenty-four hour period, two different elderly women for whom my congregation and I have been praying have died.

One is Verna, the mother of one-time member of our church, now moved back to her native Wisconsin.

The other is Jean Cohen, the mother of writer and blogger Richard Cohen.

Eventually everyone, even those for whose health we pray, dies. But it would be wrong to conclude that our prayers are thus unanswered. Many times over the years, I've seen people live longer than doctors thought probable, affording opportunities for good-byes and reconciliations for them and their families. In other cases, I have seen people mercifully taken before they experienced horrid pain.

Of course, there are those people of virtue and love who go through excruciating deaths and we can't help wondering why. It's in these situations that I watch victims and families look to Jesus, God-in-the-Flesh, Who suffered physically and emotionally, in solidarity with all in the human family. Jesus is the sign and seal of the promise that Paul writes about so eloquently in Romans 8:31-39, that "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Now, my prayers go with these two families as they mourn their loss. May God give them encouragement and hope!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Guidelines for Loving the World for Christ (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 13)

Matthew 10

I was originally going to call this installment of the series, Marching Orders. But that really isn't an accurate reflection of what Jesus says in this chapter.

Here, Jesus does tell His followers how to go about the mission of calling the world to turn from self-destructive sin and turn to the God Who forgives and gives new life.

But as I read His words again, I realized that Jesus wasn't necessarily telling us to travel the world or do earth-shaking deeds for Him. Even in His famous commission--what's called the Great Commission--at the end of Matthew's book, He doesn't really say, "Go, make disciples...," as most of our English translations put it; instead, He says, "As you are going about in the world..." The significance of that is more than simply grammatical: Jesus is calling His followers to be about His mission in the midst of their everyday lives.

A seminary professor of mine used to say, "You may be very heroic in standing up for your faith with a machine gun aimed at your head while being commanded to renounce your faith. But how Christian are you when vying to be the first one to the drinking fountain during a break from class?"

Life is lived in small places. Often people of faith in Christ want to do big things. When we adopt such aspirations, we show that we have failed to learn what Mother Teresa knew. "Small things," she said, "done in great love will change the world." Small things done in Jesus' Name, done to glorify the God we see in Jesus, will change the world, by nudging people closer to Christ one person at a time.

In Matthew 10, Jesus reveals much of His plan for transforming the world. But in spite of His instructions' macro-implications, they all get expressed at the mirco-level.

On the heels of commanding His followers to pray for "harvest hands," followers who would live and work among people ready to receive the new life Christ gives, Jesus calls His twelve key followers to take on this work.

One key lesson of this incident is to remember that if a need is significant enough for us to pray about, God may in fact call us to be part of the answer. Passion and mission may be linked: Often, our passion about some need is an indicator of a God-ordained mission for us.

Jesus proceeds to give His "harvest hands" a lengthy charge.

First: Jesus gives some important foundational directives. These aren't legalisms. But they're good guidelines for anyone who wants to pass along the peace and hope of Christ to others.

Jesus says not to "begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers..." A woman, writing in Decision magazine a few years ago, told about having the overwhelming sense that God wanted her and her family to go overseas to share Christ in a foreign country. She went to her husband and excitedly told him about what she just knew to be their new mission. He was less than certain that his wife had been called to be a missionary.

He suggested that she test her feelings out first. Why not try to pursue her mission to reach others with the love and Good News of Jesus right here first and see where that led?

A little disappointed, she agreed that this might be a good plan. She wracked her brain to come up with some ways she could do this and then hit on an idea. She and her husband lived in a community that was growing. Lots of new neighbors were moving in all the time. She would bake bread and welcome newcomers to their community. No Bible tracts. No religious jaw. Just a welcome from a neighbor.

At first, the woman thought that she was wasting her time on some insignificant activity. But over time, she became friends with a number of these newcomers. When a crisis developed in their lives, they would call her for help or ask her for prayers. Many asked her the reasons for her joy and helpfulness to others and she was able to tell them about Christ. Over the decades, this woman saw hundreds of people who previously had no connection with Christ come to believe in Him, in part because she shared Christ in a simple, practical way.

She came to believe that God had called her to be a her own backyard.

"And don't try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy...," Jesus says. (The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible more literally translates Jesus as adjoining His first disciples from entering into Samaria, trying to make a splash confronting their false religious practices.)

I once heard Henry Mitchell, an eminent African-American preacher, describe the experience of a young black pastor. The pastor, fresh from seminary, tried to mobilize the African-American churches in his southern community to demonstrate against racial injustice. He contacted the media and sent a mailing to all the local churches, announcing a mass meeting.

The appointed day arrived...and nobody showed up. The young pastor was devastated and angry. A few days later, he called one of his mentors to share his disappointment that people in his community seemed so unmoved to do anything.

"What," his mentor asked, "had you hoped to accomplish?" "I wanted to use my influence to advance the cause of equality," he said. "Son," the mentor replied, "that's all very good. But on this business of influence, you can't use what you don't have."

Often, followers of Christ, especially new believers, try to use influence they don't possess to tackle enormous evils or huge projects. I've fought this temptation myself.

Jesus is saying that it's best to avoid showiness. For one thing, our showiness is often motivated more by a desire for personal prominence, rather than by doing God's business. But more than that, when we aim for big giants, we miss all the little munchkin-evils that bedevil people every day.

We're not to ignore big evils, of course. But we must be careful to not be so consumed with those big things that we forget the everyday kindnesses and love we can give to people. In Jesus' famous parable of the Good Samaritan, two religious leaders, apparently bent on performing their religious duties, passed a dying man on the road. Faithful in fulfilling their religious duties for the throngs, they neglected to love God and love neighbor one person at a time. Only a member from an ethnic group hated by Jesus' Judeans took the time to eschew grandiosity and embrace simple compassion.

In the power of God, fortified by humble prayer in Jesus' Name, we can bring a world of good to the little, everyday places we all inhabit.

Jesus also warns against putting "on a fund-raising campaign before you start. You don't need a lot of equipment. You are the equipment." In some African nations, people who have gone there tell me, thousands of people gather for hours on Sundays in buildings made of sheet metal, to hear the Good News of Jesus and to worship Him. Of course, there are differences in our respective cultures. But I wish that we in North America could take an approach more similar to Jesus in sharing Him with others. We don't need advertising campaigns, elaborate rituals, or expensive equipment to share Jesus. Jesus' followers are the most important equipment for sharing Christ with the world. People are the church, not bricks.

Second: Jesus says that when we do travel for him, don't insist on staying in luxurious places. What a rotten witness for Christ is presented by people who insist on having luxury suites.

Third: Don't argue with people about your faith. Nobody was ever won into surrender to Jesus Christ through hostile argumentation. People can only be loved into Christ's kingdom.

Fourth: Beware of temptations. The closer you are to Christ and the harder you work for Him, the greater the temptations that will be strewn in front of you. Pray that God will protect you from temptation and enable you to withstand them.

Fifth: Jesus says that only the naive believer will think that everybody is going to be pleased with your allegiance to Him. After all, He was nailed to a cross. His followers can expect no better treatment.

But, Jesus says, even when we're dragged before authorities who have the power to put us away or end our lives, we shouldn't worry. "The right words will be there," Jesus promises, "the Spirit of your Father will supply the words."

I've never been called to give an account of my hope in Christ by hostile officials. But I have often been confronted with daunting situations: a woman mired in pain, hostile to God, and certain that faith in Christ was nothing but a crutch for weak people; a man who has just received word of a horrible health prognosis; the family whose loved-one has just died. When confronted with such circumstances, my prayers are always pretty much the same, "God: Give me the right words and the right silences." He always answers that prayer.

Sixth: When we share His love with others, Jesus says, we will encounter hatred. This I have experienced many times. But, as Paul says in the New Testament book of Romans, nothing can separate those with faith in Jesus from the love of God that comes to us from Jesus.

Jesus culminates this section by telling His followers not to "be bluffed by the threats of bullies. There's nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, Who holds your entire life--body and soul--in your hands."

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke out against the injustice of apartheid in his native South Africa, he faced daily death threats. How, people asked him, could he deal with this day-in and day-out? Tutu responded that he could not refrain from speaking out: injustice was wrong. Besides, he said, death isn't the worst thing that can happen to a Christian!

The follower of Jesus places her and his whole lives in the hands of the God we know in Jesus Christ. We can stand with Him and let the chips fall where they may. (Of course, this is very easy for me to write and I have failed to follow Jesus many times in my life. But the wonderful thing about Jesus is that He is the Lord of second chances, Who hears the prayers of the repentant and gives us fresh starts on lives of faithfulness.)

Seventh: Jesus drives home how significant each person is in the eyes of God. If God cares about birds, He will most assuredly care about us!

Eighth: I love the passage in which Jesus says, "Stand up for Me against world opinion and I'll stand up for you before My Father in heaven. If you turn tail and run, do you think I'll cover for you?" This doesn't mean that followers of Jesus should spoil for fights, as so many contemporary Christians seem bent on doing these days. It means, as Peter writes in his letter to the churches of Asia Minor, "Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you're living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy" (First Peter 3:22).

Ninth: Jesus issues a warning, telling those who would follow Him not to expect our lives to be "cozy." Our grimmest opposition is likely to come from our own families. Jesus will be like a knife, cutting families apart. But our call is to put Him first. As Pastor Rick Warren likes to say, God is more interested in developing our characters than in making us comfortable. Our characters will last for eternity; the comforts offered by this world are fleeting, lasting as long as we live here, at most. Our characters may be developed by the fires of adversity, something that cannot happen if we're more bent on being popular than we are on being faithful.

Tenth: Jesus discusses one of the most interesting--and I believe, true--paradoxes of life. "If your first concern is to look after yourself," He says, "you'll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to Me, you'll find both yourself and Me."

In the United States, we speak of "the pursuit of happiness" as an "inalienable" right. Whether such a right inheres in our humanity is something I can't assert with certainty, though I am sure that each of us is obliged to afford our neighbors the very same considerations we ourselves desire. But I can say this with absolute certainty: People who make the pursuit of happiness a major life aim have adopted the wrong goal for themselves. It's been my observation that such people, at the very least, make themselves miserable. Their selfishness often causes them to take others along on their miserable rides with them.

Happiness comes by the indirect route, Jesus says. Make the love of God and the love of others your aim and happiness will be the byproduct. In brief flickers of cogency and insight in my life, I have found this to be true.

Finally: Jesus underscores the importance of faithfulness in the small places and in the smallest acts of kindness and love, rendered in His Name. See my message of a few months ago here.

[Check out the previous installments of this series:

Long-Awaited Savior

Scholars from the East

The Freedom to Be Weird

This is a Test

Trusting What You Can't See

The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression

Explicating the Beatitudes...and More

Authenticity and Trust

Jesus' Radical Ethics

Friend of the Outcasts...

The Conflict Deepens]

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Two Goals for Life

Romans 12:1-8

(Shared with the people of Friendship Church, August 21, 2005)

Today, I want to ask you to consider taking two goals for your life. But first, let's pray.

Dear Lord: Send Your Holy Spirit now. Use these words as Your Word for us. In Jesus' Name. Amen

A high school friend of mine, Bill, always was the model son to his parents! Even when we were teenagers, there was never even a hint of his giving his folks problems. He always made his curfew. He never drank or did drugs. He studied hard and was even kind to everyone. The year we graduated from high school, on the night of the senior banquet, it was announced that we had named him, ‘Most Reliable,’ and for many good reasons, one of which was that in thirteen years of public school education, he never missed a single day of classes!

He was no nerd either. Bill is one of the best athletes I’ve ever known. A fantastic outfielder, any ball hit within his area code was bound to land in his glove. He ran, as they say, like a deer. He also was on the basketball team. To stay in shape during those sports’ off seasons, he ran cross country. Even today, his arms are like tree trunks.

I often wondered why Bill, a guy who was popular with our classmates and always got invited to the A-List parties, never got into trouble...why he always seemed to pay attention to his parents and actually liked them...and why he never gave them any trouble or lip. I never, ever heard a cross word pass between him and his parents.

But as I’ve observed his relationship with his mom and dad through the years and the relationships of his two sisters with them, I’ve come to realize what that was all about. Simply put: Bill was just grateful to his parents for their love, their sacrifice, and their support of him in whatever he undertook. Gratitude affected the way Bill behaved and the choices he made.

For most of the past several weeks, we’ve been looking at the first-century preacher Paul’s letter to the Christian church at Rome. This is a remarkable letter, the most mature statement of Paul's faith in Christ. It was written to a church he had never visited, but soon hoped to visit, and from whom he wanted to take a collection to support his missionary foray to Spain.

In the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul explains the basic facts of Christian belief:
That all people are sinners separated from God. That God love all of us and decides to call us back to Him, offering forgiveness and new life to all who will turn away from sin and believe in Jesus Christ.
Three chapters of that first segment deal specifically with the spiritual status of Paul's fellow Jews and his earnest hope that non-Jewish (or Gentile) Christians would be particularly committed to reaching out to God's people with the Good News of Jesus.

Our Bible lesson for this morning begins a new segment of Romans, a section in which Paul talks about how we respond to God’s love and mercy.

In its eight verses, Paul introduces two elements that should characterize our response to the forgiveness and new life that belongs to those who follow the Savior Jesus, Who died and rose for us.

These aren’t things that God commands of us in order for Him to love us. He already loves us and all people already. But like my friend, Bill, who was grateful to his parents, gratitude for what Jesus has done for us will result in our wanting to live lives that please God.

So, Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God [in other words, because of what Christ has done for you on the cross and from the empty tomb], to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God---what is good and acceptable and perfect...”

In gratitude and humility, Paul is saying, give yourself to God and he will begin to change the way you think and live. Some of you have experienced that and you know exactly what Paul is talking about. You won't be perfect, of course. But when you allow Christ the driver's seat in your life, you’ll no longer think of yourself first. Money, looks, pleasure, power, and all the other things we human beings so often use to measure our worth will recede in importance. You’ll be in sync with God’s plans for you, which is a good thing since He designed you in the first place and has better plans for you and me than we could ever make for ourselves.

Her name was Charlotte Elliott. She was from England and she was a bitter woman. Her health was broken and she was disabled. “If God loved me,” she told her family, “He would not have treated me this way.” On May 9, 1822, in hopes of bringing her some comfort, guidance, and encouragement, the family invited a Swiss pastor to their home for dinner.

But as they ate, Elliott “lost her temper...[and] railed against God and [her] family.” The family quickly filed out and left her alone in the room with Pastor Malan. (I have to tell you that this happens with some frequency with pastors. We end up in rooms with people others with whom family and friends no longer are able to speak.)

“You are tired of yourself, aren’t you?” Malan asked Elliott. “You are holding to your hate and anger because you have nothing else in the world to cling to. Consequently, you have become sour, bitter, and resentful.”

What, Elliott asked Malan, was the cure? “The faith you despise,” he told her.

“As they talked, [she] softened, ‘If I wanted to become a Christian and to share the peace and joy you possess...what would I do?’ ‘You would give yourself to God just as you are now, with your fightings and fears, hates and loves, pride and shame...’” Elliott could hardly believe it, but asked God to help her believe it. She surrendered to Christ that day and later claimed the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John as her special verse, “...he who comes to Me, I will by no means cast out.”

Charlotte Elliott was an invalid all her life, but she lived in a joyful relationship with Christ, nonetheless. She knew the depths of God’s mercy and grateful for it, she strove to live in response to His love.

Years after her fateful conversation with Pastor Malan, Elliott’s brother was raising money for a school for the children of poor clergy. She composed a poem, which was printed and sold to fund the effort. It sold thousands of copies. Later, the poem was put to music.

When Charlotte Elliott died and went through her things, they found more than one-thousand letters from people telling her what an inspiration and encouragement her poem-turned-into-a-song had been for them.

You may be interested in knowing what powerful words Elliott's poem contained. To give you a taste, I'll tell you that it begins this way: “Just as I am, without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me, And that Thou bidst me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come!”

The first response that God’s love in Jesus calls from us is humility, humble surrender. We lay aside our sins and our love of them, our pride, our shame, our anxieties, our fightings, and our fears and we let God love us. We put down our dukes and allow God to embrace us.

Then Paul talks about a second response to the love God gives to us through Jesus Christ. He says that all believers in Jesus are given gifts--supernatural abilities--to play their own unique roles in the life of the Church and then, through the Church, which is Christ's body in the world, represent Christ to those around us.

Find your spiritual gift from God, so that you can play the part that God designed especially for you. Figure out what you’re good at and do it for Christ and the Church.

We’re coming into the fall of the year. September 11 will bring us to our Fall Kickoff at Friendship. Jesus died and rose for you and made you a part of this congregation. This is a great time for you to volunteer for any one of a number of ministries our congregation does.

By trying your hand at lots of different ones, you’re likely to find many at which you’re not especially good or that you don’t like. You may find some at which you fail. That's okay. A prominent businessperson was once asked, "What is the secret of your success?" "That's easy," he said, "it's making good decisions." Intrigued, his interviewer asked, "How do you learn to make good decisions?" His answer? "By making bad decisions." Listen, folks, I have failed at so many things in my life that I’ve learned that failure isn’t fatal.

But, in response to God’s love in Christ, if you and I keep trying, we’ll find those things that we do well, that praise God in our special ways, and that help our congregation reach out to the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Christ has died and risen for you. Because you’re thankful, humbly turn to Him and let Him love you and then, find your gifts and use them to show your thankfulness.

Take those two things--total surrender and embracing your gifts--as your life goals and no matter what happens, you’ll be living a great life, a blessed life, a life that tells God, "Thank you!"

[The true story of Charlotte Elliott is taken from Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World's Greatest Hymn Stories by Robert J. Morgan]

I Never Saw This Before...

My wife and I just returned from her thirty-fifth high school class reunion. I always enjoy these get-togethers because we graduated from the same school, with me following her by a year. Consequently, I know and am friends with some of her classmates.

We had a great time!

Of course, we've all changed a lot. But the changes in one person's life really surprised us!

After a mixer at the beginning of the evening, we moved toward the banquet hall. An Amish guy greeted us by name. Ours was a city high school and definitely had no Amish population. It was a member of the class of '70, though. After thirty years as a Math or Science teacher, he told us, he retired, moved to Logan County, about forty miles northwest of Columbus, our hometown, and became Amish!

I didn't know a person could become Amish! Is there an Amish Catechism?

Has anyone ever heard of this before?