Saturday, September 10, 2005


Read these two posts on this vital character trait: here and here.

Ohio State-Texas: Links and a Prediction

I am psyched out of my mind over tonight's Ohio State-Texas college football game.

I only wish that I could be on the campus of my alma mater for this match-up. There is no atmosphere in the world like Columbus in anticipation of a football Saturday.

That unique brand of excitement is only heightened when the visiting team is a school with a football tradition to rival that of Ohio State.

Here are links to articles on the game from several perspectives: from Texas; from Lima, Ohio; from a Chicago Tribune writer.

I'm not a very good seer, but here's my admittedly biased prediction:

Ohio State 28
Texas 17

A Whack on the Side of the Head, Randomness, Hurricane Katrina, and Imbuing Life with Meaning

Twenty-two years ago, a classmate recommended that I read Roger von Oech's A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative. I finally got around to reading it and finished it on Friday night.

I enjoyed it a lot. Of course, as von Oech points out near the end of the book, unless a person applies the principles he teaches here, reading it doesn't mean much. That's a good point to remember any time we read a good book.

I was especially interested in the chapter on embracing the creative possibilities in ambiguity. In one section there, von Oech talks about allowing randomness foster creativity. Included was this story and moral:
There once was an Indian medicine man whose responsibilities included creating hunting maps for his tribe. Whenever game got sparse, he'd lay a piece of fresh leather out in the sun to dry. Then he'd fold and twist it in his hands, say a few prayers over it, and smooth it out. The rawhide was now crisscrossed with lines and wrinkles. The medicine man marked some basic reference points on the rawhide, and--presto!--a new game map was created. The wrinkles represented new trails the hunters should follow. When the hunters followed the map's newly defined trails, they invariably discovered abundant game.

Moral: By allowing the rawhide's random folds to represent hunting trails, he pointed the hunters to places they previously had not looked.
One of the Beatles once observed, "There's a lot of random in our songs." In fact, the Beatles, perhaps because their high and virtually unprecedented climb to the "toppermost of the poppermost" was so mysterious and inexplicable, almost worshiped at the Church of Random.

Paul McCartney tells the story of when he was first playing Hey Judefor his songwriting partner, John Lennon. After singing the line, "the movement you need is in your shoulder," he stopped, looked up from the piano at which he was sitting, and told Lennon, "I'll be takin' that out." It was a line that had just come to him while fumbling through the melody and chords of the song. But when McCartney shared his intention to excise it from the song, Lennon was incredulous. "What for?" he asked. "It's nonsense. It sounds like a parrot," McCartney explained. Lennon however, was insistent. "I know what it means!" he told McCartney. The line stayed in, even though to this day, McCartney can't really explain what the words mean. Nor can the millions of us who sing along with it every time we hear it on the radio or MP3 players. But it seems to fit and seems to mean something.

Von Oech suggests that we force ourselves to be creative by associating whatever problem we're trying to deal with at any given time with some randomly-selected "oracle."

This means looking for "right answers"--and von Oech believes that there can be many "right answers"--in seeming disconnected or incongruous places.

A few of his suggestions for possible "oracles": the sixth word on a given page of the dictionary, the product being promoted in the twelfth full-page ad in a magazine, the second yellow object you see when you look out your window, and so on.

The idea is to climb out of the ruts into which we can be stuck when we're trying to solve a problem or come to an understanding of life. Flip the channel. Turn the page. Look at things through a different window.

I personally believe that we always learn by metaphor. By using "random" thinking, connecting the issues we're trying to solve, the product we want to create, the presentation we need to make, or the goal we want to attain with some other object or word or idea, we break the constraints of conventionality and come up with new ideas. A different metaphor helps us see things we might not otherwise have seen.

Actually, the idea of randomness in life fits with my understanding of Christian faith. Often, I hear people say, "Everything happens for a reason." People seem to say this to console themselves and others in the face of life's tragedies or disappointments. "Everything happens for a reason," they intone. I suppose that in some sense, that may be true. But in the end, I simply don't buy it.

I don't believe that everything that happens in life happens for a reason...unless we supply the reason.

For example, I don't believe Hurricane Katrina was something God caused to happen out of some inscrutable divine plan.

The Bible teaches that we live in a fallen creation that creeks and groans under the burden of human sin. (By sin here, I'm referring to that condition of alienation from God, others, and our true selves into which the whole race falls. We commit individual sins because of the human condition called sin. The whole creation is under the burden of human sin because human beings are the pinnacle of God's creation, created in God's image. Our fall has impacted all the rest of creation.)

God didn't create tragedy. But when the natural order is thrown into disorder, which is what is the case because of sin, nature turns against itself and turns to against human beings. In other words, hurricanes are random events that happen.

No wonder that eminent theologian, Jimmy Buffett, argues, "They're ain't no way to reason with hurricane season." I'd paraphrase him by saying, "Not even hurricane season happens for a reason."

But, we can by the ways in which we respond to the random events of life, imbue them, supply them, fill them with meaning and purpose. Imagine...

A church, stirred by the love of Christ, to raise money, send supplies, and gather volunteers to love their neighbors by helping with relief efforts in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana. Or...

A young woman, witnessing the destruction, vowing to become a doctor so that she can help hurting people. Or...

A boy deciding that when he grows up, he will be an engineer and find ways to prevent people from being killed by flooding. Or...

A city opening up its collective heart to the impoverished homeless from the Gulf Coast, integrating their children into their finest local schools, affording them the opportunities for new chances and better futures than they might have had if the hurricane hadn't come. imagine.

We can imbue the random events that arise in this world with great purpose and meaning when, by faith and in prayer, employing the mental faculties God has given to us and relying on Him, we seek for ways of expressing love for God and love for neighbor in creative ways.

Please don't think that in saying this, I'm trying to repeal the petition of the Lord's Prayer that says, "Your will be done." When we pray that prayer, we ask the God we know through Jesus Christ to bring grace, love, wisdom, and purpose into the world and into our lives. We submit the present and surrender the future to God's activity in our lives. As is often said, "God is a gentleman." God never goes where not invited. But when we do invite God to help us face the randomness of life, God will use us and the circumstances into which we've invited Him to bring good meaning and eternal purposes to the fore. History is moving toward a goal. Christ will return. God will bring an end to life on this planet. Until then, as we live and act in concert with God, we bring order and love, meaning and purpose to the world's randomness.

I like von Oech's book. I'm able to connect it with my faith in Christ and the Biblical world view. But I think everybody, whatever their world view, might get a good whack on the side of the head from it.

[For more on topics addressed in this post, you might want to look here.]

Friday, September 09, 2005

'Where Are They?': New Orleanan Wrestles with Aftermath of Katrina

Donna is from New Orleans and writes today:
You go through your daily routine not thinking about the possibility of never seeing someone again. You see them everyday. Sure, you might take a few days off, but when you return, there they are. You never think about the possibility of being pushed out of your comfort zone, your work, your office, your daily routine, and your life, as you once knew it. What are we, the people from the New Orleans Metro Area, supposed to do with this situation? We've cried, we've shown anger, we've cared, and we give to those who faired the worst. What do you do with an entire city, now void of life, laughter, fun, and good times as well as good people? What are we to make of this entire experience? How should we feel about the situation we are now faced with? So many questions, but the answers are not immediate.
We're all just ephemeral strangers and aliens passing through life in this beautiful and often savage planet. Many of our questions go unanswered. But God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, remains the same yesterday, today, and forever. He's the rock on Whom life can be built, even when ocean waves surge and levees break and life doesn't yield many answers.

Read Donna's entire post.

Want Judges You Like? Win Elections

Law professor Tung Yin, who is not a conservative or a supporter of President Bush's, reacts negatively and logically to a letter signed by more than one-hundred legal scholars urging John Roberts' rejection by the Senate. The letter (to which Yin links) argues that the President should nominate people to the Court whose philosophy diverges from the President's. (I found Yin's post through Ann Althouse's blog site.)

Yin is right, I believe. Whether one voted for Bush or not, I think all should acknowledge a fundamental principle of our system of government: Elections mean something.

Had John Kerry been elected last year, I would have fully expected him to have nominated persons to the Supreme Court whose views were broadly consistent with his own. That would have been both his right as President and his obligation to those who voted for him.

Among the reasons we have elections is so that voters can decide into whose hands to repose responsibility for nominating judges (the President) and confirming or rejecting those nominees (the Senate).

Once a president is elected, nobody should be surprised when she or he nominates someone whose basic philosophy is the same as the President's. Nor should anybody suggest that presidents have some obligation to nominate to the court persons whose views differ from their own. That's an absurdly stupid notion.

As is true of several other public discussions these days, people seem to have a woefully inadequate understanding of the Constitution. If the letter cited by Tung Yin is any indication, it appears that the misinformed includes some law professors.

Again: Elections mean something. I'm indifferent to Judge Roberts' nomination. But if the opponents of John Roberts want to get people they find more philosophically sympathetic to be nominated for service on the courts, they need to win elections.

Not a Ringing Endorsement

US Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff has, as you probably know, reassigned FEMA director Michael D. Brown to D.C., sending him away from daily coordination Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. The New York Times reports:
"Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge," Mr. Chertoff said, accompanied by Admiral Allen and Mr. Brown. "I appreciate his work, as does everybody here."

Those words did not reflect the fierce criticism that Mr. Brown has come under for the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina and the disastrous flooding that followed, particularly in New Orleans.
Not only that, Chertoff's words don't seem to reflect a ringing endorsement of Brown either.

"Religious Piety is Disgusting"

"If I wasn't such a law-abiding landed immigrant, I'd switch up that church's marquee in the middle of the night..."

So says Jeremy Thiessen of Normal Rockstar. Read the whole thing.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Brooks Sees Silver Lining in Katrina

New York Times columnist David Brooks claims that Hurricane Katrina presents the nation with an opportunity in New Orleans.

"That's because," Brooks writes, "Katrina was a natural disaster that interrupted a social disaster. It separated tens of thousands of poor people from the run-down, isolated neighborhoods in which they were trapped. It disrupted the patterns that have led one generation to follow another into poverty."

In other words, he asserts, New Orleans has become something of a "blank slate," an opportunity, even granting the peskiness of human imperfection, to give impoverished fresh starts. (That pesky quality, by the way, is what the Bible calls sin, a condition long before it results in specific acts called sins. It is the universal plight of the human race.)

Brooks goes on to suggest two principles that should guide a future rebuilding effort:

First, he says, "nothing like before." "If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before."

Which leads to the second principle Brooks suggests for rebuilding: Culturally integrate people. Let impoverished families whose culture has always modeled failure, dysfunctionality, and limited horizons live near and go to school with families where expectations are higher. Brooks goes on to cite several studies and experiments in which the children of households who had this experience were positively impacted.

While I question the wisdom of spending a penny of federal tax dollars to re-establish New Orleans as anything other than making the French Quarter a Venice-like tourist destination and shoring up port facilities, I think Brooks is right that this presents the nation with an opportunity. After places have been dried out, people's medical needs have been addressed, the dead have been identified and mourned, and the full clean-ups have gotten underway, the focus needs to be even more on rebuilding people's lives than structures.

If we can culturally integrate the poor from New Orleans into America and given particularly their children opportunities to break the cycle of poverty, we will have taken a tragedy and extracted a great blessing from it...for the poor and for America.

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 10

[This is the tenth installment of notes based on a study of the book of Genesis I'm doing with members of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Church. This post deals with Genesis 27. At the end of this post, you'll find links to previous installments of the series.]

1. In keeping with the theme of the previous two chapters, the story which takes up chapter 27 deals with the powerful words of a blessing. Blessings, which either overtly or implicitly invoked the Name of God, were seen as being filled with God's power.

2. As the chapter begins, Isaac is dying. He wants to bless Esau, his eldest (and preferred) son. Whether Isaac is aware that Esau has sold his birthright for a bowl of soup, the narrative doesn't tell us. But it seems clear that the blessing which Isaac wishes to give has more to do with the promise of God first given to his own father, Abraham, than with possessions. In other words, Isaac has in mind making Esau the next patriarch of God's people.

Isaac instructs Esau to kill some game and to fix a feast for him. After the feast, Isaac says, he'll give Esau his blessing.

3. Giving expression to the dysfunctionality about which we talked in the last installment, Rebekah overhears Isaac's conversation with Esau and concocts a plan whereby her favorite son, Jacob, the Supplanter, will thwart Isaac's intentions and supplant Esau.

In the incident that follows, Rebekah and Jacob will be guilty of brazen disregard for the sanctity of words, oaths, and pledges. Jacob is at first, wary of his mother's plan. But he acquiesces to it readily enough, thus continuing a pattern of duplicity and of being too clever by half that prevailed through most of his life.

In a nutshell: Jacob is to get two choice kids from the family's flock. Rebekah will prepare them for Isaac. In the meantime, Jacob is to dress in his brother's clothing. Because Jacob is a "smooth" man and his brother "hairy," she even arranges to deceive Isaac by placing goat's hair on some of Jacob's exposed skin, making the blind man think this son really is Esau. Through this ruse, Jacob is to get the blessing meant for Esau.

When Jacob goes to see his father on the latter's deathbed, he lies three times. First, he says that he is Esau. Second, when Isaac expresses surprise that the son he thinks is Esau has returned so quickly and successfully from his hunting expedition, Jacob says that God has given him success in the venture. Finally, when Isaac asks him point-blank if he really is Esau, Jacob says, "I am."

For an ancient Hebrew, this behavior on Jacob's part would have been especially scandalous. Not only was he lying, he was deluding a blind man, which the Old Testament regarded as particularly egregious (Leviticus 19:14; Deuteronomy 27:18...thanks again to von Rad's commentary).

Disturbing too for the Hebrew would have been that Jacob, who had attained his position by deception, was a patriarch of his race and religion. It disturbs modern Jewish and Christian readers as well. But the Bible never portrays people of faith as perfect. In the end, they rely on the mercy of God and without pretense of perfection, trust in Him to forgive them.

4. Ultimately, the old man gives a blessing to Jacob. When Esau returns, Isaac trembles with the realization that he has been deceived by his younger son. Esau learns this and is inconsolable.

The only blessing left for Isaac to give Esau is almost the opposite of the one granted to Jacob. Embittered, Esau vows to kill Jacob once the period of mourning for Isaac has passed. With Rebekah's help, Jacob escapes and like his people throughout much of their history, becomes a wanderer and a refugee.

[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9]

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 9

[The Tuesdays with Markie Bible study at our church is looking at the Old Testament book of Genesis. This series of posts summarizes our discussions. This post looks at Genesis, chapters 25 and 26. While our group also looked at chapter 27 last night, I'll pick back up with that later.]

One of the themes of this section of Genesis--and the chapter I'll address in my next post--is the significance of oaths, whether made by God or human beings. Their importance resides in the fact that in the Biblical thought-world, words are more than just words, more than sounds or figures on a page (or computer screen). They have real importance and real consequence. When someone made a vow with words, it was deemed binding for all time. More than that, it was deemed to have a power and a life all its own.

Perhaps, from the perspective of Genesis, this is partly reflective of what it means for human beings to be created in the image of God. In the first creation account in Genesis, God speaks words and various portions of creation come into being. His utterances have power to create and affect events.

In the New Testament Gospel of John, the prologue picks up on this theme, calling Jesus "the Word of God," the power Person of the Godhead Who created the universe.

In the same Gospel, John describes events that happened many centuries after the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the Patriarchs of Biblical faith), at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. The Roman governor had a sign designating Jesus as the "King of the Jews," printed in several languages. The Jewish leaders objected. But Pilate, hardly a model of stability, nonetheless replied, "What I have written, I have written."

This understanding of the power of our words lay behind much of what we will see in these three chapters.

1. The beginning of chapter 25 presents us with the end of Abraham's presence in Genesis. His part in God's intentions for the human race comes to an end; he dies "an old man and full of years" (Genesis 25:8).

2. Abraham married after the death of Sarah. Genesis 25:1-6 presents another one of those interminable Biblical genealogies (which, by the way, occasionally have great significance), enumerating the descendants issuing from Abraham's marriage to Keturah. Where Keturah comes from, we don't know.

Verse 5 says that Abraham gave all his possessions to his son, Isaac. This fits with the customs of those times in which the entire inheritance went to the firstborn son. But Abraham is interested in much more than passing his possessions on to Isaac. He sends all the sons born to him by his concubines "to the east country," presumably to the region in Iraq from which he came. In this action, Abraham shows that Isaac is the unique child of promise, the one who will, like Abraham himself, be among the fathers of God's people, Israel.

3. Abraham's burial in the cave of Machpelah, where his wife Sarah was previously buried, is a sort of "foothold" or a down payment on the promise of God that this land will be the home of his descendants, more numerous than the stars in the sky.

4. The birth of Isaac's and Rebekah's twin sons, Jacob and Esau, foreshadows much about the subsequent narrative. Their activeness in their mother's womb presages the contest that will unfold between them.

5. Names are usually quite significant in the Bible's thought-world. (This may be another example of the power associated with words in the culture.) Jacob's name can mean God Protects or Heel/Supplanter. Jacob will develop into a cunning heel, in fact. But God will also protect him, another example of God's undeserved grace. The name of his brother, Esau, means Hairy, probably denoting not just a prominent physical feature, but also something of the primitive boorishness of the grown man.

6. Rebekah inquires "of the Lord" (Genesis 25:22) and learns what her two sons will be like. The term used for her inquiry probably indicates some ritualized form of prayer.

7. Interestingly, in violation of the normal customs, Rebekah learns that "the elder shall serve the younger" (Genesis 25:23). This means that Esau, the first of the twins to be born, will serve his younger brother, Jacob. Later, it seems, that this is a prophecy that Rebekah is willing to help happen.

8. The patriarchal families were, we would say today, dysfunctional. Abraham and Sarah clearly had their problems, as we've seen. Now, we learn that Isaac and Rebekah had diverging favorites. Isaac liked Esau, while Rebekah preferred Jacob.

An important lesson for us is that God doesn't love or bless perfect people. God loves and blesses imperfect people.

The patriarchal families weren't beneficiaries of God's promise because they were good. They were people of God's promise because they trusted, or believed in, God's promise.

9. A dramatic example of both Jacob's cunning and Esau's primitive boorishness can be seen in Genesis 25:29-34. For a bowl of lentil soup, Esau sells his birthright as the firstborn to Jacob. That Jacob would withhold food from his brother and Esau would give up his inheritance so cheaply says volumes about both of the twins.

The incident also points up the power of oaths and words again. After all, there were no witnesses to hear Esau pledge his birthright for Jacob's soup. But words were regarded as binding before heaven. To go back on one's word would be a deep offense against God.

10. Commentator Gerhard von Rad points out that Genesis 26 is really the only place in the entire book that presents purely Isaac narratives. Isaac is the overlooked member of the patriarchal ancestors of Israel (and of Christian faith). In fact, while scholars see very ancient independent sources for these stories of Isaac, they testify to a guy who, unlike his father wasn't a trailblazer; who, on the negative side of the ledger, repeated some of his father's worst actions; and who, positively, in highly emblematic acts, re-dug the wells Abraham had originally dug. There is a place in God's kingdom not only for those who initiate, but those who maintain.

11. In this chapter, King Abimelech and his commander Phicol (along with Abimelech's adviser Ahuzzath) have encounters with Isaac. Von Rad says that because the incidents here described came some eighty years after Abraham's encounters with an Abimelech and a Phicol, it's highly unlikely that these are the same people, but people bearing the same names. (Like George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush or John Adams and John Quincy Adams.)

12. Genesis 26:6-11 is likely to evoke the response, "like father, like son" from readers. Isaac's action here, similar to the two times his father did the same thing, is born not of faith, but of fear. Psychoanalytical theorist Erik Erikson said that the fundamental conflict we must all resolve to become healthy is "trust vs. mistrust." This is true in our relationships with other human beings (first with our parents) and it's true in our relationship with God.

In the case of God, this conflict may be stated as "faith vs. fear." It's likely that none of us ever passes the test of faith with flying colors. But, the Old Testament tells us that God is boundless in His mercy and understanding of our human frailty. God looks at our hearts and says that if it is our will to live in His direction, trusting Him, that small and simple faith is enough for Him to count us right with Him and gives Him the opening into our lives to begin to transform us from people of fear to people of faith. Isaac, however imperfectly, trusted God. When we will to trust God, God starts to transform our wills so that we are increasingly capable of doing that, a capability that will only be brought to perfection in eternity.

12. In the midst of a famine, the nomadic Isaac sows seeds and his crops yield a hundredfold. No wonder that Abimelech saw Isaac as being peculiarly blessed.

13. Genesis 26:17-22 contain a number of vignettes explaining place names. (Again, the importance of words.)

14. The covenant sworn between Isaac and Abimelech also underscores the importance of words.

[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8]


A FEMA spokesperson questions the "commitment to country" of misused firefighters who have volunteered to help with hurricane clean-up. I've been appalled by the lack of planning and incompetence at the local level in New Orleans. But what on earth is up with FEMA? You don't cast aspersions on the patriotism of heroes! (Keith Olberman chose the woman who made this comment this evening as "the worst person in the world." I don't really like it when Olberman makes this designation, but the spokeswoman's statement was outrageous! More significantly, you don't treat volunteers or fail to use their expertise in this manner!)

Memo to Emergency Planning Personnel: Consider These Simple Lessons from Katrina

Glenn Reynolds surveys the damage and the lessons and offers up ten simple, obvious lessons to be drawn from Hurricane Katrina.

Provocative Thought: Mr. Bush, Tear Down This Levee

This blogger says, "Mr. Bush, tear down this levee." Using federal monies to buy up New Orleans at pre-Katrina prices makes a lot more sense than using those same dollars to rebuild a city which is apt to be taken out by hurricanes, or the Mississippi, or the lake anyway. Compassion alone would indicate it appropriate not to certify that a dangerous and ultimately uninhabitable place can be rebuilt. That's what the engineers seem to be saying anyway.

Katrina Victims Need More Than Physical Help

Relief workers offering food, shelter, and medical care are essential. But, as this post from Kobayashi Maru points out, they need more than that. Thanks to Evangelical Outpost for pointing to this post.

Learning to Speak Each Other's Language One Key to Making Relationships Work

[This is the latest installment in a column I write for the Community Press, a chain of suburban Cincinnati newspapers.]

Winston Churchill once famously quipped that Britain and the United States were "two nations divided by a common language."

Even in this era of the global village that sees the two nations exchanging movies, music, and TV shows, Churchill's comment holds true. Five years ago, the Glen Este High School Choir of which our two kids were a part, went on a concert tour of England. My wife, mother-in-law, and I were able to be among the chaperones for the group. One day, queuing--standing in line-- at the till--cash register--at a card shop in the London suburb of Orpington, I spied a book called English-American/American-English Dictionary. That title was only partly tongue-in-cheek.

Something like this phenomenon of "division based on a seemingly common language" can exist between co-workers, friends, relatives, and spouses. Psychologist Gary Chapman, in fact, identifies "five languages of love" that can unite or divide people. If we care about others, he says, we need to learn the other person's language of love.

By languages, Chapman means not just the words we use to communicate, but the gestures and the approaches with which we relate to each other. Two people can seem to be speaking the same language and fail completely to understand each other.

About a year after my wife and I were first married, I bought her a dozen roses for some occasion. I was so proud and thought that I was being romantic. A gesture like this early in our relationship would have been met with a kiss and a "Thank you." But this time, the reaction was tepid. I thought, "Next time, Mark, don't give her flowers."

When the next occasion did come around, I put together a basket of small gifts, including a scarf I'd seen her admiring at a department store, her favorite perfume, and a paperback book. She looked rather unenthusiastically at it all. When I probed the reason for her reaction, my wife told me, "It just seems wasteful for you to go out and buy gifts that I may or may not want, Mark. Let's just agree that from here on, whatever the occasion or holiday, we won't buy each other gifts. If we want something, we'll get it ourselves."

Because my wife and I are both frugal, this arrangement has worked out. With a few agreed-upon exceptions, we haven't bought gifts for each other over the past thirty-one years. We do buy one another cards for birthdays, anniversaries, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Christmas, and such. But no gifts.

I learned to speak my wife's language on this point. And there have been certain benefits to this: More than a few husbands and wives have told me how demanding of gifts their spouses are on "special days." I've never had to worry about that.

Learning others' "languages," the words and gestures that they deem significant, can be an important key to fulfilling Jesus' "Golden Rule" to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Years ago, I learned of a husband mystified by his wife's fury over his birthday gift to her: a brand new luxury car. It turned out that she wasn't the one who wanted the car. He was. Her birthday just gave him the excuse to buy himself a present which he assumed she wanted as much as he did.

People who really want to do unto others as they would have done unto them need to pay heed to what's important to others. Then they'll be talking the same language.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Sampling of Past Better Living Serials

Those of you visiting Better Living for the first time might be interested in checking out some blog post series I've written in the past:

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

Prayer: The Essential Conversation
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

Habits of the Heart
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

The Promise and the Perils of Democracy
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Bob Denver, Portrayer of Two Iconic TV Characters, Has Died

Bob Denver, perhaps most famous for his portrayal of Gilligan, on Gilligan's Island, has died at age 70. Denver also played Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis.

When you think about it, how many actors play two iconic characters in their TV careers?

Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Arthur spring to mind as perhaps the only others apart from Denver to do that. I suppose one might consider Bob Newhart for recognition in this category, although he really played the same character with different names in his two most successful sitcoms.

Mind you, I'm not talking about actors who portrayed more than one character on successful (or even unsuccessful) television shows, but actors whose characters attained iconic status, characters almost universally recognized.

Any others you can think of who have done this?

Welcome, Hugh Hewitt Readers

Today, author, law prof, radio host, and blogger Hugh Hewitt began linking to this site under the "Godblogging" heading of his blog roll. Thanks to Hugh and welcome to all who are visiting Better Living for the first time because of the link.

Better Living is a "Godblog." But I hope that it's a place where non-Christians and Christians can come and find fair-minded reflections on life, current events, music, and any other things that strike me as interesting.

My interest in history and politics goes all the way back to when I was a five year old. Over the past forty-six years, my life has included stints as a congressional campaign manager, chair of a levy renewal campaign for our local school district, and a candidacy for the Ohio House of Representatives.

For twenty-one years, I've been a pastor. That began after receiving my Master's degree in Divinity from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. (My undergraduate degree comes from The Ohio State University.) For six years, I served as pastor of a congregation in rural northwestern Ohio. For the past fifteen years, I've been pastor of a congregation I was called to start here in the Cincinnati area.

Currently on Better Living, I'm writing two different blog series. One is called Random Stuff from Our Study of Genesis, summarizing important points from a Bible study I'm conducting at the congregation I serve as pastor. The other is called Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time. If you explore the archives, you'll find several other series as well.

Enjoy the blog and feel free to make use of the comments feature to give your feedback, insights, and additional thoughts.

Tierney: A Voice of Reason on the Hurricane Katrina Debacle

John Tierney has an excellent column that cuts through all the nonsense related to the disaster response efforts for Hurricane Katrina. The key paragraph, written by a man often critical of the President, says this:

The liberals bewailing the insensitivity and racism of Republicans in Washington sound like a bad rerun of the 1960's, when urban riots were blamed on everyone but the rioters and the police. Yes, the White House did a terrible job of responding to Katrina, but Democratic leaders in New Orleans and Louisiana didn't even fulfill their basic duties.

From my perspective, President Bush certainly must accept some blame. But not for the evil or misdeeds attributed to him:

In 2001, he should have taken the Federal Emergency Management Administration's mission more seriously by nominating numbers 1 and 2 leaders who had some experience dealing with disasters.

In 2002, the President should never have acquiesced to establishing the Department of Homeland Defense, a largely symbolic gesture that, among other things, put FEMA at another remove from both the White House and from local disaster relief agencies and created organizational ambiguity on the ground.
From my perspective, the city of New Orleans must also accept blame. Indeed, I think that it is mostly to blame for the tragedies that have unfolded since before Katrina made landfall:

There appears to have been no plan in place for evacuating people from a city everybody knew was vulnerable to the precise set of disasters that unfolded nine days ago.

Even without such a plan, the city could have easily commandeered the hundreds of mass transit and school buses to effect an evacuation for those unable to transport themselves. The city government displayed a shocking insensitivity to the financial wherewithal of some of its citizens, apparently assuming that they all had vehicles capable of making the trip out of New Orleans or knew somebody who did.
As readers of this blog know, while I do make political observations--without much, if any, relationship to ideology, I do, without regard to party or philosophy, try to speak up for simple justice for people and will also try to offer up points that I think add to the fairness of a discussion.

I feel that the people of New Orleans were treated unjustly in this tragedy. I don't think it involved racism, although classism may have played a role in the naive approach taken by the city government there.

But the biggest source of the injustice to which Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans and elsewhere were subjected was a much simpler and perhaps, more deadly one: incompetence at both the local and federal levels. I don't blame the police, National Guard personnel, relief workers, or disaster responders on the ground, but the local and federal leaders who simply didn't appear to have their acts together.

This was shocking because in previous disasters in other parts of the hurricane-prone northeast, we've been accustomed to seeing competence from both local governments and from FEMA. Hopefully, some valuable lessons will be learned from this disaster.

Read Tierney's column. It's a breath of fresh air in what has become an often absurd debate.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The NEW Roberts Nomination

President Bush has obviously made two calculations relative to the two vacancies on the Supreme Court:
In spite of what had promised to be a contentious confirmation process, he had the votes for Roberts' confirmation for Associate Justice and therefore, is likely to have the votes for Chief Justice.

The President, for whatever reason, will likely nominate to the Court persons who, in the mold of Roberts, are less polarizing than say, Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas.
My guess is that the President is going to try mightily to nominate a female or Hispanic jurist to take the slot of Sandra Day O'Connor. But he may feel less urgency about naming someone for that position since O'Connor's resignation, according to the letter she sent to the President, only goes into effect once her successor is in place. In the wake of the Katrina tragedy, Mr. Bush may be disinclined to take on a bruising partisan fight, only increasing the chances that his nominee will be a conservative who gets the backing of his supporters while not engendering deep hostility from his foes. My choice is still Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio.

While I believe that the President would like to appoint the Attorney General to the associate justiceship, the current political atmosphere isn't conducive to it, since the AG seems equally unpopular among both conservative and liberal ideologues.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Althouse Surveys SCOTUS Reactions to Rehnquist's Death

Ann Althouse has the lowdown on the surviving justice's reactions to Chief Justice William Rehnquist's passing---including Justice Souter's mystifying non-reaction.

She says that nobody said they loved Rehnquist. Since the Court doesn't strike me as an encounter group, that doesn't surprise me really.

Itching to Help on the Gulf Coast

A number of members of the congregation I serve and I are all itching to get down to the Gulf Coast to help with recovery efforts. I've made inquiries tonight with Lutheran Disaster Response, which indicates that as soon as the primary clean-up is done by professionals, volunteers will be needed.

I'm writing for two reasons:

(1) Please pray that God will soon open up the opportunity for us to go to the Gulf Coast, wherever we're needed and can be useful.

(2) Please consider putting together your own team of volunteers and contacting Lutheran Disaster Response or some other agency to help your Gulf Coast neighbors in this way. It should be a gratifying experience!

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 8

[The Tuesdays with Markie Bible study continued this past week and our focus remains the Old Testament book of Genesis. Specifically this week, we looked at chapters 22, 23, and 24. At the end of this post, you'll find links to previous posts in this series.]

1. Chapter 22 presents yet incident in Scripture difficult for us to understand or explain. God tells Abraham to sacrifice the long-awaited and long-promised son, Isaac. It's unfathomable at many levels: It's impossible to understand why God would make such a command or why Abraham's trust in God was such that he could even consider doing it.

2. Genesis 22:1 begins, "After these things [the treaty Abraham made with King Abimelech and his commander, Phicol] God tested Abraham..." Commentator Gerhard von Rad notes, "The idea of temptation, i.e., of a pedagogical test which God permits men to endure in order to probe their faith and faithfulness is not really new in the patriarchal stories..." As I consider my own children though, it's a test from which I would have recoiled and which I most certainly would not have passed.

But as the notes for the passage contained in The New Oxford Annotated Bible point out, "The present story portrays a miracle of faith: Abraham received back the promise [that he would be the father of nations through his miracle child, Isaac] after showing that he had the faith to surrender his only heir..."

Scholars like von Rad reject the idea that this story was told as a polemic against Canaanite practices of child sacrifice. The point is that Abraham has learned to trust, or have faith in, the promise and the Promiser, something that is underscored in Genesis 22:8.

2. The story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is in keeping with an ongoing motif we've seen in Genesis 12 to 22. Time and again, God's promise of a new nation descending from Abraham appears to be hanging by the slenderest of threads. Always, seen through the squinting eyes of errant human faith and comprehension, God's promise is a dim light--barely an ember--seemingly on the brink of being extinguished. But God always lights the fire again.

Twenty-five years had passed from the time God first promised Abraham (then Abram) that he would father God's people until the birth of Isaac. It was so difficult for Abraham and Sarah to trust God and God's promise that on more than one occasion, they had taken matters into their own hands. Sarah gave her slave, Hagar, to birth a son. But God said that Ishmael, the result of that coupling, would not be the heir of promise. Twice, fearful of what others might do to him and thereby extinguish the promise, Abraham had lied to kings through whose domains he was traveling about the nature of his relationship with Sarah, nearly allowing the one designated by God to be the "princess" of Israel, the founding matriarch, to be taken in as other men's concubines. Each time, God intervened to keep the promise alive.

At times then, Abraham displays a puny faith, one that at times caused him to blush and blubber prayers of repentance before God. No matter. Genesis tells us that Abraham "believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). In other words, however haltingly, Abraham trusted in God and in spite of Abraham's sins and failings, God counted that belief as righteousness. By faith, he had a right and lasting relationship with God, the same kind of relationship we have available to us for belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus once said that all we need is faith the size of a tiny mustard seed. What's important isn't the size of our faith, but the size of the One in Whom we have faith!

3. How old Isaac was in Genesis 22, we don't know. But he was obviously old enough to know what was going on.

4. The ram in Genesis 22:14 exemplifies a more subtle form of divine intervention than we have typically seen in this book. God makes no grand pronouncements. There are no pyrotechnics. Just a ram "caught in a thicket by its horns." Interestingly, the ram may have been there all along, as von Rad points out. But Abraham noticed it at the right moment.

Sometimes, we become caught up in looking for big signs from God when God is already speaking to us. A Pentecostal colleague has told me more than once, "We Pentecostals are always looking for some big word from God. But God already gave us a Big Word. The Bible is God's Word." He's right. (And it isn't just Pentecostals who make this mistake!) The Gospel of John says that Jesus is the Word, God's ultimate revelation of Himself and of His will for us. Like U2, you and I can spend our lives saying, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for," when what we're looking for has already been provided and shown to us by God. We need to look at life through the eyes of faith.

By looking through the eyes of faith, Abraham passed the test and the promise was preserved!

5. The little report of the growing family of Abraham's kin back in Iraq may seem an unnecessary excursus here. But it really sets the table for what's to follow.

6. Genesis 23:1-20 doesn't seem terribly important and in the grand scheme of Genesis' story of the establishment of God's people, Israel, it probably isn't. But it does give a sort of whimsical view of how negotiations in the marketplaces of the ancient Near East were conducted. As von Rad points out, by his purchase of the cave at Machpelah as a burial spot for his wife, family, and himself, Abraham established a beachhead in the land God was to give to Israel so many centuries later.

7. I once heard a sermon on "success" by Pastor Rick Warren based on Genesis 24. Warren pointed out that this chapter uses the word success and related terms more often here than in any other chapter in the Bible.

This probably is significant for several reasons. First: Success isn't really a religious word. As von Rad points out, its use may be reflective of the speech and thought world of Abraham and his servant. They hadn't developed religious nomenclature. They didn't speak what Lutheran theologian Gerard Sloyan called religionspeak, the native language of a land where nobody lives. No pious phraseology here. The servant asks God for success in the mission entrusted him by his master, Abraham.

Second: Was this a wrong thing for the servant to ask of God? "What's the alternative?" Warren asked in that long-ago sermon, "That he ask God for failure?" When our intentions are to honor God, there is no way that asking God to bless us and our efforts can be wrong. I think that God wants us to know that!

8. The servant here isn't a run-of-the-mill servant. This guy is trusted by Abraham. Think chief administrator, trusted confidante, consigliore.

9. God does give the servant success and apparently because of Abraham's frail health, takes Rebekah, the wife for Isaac, back to his master's son immediately. By the time, Abraham has apparently passed away, bringing down the curtain on his part in patriarchal history.

10. Genesis 24:62-67 is a wonderful scene, epitomizing the manner in which this entire chapter has shown the subtle interplay between God's actions and human actions that characterize how life really is for people of faith. In this, it picks up the message of the ram in the thicket in chapter 22, that God often operates in subtle ways which, apart from viewing events through the eyes of faith, we might not see. The servant might well have simply thought that all his success, the very success which came in specific answers to specific prayers, was simply a catalog of coincidences. Nonetheless, whether swayed by the expensive gifts the servant brought or not, Rebekah's family seems as persuaded as the servant himself that all of this was God's doing.

The entire chapter also fuses two disparate notions of how a marriage should be initiated. On the one hand, the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah is, as was customary in Abraham's time, arranged by the groom's father with the bride's family. On the other, Rebekah's family, represented by her brother Laban, who oddly receives top-billing over his father, and the father Bethuel, leave it up to the prospective bride whether she will leave immediately to meet her husband. Rebekah is given a level of say in the matter that probably would not have ordinarily been given women in those days.

She opts to leave immediately and then you have this wonderful scene at the end of chapter 24. The couple whose marriage was arranged fall madly in love with each other. It's love at first sight. The Bible is actually pretty keen on romantic love, so long God is at the center of people's lives. (Check out the Song of Songs in the Old Testament if you don't believe me.)

[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7]

Growing Up as Christians: Truth for Healing

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on September 4, 2005.]

Matthew 18:15-20

This past week, I ran across some information that was released back in 2000. But I surmise more recent events would show a similar trendline. It looked at the total dollars awarded in the top ten US jury trials for the years 1997, 98, and 99. In 1997, $750-million was awarded in the top ten trials. In '98, the figure was $2.8-billion. In ‘99, $8.9-billion! One legal observer looked at these trends and concluded, “It’s just further evidence that suing someone has become the preferred means of solving disputes.”

In a society that has become obsessed with rights, I suppose that this trend is understandable. Everyone appears to have chips firmly placed on their shoulders, spoiling for a fight.

That shouldn’t be the case for we believers in Jesus Christ, though. Jesus tells us that when one member of the Church sins against another, we have the means of resolving things because He--the crucified, once-dead, now-risen, and living Lord of the universe--is with us. Jesus promises to be among us.

For some, the very notion that Christians might sin against each other and have disputes with one another doesn’t compute. The term disputacious Christian is an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp or Super Bowl champion Bengals.

Many outside the Church and many inside the Church believe that if Christians ever hurt each other, it’s proof that they’re not Christians. But the Church, as I’ve said before, is a hospital for hypocrites, a support group for recovering sinners, a haven for the imperfect.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian murdered by the Nazis in the waning days of World War Two for his opposition to Adolf Hitler, wrote a wonderful book on being part of the Church called Life Together. He warned Jesus Followers against falling so in love with our idealized conceptions of the Church that we’re disappointed when disputes arise. Christians are called to live not in the Kingdom of Nice, but in the Kingdom of God with other real-life, feeling, thinking human beings.

And this side of heaven, though we’re forgiven and recovering sinners, we’re still nonetheless, sinners capable of doing wrong and of wronging others.

Part of growing up as followers of Jesus Christ then, is recognizing that we won’t always agree on everything. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those disputes we have with other Christians are insignificant. But sometimes, they’re the result of someone sinning against us or, at least, our belief that they've sinned against us.

Jesus says that the way for Christians to handle such situations isn’t to simply ignore them. Or to sue the other person’s socks off. Or to begin a whispering campaign against them. Or to demand that our friends side with us and against the offending party. Or to simply ignore the other person. As followers of Jesus, we can dare to live life differently. We can take a more difficult approach. Jesus outlines that approach in our Bible lesson this morning.

But before looking at the steps in the process Jesus tells us to take, I need to make a few quick points.

First of all, Jesus isn’t talking about situations in which Christians simply disagree or in which one thoughtlessly and accidentally offends another. Years ago, I opened my morning paper in Columbus to see that the brother of a guy I had known through political involvement there had been indicted for murder. The next day, the police said that the guy had confessed and given them his motive. He told the police, “I didn’t like the way he looked at me.” Unfortunately, in a similar fashion, many Christians want to make capital cases out of the perceived slights of other Christians. We need to get over that kind of immaturity.

Second, the process Jesus outlines may have some application to disputes we have with those outside the Church, but for we Christians, this is really inside stuff. Maintaining the fellowship of believers is so important to our credibility in the world that Jesus is insistent that we do everything we can to restore that fellowship when sin has breached it.

So, what is the process outlined by Jesus?

First: We go to the person we think has sinned against us. The congregation I formerly served in northwestern Ohio was in a rural setting in which we had to burn all our trash. Once, during a drought season, the burn barrel fairly full, the fire I started fell out of the barrel and onto the ground. It took me quite a bit of quick effort to put it out. When I finally did, three-quarters of the softball infield was black. The next day, a bunch of kids were playing ball there and asked what had happened. I told them about my fire. That evening, I got a call from a church members asking why I’d told everybody he’d started the fire. “I didn’t,” I told him. “I told everybody I’d started the fire and what a dolt I'd been to have done so.”

The point: That man didn’t bother gossiping to anybody else, complaining about how I’d pinned a bad reputation on him. He went directly to me and in a matter of moments, things were resolved.

Jesus says that when another Christian sins against us, we’re to go to them privately. We may learn that they didn’t really sin against us and fellowship will be restored.

Second: If the other person turns out to be unwilling to hear you out, you’re to enlist two or three other Christians to listen to both of you and guide you toward restoration.

Lutheran pastor Mike Foss tells the true story of a time when he and a man in his congregation and his three sons formed an intervention group to confront a wife and mother for her gambling addiction, something that was having a devastating effect on them and on her. At the beginning of this session, for twenty minutes, her husband laid out all the evidence for his concern for his wife and what it was doing to their family. Then, weeping, he told her how much he loved her. Writes Foss:
“She looked at her three boys, took a long look at her husband, and then looked at me. What came out of her mouth next was probably the fiercest barrage of venom I’d ever heard from anyone...ever. With her three sons sitting close by, she called her husband names that made my skin crawl...”
That’s the sort of thing that can happen when we confront other believers for their sins against us. But if our motives are to help the other person and not get some sort of revenge, we can do this knowing that Christ is with us.

Third: If the person refuses to listen or repent, we’re to get the whole Church involved. Probably in our case, that would be through our Church Council.

You’ve heard me tell the true story of a church in northwestern Ohio. One member learned that another member of the congregation, a guy he didn’t like, had cancer. So, after worship one day, this fellow walked up to the cancer victim. “Joe,” he said, “I understand you have cancer.” “Yes,” Joe replied. “Well,” the first man said, “I guess you get what you deserve.”

When the pastor got wind of this remark, he followed the process Jesus outlines in today’s lesson. The man refused to repent and ultimately, the Church Council decided that he was no longer a member of the congregation and could not receive Holy Communion.

The whole point in this process is not for us to spiritually look down our noses on others, but to restore relationships.

Sometimes, you and I can become so addicted to our sins that we can’t even hear God’s Holy Spirit calling us to turn from sin and back to walking with Christ. This process is designed to act as a megaphone so that those who sin against us can hear and heed the Holy Spirit again. It requires courage and truthfulness and humility and a commitment to living in the fellowship of a church to which Christ calls all believers.

For all the risks, the results of pursuing this process can be wonderful! Years ago, I became aware of a fellow Christian saying some things about me to others that were completely untrue, things that if unchallenged, would severely damage my reputation.

I stewed about what to do for awhile. Jesus, of course, warns His followers that people outside the fellowship of the Church are going to routinely sin against us and say untrue things about us, designed to savage our reputations and hurt the cause of calling others to faith in Christ. But when that savagery is an inside job, Jesus says that we need to deal with it.

So, I prayed and, hands shaking, picked up the telephone and confronted the guy. He immediately confessed that he had repeatedly said the things I’d heard attributed to him, apologized, and promised to tell everyone to whom he had previously spoken that his statements had been untrue.

That man died a few months later and I presided over his funeral. I felt a special twinge of sadness because not long before, our confrontation and the restoration that resulted had given us a good friendship. We genuinely appreciated and loved one another.

That’s what can happen when we allow Christ to guide us in growing up--caring enough to love, to confront, to work toward a deeper fellowship with those who, like us, are Jesus Christ's ambassadors to the world.

[NOTES: The information on the top ten lawsuits nationally for three consecutive years comes from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion and was originally cited in both Lawyer's Weekly USA and World. Mike Foss' messages can be seen by subscribers of ]

Scalia or Thomas for CJ? I Doubt It

Ann Althouse wonders if President Bush will nominate either Justice Antonin Scalia or Justice Clarence Thomas to the Chief Justiceship. I don't think so.

But, were Bush to elevate someone from the Court, I think it would more likely be Scalia than Thomas. Both would be lightning rods in any confirmation process, but Thomas even more than Scalia. Scalia is more highly esteemed for his intellect than is Thomas, even by foes. Scalia is also tighter with Vice President Cheney and other members of the Bush Administration, it would seem, than Thomas.

Having said all that, I think there's a less than 50% chance that Bush will nominate either of them for Chief Justice. As a result of Chief Justice Rehnquist's death, the Roberts confirmation hearings are apt to be even more bruising and contentious than they were going to be already. Because Roberts is nominated to replace a justice regarded as a "swing" vote (although on balance, I think, one has to identify O'Connor as a conventional conservative jurist), his nomination was already more important and had larger implications than if he were simply a conservative judge appointed by a conservative President to replace a conservative Justice. Because the President gets to appoint two new members of the court, giving the conservatives an edge, liberals and conservatives will feel greater urgency to either thwart or facilitate Roberts' confirmation by the Senate.

The President already has a list of Chief Justice nominees left over from the days just months ago, when many thought that Renhquist would resign. So, I think that he's likely to nominate someone relatively quickly.

Assuming that the list isn't closed, if I were advising the President, purely from a political standpoint, I would counsel him not to appoint either Scalia or Thomas for the chief justiceship. Their opponents' arguments against them are all well-rehearsed and particularly in the case of Thomas, there is no need to conduct a re-run of his associate justice confirmation hearings. From the President's standpoint, there's no reason to go to the Alamo for Scalia or Thomas when he's already got them and their votes on the Court.

This might in fact be the time for the President to nominate someone like I was suggesting earlier for O'Connor's spot: A conservative pol possessing credibility with Dems and solid judicial credentials, one who can sail through the process and not arouse consternation from the right or vituperation from the left. To me that looks like Orrin Hatch or, for a slightly younger tilt, Mike DeWine.

In none of this am I expressing opinions about the judicial philosophies of any of these people. I'm simply interested in the politics of this moment.