Saturday, September 17, 2005

Another Prescient Article That Foresaw Katrina's Destruction of New Orleans

You may have already seen the Popular Mechanics article, published on September 11, 2001, that foresaw with chilling clarity exactly what would happen when a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, like Katrina, hit New Orleans.

Now, check out this piece which appeared in National Geographic last October.

All of this pushes the question forward: Should federal dollars be used to rebuild New Orleans to its pre-Katrina status?

(I found the link to the National Geographic piece here.)

The Subversive God (Getting to Know Jesus, One Chapter at a Time, Part 15)

A pattern is emerging as we take this fresh look at Jesus chapter-by-chapter in the Gospel of Matthew. It goes like this: Jesus offers God's grace--God's charitable and undeserved acceptance--to all people. Then religious leaders, most especially the Pharisees, oppose Him strenuously.


Because grace is utterly subversive to conventional human religiosity, especially to those mired in religious legalism. Religious legalists see faith as something we do, a lifestyle of good deeds and pious acts we perform that earn us heavenly brownie points.

The Bible with which Jesus' first-century Judean contemporaries were familiar showed that righteousness--rightness with God--isn't a status we earn, but a gift to those who trust God and His promises. The patriarch of Biblical faith was Abraham, whose behaviors weren't always exemplary. But Abraham trusted God and God's promises and the Bible says that God "reckoned" that trust as "righteousness."

But for the religious legalist and most of the human race, God's way of doing things, is deeply offensive to human pride. From the beginning, the weakness of the human race has been our desire to "be like God": in control, in charge. It was the temptation to be like God that first lured Eve and Adam to rebel against God's explicit instructions designed to make their lives good.

We even want to be in charge when it comes to God. Our pride demands that we control the road to our salvation, not God. We try to turn our whole relationship with God into a business arrangement, putting ourselves on an equal footing with the Creator of the universe: I discharge certain acts, we arrogantly say, and God has to let us into His kingdom.

Religious legalists are especially prone to this way of thinking. The more good deeds they perform and the more outward signs of piety they exhibit, the more superior, smug, and self-righteous it makes them feel.

There's nothing wrong with good deeds, of course. Even Jesus' earthly brother, James, writes that "faith without works is dead," meaning that a relationship with the God we know in Jesus Christ is bound to show up in how we live our lives. It seems to be Jesus' teaching that the closer we grow to Him and the more we surrender our lives to Him, the more involuntarily will His goodness and love be expressed in the way we live each day.

But that wasn't enough for Jesus' critics. It never is for human beings, overtly religious or not, who insist on being gods themselves. We see this theme throughout much of Matthew 12.

Matthew 12:1-14. Jesus is challenged by Pharisees, traditionalists who touted the law as the way to be right with God. The Pharisees often get a bad rap. Although they were unrelenting legalists and were among Jesus' earliest and most ardent opponents, they had some views similar to Jesus. They believed, for example, in the importance of the Scriptures and unlike the other major sect if influential first-century Jewish teachers, the Saducees, in a bodily resurrection for believers.

The term Pharisees seems to mean pure ones or separate ones in Hebrew. To their credit, the Pharisees were devoted to thorough study and explication of the Scriptures, then composed solely of the Old Testament. But they often used their knowledge as a mallet on the religiously-gullible whom they bullied.

As our chapter in Matthew begins, Jesus' disciples, who are hungry, pass through fields of ripe grain and, as was allowed by God's law, effectually "harvested" some of it, grabbing the heads of grain, rolling them between their fingers and thumbs, and eating them. The Pharisees don't argue with the disciples' right to pluck the grain. But they do object to this "harvesting." This, the Pharisees said, was work and it was a Sabbath day when work was prohibited.

In His response, Jesus points back in memory to one of Judaism's greatest heroes, King David, described in the Old Testament as "a man after God's own heart." The Pharisees, because of their knowledge of the Scriptures, were bound to accept the validity of the precedent Jesus cites. Jesus says there was a point when David and his companions were hungry and ate bread from the altar of God, which as Jesus puts it, "no one but priests were allowed to eat." (First Samuel 21:1-6)

Jesus' whole point is that God's laws aren't created so that we can tote up records as religious goody-two shoes. They're meant to delineate the places within which life is godly and good. It's also designed to cause us to see our distance from God's plan for us and turn to Him for forgiveness and empowerment for godly living.

But when a strict adherence to the law threatens life or the doing of compassion, we should opt for life and love.
Citing another example--of a person working to pull out a lamb who has fallen into a ravine on a Sabbath day--Jesus says that it's entirely okay to give God's love away and to discharge the practical acts that common sense would indicate to be necessary even if it may technically violate another of God's laws. The highest law is the law of love. The Pharisees, of course, are enraged by Jesus' comments, counting them as further evidence to be used against Him.

Matthew 12:15-21. Jesus points to Isaiah 42:14, the opening verses of the prophet's famous Servant Song, foretelling the coming of a Suffering Servant Who would redeem the fallen and the hurting. Written many centuries before Jesus' birth, Jesus here makes clear that He is the Servant foretold by the prophet. At the end of these words, Isaiah (and Jesus) say that the Servant brings hope not only for God's people, the Jews, but also to believing non-Jews, Gentiles, or as The Message paraphrase fashions it, "far-off unbelievers."

Matthew 12:22-37. This is an intriguing section of Matthew's Gospel. Jesus encounters a man filled with a demon who is also blind and deaf. He casts out the demon and restores the man's sight and hearing. That's a good thing, right? Expressive of God's love and power?

But the Pharisees by now, are apoplectic in their revulsion of everything Jesus does and says. Convinced of their own righteousness and that Jesus has failed to attain their high and holy status, they accuse Him of healing and casting out demons with the power of the Devil.

Jesus' response was alluded to by Abraham Lincoln in his famous "house divided" speech. As Jesus uses the image however, it pokes fun at the Pharisees' absurd assertion. If, Jesus is saying, the power of hell is being used to bring God's goodness and healing into people's lives, it would only demonstrate that the devil's dominion is rife with civil war and would simply fall apart. The devil would be playing into God's hands; so, God is the winner no matter what. "But," Jesus says, "if it's by God's kingdom that I am sending the evil spirits packing, then God's kingdom is here for sure."

Alluding to the Pharisees' accusations against Him, Jesus says:
"There's nothing done or said that can't be forgiven. But if you deliberately persist in your slanders against God's Spirit, you are repudiating the very One who forgives. If you reject the Son of Man out of some misunderstanding, the Holy Spirit can forgive you, but when you reject the Holy Spirit, you're sawing off the branch on which you're sitting, severing by your own perversity all connections with the One who forgives." (Matthew 12:31-32)
The take-away for us, I think, is that through Jesus Christ, God offers forgiveness and new life to everybody. But if we refuse to allow the Holy Spirit, through God's Word, other people, or our daily experiences, to either convict us of sin or convince us that we can be forgiven and empowered for better and everlasting living through Jesus, we're doing the same thing the Pharisees do in this passage. In effect, we saw ourselves off from the branch of rejection and pride on which we've chosen to perch.

Matthew 22:38-44. The next segment of the chapter begins almost comically. Jesus has just used the very power of heaven to free a man from a demon and restore his sight and hearing. But the Pharisees approach Him and say:
"Teacher, we want to see your credentials. Give us some hard evidence that God is in this. How about a miracle?"
As Homer Simpson would say, "Doh!" Were the Pharisees deliberately obtuse or were they, as is far more likely, such legalists that they couldn't allow the Holy Spirit to help them see the truth about Jesus' identity and the new life He offers?

In His response, Jesus alludes to the Old Testament prophet Jonah. God commissioned Jonah to go tell the people of a city called Nineveh that God had plans to destroy their town. But Jonah hated the Ninevites and was certain of God's kindness and grace. He was sure that if he told the Ninevites what God's plans were, they would turn from their sin (repent), ask for forgiveness, and walk with God. Jonah didn't want that. So, as someone has said, instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah took a Mediterranean cruise. Displeased with Jonah, God caused a storm that only stopped after Jonah told the passengers and crew of the ship he'd boarded to throw him into the drink. He was, famously, swallowed by a large sea creature and was in the belly for three days. Finally, Jonah was vomited onto land. Once he made it to Nieneveh, Jonah probably made a stunning sight. (He was probably plenty smelly, too.)

Jesus' point: The only sign you people are going to get from God is the same one the people Nineveh got, a person who emerges from entombment after three days. Jesus, of course, is alluding to His crucifixion and resurrection.

Those two events are the ultimate confirmation of His identity as God and Savior, of His power over sin and death, and of His capacity to offer forgiveness and new lives to those who believe in Him.

Matthew 12:43-45. This is a passage I want to address in a separate post at another time.

Matthew 12:46-50. The chapter closes with Jesus saying that earthly familial relationships are of a lower priority than our relationship with Him. If our families ask us to turn our backs on Christ or His call to love God and love neighbor, we must be willing to turn our backs on our families. Stark words. But Jesus isn't asking us to do anything He wasn't willing to do Himself. He never does.

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

Guidelines for Loving the World for Christ

No More Religion!]

Friday, September 16, 2005

If You're Concerned About the Avian Flu: The Time to Act is Now!

You know that our country is almost completely unprepared for an Avian Flu pandemic that appears inevitable.

PLEASE take the time to write to your states two US Senators, your representative in the House, and to the White House expressing your concern. You could even send them a link to this article, which contains information from several sources, all of which point to the necessity of getting the medication needed to deal with this deadly disease.

Ask the leaders of government to do everything possible to acquire Tamiflu, the medication that can help with the treatment of Avian Flu victims. A vaccine is anywhere between extremely difficult to impossible to make.

Hurry! We have no idea of when the virus will mutate, making human-to-human transmission of the disease possible. Experts say it will be sooner or later. The threat is immense. Let's not be caught off-guard!

If you follow the links below, they will give you access to the email addresses of your two Senators, your Representative, and the President:

US House of Representatives

US Senate

The President

"Totally Inadequate!"

That's how Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, a physician, describes this country's preparation for an outbreak of what even the President acknowledges could be this century's first pandemic.

Epidemiologists and disaster planners project that once the deadly virus that causes Avian Flu mutates and acquires the capacity to be transferred from human to human, it would move from its home in China to New York City in less than two weeks.

Because the flu doesn't begin with conventional symptoms, but imbeds itself deeply in the victims' lungs, it can kill within three days.

The Bush Administration, says even Republicans, has been slow in acquiring the one medicine that is known to help in treating the disease. While Great Britain has acquired enough of the medication to care for one-quarter of its population and officials in London are shopping for additional morgue space, the US has only about 2-million doses on hand.

The results of an outbreak of Avian Flu in this country would leave a trail of death that would make September 11 and Hurricane Katrina combined look like slight brushes with tragedy.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The virus could mutate any day and our country is unprepared!

In my opinion, before a penny of federal money is spent on rebuilding the infrastructure of New Orleans, the President should make sure that there is plenty of medication ready to meet this disease. Barring that, he should order up plenty of body bags and caskets.

For more information, see here. (This post is a mere distillation of that article.) Also read Hugh Hewitt's informative piece here.

A Major Difference in Black and White Opinions About Katrina Relief

Michael Barone raises an important question about the differences in perceptions of Hurricane Katrina relief that exist between African Americans on the one hand and non-Hispanic White Americans on the other hand. It's apparent in a CNN-USA Today Poll he cites:
Just your best guess, do you think one reason the federal government was slow in rescuing these people was because many of them were black, or was that not a reason?

Yes, was a reason No, was not No opinion
Blacks - - -
2005 Sep 8-11 60% 37% 3%
Non-Hispanic Whites - - -
2005 Sep 8-11 12% 86% 2%

As we look to address the racial and class divides that have been brought into sharp view as a result of Hurricane Katrina, this poll shows how difficult it will be to do that. The differences in perception on the parts of the Black and White communities are dramatic. Most whites seem to acknowledge major difficulties, which they attribute to incompetence, poor planning, and poor follow-through.

But how one perceives a problem obviously will have an effect on how one addresses it. That has implications for the ambitious program the President outlined last night.

How Involved Should Military Be in Domestic Law Enforcement?

That's an important question raised by Glenn Reynolds in response to President Bush's speech of last evening.

Bush Propoals Pose LBJ Question: How Much of Guns AND Butter?

This morning's New York Times has an account of mounting Republican dismay with President Bush's Gulf Coast recovery program. Republican members, already concerned about huge federal deficits unrelated to the war in Iraq, are wondering how the government will pay for the massive federal spending program the President proposes.

In an address delivered from a hauntingly vacant New Orleans last night, the President sounded like Lyndon Johnson, at the height of both his war on poverty and the war in Vietnam. Mr. Bush announced that like his Texas predecessor, he was going to spend billions to pay for both guns and butter.

Democrats and some Republicans were quick to trumpet Mr. Bush's $200-billion spending program, including the investment of billions of federal dollars in rebuilding New Orleans. Other Republicans said that before signing blank checks, the Administration and the Congress ought to look for offsetting cuts to be made in federal spending. This would avoid throwing the budget further into deficit.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, as well as his House counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, endorsed the President's approach, saying basically that there is no time to look for offsets.

Whether Congress will debate the advisability of using federal money to rebuild New Orleans is unclear. But through Glenn Reynolds, we learn that in an online poll, Popular Mechanics has found that more than three-quarters of respondents are opposed to the use of federal dollars for resurrecting the Crescent City.

Of course, in opposing some of the President's spending plans, Republicans risk appearing mean-spirited. However, it's perfectly possible to favor using federal money to help Gulf Coast residents rebuild their lives and to fight the racism, classism, and poverty made apparent in the wake of Hurricane Katrina without contributing to the country's financial ruin or rebuilding a city that lies below sea level, sets in the inevitably-changing Mississippi Delta, is prone to hurricanes, and has a lake bounding it on another side.

The hurricane has past. The time for having an honest debate seems to be now. Whether it will happen or not is unclear.

For more, see the following: here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

While in the Van...

...I've been listening to the new Gorillaz CD. I haven't even begun to listen to the lyrics, so don't take this as an endorsement. The fusion of many different musical styles, the dark timbre of which goes with the comic book animations intrigue me.

It seems to me that the entire Gorillaz project could be a harbinger of things to come. For one thing it perfectly fuses audio and visual dimensions and it allows musicians who might be considered "over the hill" by younger audiences to continue to present them with music to which they might not otherwise be open.

I could do without songs that have titles like, Kids with Guns, although with a sound reminiscent of Dire Straits and a catchy melody, it's difficult to avoid having it play over in your mind.

The Songs To Which I Keep Listening...

...on the new Paul McCartney CD are Too Much Rain and Riding to Vanity Fair. For a time, you can listen to them here.

Most Intriguing Line of Questioning at Roberts Hearings

We know that the Democrats want Judge Roberts to talk about his personal feelings on abortion, the right to die, and other issues.

We also know that Judge Roberts insists that he must be an "umpire" and therefore, can't comment on matters that might come up before the Court.

That's made the confirmation hearings on Roberts' nomination to become Chief Justice, something of a standoff that accrues to Roberts' advantage.

That's made for rather boring hearings, I suppose.

But there has been one intriguing line of questioning: That pursued by Senator Specter and recounted here.

When the courts are excoriated for "judicial activism," those complaining don't usually catalog infringements on the legislative branch, which they hold in as low esteem as the courts. Maybe lower.

Historically, it should be said, Congress has rarely been highly regarded by Americans. Today, for a whole lot of reasons, we seem to hold most governmental institutions in low regard, which doesn't bode well for a democracy. Specter's complaints against the Court then, aren't apt to create a public outcry. Though people may not care for activist judges, they're not likely to join a campaign to enhance congressional power in relation to the judiciary branch either.

All in all, this is an interesting example of the interplay and the very healthy tugging that the Framers foresaw when they incorporated the separation of powers into the Constitution.

A Beauitful Way to Help Hurricane Katrina Relief

Landscape artist Rebecca Grantham has created a set of beautiful greeting cards with the themes of "hope" and "healing." They're being sold on ebay and, it says, 100% of the purchase price will go to the American Red Cross for hurricane relief. For more details, go here.

Detachment Can Seem Like Such a Good Idea...

...It seems a good strategy for insulating ourselves from the pains of the world. But unless we're willing to experience rejection, we can never experience acceptance, love, or the blessings of community and family. Read the ever-wonderful Richard Lawrence Cohen's fictional vignette.

You may also be interested in:

The Risk of Rejection

How to Cope with Rejection

At the Risk of Displaying My Ignorance

Until I read this blog post, I'd never heard of soduku or kakuro.

Curious George Behind the Scenes

Bonhomme Soleil has a brief and surprising vignette about the husband-wife team who created Curious George, the mischievous monkey of children's books fame. It comes from a book, which BS recommends. Check it out here. (By the way, the site isn't BS.)

Bookmarks has more on Curious George here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Are Politics and Incompetence Inhibiting Contributions to Katrina Relief?

Jay at Radical Centrist presents anecdotal evidence from his own community that says they are. He reports on a gathering of his Silicon Valley neighbors:
The reason these regular donors were sitting on their wallets? Politics. Katrina is no longer a simple natural disaster, it has become a political event, which drives some of the potential donations and volunteers away. The reaction came from both sides of the political spectrum. One of the more significant donors is so frustrated and angry at the government that she "doesn't want to jump in and do his job." One guess who the "him" is. Others were turned off, and turned away by the ugly racial angle. "Playing the race card" was a powerful disincentive to these (mostly) white potential donors. The need of the victims was apparent, but the relief effort had acquired the bad taste of racial politics, and they felt they would rather find other ways to contribute.
I hope this isn't a widespread reality. Relief is too important and there are far too many reputable non-governmental agencies that will be involved for us to sit on our wallets now!

McCartney's 'Chaos and Creation in the Backyard': A Review

No one who reads this blog will be surprised by my confessing that I'm a fan of Paul McCartney.

But you probably also know that I'm far from an uncritical fan. On the long and winding road of his solo career, McCartney has gotten lost more than once or twice. Wildlife was a joke. Red Rose Speedway had a few worthwhile tracks. Back to the Egg and Venus and Mars had some nice tunes, but were not great albums. McCartney II and a few other releases were eminently forgettable.

But along the way, Macca has also produced LPs that range from classics to solid: Band on the Run, Flowers in the Dirt, Flaming Pie, Driving Rain, and Tug of War.

Improbable as it may seem to some though, after teaming up with producer Nigel Godrich for his twentieth post-Beatles release, Paul McCartney, at age 63, has released the best LP of his solo career, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.

While Macca's voice is not nearly as good as it was in the early 80s, when it was at its zenith, it remains a serviceable instrument here. And speaking of instruments, as he did on his first solo release, the wonderful McCartney (released in 1970) and the disappointing McCartney II, of a decade later, he plays almost all the instruments on this LP himself.

Two things make Chaos and Creation in the Backyard great. First, there are all the surprising melodies. While the first track, Fine Line, is pleasant and conventionally McCartneyesque, the rest of the LP finds Macca employing his gift for melody in adventurous new ways, taking off on intriguing chord progressions and minor keys.

Second, and perhaps most surprisingly, are the fabulous lyrics, the best of his solo career. They're mostly mature, sophisticated, and insightful. Maybe McCartney's recent renunciation of marijuana has cleared up his mind because there's a clarity in the lyrics here that has not always been apparent before.

I love the musical sparseness of the whole project. It has the feel of spending an evening in some small venue with one of the giants of popular music, finally and freely shedding the pop maestro mantle to be a grown-up, reflective successor to the young musician who once, with his mates from Liverpool, dazzled us with his talent for words and music. It is the most consistently good release of his career.

You can listen to most of Chaos and Creation in the Backyard on AOL for a time. You can hear extended samples from the whole thing here. My favorite tunes are Riding to Vanity Fair, Follow Me (although the first few lines of the verses sounds a little like that song of Adam Sandler's on the airplane in The Wedding Singer), This Never Happened, Anyway, Friends to Go, Too Much Rain, and Jenny Wren.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Place of 'Place' in Faith and Life (Part 2)

The images of the Gulf Coast evacuees, living in shelters and in many instances, searching for family members from whom they've been separated, are heart-wrenching.

Thousands of people, some of them lifelong residents of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, have been forced by circumstances way beyond human control to leave homes that have been destroyed by winds, flooding, and a type of mud that's usually labeled toxic soup.

In many cases, those homes and the memories and familiar comforts they once held will be bulldozed under, never to be seen again. Thousands have moved already to Houston, Baton Rouge, Memphis, and countless other places, all to begin, however reluctantly and heavy-heartedly, new lives in new places.

What a horrible feeling it must be for them!

Most of us, I suppose, hated our junior high years, that time between ages twelve and fifteen. I know that I did. It's a tough time, a period when we're trying to grow up and when the opinions of others matter infinitely to us. Somehow, I landed near the bottom of the junior high pecking order and found myself on most days outmanned by a coterie of classmates who proved their masculine mettle by using me as punching bag. A few blocks' distant from school on my daily walks home though, I was a solo act, at the end of which something wonderful happened.

I hadn't thought much about those walks home for a long time when, a few years back, I found myself walking down the street on which I grew up with my father and my son. It was, during my junior high days, a relatively quiet, tree-lined place with pretty homes and friendly neighbors. My grandparents lived just down the street in a house they built in 1950. South Southampton Avenue, and the two homes at which I felt "at home" there, were my shelter from adolescent storms.

"You know," I told my father and my son, "when I turned onto South Southampton from Olive Avenue after school each day, I remember seeing this street and thinking, 'This is the most perfect place in the world.'"

Of course it wasn't perfect. But it's a thing of indescribable comfort to have a place called "home." For a kid who spent the day as a punching bag, it was especially comforting.

In spite of our unprecedented mobility as a society--maybe because of it, we still latch onto the comforts of home. We celebrate home, celebrate attachment to a special familial place in countless ways in our culture. Hallmark commercials bring us to tears because we feel the hankering for home so deeply. We click our heels with Dorothy as we recite, "There's no place like home." We weep joyfully on Christmas Eve with George Bailey, who had always desperately wanted to leave Bedford Falls, but comes to see the beauty of a well-worn and well-known place that enriches with friendship and love. And in that most American (and I would say, most perfect) of sports, baseball, you don't score a run until you've reached home, a goal the shape of which suggests a house.

All of this awkward rhapsodizing may seem to contradict what I wrote in the first installment of this series. There, I warned against being too in love with places, especially places of worship. I wrote there that, "Any place can be holy, a place where we can encounter God and where we can fulfill His call to love Him and others."

And since, as Martin Luther reminds us, the family is to be a "little church," an archetype of the big communion of believers in Christ that the Church is, this particular notion of the place of place in our lives applies as well to the apartment or house where a family lives as to a building in which a church worships.

It seems to me that, as is true of the people we love, we're to hold onto the places we love rather loosely. We can treasure them. But we must always remember that, whether because of job transfers or graduations or hurricanes, our connections to places--as well as to people--may be severed. Nothing on this planet lasts forever.

My mentor in seminary, Pastor Bruce Schein, used to tell us to never become too attached to a place. "Love the people with every bit of devotion God gives you," he would tell we prospective pastors, "but when it's time for you to move on, be ready to do it on a moment's notice."

Still, it's hard not to be attached to a place. I'm not sure that, for all the potential heartache that can come from it, that we should try too hard to keep from being attached.

There's a spot in northwestern Ohio, amid corn and soybean fields, where the farming and the flat reclaimed swampland conspire, allowing gentle breezes to blow without obstruction almost all the time. Though I lived there for only six years, it and the people with whom we lived our lives there, will always seem like a home to me.

So will the place called The Oval, the campus green at Ohio State, and the William Oxley Thompson Library stacks, which is its focal point. In my imagination, I can still approach the place where I spent so many hours reading--sometimes even from the books my profs assigned, while the Orton Hall belltower chimes.

In his fabulous book, The Journey of Desire, John Eldredge writes of a conversation he had with a fellow Christian. The other person alludes to conventional Christian notions that the world will one day be destroyed by fire and thinks of all the beauty that exists on this planet that is our home. "I hate the the thought of losing this place," the person confesses. "So do I," says Eldredge.

But, as Eldredge later points out, we needn't feel this way. He refers to one of the last scenes in The Last Battle, another great book, the sublime final installment of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. In it, Aslan, the Great Lion, who is the "son of the emperor over the sea" has just brought an end to Narnia as it had been known, a special place occasionally visited by eight different children from our world.

I'm going to quote now extensively from Eldredge's book because what he says is so good and so important. (I urge you to someday soon read it for yourself.)

At the end..., Aslan seems to have brought that delightful kingdom to an end, and the children are left to mourn its loss.

"So," said Peter, "night falls on Narnia. What Lucy! You're not crying? With Aslan ahead and all of us here?" "Don't try to stop me, Peter," said Lucy, "I am sure Aslan would not. I am sure it is not wrong to mourn for Narnia. Think of all that lies dead and frozen behind that door." "Yes, and I did hope," said Jill, "that it might go on forever. I knew our world couldn't. I did think Narnia might." "Sirs," said Tirian. "The ladies do well to weep. See, I do so myself. I have seen my mother's death. What world but Narnia have I ever known? It were no virtue, but great discourtesy, if we did not mourn."

But as the children venture farther into Aslan's country, they begin to recognize every rock and stream and tree. They have been there before. And then they discover, to their wonder and joy, that Narnia exists forever in Aslan's country, that the world they loved has been preserved, though more rich and more real than ever.

It was the unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed, and then cried, "I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this."
The New Testament tells us that when Jesus, the Son of the Father in heaven, has returned to us, He'll bring an end to life on this planet that we have called our home. Even now, when I think of the mountains in Colorado that my family so enjoyed a few years back...or the hedge-crossed fields of northwestern England that so charmed me on a bus tour five years ago...or the Schleswig-Holstein region in Germany and the portion of Denmark that hugs the Baltic which my daughter and I visited a year-and-a-half later...when I think of these places and the whole earth coming to an end, I'm saddened. They all are a part of my homeland, the only place I've ever lived.

Yet the New Testament also tells us that all with faith in Jesus Christ will one day live in the midst of "a new heaven and a new earth." Gone, as Eldredge reminds us, will be strip malls and strip mines, as well as all the other desecrations to which our fallen race has subjected this heaven and earth. We'll know that the reason we have so loved our homes here so much is because of the longing we have always had for the home for which we all were made. We will be truly at home. We will be in God's country and it will be perfect.

Katrina and the Goldilocks Constituency

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, pols of both parties would do well to tailor their messages and their policies to the views of what I call The Goldilocks Constituency.

The mood of this large group of voting age Americans, likely to grow owing to dismay with local, state, and federal governments for their slow and ineffective responses to Hurricane Katrina, was well described by Associated Press political analyst Ron Fournier today:
Americans do not necessarily want bigger or smaller government. They want better government; less bureaucracy, less partisanship and more focus on delivering services that help people thrive in a complex new era.
For several decades, it seems, American politics has been mired in a predictable kabuki dance. The Right and Republicans have their proscribed talking points as do the Left and Democrats. Each are supported by a shrinking and increasingly partisan cadre of true-believing volunteers, contributors, pundits, radio hosts, and more recently, bloggers.

But, at the same time, a large and growing group of Americans feel increasingly alienated from politics and government. The pols and their supporters argue over the size of government and whether prosperity can be achieved with Keynesian or Laffer Curve budget deficits. But, like Goldilocks, looking for the place that was "just right," Americans aren't particularly concerned with partisan propriety. They want government that is the right size, has the right priorities, and when lives are on the line, does the right thing.

Many in this constituency were already taking a pass on voting, seeing the actions and arguments of the Left and the Right as irrelevant and immobilizing. They're part of an even larger number of adult Americans, one that also includes those who vote, but do so with little enthusiasm. All have an increasingly disenchanted view of government or its ability to get anything done.

It's not really that the members of this large group are moderates, adhering to positions between the Right and the Left. Their politics has really moved beyond these twentieth-century constructs and they're disgusted to see pols and pundits, like generals applying obsolete battle plans to new wars, fight old battles in the face of new challenges and opportunities.

If a 2008 Presidential candidate is able to credibly articulate a program and an approach that goes beyond the platitudes and conventions of Right-Left politics, arguing that government ought to be big enough to do its job and small enough to leave the law-abiding to live in peace, they may energize this Goldilocks constituency, both the disenchanted current voters and the ones who haven't been inspired enough to vote.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Mark Roberts Unmasks 'The Jesus Seminar'

Among the most destructive purveyors of disinformation on the planet these days are the folks of the Jesus Seminar. Able, gracious scholar-pastor Mark Roberts has begun a series delving into this group's work. Here's the link to the first installment of his series.

The Place of 'Place' in Faith and Life (Part 1)

The last Israeli soldiers have left Gaza, marking the end of Israel's thirty-eight year occupation of the region, allowing Palestinians to take control there. At least one of Gaza's 20 synagogues was set on fire after the last Israeli troops departed.

The disposition of the synagogues had been a subject of some debate within Israel in the run-up to withdrawal. Initially, the government planned to destroy the buildings along with abandoned Israeli housing. But, rabbis in Israel objected, saying that Jews should not destroy synagogues. Ultimately, the Israeli government reversed itself and let the buildings stand amid the rubble. (For more, see here.)

This decision put the Palestinian Authority in a no-win situation. If they destroyed the facilities themselves, they would appear ungracious and contribute to a sour atmosphere in future diplomacy with the seemingly more conciliatory Israeli government. If they failed to destroy the facilities, they wouldn't please their more radical constituents. If they stood by and watched celebrating Palestinians destroy what were symbols of foreign occupation, they would take it in the neck from both Palestinians and Israelis. In the end, the chose the third path. We must wait to see what the results will be.

But already in this incident and the debate leading up to it, we can see the potency of place in faith and life. There is a stubborn notion among adherents of all religions of the sanctity of place, of particular places where God presumably resides in a special way, spaces of what theologians call numinous awe.

This is one reason why people become incensed when places of worship are desecrated, torched, bombed, or torn down.

But apart from the disrespect that such actions show to the devotees that use such spaces, is this reaction rational?

This past weekend, I preached on Psalm 103:8-14. The Psalms is a worship song book used by ancient Jews, by their modern-day counterparts, and by we Christians. The psalm from which my preaching text was taken is part of a segment of the Psalms referred to as Book IV, composed of Psalms 90 through 106.

Many scholars think that Book IV may have been written or edited in response to an ancient captivity of historic Israel. This captivity saw the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, the people enslaved, and many of God's people sent away from the Promised Land into exile.

For a people that traced its roots back to God's promise of a place to Abraham and who believed that worship was centered in Jerusalem where the very presence of God was enthroned in the Holy of Holies within the Temple, this captivity raised many questions.

Among them:
Why had God allowed this to happen?

How could they be connected to God if they were separated from their land and from the temple?

Was God impotent?

Could God's reign extend to them in their captivity?
Book IV of the Psalms may represent part of the answer prayerfully derived by these stricken people, as are many portions of Isaiah and the works of other Old Testament prophets.

God's power, they said, is undiminished. He is the Lord of everything. He cannot be confined to places. He can be met and worshiped anywhere.

Jesus, the One I believe is the ultimate self-revelation of God, took this idea even further. In His encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well in Sychar one day, Jesus said, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth..." (John 4:21-24).

One of the things from which I think God wants to liberate us is the sense of "holy spaces." Any place can be holy, a place where we can encounter God and where we can fulfill His call to love Him and others.

I learned this lesson well in the twelve-plus years that our congregation worshiped in a school gymnasium. It was old and dusty. The ancient folding chairs and bleachers people used for seating were painful. The gravity furnace, which had its favorite spots to vent, turned the space where we normally gathered into a steam bath in the winter. In the summer, we were shifted around from one part of the building to another in order to accommodate the necessary annual maintenance schedule. (The building was so hot year-round that I sympathize with the students, teachers, staffers, and administrators who still work there and I've often joked that it would be the perfect site for me to do sermons on hell.)

But God was worshiped in that old, uncomfortable school. People were baptized and received Holy Communion. People were empowered and encouraged to live for God's glory.

Sometimes, when I'd get discouraged over the fact that our church wasn't in a building yet, I'd recall the memoir of a woman in China who had been taken prisoner by the occupying Japanese during World War Two. She was forbidden to be seen praying. But, desperate for God in her misery, she would daily sneak away to the spot where all the garbage and sewage of the prison camp were dumped. There, amid the rats, insects, and stench, she would pray to and praise God. It was, she said, the sweetest place in her world at that time.

It's horrible that some Palestinians are so filled with hatred that they feel compelled to burn down the symbols of others' faith. But it also strikes me as strange that the Israeli government felt unable to tear down the synagogues before the haters could set their torches. The government's decision seems more like superstition than faith. That decision, seemingly rooted in religious sensibilities, might have been a different one had they taken time to seek the counsel of the Psalms and the Old Testament prophets.

In the Christian tradition, born as it was in a context of persecution and pluralism, we have a hymn, referring to Jesus as the strong rock on Whom to build our lives, that says:

Built on a rock the Church shall stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in ev'ry land,
Bells still are chiming and calling--
Calling the young and old to rest,
Calling the souls of those distressed,
Longing for life everlasting.

Sadly, we Christians often fail to live up to those bold words. Instead of believing in the God Who graciously accepts us as we are and is willing to meet and help the repentant anywhere, we can become mired in the superstitious love of "holy places." Sometimes, we have unholy arguments over changing the places we use for worship, or moving them, abandoning them, or tearing them down. We do this even when both God's Spirit and the march of time are calling us to move on and to learn from the lesson of Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back.

No matter what one's view of the politics and the religion of the thing, the one-time Israeli occupants have done a hard thing. So has the Israeli government. No matter what their views of Judaism or of Israel, I hope that the Palestinian Authority will prevent any of the other synagogues from being destroyed.

The best thing the P.A. could do, I think, is announce that they are keeping them undefiled until the day when the Israeli government will be allowed to come and give the facilities decent burials, acknowledging the time-bound purpose they served...and then, moving on.

You Watch and You Decide

Watch Chris Wallace's interview with Louisiana's two US Senators yesterday and tell me what you think. (You get to it via The Political Teen.)

Times' Reviewer Loves 'Chaos and Creation in the Backyard'

I was interested to learn what New York Times reviewer John Pareles had to say about the latest release from Paul McCartney, an LP due out today. You get a feel for his sentiments from the opening paragraph:
There's a struggle on Paul McCartney's new album, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," and it's one that pays off. On one side is Sir Paul's gift for easy, bubbly melody - tunes that are so shapely that in the past he has often settled for finishing them as harmless little ditties. On the other side is his urge to experiment with sounds and structures and to recognize some darker thoughts - a smaller, but still significant part of his song catalog. For this album, on Capitol, Sir Paul chose a producer who favored the experimental side: Nigel Godrich, who has worked with Radiohead and Beck. Sir Paul also lined up his best backup band since the Beatles: himself.
Intriguing. And Pareles' rundown of several songs contains judgments consistent with the impressions I've formed from listening to a few cuts online. This, it seems, is a Macca effort which finds his legendary gift of melody in tact, but combines it with lyrical maturity and haunting forays into minor keys. The whole project feels more organic than anything McCartney has done in a long time.

Anyway, here is Pareles' review..

Nearly Forgotten Victims of Katrina

Media attention is so focused on New Orleans and its plight that what Katrina did in Missisippi and Alabama is nearly overlooked. In the New York Times this morning:
If the levees had held in New Orleans, the destruction wrought on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina would have been the most astonishing storm story of a generation. Whole towns have been laid flat, thousands of houses washed away and, statewide, the storm has been blamed for the deaths of 211 people, a toll far higher than those from Hurricanes Andrew, Hugo and Ivan.

But as it is, Mississippi - like the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 - is coping with an almost unimaginable catastrophe, largely overshadowed in the news media's attention and the national consciousness, in this case by the disaster in New Orleans.
The magnitude of Hurricane Katrina's impact is difficult to comprehend. As both the latest issue of The Economist and President Bush have pointed out, the hurricane brought disaster to an area the size of Great Britain! Because of the vastness of the impacted area, one can't blame the media for the attention on New Orleans.

Besides, the triple disasters of the hurricane, the levee breaks, and shall we say, the questionable official responses to the first two events in a large American city which has, in many respects, been wiped out, has created an enormous story. Journalists and we consumers of journalism can only focus our attention so many places at once.

In any case, prayer is optional, but highly recommended. So too, are donations to our favorite relief agencies.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Thoughts on 9/11

It's one measure of the degree to which the events of four years ago today are seared on our memories that when speaking of them, all we have to say is, "9/11."

No one wonders whether we're referring to a date or an emergency number.

And nobody asks the year.

But I worry about what we're doing with this day. It's being called Patriot's Day by some, celebrated with national songs, speeches, and red, white, and blue bunting.

Don't get me wrong: I believe in patriotism. Readers of this blog can testify as to how much I appreciate this country and its history and the privilege of being an American citizen.

Somehow though, Patriot's Day doesn't fit with 9/11 for me.

The event most like 9/11 in previous US history was the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. On every December 7, when I was growing up, then as now, the media had small remembrances of the attack and if you prompted them, people who'd been alive then would tell you what they were doing when they got the news. A man of my acquaintance had been stationed at Pearl in December, 1941, and because of my questions and interest in history, told me about his experience of the attack.

But the notion of turning December 7 into a kind of Patriot's Day seems never to have occurred to members of "the greatest generation."

Why has it occurred to us to give such treatment to 9/11?

I suspect it has to do with what we're like in the America of the early-twenty-first-century. We are the generation lurching through life in the throes of attenuated Freudianism, a therapeutic culture of popularized, mischaracterized, and ill-informed psychobabble. We spend lots of time on self-indulgent navel-gazing, asking ourselves whether we're happy and when we discover that we're not, looking for people to blame.

There's nothing wrong with good psychological or psychiatric care. Countless numbers of people have been helped by these disciplines.

But there's something very wrong with the popularization of them that has resulted in a culture that glories in victimization.

This is seen in today's litigiousness in which millions of people, feeling slighted, hurt, or damaged, are suing others in unprecedented numbers.

We see it in juries in civil cases awarding enormous judgments, seemingly out of all proportion to the violations of the victimizers.

We see it too, in the constantly shifting standards of political correctness that have the media trolling for new ogres, people who in the eyes of today's white hat-black hat journalism, deserve to be villified.

If ever there was a person clearly suited to the role of villain, it's Osama bin Laden. He is a genuinely evil man, living a life given over to the devil's work. The movement which he encourages, has financed, and has inspired is one of the most notoriously demonic in world history.

It's true that on 9/11 four years ago, al-Qaeda victimized America and Americans and it will always live in our memories.

But I for one, don't fancy being a victim for the rest of my life. That's why on the evening of September 11, 2001, while most were canceling foreign trips, my daughter and I were among the few that a Delta reservation clerk talked to that day who made reservations for an overseas trek.

You go to the analyst so that one day, you'll no longer need to be under her or his treatment and you can live as a healthy grown-up person.

The alcoholic doesn't celebrate the day he took his first drink, but the day when he took his last.

No person who has been victimized by violence or prejudice commemorates the days of their violation, but the days of their psychological and physical liberation, the moments when hope entered their lives.

This day should be an occasion neither for whining or warmongering.

Leave the raucous flag-waving to other days. Bag the "world is against us" rhetoric altogether. I think that we ought to take our cue from the greatest generation: 9/11 should simply be a day of quiet remembrance.

A Living Faith for the Real World

[This is the message shared during worship today at Friendship Church.]

Psalm 103:8-14

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was a nineteenth-century obstetrician disturbed by the fact that so many of the mothers at a Viennese hospital were dying from an infection shortly after childbirth. He noticed though, that women who were treated by midwives were less likely to contract the infection. Also observing that the medical students who attended the women killed by the disease were not washing their hands, Dr. Semmelweis suggested that all medical students working on the maternity ward “wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime [before seeing patients]...The rate of infection plummeted from 18 percent to 1.5 percent over several months...”

“You might think Ignaz Semmelweis would have been lauded as a hero. Instead, his brilliant observations...stirred up such controversy that he lost his position at the hospital and ended his career in disgrace...” write Dr. Dale Matthews and Connie Clark, in their book, The Faith Factor. "He was ultimately confined to a mental institution and tragically, he took his own life. It wasn’t until 1879, thirty one years after Semmelweis' death, that Louis Pasteur successfully defended obstetrician’s research, that he was vindicated. As medical researcher Matthews and Clark put it, “Semmelweis couldn’t fully explain how or why his remedies worked. He only knew through experimentation and observation, that they did work...”

Today, we begin a new worship and message series in which we look at what impact that faith in the God we know through Jesus Christ can have on our everyday lives.

In recent years, in fact, there has appeared mounting scientific evidence, gathered by medical and psychological researchers, demonstrating the positive impact of faith on every aspect of life--mental, emotional, physical, and relational as well as spiritual. None of this is to say that faith in Christ makes this life perfect. For perfection, we’ll have to wait for heaven. But in the meantime, a real faith in God can help us in every aspect of living. We, like Semmelweis whose research showed that good hygiene helped people be healthier, may not be able to explain how or why faith in God helps us in our lives. But the evidence that this is so is too compelling to ignore or dismiss.

In The Faith Factor, Matthews and Clark present a summation of countless scientific studies examining the impact of faith on how people experience life.

For example, a study of more than 90,000 people from one county in Maryland “found that those who attended church once or more a week had significantly lower death rates from...coronary-artery disease (50-percent reduction), emphysema (56-percent reduction), cirrhosis of the liver (74-percent reduction), and suicide (53-percent reduction)...”

Generally, research shows that people of faith also recover from disease more rapidly than others, experience less depression and recover from it more readily, are more resistant to addictions and more capable of successful recovery from them, report being more personally happy, have happier marriages, and even with the onset of terminal illnesses, are better able to cope.

Faith also has an impact on longevity. Our time on this planet ends, of course. (As one of my seminary professors, Walter Boumann used to tell us, "Among human beings, the ratio of deaths to births is still one to one." But “one study that followed 5286 Californians over 28 years found that, after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and education, frequent religious attendees were 36% less likely to have died in any year.”

Lutheran pastor Michael Foss looks at all this research and concludes, “practicing faith is good for you.” I believe that. It’s good to have God in our lives. I can’t explain it, yet like the author of today’s Bible lesson, taken from the Old Testament song book, the Psalms, we can say:
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits...[God is the one] “…who forgives all your iniquity, heals all your diseases, …redeems your life from the pit, …crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, …satisfies you with good as long as you live…”
How this works, we can’t say scientifically. But I’d like to give you my guess about the answer. It’s based in part on what the Psalm says next:
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins… For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear (worship and trust) him; as far as the east is from the west so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
Around Friendship, we talk about seven habits of joyful people. It’s people who cultivate the habits of faith--prayer, regular worship, reading God’s Word, serving others in Jesus’ Name, telling others about Jesus, encouraging others with the love of Christ, and giving to Christ’s cause in the world--who enjoy a close relationship with God that sustains them through all the days of life, good and bad.

Her name was Francis and she was a member of my former parish. Several years before I arrived there, she’d suffered a stroke. Physically, she was strong as a horse. But her mind had been severely effected. Every month for five years, I visited her in the nursing home. Every visit began the same way. “Hello, Francis,” I’d say, “I’m Pastor Daniels from Bethlehem. I’ve come to visit with you.” Each time, Francis would be a bit wary of this stranger she’d never remembered seeing or talking with before.

But I’d coax her to take a seat by the window in her room and we would sit down for a chat. Francis told me about all the work she’d done out in the fields with her husband that day, recounting precisely how many acres she had planted or cultivated. I would ask questions and she would tell me about things that had happened long before as though they were the latest news items. Occasionally, she would interrupt herself and ask me, “Who are you again?”

After a time, I would ask her if she would like to receive Holy Communion. She wasn’t sure what I was talking about at first, but by this point in our visit, she was fairly agreeable. We would begin the Communion liturgy and when we came to the Lord’s Prayer, I could hear her softly reciting every word. After she received the body and blood of Jesus, her reaction was always the same. With a smile on her face, she would look me directly in the eye and a clear cogency in her demeanor, say, “Thank you!”

I’m convinced that even as the stroke and dementia beclouded her mind, Francis was a happy person. Long before, she let Jesus into the center of her life. She had cultivated those habits of joyful, faithful people and so faced each day with confidence and hope.

A few moments ago, people who direct various ministries for our congregation explained what they’re doing and how you can get involved. This fall, don’t miss out on the chances with which these leaders have presented you, to grow in faith that sustains you in real life. Pray about it and then get involved. You won’t regret it!

[Pastor Mike Foss' sermon on this text inspired my message and caused me to delve back into Matthews' and Clark's excellent book, which I'd read several years back.]

I'm Bummed

My beloved Ohio State Buckeyes lost to the Texas Longhorns. But it was a great game!