Saturday, September 24, 2005

Please, Folks, Consider the Source

A number of blogging opponents of George W. Bush are gleefully proclaiming that the President has resumed the alcohol he swore off back around his fortieth birthday.

It's legitimate for people to oppose the President on all sorts of subjects. But, in the rush to always think the worst of Bush, some are grasping at straws.

Remember that the source of these reports about the President is a scurrilous rag with zero credibility and a penchant for sensationalism.

Oppose the President (or any other political figure) if you wish. But do it based on the facts, please!

Althouse and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Interesting blogger Ann Althouse may be thinking of moving to Australia today. First: She's totally discouraged that one of her favorite blogs now appears with a different web design. Second: One of her favorite HBO shows has been canceled. Don't worry, Ann; things will get better...even of you don't move to Australia.

Did Republican Senators Mean What They Said?

One of the key arguments made by Republican members of the US Senate regarding the nomination of Judge John Roberts, Jr. to be Chief Justice is one that I bought. It was composed of three main parts.

First, Republican senators said that there should be no ideological litmus test for membership on the Court; no advance understanding of how justices might rule on issues coming before them.

Furthermore, they said that it's only natural to expect that Presidents will nominate people to the judiciary who are broadly sympathetic to their views of the Constitution and the law. Elections are supposed to be about something and it would be both naive and unfair to expect Presidents to nominate persons they know to be out of sync with their understanding of the judicial branch.

Finally, it should be enough that the persons nominated to the Court by the President are qualified jurists, as Roberts clearly is.

But now, according to this report in the New York Times, Republican senators of both right and left wings are planning on breaking with this threefold argument. They're making noises about approaching the nominee the President offers to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor differently from the way they approached Roberts' nomination.

The right, represented by Sam Brownback of Kansas, evidently concerned that the non-committal answers given by Roberts mean that he could be more liberal than was initially thought to be, seems bent on applying a more conservative litmus test to the next presidential nomination to the Court.

Republican social liberals are indicating that they'll expect assurances from the next nominee that rulings like Roe v. Wade won't be overturned.

The reason for this flip flop by Republican senators? President Bush is in a weaker position post-Katrina and, as I've talked about here before, second term presidents are imbued with lame duck status early in this era of the perpetual presidential campaigning anyway. The President's capacity to get his way on a whole variety of subjects is waning.

But whatever the President's current position in national polls or however potential successors may be anxious to elbow him aside, it shouldn't invalidate the arguments the senators made about how to approach presidential nominations to the Court. Circumstances can alter cases, of course. But the only circumstance to change since Roberts was nominated is that President Bush's popularity has gone down.

Is that a sound basis on which to discharge their duty or to work at erasing unnecessary politicization of the federal judiciary? The answer to that question should be obvious.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Emperor Who Had No Clothes vs. God Clothed in Humanity (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 17)

Remember the story of the emperor who had no clothes? A victim of his own ego and the meaningless words of worshipful sycophants, the emperor, certain he was wearing some fine attire, was actually buck naked. It wasn't until one "naive" boy told the truth, that everyone else admitted that the emperor was wearing no clothing.

Down through the centuries, "emperors"--whether they've been kings, jocks, or pop stars-- people who've seemed clothed in power, have proven to be naked. Or, at least, they've proven to possess far less power than they once seemed to have.

In a way, this is true of virtually anyone who wields power or influence. "Power," a wise Political Science professor of mine used to say, "is what people think you have." That's why the smartest wielders of power usually imply rather than actually use force. But the naked use of force--a telling phrase in light of the story of the emperor who had no clothes--often exposes vulnerabilities that prove the undoing of the powerful.

The problem is that power, or the perception of power, is addicting. Those perceived to be powerful will, in order to prove that they are worthy of that perception, do things against their wills and in so doing, actually prove their powerlessness.

Take Herod in the opening verses of chapter 14 in Matthew's Gospel. This is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who was on the Judean throne at the time of Jesus' birth. When Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., the land over which he "reigned" was divided among his three sons.

His dominion included Galilee, from which Jesus came. Formally speaking, Herod wasn't really a king, though some called him that. It was part of his pretense of power. His title, in fact, was tetrarch, a term that roughly means governor.

But even that designation was a bit of a stretch. The real rulers of Judea were the Romans. Rome simply found it convenient to allow the vicious Herodian line to remain as figurehead rulers. They thought it somewhat blunted the offensiveness to Judeans of being ruled by foreign conquerors to have some locals look like they were in charge.

Herod nonetheless liked to pretend he was a king. We see that in Matthew 14:1-12. Herod is throwing a party. At that time, John the Baptist, Jesus cousin, is detained in a prison cell at Herod's orders.

As our text tells us, John was imprisoned because he had told Herod, ostensibly the heir of the Davidic throne of God's chosen people Israel, that Herod's marriage was illegitimate. As one book explains it:
Herodias was a granddaughter of Herod the Great. She married Herod's son Philip, who was her uncle. Once when Herod Antipas was visiting in Philip's house in Rome, he talked Herodias into leaving Philip and marrying him.
The whole business sounds pretty creepy to me. But it was more than creepy. Specific portions of God's law in the Old Testament forbade a man from marrying his brother's wife while that brother was still alive.

Herodias hated John the Baptist. But because of the support John had among the public and perhaps because he knew John was in the right, Herod hadn't done anything against him.

At the party though, probably inebriated, Herod, pleased with a dance done by Herodias' daughter, vows to give the girl anything she wants. At her mother's behest, the girl makes a grisly request: She wants John the Baptist's head on a platter.

The king felt trapped. He didn't want to kill John. But he had made his promise. To fail to have John executed would show him to not only dishonorable when it came to his vows, but also impotent to do his will within his domain. He feared being seen as the emperor with no clothes. But in his very acquiescence to the girl's request, he showed his impotence. One of the most pathetic character portraits of all history is presented in a passage recounting these events:
"Unwilling to lose face with his guests, he did it--ordered John's head cut off and presented to the girl on a platter."
What a contrast to Herod is presented in the next bit of narrative we find in Matthew 14. Jesus miraculously feeds five thousand men, plus their families. Jesus is shown to be the powerful God of the universe in this and the succeeding narration.

Jesus' miracles are usually referred to in the Greek of the New Testament as signs. Signs aren't shows of power that point to themselves. They point to something else. That's certainly true of this sign. It points to several things.

First: It points to Jesus as God. It is God, after all, who provides our daily bread. As Psalm 145 puts it:
"All eyes are on You, expectant; you give them their meals on time." (Psalm 145:15)
Second: It points to the authenticity of Jesus' power. Even the best of worldly rulers must use coercion. But God's dominion is expressed in generous giving.

There was a forcefulness in Jesus' gentle use of heaven's power for human good that was utterly unique.

It's why those who heard Him preach, though He didn't threaten them or employ religious legalism, were astounded because he taught not like the preachers of their day, but "as one with authority," an authority intrinsic to His nature and bearing and not rooted in the coercive use of force.

It's why, at the moment when some might have deemed Jesus proven fraudulent in His claim of being the "King of kings," a Roman soldier who observed Jesus die on the cross, "This was surely the Son of God."

Third: It demonstrates the selflessness of God as distinguished from the selfishness of human rulers.

Fourth: It shows that His power is greater than that of Herod...or even of the occupying Romans. It certainly can't be a coincidence that the number of men fed here immediately following the account of Herod's impotence as a ruler is the number that would have made up a Roman legion. If, as Napoleon famously said, an army marches on its stomach, then Jesus shows Himself capable of sustaining a mighty army, one fed with the living bread of heaven.

This incident also shows an attribute of the disciples that we'll see played out in the very next narrative account. They lack the imagination that goes with faith.

Through faith, we're empowered to so trust the God we meet in Jesus Christ that we're able to imagine things going differently or positively. We dare to believe, for example, that death is not the end of our stories. We dare to believe that in spite of the truth we know about ourselves, God can forgive our sins and count us worthy of eternity with Him. We dare to believe too, that God can enter even the worst of circumstances and bring good out of them. The person of faith is empowered to imagine good things.

But the disciples are portrayed as wanting to send the crowds of people away. After all, they only have five loaves of bread and two fishes among them. But Jesus says, in effect, "So what!" "Bring them here," He orders the disciples and then He feeds the throng.

We see this same lack of imaginative faith in the next incident, found in Matthew 14:22-36. During a stormy night, the disciples see Jesus walk on the surface of the Galileean lake.

One of the facile things we preachers do as we talk about incidents involving Jesus' disciple, Peter, is make him the foil for disparaging remarks about his faith.

It should be said about this incident and others involving Peter that the reason he fails so miserably is that he tries so much. He may not trust Jesus enough to keep walking on the waves. But He was the only one among these twelve key followers of Jesus to exercise the imagination of faith required to step out of the boat and walk toward His Lord in the first place.

I've got to admit that more often than I care to admit or realize, in my faith life, I've paid more attention to the adverse, seemingly impossible circumstances around me than I have to the Lord Who loves me as I am and promises to empower me in doing His will in my life. In a way, I wish that I were more like Peter, willing to get out of the boat and follow Jesus.

But no matter how puny my faith is, it's invested in the big God revealed in Jesus. Like those imperfect disciples, I can say to Him, "This is it! You are God's Son for sure!"

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!

The Subversive God

Stories About the Kingdom]

This Grossed Me Out

Read here.

Do Humans Need to Return to the Moon? Or Go to Mars?

I've always been a fan of space exploration. There were good reasons to send people to the surface to the moon, as we did starting with the landing of Apollo 11's lunar excursion module on July 20, 1969. From that date, a total of twelve people walked on the Moon, the culmination of NASA's Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects.

But from a purely scientific perspective, one wonders about the wisdom of the new NASA program to return humans to the Moon, establish a space station there, and use it as a launching site for a trip to Mars.

Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland argued against manned space exploration in yesterday's New York Times. It's an argument many scientists are making. In a nutshell, they say that manned spaceflight adds inordinately to the expense of exploration and that robots can do the same work we want to send humans into space to do.

To some, this assertion by the scientific community will seem to echo the resistance of space scientists to the original Mercury astronaut program back in the late-1950s. That resistance was memorably, if cartoonishly, portrayed in the movie, The Right Stuff. The scientists of that era, however, underestimated the pychological importance of proving that humans, particularly American humans, people whose nation was caught up in a deadly Cold War, could go to the Moon. The space race challenged the two nuclear superpowers to enact their hostility in a postive pursuit that didn't involve them in shooting at one another. It was a mano a mano contest pitting the free human against his Communist counterpart.

But there is no such psychological need for manned space flight today. Should we explore the cosmos? Absolutely! But, many in the scientific community argue, we can cut the costs of space exploration and enhance its scientific value by using unmanned flight. Writes Park in his op-ed piece:
Much of what we yearn to discover in space is inaccessible to humans. Astronauts on Mars, locked in their spacesuits, could not venture far from shelter amid the constant bombardment of energetic particles that are unscreened by the thin atmosphere. Beyond Mars, there is no place humans can go in the foreseeable future. The great adventure of the 21st century will be to explore where no human can possibly set foot. The great quest is to find life to which we are not related. Could nature have solved the problem of life in some other way, in some other place? When we find out, we will know much more about ourselves.

Two mechanical geologists, Spirit and Opportunity, are doing this even now, by searching for evidence of water on opposite sides of Mars. They don't break for lunch or complain about the cold nights, and they live on sunshine. They've been at it for nearly two years, yet their mission costs less than sending a shuttle to the International Space Station. The brains of Spirit and Opportunity are the brains of geologists back on Earth.
The expression of a kind of scientifuc hubris? Maybe. But I'm inclined to think that Park makes a lot of sense.

I've never bought the argument made by many against space exploration that says until we solve our problems on earth, we shouldn't send rockets into the cosmos.

For one thing, the science that has made space exploration possible has proven beneficial to solving problems here on earth. (Weather satellites, for example, have been beaming back images of Hurricane Rita which will prove, at the end of the day, to have played an essential role in saving the lives of thousands.)

For another, if we wait to create utopia on this planet before undertaking hard scientific projects, be they privately or publicly funded, science will grind to a halt.

But prudence and wisdom about spending in an era of massive budget deficits seem appropriate. The Bush Administration may be tacitly acknowledging this in the timetable it has approved for returning humans to the Moon. According to the recently announced NASA plan, it's to take place by 2018.

In 1961, as Park points out, with far inferior technology, President Kennedy set a goal of reaching the same destination for the first time by the end of the decade. Had Kennedy not been killed and had he been re-elected in 1964, the moon landing might have occurred before the end of his second term on January 20, 1969.

In other words, Kennedy's goal put the heat on him and his administration to get the feat accomplished during his tenure. This latest program establishes a deadline for landing on the Moon that's nine years beyond January 20, 2009, the date on which Bush is scheduled to leave the presidency.

A cynic might say that this is the classic ploy of Presidents who want to put off the days of reckoning for programs by dumping the tough decisions on their disposition and funding onto their successors' desks.

Park and I may be underestimating the need the public has for a human connection with space exploration. Absent the involvement of human beings hurtling through space, Congress and the American public could be less inclined to support space exploration.

But my own guess is that in a time when we're footing the bill for a war on terrorism, a war in Iraq, hurricane relief, addressing the Avian Flu challenge, and the need to shore up our aging American infrastructure, people will want to save a few bucks by not sending Buck Rogers into space. He (and his female couterpart) unnecessarily add to the costs of doing what we need to do: explore our universe.

I could be wrong, as always. But that's what I think.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Stories That Need to Be Told

I just returned from a meeting at which folks from our church planned outreach activities for 2006. Among those in attendance was the mother of one of our members. She lives in a low-lying area in metropolitan Houston.

Her visit was unrelated to Hurricane Rita, as it was planned awhile back. But just before she left Houston, she and her daughter, who is a registered nurse, took in six evacuees from New Orleans. Now, that group of people will have to move on, as is true of thousands of others who were residing in Houston's Astrodome.

The media coverage of these two catastrophic events--Hurricanes Katrina and Rita--have often focused on the tragic and sometimes fatal errors of disaster planners. That's understandable. Thousands of lives have been at stake and many hundreds have been lost, often owing to those errors.

But it strikes me that other stories, repeated thousands of times over and over again, bear telling also. These are stories of all the people who, because the love of Jesus Christ is at the center of their lives, have taken in thousands of strangers who need help. Many of them live in towns and cities which, barring some unforeseen change in Rita's path, are now going to become victims of a major storm themselves.

In the Old Testament, after murdering his brother, Cain was asked by God where the brother, Abel, was. Cain responded insolently, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

In the New Testament, Jesus memorably answered Cain's question. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus showed that everyone in need is our brother, our sister, our neighbor.

To all of you who, in the wake of Katrina, have taken in sisters and brothers you'd never met before, I say, "God bless you. I'm humbled by your examples of Christian servanthood."

May your tribe increase in the aftermath of Rita!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

We Need More Positive Curmudgeons!

[This is the latest installment of my 'Better Living' columns written for the Community Press newspapers here in the Cincinnati area.]

I like George Voinovich, one of Ohio’s two US Senators. But this column isn’t about politics. It’s about a rare ability that Voinovich seems to possess.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and President Bush’s plan to spend an as-yet uncalculated amount of federal money on a massive recovery effort, Voinovich has announced, “I don’t agree with that.”

“That,” as an Associated Press report puts it, is the entire approach being taken by President Bush to Gull Coast relief.

As the article says, “Bush has pushed to make [an earlier $70 billion tax cut] permanent and to repeal the estate tax, saying the government can pay the expected $200 billion to rebuild [the area] on spending cuts alone.”

I promised you that this column isn’t about politics and it isn’t.

It’s about this: George Voinovich, a certifiable conservative Republican, has the guts to break with the prevailing views of the crowd. Even when that crowd is composed of his fellow Republicans, including the President.

It’s not the first time that Voinovich has resisted group think or political peer pressure, either. Described as a budget hawk, in the past, he’s questioned the wisdom of tax cuts in a period when budget deficits are escalating. He also opposed the nomination of John Bolton to be US ambassador to the United Nations.

For these stances, Voinovich has been attacked by his fellow Republicans for being “disloyal” and what’s worse in their lexicon, “liberal.” Voinovich appears undaunted.

How does he do it?

Is this capacity for standing up to the crowd simply endemic to his personality?

I don’t know. I only know that in this ability to stand for what he believes is right, I wish I were more like Voinovich. And I can’t think of the last time I said that about a living incumbent politician.

Whatever the source of George Voinovich’s positive curmudgeonliness, followers of Jesus Christ know that if they truly want it, they too can buck the world’s standard operating procedures and usual ways of thinking.

They can ask for and receive God’s help in being forces for good in the world. That’s true even if the contributions they make seem insignificant.

A woman I know volunteers her time on a weekly basis to teach adults how to read. It isn’t flashy stuff. She teaches one client at a time, spending several months teaching one person the basics of literacy. Then, she moves on to another and then another. Her work often takes her into neighborhoods that her middle class friends fear. In fact, she’s become a bit ostracized for her work. Not overtly, to be sure: The ostracism shows up in unannounced slights and subtle verbal jabs. Her friends even give lip service to her for caring about “those people.” But these friends don’t really understand why she would care about “them.”

She keeps on keeping on. “This is one rewarding way I can share God’s love with other people,” she says.

Both the ostracism and the internal sense of joy that this woman has experienced are usually part of what happens to people who set out to be what Jesus has called His followers to be: salt and light.

They’re to be salt that preserves what is best and ennobling in humanity.

They’re to be light, helping others through the dark passages of life and hopefully, to a relationship with the Light of the world, Christ Himself.

I don’t know where George Voinovich is spiritually. But I do know that we could use a lot more Christ-following positive curmudgeons in the world, people who are made so confident and hopeful by Christ, that they’re willing to stand out from the crowd in order to love God and love others with their whole beings.

That's the kind of person I'm asking God to help me become.

A Vivid Story of Avian Flu's Dangers

This Vietnamese man survived Avian Flu after watching his brother die from the disease. Note: As you've seen from other stories to which I've linked here, the disease becomes a fierce threat to one's life one day after exposure to the virus. Should this thing mutate, allowing it to easily pass from human to human like conventional viruses, a pandemic of unprecedented proportions could result.

Please, write to your representative in Congress, your two Senators, and to the President urging that we stockpile Tamiflu, a medication that helps victims of Avian Flu fight it, and when scientists are able to develop it, a vaccine. Without such preparations, hundreds of thousands of Americans will likely lose their lives!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Please Pray for Those on the Gulf Coast Areas

Hurricane Rita appears to be picking up force as it moves toward the Gulf Coast. Please pray for safety and wisdom for the people in these areas.

World Health Organization Official Calls for All-Out War on Avian Flu

Time is running out. But, says this official, there is a "window of opportunity" for nations willing to exploit it.

Bono: 'A Strange Entity,' Using Celebrity for Good

He's a strange sort of entity, this euphoric rock star with the chin stubble and the tinted glasses - a new and heretofore undescribed planet in an emerging galaxy filled with transnational, multinational and subnational bodies. He's a kind of one-man state who fills his treasury with the global currency of fame. He is also, of course, an emanation of the celebrity culture. But it is Bono's willingness to invest his fame, and to do so with a steady sense of purpose and a tolerance for detail, that has made him the most politically effective figure in the recent history of popular culture.
So writes James Straub in his intriguing profile of Bono which appeared in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Read the whole thing. (Thanks to my son for pointing it out to me.)

Also check out What Makes Bono Run?

Information or Misinformation?

When America's NATO allies decided to ship military food packets for those rendered homeless by Hurricane Katrina, it was rightly viewed as a terrific gesture, worthy of American thankfulness.

Now, there are reports in at least one British paper that the rations sent by Great Britain have been impounded by the US Department of Agriculture and may be burned. The Mirror seems unable to avoid hyperbolic America-bashing in their report and the Daily Kos is, of course, trumpeting it.

But I just want to know two things:
Is the report true?

If it is true, what is the reasoning behind impoundment?
Who knows? If the rations are being impounded, it may have to do with legitimate concerns over the spread of Mad Cow Disease.

The great thing about blogging and this era of rapid communications is that information gets passed around quickly. The bad thing about it is that misinformation gets passed along just as quickly.

Q-and-A on Avian Flu

The BBC has an informative Q-and-A on Avian Flu. You can find it here.

Also, please read my previous posts on this subject (here, here, and here) and urge our federal government to prepare for this frighteningly possible pandemic.

Amish Paradise?

Singer, song-writer, hockey player, and blogger Bob Gentry showcases his friend's new wheels. If gas prices keep rising, being Amish may soon be as trendy as Soduku.

Soduku Fanatics: Keep Your Eye on the Road, Please

Last week, I confessed to being so unhip as to have not heard of Soduku until that morning. Two days later, my local paper ran a syndicated feature piece on the game, which is apparently all the rage. Now, T-LOG says it's best when played on your cell phone...I hope not while driving!

Could a Place Named New Snoring Be a Great City?

Have you ever thought about this?:

I wonder sometimes why all the towns that grew to be great cities always seem to have sensible, natural-sounding names. New York, for instance, would have been acceptable under its original name, New Amsterdam, but what if it had been named New Snoring instead? Would we accept that as happily into our vision of the world? Don't laugh, there really is a Snoring, well two actually (Little Snoring and Great Snoring), in Norfolk, England.

Clive Allen has. A fun piece.

Monday, September 19, 2005

A Fun Web Site...

is called The Burning Question, the production of a twenty-eight year old Briton, who takes your questions about almost everything, researches the subject, and presents an answer that's fun and interesting.

Stories About the Kingdom (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 16)

As a seminary student and newly-ordained pastor, I was disdainful of preachers who used stories in their Sunday messages. I thought that stories were only employed by preachers trying to compensate for having weak theologies.

But then I received one of those "gifts" that magazines will sometimes send to new subscribers. The gift was a book, Inductive Preaching by the father and son writing team of Ralph and Greg Lewis. It revolutionized my entire approach to preaching and communicating the truths in the Bible.

It pointed out that the prevailing approach to preaching in western Christianity was taken from Paul, the author of the letters that make up much of the New Testament. Paul, though himself a Jew and raised to be a teacher of Jewish law, was also steeped in Greek culture, a cosmopolitan and learned person. His primary mission as a Christian evangelists was not to his fellow Jews, but to Gentiles, non-Jews, throughout the Mediterranean basin. This target audience was composed largely of people steeped in Greek culture and Greek ways of thinking and communicating. This culture, reflected in the Greek language itself, was more cerebral and propositional than the Hebrew language of God's people, a language which was earthier and more pictorial. This Greek culture, which was fairly engorged by and incorporated into the life of the conquering Roman Empire which then prevailed in the known world, naturally produced great philosophers and succeeding generations of those philosophers only reinforced this penchant for the cerebral and propositional.

In order to communicate with people steeped in this culture, which was strongly rooted in Europe and Asia Minor, Paul was necessarily propositional and intellectual. Although there is much passion in Paul's writings, he seldom if ever uses stories to communicate with his main audience. He felt it important to be able to speak the cultural language of his audience. This explains why he talks about being all things to all people.

Maybe because we in American Christianity have developed from the milieu in which Paul first communicated the Good News of Jesus, our preaching has always been a lot like Paul's. This is why in days gone by, preachers were taught in seminaries that their sermons should be composed of an opening thesis, three points, and an exiting paragraph.

But, Lewis and Lewis pointed out that Jesus seldom preached like Paul. Jesus used stories. Sometimes He explained them. Sometimes He didn't. But stories became a port of entry through which Jesus' listeners could enter a place of understanding even the most complicated or daunting truths. In Jesus' pre-literate era, this mode of communication made all sorts of sense. (It may also make sense in our post-literate era.)

I have a theory: We always learn by analogy and metaphor. Every incremental bit of learning we do is rooted in something we already know, from which our minds and imaginations can extrapolate or expand.

Jesus knows this. When, in this chapter, His disciples ask Him why He uses stories, Jesus says that anyone can understand a story and once we allow ourselves to "get" His stories--by opening ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit, as mentioned in the previous chapter of Matthew--it's possible to grow in the application of their teachings in more mature ways.

In a sense, I suppose, Jesus' stories are examples of God's baby talk to us. But we never quite outgrow them either. We can return to them repeatedly in our lives and still learn more about God, the need to follow Christ, what His reign is like, and God's will for our lives.

The story's told that Vince Lombardi, legendary head coach of the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins, always met with his players on the first day of training camp for a short talk. It began with Lombardi holding up an object in his hand and saying, "Gentlemen, this is a football. The goal of the game of football is to take this object across a line down there."

Great teachers always start and continuously point us back to the basics. Jesus is the greatest Teacher of all.

In chapter 13, Jesus tells stories about His kingdom and how it grows.

Matthew 13:1-9. The chapter opens with Jesus, surrounded by crowds anxious to hear Him and be near to Him, being forced to climb into a boat while His hearers sit on the beach.

What does Jesus do? He tells them stories.

He first tells His famous story of a farmer who plants seeds, using the "agricultural method" favored in first-century Judea, where He lived: The farmer scatters the seed indiscriminately.

This is hardly an efficient system. The results are probably typical. Some seed fell beside the road and was quickly eaten by birds. More seeds fell in the gravel. But because they were warmed by the sun, yet unable to put down roots, they sprouted and quickly died out. More seeds fell in with the weeds, which choked them out before the seeds could really take off. A final group fell in good soil and produced, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message, "beyond [the farmer's] wildest dreams."

An interlude will come to Matthew's narration before Jesus explains this story. (The formal term for these stories, by the way, is parable. The word parable is a compound word in the Greek of the New Testament and it means to roll or throw alongside. The idea is that alongside the story being told is a deeper story.)

Matthew 13:10-17. Sounding a lot like a certain seminarian and young pastor I knew very well, the disciples ask Jesus why on earth He speaks in stories? Even to them, Jesus must sound like something of a rube or, maddeningly, obscure, when He resorts to this mode of communication.

Jesus explains that if one is open to Him and His reign in their life, His stories will make more and more sense. But when one is closed to Him and His reign, the stories will remain mysteries, even if one is able to give an intellectually astute explanation of them.

Interestingly, as Jesus goes on to explain the parable He tells in Matthew 13:1-9, it turns out that it's really about being open to the "seed" of the message about Jesus. (For more on what that message is, see here, here, and here). We'll see that momentarily.

Jesus then cites the words of the ancient prophet, Isaiah, to say that some people will be so self-willed and self-worshiping that even when they hear the saving good news of God's love and grace, they'll stop their ears and close their eyes to its power for their lives. This passage from Isaiah was often used by the early Jewish Christians to explain why their fellow Jews rejected Christ as the long-expected Savior/Messiah.

Matthew 13:18-23. Here, Jesus explains the parable and shows that our acceptance of the Good News about Him is rooted in our receptivity. How vulnerable are we? How willing to admit that we aren't the masters of the universe, even our own private universes? How willing to admit our need of God to lead us away from our own selfish impulses and away from death, toward new life?

The seeds that fall along the pathway and fall in the gravel, Jesus says, are like people who hear the Good News about His kingdom, but the evil one makes steals their capacity to understand it or to stand under His reign.

The seeds that fall in the rocky soil, Jesus says, are analogous to what happens when His Good News enters the lives of people who initially receive it with enthusiasm, but don't allow it to fill their lives. Then, when adversity or persecution comes, their embryonic faith dies out.

The seeds that fall among thorns are like that same Good News coming to people who allow the cares of life to choke off faith.

But the seeds that fall in good soil are those who hear it and understand it (the meaning of which is literally to stand under it, by the way). The fruits of faith in Him are apparent in the lives of these people.

Matthew 13:24-30. Jesus now tells another story. This time, the point is that for as long as history unfolds on this planet, the world and the Church will have within them both genuine believers and psuedo-believers, counterfeit followers of Christ. But He won't destroy the hypocrites, lest He do harm to genuine followers in the process. A day of reckoning will come to the hypocrites at the end of history, He says.

It's appropriate to point out that all of us are hypocrites, to some extent. No one is perfect. But here, Jesus seems to have in mind those who use faith for their own selfish purposes.

Matthew 13:31-32. Jesus is on a story-telling roll! In the rush of events and all sorts of evil, it's easy to understimate the presence and power of His kingdom in the world, He tells us. But, He says, even tiny seeds grow to be imposing trees in which birds make their nests. Jesus is a strong refuge even when the world has gone crazy!

Matthew 13:33. This illustration has the same point as the preceding one. A small amount of dough rises to become a big loaf of bread. Never doubt that God is working in even the smallest people and places devoted to Him.

Matthew 13:36-43. Here, Jesus explains the parable in Matthew 13:24-30 and again, it's in response to the disciples' request for an interpretation.

Matthew 13:44. In just a few words, these mini-parables explain that turning from sin and following Jesus is worth the investment of our entire lives! An old song says of Jesus, "He died for me, I'll live for Him."

Matthew 13:47-50. This parable about His kingdom really reiterates the point of the parable told in Matthew 13:24-30. The fish will all be scooped into the same net, but only some will want to be there. The others will be hypocrites there on pretense. There will be a reckoning at the end of history. In the meantime, we're to keep scattering the seed of the Word about Jesus and not be judgmental!

Matthew 13:51-52. The disciples, probably expressing incredible arrogance, assure Jesus that they understand Him. But they don't. And neither do any of us ever fully understand Him. How could we fully understand God, even when He lived among us as a human being?

Matthew 13:53-58. Jesus goes to His hometown and while momentarily impressed, His neighbors prove to be unreceptive soil. They can't get past the fact that something so good had come from Nazareth and from from a household they knew.

[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!

The Subversive God]

Germany Up in Air Following Election

CDU leader Angela Merkel
Okay, you call it: Is German Christian Democratic Party leader Angela Merkel rolling her eyes in disgust or is she praying for divine intervention? Either reaction would be understandable. After failing to deliver the knockout punch to Gerhard Schroeder and his Social Democratic Party, Merkel--and Schroeder, for that matter--has been forced to look for coalition partners to form a ruling majority in the Bundestag. It appears unlikely that Merkel can pull it off, with Schroeder's prospects seeming slightly better. If no ruling coalition is forged, another election will have to be called, a possibility that must overjoy the German electorate. Given the trendlines that developed in the last two weeks of the campaign, Schroeder would have to be considered the frontrunner in a rerun.

Both parties may decide to form a grand coalition, though. That would be very in contentious.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

More on the Avian Flu

An informative article here.

The Next Time I Make a Prediction, Ignore Me

Some months ago, I said the Gerhard Schroeder and the Social Democrats would prevail in this fall's elections in Germany. While Angela Merkel and her party may have failed to get a majority, Schroeder hasn't won.

Three Things to Remember About Prayer

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on September 18, 2005.]

Psalm 145

In the comedy, Napoleon Dynamite, a character named Pedro Sanchez, an expressionless transfer student from Juarez, Mexico, speaks to an assembly at his high school in Idaho. Not knowing quite what to say, he remembers words his friend advised him to speak. In the most extreme deadpan imaginable, Pedro looks at his audience and practically mumbles, “If you vote for me, all your wildest dreams will come true.”

As it turns out, even though the movie is something of a satire of everything conventional, even of conventional Hollywood movies about teens, Pedro, in more typical Hollywood fashion, gets elected. Presumably, in the sequel they’re making, we’ll see his classmates’ disappointment when, lo and behold, their wildest dreams don’t come true.

How about you? Ever had a wild dream? Did it come true?

Some people, of course, experience the disappointment of having their wildest dreams and fondest hopes not coming to pass and then, become embittered by it.

Some offer prayers to God and feel that they’ve been ignored.

Others look at the anguish in the world and conclude that God simply isn’t around.

Last week, we began a worship and sermon series in which we’re looking at facing the real world with a real faith in a real God. We began last Sunday by saying that people of real faith pray. But what happens when we followers of Jesus Christ pray? Is God like Pedro Sanchez, promising to make our wildest dreams come true only to disappoint us?

Our Bible lesson for this morning, as was true last Sunday, comes from the Old Testament song book called the Psalms. The Psalms is a collection of Hebrew poetry used by ancient and modern believers in worship. Their themes run the gamut of the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of people who live in fellowship with God.

Some express remorse for sin.

Some complain and express anger and impatience with God.

Some praise God for His provision.

Some celebrate the enthronement of ancient kings.

Some remember God’s promises and blessings.

But throughout, you find a believing people praising and looking to God in good and bad times.

Today’s lesson is the whole of Psalm 145. There are a total of 150 songs in the Psalms we have today. But many scholars believe that in ancient times, Psalm 145 was the last one in what’s also called the Psalter. That’s because the ancient Hebrew believers (as well as the early Christian believers) were fond of what are called inclusios or inclusions. These segments of Scripture would be bracketed at their beginnings and at their ends with verses that either were exactly the same in their wording or that trumpeted similar themes. Scholars point out that both Psalm 1 and Psalm 145 talk about the universality of God’s reign over everything and about the blessedness of people who surrender themselves completely to God.

Be that as it may, I want to focus on just three verses in this fantastic Psalm 145 this morning, verses 17 to 20:
The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.

The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.

He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them.

The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
Pastor David Stark says that there are three things we learn about praying from these four verses. I think that he’s right. So, I’m “stealing” his outline. (I once heard church administration and growth guru Norm Shawchuck say that there is an eleventh commandment for us in the Church: Thou shalt steal good ideas!)

So, what are the three things this passage from Psalm 145 tells us about prayer?

First: When we pray, we can be confident that God is close by. Recently, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, people have been asking, “Where was God when Katrina hit? Where was God in its aftermath?”

We live in a world, Jesus reminds us, in which the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, a world that groans under the aftereffects of humanity’s ancient declaration of independence from God. Until the day the resurrected Jesus returns to us, disasters both natural and humanly-created, will happen.

But it won’t alter the fact that the God we know through Jesus Christ, the Savior Who suffered on a cross for us all, is “near to all who call” on Him.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel tells a moving story from his life. When he was a boy growing up in Europe, he and his family, who were Jewish, were taken to Nazi concentration camps. All but Wiesel died in those horrible places. Once, Wiesel recalls, he and his fellow prisoners were forced to watch some of their fellow Jews as they were hanged to death.

One of the scaffolds malfunctioned, though, and one of those being hanged was allowed to dangle and twitch in a painful place between life and death for some time. Among the prisoners, a sobbing and plaintive cry arose. “Where is God now? Where is God now?” a person asked. Finally, another prisoner, perhaps angered by the question, replied, “He’s on the end of that rope.”

Where was God when Katrina hit? He was with the patients who died in the hospitals without food or power. He was with the Coast Guard personnel who were lowered from helicopters to pluck people from danger one by one. He was with the desperate masses who suffered unjustly in the Super Dome.

The people who died or who have lost homes or jobs may be the victims of a natural order that was long ago disordered by human rebellion and by massive failures of human competence or compassion today. But whenever God’s Name was called, you can bet that the One Who came into our world as a Suffering Servant was there, close by.

Second: The Psalm says that God fulfills the desires of those who call out to Him. That’s not the same as Pedro Sanchez’s promise in Napoleon Dynamite.

You see, the person who submits prayers to the God we know through Jesus Christ prays “in Jesus’ Name.” That means also that we submit to doing things Christ’s way. We give Christ access to our minds, hearts, and lives. When that happens, our desires become more like God’s desires for us. Jesus says in the New Testament book of Revelation that He comes to live in us. A change happens in our desires, rooted in delighting in doing God's will above all.

This doesn't mean that we all suddenly become perfectly virtuous beings; the old self finds it hard to give way and won't this side of the grave.

Nor does it mean that we dream smaller; it means we dream better.

It means that God sets to work on recrafting us from the inside out.

Rick Warren, in The Purpose Driven Life, you may remember, talks about a group from his church who are successful businesspeople with a proven ability to make money. Maybe at one time their wildest dreams included being fabulously wealthy. But under Christ’s Lordship, an internal change has come to these folks. Warren is still encouraging them to make us much money as they can. They've obviously been gifted for that, after all. But instead of making it just for themselves, these folks are turning their profits over to efforts to bring help to the poor and hope to the hurting throughout the world. Like Warren, they’ve put themselves on salaries and give the rest they make to God. Those are the kinds of things that people whose desires are subordinated to God will do.

So, when we pray we can be certain that God is near and that God will pay heed to our transformed desires. The third thing we can know is that God watches over those who pray. This doesn’t mean that God makes all the pain of living go away. Or that God turns our lives into playgrounds of personal pleasure. As Warren also points out, God is a lot more interested in our character than our comfort. God is shaping us to be useful people in this life, but in the one to come.

When I was a boy, I knew a pastor who said that he couldn't wait to get to heaven. He was a good student and teacher. He loved learning and imparting what he learned in memorable ways. He was sure that heaven will have a fabulous library and that God had work for him to do as a teacher. He knew that in this life, he might endure adversity and challenges, but that, in the lives of those who surrender to Jesus Christ, God doesn't allow a single experience to be wasted.

But God is building our character not just for the world to come, but this one.

True story of a guy I knew back in my college days. Joe was with some friends in his dorm room one night when they learned that a young woman down the hall had stationed herself in a resident’s room, on a bed, offering herself to anyone and everyone who might be interested. Joe looked down the hall and saw the line-up of young men who were going to take up this offer. Joe was sexually inexperienced. This looked like a cheap and easy way to find out what it was about.

But Joe was also a Christian. He seemed to sense God telling him, “Don’t do this, Joe.” You see, God was watching out for Joe, for his well-being, and for his character. Joe could have said No to God like the young woman and the young men who lined up on that dorm hallway that night. But he decided to say Yes to the God Who looked out for him. From this, Joe learned that he wasn’t the center of the universe, that more than his own personal preferences needed to be accounted for when he made decisions.

God isn’t a cosmic vending machine: We don’t insert our requests and pick up what we want, even the wild dreams that could harm us or others. But when we pray, we can know that God is near, that God will grant our godly desires, and that God will watch over us.