Saturday, October 01, 2005

Response to a Reasonable Question: Why Do You Believe Christian Faith is True

Here are the links to a serire of posts I wrote that explain why I, a former atheist, believe in Jesus Christ. I hope that you enjoy them. Feel free to leave your comments.

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 1
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 2
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 3
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 4
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 5
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 6

Weightiness and Nonchalance, the Unexpected Connection

Doris at Grans on Bran posts about a BBC look at the word, tingo. The comments that ensue deal with odd words in the English language.

One of the oddest English words is nonchalant. If non is a negative prefix in this world, as it is in others, then to be nonchalant is to exhibit behaviors that are the opposite of those seen in people who are chalant. But whoever heard of a person being described in that way, except maybe in fun?

The word chalant isn't in the English dictionary. Anyone described as such would presumably be extemely nervous and high-strung.

But, I've learned that, as I suspected, the word comes from the French. says in explaining the derivation of nonchalant:
"[French, from Old French, present participle of nonchaloir, to be unconcerned : non-, non- + chaloir, to cause concern to (from Latin calre, to be warm, heat up. See kel-1 in Indo-European Roots).]"
So, it would seem that being chalant, if ever one were struck by this condition, would have something to do with kel, the Latin prefix from which the word, calories is derived.

And here I thought that the French didn't worry about getting fat!

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 13

[I'm continuing to try to catch up in presenting these notes. Feel free to send comments, ideas, or questions. Quotes below are from The Message, Eugene Peterson's wonderful paraphrase of the Bible.]

1. Genesis 30 opens with a scene which, from the perspective of our modern sensibilities, may make little sense. Rachel, seeing that her sister, Leah, the other wife of her husband, Jacob, is having children--"popping them out like a Pez dispenser," in the words of a conference speaker I once heard--becomes desperate. "Give me sons or I'll die!" she tells Jacob.

This isn't Rachel being a drama queen. As I explained in the last post of this series, not having children was regarded as a curse from God and having them as God's blessing. Since Jacob was clearly "successful" in conceiving children with Leah, Rachel felt that she was being judged. Yet, with these imploring words seem to deflect the blame or responsibility onto Jacob. One can be sympathetic for Rachel; her circumstances may have been unbearable to her.

Adding to Rachel's agony is the fact that, in those days. baby-making wasn't considered successful if sons weren't produced. Only males could own any significant amount of property or, in the case of first-born sons, inherit it from fathers. A widow was often destitute, forced, because of limited options, to either find another husband or become a prostitute.

For all these reasons--competition with her sister, feeling judged by God, wanting to provide for her future--Rachel is desperate to have sons.

2. Jacob reacts angrily to Rachel's words. His retort demonstrates that he believes that God has decided heretofore not to allow Rachel to conceive. But he also effectively puts the blame on Rachel. "Am I God?" he asks her. "Am I the one who refused you babies?"

These words must have been cruel blows for Rachel! They may even have been intended to be cruel. Time and again, Jacob proves to be a most imperfect person. But like the Christian woman who was nonetheless a fanatical bridge player, a competitive ogre, mentioned by C.S. Lewis in his classic, Mere Christianity, one is forced to ask, "If Jacob is this bad with God in his life, how much worse might he be without that relationship?"

3. In her childlessness, Rachel resorts to the same ploy used by Jacob's grandmother, Sarah, when she was childless. "Here's my maid Bilhah. Sleep with her," she tells Jacob. This, as I mentioned when discussing Abraham and Sarah's maid, Hagar, comports with a custom of the time. Servants were regarded as the possessions of their masters and mistresses. If a mistress was childless, she could give her maidservant to her husband and the child that issued from the pairing was then regarded as belonging to the mistress and her husband.

4. Bilhah successfully conceives and bears Jacob several sons. Unlike Sarah when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, Rachel shows no resentment toward Bilhah for being able to give Jacob sons and no fear that Hagar and Ishmael might supplant her in Jacob's affections.

Each son is given a significant name.

5. Leah, always second-fiddle in this dysfunctional family, finds her competitive juices roused when she sees that while she wasn't conceiving, Rachel's maid was. So, she gives her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob. (One wonders whether Jacob wasn't perpetually worn out from all these sexual pairings, tired of living in a domestic war zone, or perhaps, pleased with things. His feelings on this subject aren't recorded.)

Zilpah proves fertile and the result is that Leah was winning her race with Rachel, hopeful that somehow her success as a mother of sons will cause her husband to love her more. Leah is among the most sad and misused figures in the Old Testament. But even from her sadness emerges sons who will found the twelve tribes of Israel, helping to make God's original promise to Abraham come to pass.

6. Genesis 30:14-21 tells what happened when the two competitive sisters essentially bargained with one another to have Jacob sleep with them. Used as barter are fruits known as mandrakes, referred to here by their nickname of love apples. They were thought to be aphrodisiacs. (Why any of this crew would think they need them at this point is beyond me!)

Rachel may have felt utterly humiliated that her sister bears two more sons for Jacob. (Mentioned as an afterthought, reflective of that culture's sexism, is a daughter, Dinah. She will play a sad role in upcoming events.)

7. Another incident of narrative tension, an ongoing element in Genesis, would have arisen by now in the minds of ancient listeners to this story of Jacob. Where, they would wonder, is Joseph? Joseph, they would know, was the son of Jacob, born of Rachel, who ended up as a sort of prime minister in Egypt and would play a pivotal role in God saving His people from famine. Without Joseph, the Abrahamic promise couldn't be fulfilled. Without Joseph, there would be no Israel, no Moses, no journey to the Promised Land. For we believers in Jesus, there would be no salvation.

I'm reminded of that climactic scene in Back to the Future. Everything depends on Marty McFly's future parents kissing at the "Enchantments Under the Sea" dance. But because of Marty's presence and his disurbance of events, that seemed increasingly unlikely. Marty looked at a Polaroid snapshot of his family. His siblings had faded away and he was about to disappear, to. Then, his parents kiss. (As in Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast, it was apparently true love's first kiss.) Marty's future is secured, just in the nick of time. The audience issues sighs of relief.

Jacob and Rachel must conceive a child. And they do. His name is Joseph. God's people issue sighs of relief!

But Rachel isn't finished. She asks God for another son. That son will be Bejamin. He will be the source of joy...and sorrow.

8. The next section of the Genesis narrative was always the most difficult passage in the whole book for me to accept. I had no problem with the creation narratives. The story of the flood surfaced no difficulties. Nor did the acounts of the tower of Babel or of Sodom and Gomorrah. But my faith and credulity were challenged by this story of Jacob and the flocks of Laban.

Then I realized something. This isn't a story of Jacob's manipulation of genetics. Animals conceiving before speckled branches aren't going to produce speckled offspring. This is a story about God's intervention. In essence, Jacob said to God, "I believe that to fulfill Your promises to my ancestors and me, my family and I need to get out from under Laban's thumb. I will trust You, God, to create this animal offspring to increase my family's ability to survive whatever may come our ways when we leave Laban. This is the method I'll use." Jacob takes such a gigantic step of faith in God that when he outlines his proposal to Laban, Laban must think that one more time, he's going to take advantage of his son-in-law.

Jacob never claims that animal husbandry lay behind his success. He attributes it to God. "Over and over," he later tells Rachel and Leah, "God used your father's livestock to reward me" (Genesis 31:9).

The "negotiations" between Jacob and Laban are, in a way, typical of the marketplace transactions of the time, full of the shrewd and sometimes disingenuine wordiness favored to this day by traders in Near East cultures. Both Jacob and Laban are notorious schemers. Heretofore, Laban has always gotten the better of Jacob. Not so this time. That's because this time, God has Jacob's back. It's like I always tell my Catechism students, "Either God gets His way or God gets His way. In the end, there are no other options."

[[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12]

Friday, September 30, 2005

Chav Hits Mother Lode, Keeps on Being Nuisance

Ever wonder what would happen if the town bully (and in the local parlance, a chav) won the Lottery? The Brit town of Swaffham is finding out.

I found it interesting that this guy was ordered not to menace people within a 400-mile radius of his home town. Does that mean he can do so beyond that radius?

This is bound to become a British made-for-TV movie.

'Christmas at Maxwell's'

I study the Biblical commentaries at a Catholic seminary library about once a week. During a short break the other day, I ran across an article in a newspaper from the Roman Catholic diocese in Cleveland. It was about this movie.

Christmas at Maxwell's is the work of a father-daughter creative team who were helped by actors from the Cleveland area. It was filmed at Lakeside, Ohio, a wonderful little community on Lake Erie, where generations of Methodists--and for retreats and continuing education events, people of other denominations--gather. The "Maxwell's" in the title is a real place.

Just getting a project like this completed is pretty amazing. It's no amateur job, either.

The premiere happens on October 27.

Call in the Pest Conrtol Professionals!

Ann Althouse, spooked by an earlier experience of having bats invade her house, is now concerned that the place has become home to squirrels. Earlier, she asked readers if they thought if this might be the case. In an update, she responded to readers telling her how to handle such an invasion, saying that if there are squirrels in the AltHouse, she will call in professionals.

I responded:
I don't know if you have squirrels in your house. But I am with you on the question of what do about them. Of course, you should call in professionals.

Earlier this year, we had a family of skunks ensconced beneath our front porch. There was no way I was going to tangle with the crew!

(In fact, a bevy of skunks have terrorized our neighborhood, particularly the local dog population, all summer long.)

The skunks are no longer a problem at our house or in our community. Part of the reason for that happy turn of events is that I "outsourced" my skunk eradication program.

My advice to you is don't try to figure out whether you've got a squirrel problem or not. Call the professionals and let them make that determination.

(No real animals were harmed in the posting of this comment.)
By the way, my competence in any of the usual homesteading skills is so limited that I require professional help for even the most mundane of tasks. So, my advice in this matter may be worthless.

I only know that the most important tool in my arsenal for dealing with household repair and maintenance needs is the telephone.

Adult Spelling Bees

The barkeep says it exposes his establishment to a different demographic. The entire phenomenon begs for treatment as a romantic comedy. Can't you just see it, with Tobey MacGuire and Reese Witherspoon as recovering elementary school nerds, both having gone through a succession of failed relationships, falling for each other over trichotillomania? To give it the New York feel she's expert at imparting--and I mean that sincerely--Nora Ephron could be enlisted as writer/director. Coldplay could be recruited to provide a few suitable species of thirtysomething melancholia and angst to be played in the background during the main characters' long walks solo around Manhattan, contemplating the potential loss of their relationships, as they pore over the newest Scripps list of spelling bee words.

Now that I've pitched the story, remember that I get a piece of the theater and DVD receipts. Ciao, baby.

Because of My Defiance, Ohio Connection...

...I'm looking forward to this new movie with Julianne Moore and Buddy Harrelson. For six years, my family and I lived in Defiance County, on the county line road between it and Henry County, in rural northwestern Ohio. There, I served as pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Okolona. We had a Defiance mailing address. It should be interesting, although one might hope that once a town like Defiance gets its moment in the sun, it would be through a less difficult true story.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Coincidence? In Hollywood?

My son, here designated P-Diddy, has a second shift job and I do much of my work during the day at home. That's especially true on days like this one, when I had to hang around all morning to wait for a plumber.

Today, I walked through the family room to find P-D watching the Will Smith movie, I, Robot. After about five seconds of watching it, I said, "It's just like Tron."

In that 1982 Disney film, a CPU develops a will independent from programmers and users. It arrogates to itself enormous power, way beyond the bounds its creators established. It's only when the hero, played by Jeff Bridges, flings himself into the monster's core and falls for what seems like miles in order to implant micro-data into the heart of the tall and swirling CPU that the horrors are reversed.

In I, Robot, which my son says is a not-very-faithful adaptation of another property, Smith dives into the heart of a swirling robot control mechanism, impanting data that reverses the enslavement of the robots and their threat to the human race.

Now, I know that there's nothing new under the sun. But you'd think that Hollywood could work a bit harder to do something different. Or is this just one of those coincidences? In "play-it-safe-let's-recycle-Gilligan's Island" Hollywood? I don't think so.

The 'Curse' of Second Presidential Terms

Paul Michael, noting the troubles that President Bush is having in advancing his ambitious agenda, writes interestingly on the curse of second presidential terms, saying that it goes back to at least Richard Nixon.

But second term problems go way back before Nixon. It was during George Washington's second term that the terminally creepy Thomas Jefferson and his acolyte, James Madison, went full-tilt with an anonymous assault on the first president. While Washington continued to serve effectively, he was considerably hampered by Jefferson's cowardly attacks.

FDR, though elected for third and fourth terms, had a tough time during his second round. This was somewhat self-inflicted, owing in part to his Court-packing scheme. Nonetheless, his second term was problematic.

Two reasons that second terms have been bad: (1) The second-term administration grows weary; (2) The administration suffers from a sense of entitlement to power. Second terms are when indictments and scandals are likely either to happen or catch up to administrations.

A reason for second term troubles of more recent vintage is that under the Twenty-Second Amendment, Presidents are term-limited. This means that on election to second terms, they immediately attain lame duck status. This leads to a rather rapid erosion of presidential power. Yes, they still possess all their Constitutional powers. But they suffer from major "clout leak," losing their capacity to make those who cross them miserable. They're put on less sure footing with a Congress, a Court, and a bureaucracy which have no term limits.

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 12

[I've gotten way behind in posting in this series. But I'm trying to catch up in small bits. Previous installments are linked at the bottom of this one.]

1. Fortified by the revelation of God and of God's plans for him and his descendants, Jacob continues his journey to his family's ancestral home in modern day Iraq. The scene that unfolds in Genesis 29:1-13 is the second case of "love at first sight" recorded in the book. The first incident involved Jacob's father and mother, Isaac and Rebekah.

As Jacob approaches Haran, his uncle Laban's home, he meets a number of shepherds with their flocks, near the town well. The well would have been a large hole in the ground, connected to an underground spring, set in the midst of low-lying land. A large rock covered the hole.

When Jacob asked the shepherds why they hadn't rolled the stone away from the well, they said that they had to wait for all the shepherding families of the community to be represented. There may be two reasons for this: (1) Water is a precious commodity in the Middle East, the subject of ongoing diplomatic discourse to this day. The neighbors may have not trusted one another to refrain from taking a fair share of the water from the well. (2) The stone may have been so heavy that several people would have to move it together. Probably both reasons are in play here.

If the second reason is right--and scholars seem to unanimously agree that it is--then what happens next in the scene is a testimony to Jacob's immediate attraction to Rachel. When she approaches, he singlehandedly moves the stone! We've already seen that Jacob is particularly strong. So this explanation is plausible. When the man is inspired, whether by God or Rachel, he seems able to use his strength to stupendous ends. This is clearly "love at first sight."

Rachel seems as excited to meet Jacob as he is to meet her. She runs to tell her father about it.

[Note: Apparently, there's no problem with people marrying their cousins in this culture. When we read this, we're inclined to say, "Yecccccchhhhh!" But it is what it is, folks.]

2. In Genesis 29:14, Jacob meets his uncle, Laban, and were it not for Rachel, he may have later rued this meeting. In Laban, Jacob has met a schemer as selfish as him.

3. In Genesis 29:14b-27, we read a story of incredible deception. Laban knows how much Jacob loves Rachel. Yet, after Jacob worked the agreed-upon seven years for him as a slave, Laban, sends Rachel's sister Leah to the marriage bed instead of Rachel, his agreed-upon prize.

We moderns read this and wonder how Jacob could have consummated a marriage to Leah and not known that she wasn't the woman he loved. But in those days, brides entered the darkened bridal bed room heavily veiled. It wouldn't have been until sunset that Jacob would know that Laban had tricked him.

Of course, in spite of sympathy we might have for Jacob as we read this story, we might also see a kind of justice at play here. This is Jacob, after all: the guy who leveraged his brother's birthright when Esau was famished for a bowl of soup; the guy who decieved Isaac, his father, the blessing meant for Esau.

Jacob is incensed at what Laban (and Leah) have done to him and he expresses his anger to Laban. About seven years too late, Laban explains that it was the custom in his country that the oldest daughter must be married off first. Jacob is over a barrel and so agrees to work an additional seven years for Rachel's marriage. This isn't the last time we'll see that in Laban's culture, women were regarded as property. Laban viewed his daughters as commodities he can use to get what he wants from Jacob.

Throughout the account of Jacob in Haran, Laban reminds me of Mr. Haney from the old Green Acres sitcom. Haney always seemed to have some ace up his sleeve, some conveniently-overlooked custom, fee, or fact that would require the series' main character, Oliver Wendell Douglas, to fork over more money to him.

Fortunately for Jacob (or perhaps unfortunately), the customs of the day allowed a man to have more than one wife. So, he could be married to both Leah and Rachel.

4. Genesis 29:28-35 shows the strange contest between the two sisters for their husband's affections.

One key to understanding this passage is to remember that in Biblical times, having children was regarded as a particular blessing from God. The lack of children was seen as a curse. Thus, the couple not having children would feel even greater pressure than moderns who find themselves in the same situation.

Leah, often overlooked by her husband and knowing that she isn't first in his affections, relishes that she so easily conceives and gives birth (to sons, the more valued offspring, no less), while her sister Rachel remains barren for a long time.

This is one more example of the suspense that is a common element of Genesis. We're conversant enough with the story of Israel's patriarchs to know that Jacob must become the father Joseph, who will save the people from famine. But if Rachel can't become pregnant, where will Joseph come from?

What we learn in Genesis is that God acts at just the right time to advance His will. What seems impossible to us, God pulls off.

[[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11]

Liberal Giuliani Adored by Conservative Republicans...What's Up with That?

Patrick Ruffini is a fledgling political pundit who is getting a lot of Republicans to participate in his monthly online straw polls. The subject of these polls is who should be the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Last month, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani was the decided winner in the crowded field. Once again this month, Giuliani is in the lead.

Ruffini points out that his poll isn't scientific. But as Hugh Hewitt reported some months ago, based on interactions he's had with grassroots Republicans, there's alot of support for a Giuliani presidential run from people who disagree with him on abortion, gay marriage, and a whole host of subjects.

Why is that? Why are conservative Republicans gah-gah over the liberal Giuliani?

I think that there are two reasons, one to which Hewitt alludes. In a nutshell, it's the insecurity of our world and the desire to have a leader who acts with confidence and dispatch in emergency situations. Giuliani is perceived as having done that on September 11. Wanting security in the face of disasters, whether caused by terrorists or by nature, is trumping concerns about other issues for conservatives. They want Rudy--right now anyway--because he's seen as tough.

This, by the way, is the very trait that probably propelled Ronald Reagan past Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election. Americans had massive misgivings about Reagan. A few years before, his perceived bellicosity and possession of "the nuclear button" would have been grounds for most American voters to dismiss his candidacy for President out of hand. But with the long-running Iranian hostage crisis still dragging on by election day of that year, Reagan's perceived toughness seemed preferable. Similar concerns could propel Giuliani to the Republican nomination and to the White House.

But I think that there's a second reason for the enthusiasm Republicans appear to have for Giuliani. It's this: The labels of conservative and liberal have been fairly depleted of meaning. Today, by and large, when people say, "I'm a conservative" or "I'm a liberal," they may mean nothing more than, "I like the blue team" or "I like the red."

Sure, there are still true believers. But I'll give you a test. In it, I'll describe the policies of phantom administrations and ask you to name the party of their President.

Administration #1 undertakes a major retrenchment and reduction in the size of the modern welfare state and it moves the federal budget from a deficit to a surplus.

Administration #2 oversees a massive growth in the size of government, including the establishment of several new buraucracies, and undertakes an activist foreign policy designed to spread democracy throughout the world.

By any conventional reckoning, one would say that the first administration was Republican and the second one Democratic. But in fact, the first is that of Bill Clinton and the second of George W. Bush.

Yes, circumstances change. But can you imagine Lyndon Johnson acquiescing to the welfare reform program Clinton signed into law? Or even Mr. Bush's father enacting the kind of Wilsonian response to terrorism that incited our current war in Iraq?

Mind you, I'm not arguing about the policies of these matters or whether either Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush were right in abandoning their party's core principles. Clinton probably had little choice once the Republicans won the 1994 midterm elections but to go along with the Republican-passed welfare reform program. It was only after those elections and its triumphant "Contract with America," that Clinton declared the era of big government to be ended. But Clinton had always been committed to a politics of "triangulation" in which he swiped enough of the ideas of his opponents to weaken their hold on more conservative voters.

Mr. Bush appears as committed as another president from Texas, the Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, to using money from the federal treasury--even when it has to be borrowed from China and other foreign lenders--to fatten the budget with people-pleasing pork.

Even on social issues, modern conservatives don't sound too much like the conservatives of bygone days. For example, many conservatives have been alarmed by soon-to-be Chief Justice John Roberts' answers during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Like conventional conservative jurists of the past, Roberts insisted that the Court should not be in the business of making new law and should pay attention to precedent. In other words, he disdains judicial activism. But this isn't what some "conservatives" wanted to hear. They want judges who will be activists in the pursuit of their agendas on abortion, homosexuality, and other issues. For them, activism on behalf of what they believe in is okay.

So meaningless have the labels conservative, liberal, left, and right become that not long ago, I a conservative Republican activist told me, "If Barry Goldwater were alive today, we'd see what a liberal he really was. I could never vote for him." When I heard that statement, I couldn't help but think of the novel, 1984, in which war was said to really be peace.

The bottom line is that Rudy Giuliani may just win the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and on his way to the White House, he'll be declared a great conservative.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Worried That You Don't Measure Up?

Read Gordon Atkinson's wonderful essay here. (I have the distinct feeling that this essay will be cited in my message this coming Sunday morning!) This is a link to Gordon's blog site.

"We Are Not Making an Opus Dei Film. Others Are."

So says Lorenzo Minoli, producer of one of two made-for-TV biopics about Pope John Paul II currently in production. Minoli's will appear on ABC.

The other, set to appear on CBS, has the backing of Opus Dei, conservative Catholic movement which had strong ties to the late pope.

As a Lutheran, I don't have a lot in common with Opus Dei. But since when did they give up their right to free speech? And why is the movement's involvement a basis for dismissing a film?

Nowhere is the notion of political correctness, with its decided prejudices and accompanying condescension and penchant for cartoonish villainizing, more widely accepted than in the film industry.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 11

[The two gatherings of our Tuesdays with Markie studies of Genesis--the Old Testament book and not the band with Phil Collins--that preceded this evening's were cut short for various reasons. So, I didn't bother presenting summaries of them. I'm going to try to cover some of the territory we discussed in several shorter posts over the next few days.

[If this is your first look at this series, in it, I'm simply summarizing the discussions of Genesis that we're having on Tuesday nights. The "we" are members of the congregation I serve as pastor and me.

[Links to previous installments in the series appear below.]

1. Genesis 28 opens with a strange scene, strange because it presents one of those apparent fissures that sometimes seems to disrupt the Genesis narrative. As Jacob prepares to go to Paddan Aram, the ancestral homeland situated somewhere in modern Iraq, Isaac blesses him.

Say what?

Hadn't Isaac already given Jacob what amounted to a blessing obtained under a false pretext (i.e., Jacob had presented himself as Esau, the one for whom Isaac meant the blessing)?

Wasn't Esau already on the warpath, intent on killing Jacob, making time a valuable commodity?

And wasn't Isaac less than enamored of Jacob, described tonight by one of our study participants as "the nerd" to Esau's "jock"?

The answers to the last three questions are Yes, Yes, and Yes.

Some scholars look at this and say that the seeming incongruities stem from varying sources for Jacob's story being blended, perhaps clumsily.

Maybe. But I'm not so certain that what are called incongruities are in fact, incongruities.

No matter how Jacob had deceived him, he was still Isaac's son. There's no reason to believe that he wanted his son to be harmed by the other son, any more than Rebekah, the sons' mother, wanted harm to come to Isaac's favorite, Esau.

Furthermore, Isaac and Rebekah appear united in their desire that their son, now the heir of the Abrahamic promise, not marry a woman from the country in which they lived as nomads. Esau had already done this. No, they wanted him to go back to the ancestral home from which Rebekah herself hailed, and find a wife among her kin.

So, Isaac saw Jacob as he prepared to make the journey once taken by his father Abraham's servant. (That Isaac would send Jacob makes sense for two reasons: Isaac was apparently ill, portrayed as on the verge of death in the previous chapter, and, given the danger in which Jacob found himself, it only made sense that he should leave on this errand any way.)

2. Poor Esau! Duped into selling his birthright for some soup, tricked out of his father's blessing by his brother and his mother, and repudiated for making bad marriages, he impulsively tried to atone for it all. He found local kin, the daughter of Ishmael, Isaac's half brother. As we leave him for now, we can only conclude that Esau's future isn't very bright. He's too witless, too impulsive, and living under the burden of a blessing that doesn't seem like one. But don't write Esau off yet!

3. The dream and the vision that Jacob had at Bethel are part of a single incident about which every Sunday School student of my generation probably learned. The image he at first saw is akin to some buildings in the near East that were dedicated to the worship of gods. The "stairs" were like ramps that led to heights on which it was thought worshipers were closer to deities. People of many religions believed that there were places that acted as special conduits between heaven and earth, highways used by God's angelic emissaries as they traveled to the places where they would undertake their missions.

At Bethel, Jacob received God's promise, one that echoes that given to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. From their line, a great nation, a light to all the other nations of the world, would proceed. God promised too, to protect Jacob. This is a promise which, in spite of a number of harrowing experiences, God fulfilled time and time again in the subsequent narrative.

4. When Jacob woke up, he was filled with what the theologians call numinous awe, the sense of God's presence. The mood was one of reverence and a kind of fear. Jacob concluded that this place was the very doorway to heaven and called it House of God, which is what Bethel means.

As was the custom in places where God was worshiped, or God had done great things, or people entered into holy agreements (covenants), Jacob erected a stone and anointed it with oil, designating this as a place where God had acted.

Twice, I've heard Eddie Fox, one-time director of evangelism for the worldwide Methodist movement, speak. Once, I heard him speak of visiting a remote south Pacific village and being taken to a stone marker that had been erected. "Here," the marker noted and mentioned a specific date, "the Holy Spirit came" to that island. From that moment, the fledgling group of Christians who had been visited by God on the island fanned out among their neighbors and friends and lived out their faith and told others about the love and new life that Jesus gives. And within a short time, the whole island had turned their lives to Christ.

For the people on that island, no less than for Jacob at Bethel, God had come to them in an unmistakable way. So, in both cases, they marked the moments not with photographs, but with monuments.

This passage is one of several that seem to intimate that Jacob was rather strong. We don't know how big the pillar at Bethel was. But stone isn't light.

Here too, Jacob pledges that he will tithe to God, dedicating one-tenth of all he owns to God.

More tomorrow, I hope.

[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10]

Woodward Says Bush is No Liar

Let me preface this by saying that this isn't a political statement. I have dished out criticism of President Bush's use of faith in Christ as a political weapon, which I regard as inappropriate. I said that I wasn't in love with his plans for New Orleans.

But is the guy a liar? It's become an article of faith among some Dems and his blogging opponents to say that he is, especially relative to the invasion of Iraq.

Bob Woodward, investigative reporter and assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, who, along with Carl Bernstein, helped bring down Richard Nixon, spoke at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio last night. An account from a Cincinnati Enquirer article discusses some of what he said about Bush and his credibility:
Even amid accusations that the federal government is becoming increasingly secretive, Woodward doesn't agree that President Bush's administration parallels the Nixon years.

After eight hours of private interviews with the president for his most recent best sellers, Bush at War and Plan of Attack, Woodward said he hasn't "found a lie yet."

"Is there any president who likes the press? I don't think so - that pretty much goes with the territory," he said. "It was extraordinary that (Bush) would let someone come in and interview him like that."...

The government and the media have changed, but Woodward said all administrations can't be covered with the same cynical assumptions.

"You can't consider all presidents criminals, but you can presume they may not be telling the whole story," he said. "(President Bush's) agenda is long-term, ambitious and high-purpose. It may look one way now, and look vastly different in the future."
An interesting take.

Speaking of Hubris

There's a lot of it among we bloggers. To excoriate anyone for not knowing that our little underworld exists is a bit like blasting Bono for not knowing the lyrics of an obscure hip hop song. As much as I value the work done by countless bloggers, big time and small, most of whom are dedicated amateurs or pros for whom blogging is an increasingly profitable sideline, the world isn't obligated to pay heed to us.

There may be some merit to bloggers casting themselves as David versus the Mainstream Media as Goliath. But to a world not conversant with the relatively secret world of blogging who might get a faint whiff of what Junior's cooking up with his chemistry set down in the basement, complaining that media giants don't give us insufficient props--or that they haven't heard of us, proving that they're terminally unhip--sounds like precisely what it is: Whining.

I say, let's blog away and either earn respect or not. But don't whine about it.

BY THE WAY: This in no way is meant as a defense of the shoddy journalism perpetrated and then defended by Mapes, Dan Rather, et al. I just wish I saw a little less of the triumphalism and arrogance among bloggers. It was these very characteristics that led some of these characters at CBS to run the damning story that brought them down.

Attachments, Hubris, and Katrina

Thus far, officials in the state of Mississippi have said that the Hurricane Katrina death toll is 220. They've been able to positively identify 95 of the bodies. Most of the identified victims were killed by thirty-foot storm surges that went miles inland, trapping them in attics, washing them out of their second-story perches, or subjecting them to falling debris.

This morning's New York Times also reports that:
In the days and hours before Hurricane Katrina arrived, [family members] spoke with relatives and friends who pleaded with them to go, and many had the means to do so. But having survived Hurricane Camille, which killed at least 131 Mississippians in 1969, they apparently never believed that this new storm could be worse.
A few of the dead had understandably refused to evacuate because of frail loved-ones who were unable to be moved without assistance from others. Some wouldn't leave because it would require leaving pets behind. These conditions weren't faced by all of the known victims though.

In fact, this morning, as I read the Times' descriptions of some of the deceased, I felt a rising sense of incredulity. I simply couldn't fathom the decisions of many to ignore evacuation orders.

Among the dead were accomplished, intelligent people who had the means to easily escape. Yet they decided to try riding out what forecasters were telling them could be a Category Five storm.


For some, it seems that it was because of their attachments to places--to their homes, to familiar haunts in their communities, to their neighbors.

None seemed to give any thought to the fact that within moments after it made landfall, Katrina was likely to wipe out the houses and communities from which they drew so much comfort. Their neighbors who hadn't sensibly evacuated were all soon to die too. The decisions they made to ride Katrina out then, was a bit like a person who, having assumed that his position with a corporation was permanent, is flummoxed when he's "right sized" out of work.

Nothing is permanent in this world. This is why Jesus tells the story of two householders. One built his house on sand and the other on rock. When a storm came along, the house built on sand was flattened, while the house built on the rock stood. In another part of the New Testament, a man named Peter reminds followers of Jesus that we're nothing more than fleeting aliens and refugees in this world. So, it's best not to become too attached to our comforts here.

There can be, I think, a kind of hubris in the decisions of coastal peoples to ride out hurricanes in spite of evacuation orders. They seem to exhibit the same heedlessness to reality that you see in teenagers who, in spite of all the warnings, think that they can drink themselves into stupors, drive at blinding speeds, and yet remain perfectly safe on highways.

It isn't so much that these people believe they're immortal; it's that, because they've never experienced it, they can't imagine a world in which they aren't thriving. They believe that they have the mettle to survive nature's worst or that even if others lose their faculties in disastrous circumstances, they will still in control.

In fact, that may be the ultimate hubris: The notion that we are in control.

According to the Bible, it was the desire to be in control that caused the original human ancestors, Adam and Eve, to rebel against God and begin the human war with God, a war that only ends when we willingly receive the compassion, forgiveness, and leadership of Christ. "You won't die if you eat of this fruit that makes you conversant with both good and evil," the serpent told Eve. "No, you'll be like God." We've been foolishly chasing after that goal ever since.

After telling the story of the two householders, Jesus said that He is the strong Rock on which to build our lives. For Jesus' original hearers, the implications of that statement would have been unmistakeable. In Jewish thought, rocks were the most ancient of God's creations. Modern geology would support that notion. To both the ancient Hebrews and to us, the image of the rock carries the idea not just of solidity and firmness, but of resilience.

When you rely on God, you can be bold, but you don't take unnecessary risks. Once, Jesus was tempted by the devil. He took Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Citing passages of Scripture that affirmed God's willingness to protect us, he dared Jesus to jump. Citing another passage, Jesus said, "It's not right to tempt God." Sure, Jesus was saying, God will protect His people. But God hasn't rescinded the law of gravity and if we're going to violate it, we must also accept the decided possibility that things won't go well for us.

Now, having said all this, some may think that I'm unfairly judging those who decided to ride out Katrina in spite of evacuation orders. Let me tell you, I've done many stupid things in my lifetime. I've taken ill-advised risks that might have cost me my earthly life. The delusion of permanence and the sense of hubris are very common human attributes.

But what I'm learning is that it's better to build a life on the rock of Christ than on the quicksand of my own cleverness or the comforts of home. Martin Luther wrote a hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, in the popular musical style of his day, the words to which are based on Psalm 46 in the Old Testament. The psalm says:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.

"Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth."

The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Among the most important lessons to take from Katrina is for us not to fall too in love with our surroundings. Change is the only real constant in this world. But the God we know through Jesus Christ is around forever. No matter what storms may sweep us away in this life--and all of us will one day be swept away, when we build our lives on Christ, we're guaranteed to experience life with God forever. I'm going to try to remember that today.

[Also see the following posts:
Biblical Resources for Sufferers and Observers of Suffering
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 1
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 2
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 3
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 4
The Light of the World!]

Simulated High Winds? Don't Try This at Home

Did Geraldo Rivera create a pseudo-hurricane in order to report on a real hurricane? This guy's sources say so.

Monday, September 26, 2005

I Like the US Way of Electing Leaders Better

After the 2000 US presidential election, with its disputed returns and the resultant inauguration of a candidate who had received a majority from the Electoral College but a minority of the popular vote, it wasn't uncommon for Europeans, in particular, to deride the US system for selecting our chief executives. But I think that if I lived in Germany today, I'd be pining for our way of doing things.

Germany operates under a parliamentary system. Its recent elections resulted in what can only be described as a hung jury. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its coalition partner, the Greens, came in second, but only a few percentage points behind their main opposition, the Christian Democratic Party under the lackluster leadership of Angela Merkel.

Chancellor and SPD leader, Gerhard Schroeder, argues that he should lead a coalition government. The argument he uses to legitimize this assertion seems to be that he and his party did better than the pundits or the pollsters had expected. While it's true that Schroeder had seemed on the brink of political humiliation several months ago, his party's policies and his leadership were still repudiated by about 67% of the German electorate and they did finish second.

None of that would have been possible were it not for the apparently unconvincing campaign waged by Merkel and compatriots. This is somewhat stunning. Just months ago, all the tumblers seemed to be aligned for Merkel to take unambiguous control of the government. The German economy, though showing signs of some recovery recently, is sluggish at best, with widespread unemployment.

Pundit Mark Steyn believes that Germans couldn't bring themselves to vote for Merkel's center-right coalition--though it came in first, it was repudiated by about 64% of the electorate--because in doing so, they knew they would be administering themselves strong medicine. A Merkel government with a majority behind it would likely introduce market reforms to the economy and pare down the costly social programs that many feel are bogging down the German economy. (Already, Schroeder's government had introduced such measures, resulting in some erosion of its support. But Germans apparently feel that Merkel et al will wield administer more exacting surgery on their social welfare state.)

Given the tenuous condition of what the latest issued of The Economist magazine calls Europe's largest and most troubled economy, the mixed results of Germany's elections can hardly bode well. Several leading economic indicators there have weakened since election day.

Any coalition government that emerges in the weeks before a late-October deadline that must be met, including a so-called "grand coalition" between Merkel's and Schroeder's alliances, will be inherently weak and unwieldy, unlikely to pass the kinds of reforms Germany desperately needs right now.

Be that as it may, the American system of electing members of the Executive and Legislative branches separately rarely results in the kinds of limbo situations that happen with frequency in countries that operate under parliamentary systems. In only two presidential elections, those of 1876 and 2000, have the results been in doubt for long periods of time.

Yes, we have had Presidents come to office with less than majority support. Abraham Lincoln emerged victorious in a four-candidate race in 1860 with under 40% of the vote (and about 54% of the Electoral College's ballots). Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912, in a thrre-way race, after garnering 39% of the vote. Bill Clinton didn't receive majority popular support in either 1992 or 1996.

But the Electoral College system, for all its supposed deficiencies, has regularly yielded an undisputed President in all but two US elections since George Washington took office in 1789.

Some point to "divided government," the term used to describe periods when the White House is controlled by one party and the Congress by another, as an inherent risk in our system. It's said that the result is gridlock and inertia as Congresses fail to dispose what Presidents propose.

But it might more readily be argued that there's actually greater risk when the Executive and Legislative branches are controlled by a single party. For decades, Republicans rightly railed against the Democrats in charge at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for their deficit spending, in budgets rife with pork. And since President Bush came to town five years ago, he has yet to veto a single piece of legislation passed by Republican Congresses, all the while sending the budget way into the red, much of it because of massive pork.

By contrast, the first Reagan tax cut was approved by a Democratic Congress. Bill Clinton successfully presided over budget surpluses after Republicans took control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections. He also worked with Republicans to get through an ambitious program of welfare reform.

So, contrary to popular myth and frequent European critiques, divided government may actually be a good thing.

The same can't be said for coalition governments under parliamentary systems. Indeed, such a government is probably the last thing Germany needs right now. The negotiators for the various parties there might do well to forego establishing bad marriages now and go at it again in another election. A government with a clearer mandate might emerge.

Once that happens, maybe Germany ought to consider adopting our system for electing chief executives and legislators.

More Indonesian Deaths from Avian Flu...We Need Action NOW!

Read this.

Then, write to authorities in the US government of the need for us to prepare for what President Bush himself has said would be a fatal pandemic once the Avian flu mutates, making human-to-human transmission possible.

For more information on Avian Flu and what you can do to prevent deaths by the millions, read:







I've pointed out before that if we fail to prepare for this potential disaster, the loss of life resulting from 9/11, the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Rita combined will make them seem like small tragedies.

The losses from AIDS since that virus first appeared will also be minuscule by comparison to the death that will be unleashed by Avian Flu. Indeed, hundreds of thousands more deaths will be attributed to this virus and in a much shorter time frame than is true of AIDS. The AIDS virus may reside in a dormant state for years in a person before it becomes active. But death from this so-called Bird Virus usually succumb to death in less than three days.

We need action in the form of a dramatic ramping up of Tamiflu production and orders, an increased capacity for producing an Avian Flu vaccine once that is do-able, and a massive education campaign, emanating from the highest levels of government, reminding us all how to avoid or limit exposure to this deadly disease.

All of this needed to happen yesterday. The clock is ticking...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Biblical Resources for Sufferers and for Those Who Observe Their Suffering

Hugh Hewitt has posed two provocative questions to the theologians who regularly contribute to his newest blog:
What portions of Scripture are most relevant to the people who have lost family, friends, and financial security to Katrina and now Rita, and why?

What portions of Scripture are most relevant to those who have been watching, but for whom suffering is far removed, and why?
They're worthy questions for any thoughtful person of faith to tackle. Of course, they're inextricably connected. Whether we are the ones suffering or the ones observing the suffering of others, people who have been taught to believe that God is both omnipotent (all powerful) and utterly compassionate will ask, "Why? Why does tragedy, especially tragedies of massive proportions, befall good people? And what does the revealed Word of God, the Bible, have to say about these questions?"

Even the Old Testament figure of Job, a man of such utter faithfulness that God bragged about him, asked why he was undergoing terrible trials.

The person of faith may be tempted to be facile in the use of religious platitudes in the face of tragedy. We're inclined to offer flip responses that may reflect our discomfort with difficult questions more than it does authentic trust in God.

But the Bible counsels against facile answers in the face of tragedy. In that same book of Job, three of his friends listen for seven days to Job's complaints and laments. He wonders why his children have all been killed, why he has lost his property, and why he is afflicted with a painful disease. He wonders where God is in all this.

Job's friends would have been better off to simply listen to him, allowing him to "vent," as is said these days. If they'd been better friends, that's exactly what they would have done. Had they been people of stronger faith, they wouldn't have presumed to be able to explain why Job was enduring these horrors.

Instead, thinking themselves pious, the friends offered easy explanations, suggesting that Job had brought his suffering on himself. Job was able to successfully refute their arguments and in the end, God Himself chastises the "friends" for being so quick to "defend" Him and their religious belief system, that they maligned Job and spoke untruths about Him.

One of the first things we must be able to do, whether we're the victims or the observers of tragedy, is to be able to say, "I don't know. I don't know why God allowed this. I don't know if this is part of God's plan. I don't know how this will turn out."

But, whether we are tragedy's victims or observers, we can also affirm that God stands with those who suffer. How do we know that? A passage of Scripture on which I preached my Sunday message today tells us how. It describes the depths of God's passion for us, as seen in Jesus Christ:
...though he was in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
The passage also goes on to affirm this suffering Savior's ultimate triumph over sin and death and therefore, His ability to give us hope beyond our tragedies, beyond even our deaths:
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
The follower of Jesus Christ always lives already/not yet lifestyle. Believers in Christ are already part of His kingdom. We live in the assurance that the risen Jesus Christ is with us and we are with Christ always. For us, eternity has already begun.

But we also know that, for the present, we see, as Paul puts it in the New Testament, through a glass darkly. Until either we die and enter the presence of God or the risen Christ returns to earth, we will be subject to the same difficulties that afflict the rest of the human race and that once killed Christ Himself.

We're empowered to keep living each day in the light of eternity by the presence of God in our lives, the Holy Spirit sent to all His followers by Jesus. The New Testament affirms that even when we are overtaken by the hard mysteries of life, believers in Christ can turn to God and enjoy a communion that goes beyond speech. Paul writes:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
God has the backs of all who place themselves in His hands. I might doubt that affirmation were it not for the fact that the one who makes it, the first-century preacher Paul, went through more suffering, especially suffering for his faith, than most of us could imagine enduring. Even Job, at the end of the book that recounts his woes, is able to affirm his unshakeable faith in God, an affirmation that encourages millions even today.

Recently, I spoke with a friend whose sister had suddenly died. My friend is a person who believes in Jesus Christ. The members of his extended family don't believe. "I want to tell you something," he said. "Faith makes all the difference. I tried to tell my family that it was possible to hope. But I might as well have been speaking a different language. Ever since this happened, I have felt God's presence. It made me so sad to see that wasn't true for the rest of my family."

We're fortunate that God has given us His Word to face life's tough times. It reminds us of His power, His passion for us, and the history of His interaction with ordinary people like us. It is God's indispensable resource for those searching for hope.

For victims and observers of suffering alike, both the Old Testament book of Job and the fabulous New Testament book of First Peter, which addresses the suffering being endured by Christian believers in Asia Minor, can offer great comfort, encouragement, and hope. I think every believer would do well to read these two books at least once a year, fortifying themselves with God's promises as they face life's realities.

A Biblical passage to which I constantly turn in difficult times is Romans 8:31-39, where Paul writes:
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This passage reminds us that God doesn't promise that suffering will go away. But He does promise to stand with us when we suffer and that one day, He will allow us to supplant our suffering, living in eternity with Him.

There are several important passages that the observers of tragedy should remember, each one capable of acting as divine antidotes to very earthly impulses we may entertain when seeing others suffer.

The first impulse needing to be counteracted is our penchant for limiting our compassion for the suffering. "That's terrible," we may say. "But it's not in my country, my state, my city, my neighborhood, my family."

Jesus once famously encountered a man who wanted to nail down specifically what God's Word and Jesus Himself meant when both commanded, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." "Ah," the man wondered, "but who exactly is my neighbor?" Jesus' response was one of His greatest parables, that of the Good Samaritan:
Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37)
Our neighbor is whoever has a need. If that need is made known to us, we're called to care and do what we can to bring them relief, whether they live in New Orleans or Indonesia.

The second impulse that needs to be counteracted is our penchant for resorting to pious expressions, rather than actually becoming involved in relieving others' suffering. It's easier to say sympathetic things than it is, for example, to donate to relief efforts. And it's easire to donate to relief efforts than it is to support or get involved in an actual relief team.

We Christians believe that we're saved from sin and death by our faith in Jesus Christ. But, the New Testament book of James also reminds us that if we're not engaged in the works of a loving, living faith, our faith may be no more than talk. God didn't stay ensconced in heaven and send a Hallmark card to prove His love for us. Instead, He became one of us and suffered for us and died for us before rising for us. Christians, secure in the awareness that they belong to God forever, can dare to move beyond perfunctory expressions of sympathy for the suffering and the needy and, in the power of God, lend a helping hand or a compassionate shoulder.

In the New Testament book of James, we find a passage that deals with this issue:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
A third impulse that may arise in we observers of others' suffering is the inclination to think that the suffering are only getting what they deserve. Jesus once confronted people who were wagging their tongues in judgment over people who had died in tragic circumstances:
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ (Luke 13:1-5)
Jesus' point? Everyone of is subject to the vicissitudes of life. We have no control over hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, or the actions of others. But we can decide whether we will walk with God or away from God. Those who repent are those who have decided to turn away from selfishness, from sin, from self-reliance and to instead, no matter what, depend on the God Who has revealed His power and His passion in Jesus, Who died and rose for us.

Those who observe tragedy befalling others are clearly called to move beyond observation to active involvement in relieving others' suffering. It's precisely what I hope others would offer me if they saw me enduring tragedy. Each of the passages above point us to Jesus' simple and overlooked Golden Rule: Do to others as you would want them to do to you.

One final passage, one that I share with the families of those who have died, seems appropriate. I believe that it's an important Biblical resource to recall whether we suffer--which all of us do at varying levels in our lives--or we observe suffering and seek, in response to God's love in Christ, to help the sufferers. Paul, in this passage. was speaking to a group of first-century Christians who were discounting the notion of a bodily resurrection, saying that Jesus' resurrection was only a symbolic myth, and that our faith in Christ is a license for doing what we want now, even if the things we choose to do fail to reflect love for God or others. Paul writes:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (First Corinthians 15:12-26)
Life is full of mysteries we cannot explain. Suffering is one of the greatest of these mysteries. The hope for eternity that Christ gives all who believe in Him also gives us the encouragement we need to face life's mysteries. That hope also gives us the certainty we need to be unafraid about loving others, to encourage them, to help them, and so to both positively change this world and to point others to the better world that is the inheritance of all believers in Christ.

[You may also be interested in reading these posts on related questions:
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 1
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 2
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 3
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 4
The Light of the World!]

Real Worship

[This message was shared today with the people of Friendship Church.]

Philippians 2:1-13

This past week, I read the story of a boy named Chad. One day he came home from school and told his mother that he wanted to make Valentine’s Day cards for his classmates. His mother wished that she could somehow persuade him to forget about the idea. You see, his classmates were always putting Chad down, picking him last for baseball at recess, and laughing at him. But Chad was insistent; he wanted to make those Valentine’s cards for his classmates.

So, Chad’s mom bought the construction paper and the crayons and for three he worked hard on making the cards: Thirty five cards, one for each classmate!

On Valentine’s Day, Chad was so excited! He carefully picked up the cards, put them in a bag, and ran out the door. Certain that he would be disappointed that his classmates had failed to remember him on this day, Chad’s mother baked his favorite cookies and had them waiting for the moment he got home from school.

At the usual time, she heard the other children laughing and talking as they walked toward their houses. Behind them all, walking by himself was Chad. It broke her heart to see him.

But when he came through the door, there was a spring in his step, even though she could see that, unlike the other kids, Chad wasn’t holding a bag of Valentine’s cards. Choking back tears, she announced that she had his favorite cookies and some milk for him. But Chad seemed not to hear. His face was glowing and all he could say was, “Not a one...not a one.” Now, his mother thought she would cry. But then Chad told her, “I didn’t forget a one...not a single one!”

Today, I want to talk with you about real worship.

By worship, as you probably know by now, I don’t mean just what we do on Sunday mornings. Worship is something that we do with our whole lives.

And it begins not with our words or our songs or our offerings. It begins with our attitudes, with the thoughts, actions, and feelings that we allow to be the controlling motifs of our lives. Chad could have been resentful. Instead, he adopted a different attitude, the attitude of a servant who isn’t looking out for himself, but for others.

This is the very attitude that the first-century preacher Paul commends in our Bible lesson for today. Quoting from what had by that early point in the Church’s history, already become a valued worship song, Paul tells the followers of Jesus in the Greek city of Philippi:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. [And then he says:] Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, [You see, he’s describing Jesus’ attitude and he goes on to "flesh out" his portrait] ...though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Worship, real worship, is something that the authentic Christian is called to offer whether they're in a shanty or cathedral; accompanied cowbells, guitar licks, organ pipes, or silence; on Sundays or Tuesdays or Thursdays; while at work, at home, on the football field, in the class room, and even in a church building.

Worship, in short, is a life lived in gratitude for the new life God gives to all with faith in Jesus Christ.

The word worship, as I’ve pointed out before, is the descendant of a compound word from Old English, worth-ship. Lives of worship convey the worthiness of Jesus Christ. They say, “This Jesus is the most important presence, power, and force in my life!”

When we gather for our worship celebrations on Sunday mornings, we do so for several important reasons.

First and foremost, we do it because the God we know through Jesus is really worthy of being honored and praised by His people.

But there’s a second reason, one that a former bishop of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Herbert Chilstrom, used to talk about.

While he was in college, Chilstrom earned his tuition money by working as a door-to-door salesman. He sold Fuller Brushes.

Now, I’ve done a lot of door-to-door sales work, starting from the time I was a little boy. I began by selling Christmas cards door-to-door. Then address labels. And after I proved pretty good at that, my Mom sent me out to take orders for potholders she crocheted. After that, I sold subscriptions to a weekly community newspaper I carried and sought out people who wanted their lawns mowed. In later years, I went door-to-door in political campaigns. During my seminary internship, I did the same thing to promote the new church start of which I was a part. And when I came here fifteen years ago, my door-to-door efforts continued as I knocked on thousands of doors to introduce this new congregation to the community.

Let me tell you something, folks, door-to-door sales can get pretty tough. You get to see a lot of front doors up close and personal and you hear the word, “No” countless times.

But Bishop Chilstrom says that the Fuller Brush people had an antidote for the discouragement that could result from those experiences. Every week, they had a pep rally for their salespeople. That pep rally allowed those often-discouraged people to see other possibilities, to get inspire, to refocus on their mission.

“Sunday worship,” Chilstrom concluded, “is the Church’s pep rally!” And he’s right, our Sunday worship is meant to be the Christian’s irreplaceable weekly pep rally.

But if the purpose of the Fuller Brush rallies was to give encouragement to discouraged salespeople, what exactly is the purpose of these Sunday morning gatherings? The preacher in another book in the New Testament, the book of Hebrews, explains it as he urges believers not to miss weekly worship:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another...
In other words, the worship we do together on Sunday mornings is designed to do two things.

First: It encourages us for the living of life. Yes, Hurricane Katrinas happen. So do Ritas. But God is bigger than our storms. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God incarnate, proves that God is able and willing to reach down to us, stand with us, inspire us, and empower us through all the moments of our lives.

Second: It reminds us to keep worshiping Christ with our lives. Christianity is a team participation sport. If you’re not serving, then you’re not really worshiping, no matter how often you show up for Sunday worship or how much money you toss into the offering plate.

Some people have the attitude that they’ll get involved with service in Christ's Name if they’re asked to be a leader of something.

Or, more frequently, they think that they'll stay tangentially involved in the church as long as they get something out of it, an assessment that's often the result of their fleeting moods.

But these weren't the attitudes of Christ, Who though He was God Himself, willingly divested Himself of the advantages of Deity in order to be a slave for you and to me.

Most folks want to be involved, but not committed. Twice this past week, I ran across a quote that defines involvement versus commitment. "The difference between involvement and commitment," it says, "is like an eggs and ham breakfast. The chicken was involved. The pig was committed." Followers of Jesus Christ are called to die to self and to rise to the new life Christ gives believers in Him. Real worship is rooted in commitment to the Savior Who is totally committed to us.

I have to say that I was so inspired and encouraged by something that happened in this building this past Thursday night. Carol, our outreach chairperson, convened a brainstorming session for those who wanted to help plan our outreach program for 2006. Outreach for Friendship is composed of two elements: (1) Undertaking acts of service in Jesus’ Name; (2) Inviting others to know and follow Jesus. Nine Friendship members showed up for this meeting!

I’m sure that others may have been prevented from attending by scheduling conflicts. Some are deeply involved in other ministries of our church. And some may have had pressing family matters that kept you from being here. But I’ve got to tell you, I wanted to hug all nine of those people--and Mike’s Mom, who also was in attendance, visiting from Houston--for their commitment to finding ways to worship Jesus beyond just Sundays.

Worship begins with an attitude, a willingness to serve God and others in response to the incredible act of service God once undertook for us when He became a human being, went to a cross, and rose from death so that people like you and me can live with Him forever.

As our pep rally ends this morning, ask God to give you the same attitude that burned within Jesus for us. It’s after we leave here today that our real worship can begin!

[The story of Chad, originally told by Pastor Dale Galloway, is recounted by Chuck Swindoll, in his book, Improving Your Serve.

[I personally heard Bishop Chilstrom tell about his Fuller Brush experiences at a profession leadership retreat a few years back.

[Continuing to inspire this series is the work of the pastors and staff of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church of Burnsville, Minnesota.]