Wednesday, October 05, 2005

A Caffeinated List of Blogging Alternatives

I came home from the Tuesday night Bible study wanting to do some reading and watch the Yankees-Angels game with a soft drink and some popcorn. But I was out of my beloved 7-Up and had to drink caffeinated Coke. So, I'm up, unable to sleep.

I decided that since I may not be able to post on Thursday through Saturday of this week, I'd give you a list of some blogs you might want to explore in my absence. The list doesn't mean I give them blanet endorsements. But there's interesting stuff in them. Here goes...

All Others Must Bring Data (A Boston sports fan shares his passions)
Pools of Grace
Dana Roc's Blog
Tomorrow's Trends
My Best Gadgets
Letting me be...random wondering and philosophy

If these aren't enough to sate your blog appetite, check out the Blogroll on the left side of the page.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Discouragement and 'Mr. Nice Guy'

His sudden death, seemingly in the prime of life, had come as a shock to his wife and family. One phrase was used repeatedly to describe him. "He was a nice guy," everyone said.

As someone who had informally counseled with him, I knew this to be true. But I knew something else about him: He was deeply discouraged and unhappy.

"I'm everybody's doormat," he told me. "It's not that I mind doing things for others. It's that people expect me to drop everything and do for them whenever they need help. But I never seem able to muster the courage to ask anyone else to help me."

He revealed that he was so burdened by the obligation he felt to please others that he couldn't imagine ever striving to achieve the goals he had for his life, even those he felt certain God had planted in his mind.

Mr. Nice Guy, a deeply committed Christian, would then hang his head in shame for these supposedly "unchristian" thoughts. He thought that he was called to be a nice guy/pleaser/doormat.

Of course, we should all be interruptible, open to opportunities to do loving deeds for others. Jesus says that whenever we care for those who need care, we're really serving Him. Such service can be a way of fulfilling Jesus' call to "love others as we love ourselves."

But it's been my experience that people don't fall into the doormat way of living, which is really a life style of slavery, out of gratitude for the love God offers through Jesus, the proper motive for Christian service. Jesus' love doesn't enslave us, but liberates us to become our best selves.

Pleasers though, seem to be motivated by one or more of several different desires:
  • Keeping others from becoming angry with them
  • Placating those already angry with them
  • Avoiding confrontation, creating an atmosphere of false placidness in which differences are swept under the rug, the pleaser accepting servitude without a whimper
  • Getting people to like them
  • Getting people to depend on them
  • Subtly soliciting and receiving compliments
  • Making others feel beholden to them, even if the pleaser's desire to be perceived as being competent may prevent them from ever "calling in their chits"
  • Feeling powerful, capable of doing for others what they won't or can't do for themselves
  • Feeling competent
Notice that there isn't a benevolent or loving impulse in the entire list! That's because much of what motivates people to be inveterate pleasers is the elevation of the self. Often, nice-guyism is at least partially motivated not by love for others, but by the desire to be indispensable. (I know because I've wrestled with being my own version of Mr. Nice Guy!)

"If I can be nice enough to everyone," the pleaser subconsciously thinks, "they'll all like me, they'll do what I want them to do, and my life will be easier."

Behind all the nice person's efforts to please everyone is self-loathing. Inside, there's a quaking child with a gaping hole that the pleaser tries to fill with the trophies of others' appreciation and compliments. But such self-aggrandizing approaches to life simply don't work!

In the next installment of this series on discouragement, I'll talk about what I'm starting to learn does work or can work, if we let it.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Problem with Stealth Supreme Court Justices

In earlier describing Harriet Miers, the President's nominee for the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as a "stealth nominee," I wasn't disparaging Miers' candidacy or qualifications for the Court.

When one considers it, Miers probably has more relevant experience for service there than O'Connor had when Ronald Reagan nominated her. The soon-retiring justice had been a state court judge in Arizona and before that, a member of the state legislature. Miers has been the senior partner in a major law firm, a member of a City Council, and counsel to a governor and a President.

It isn't essential that members of the Court have experience as judges. (In fact, the Constitution doesn't even require them to be lawyers, leading me to sometimes speculate on what would happen to the deliberations of the justices if they were leavened by the participation of non-lawyers.) Rehnquist, as has been pointed out many times today, wasn't a judge prior to his nomination for an Associate Justice slot in 1971. Earl Warren was a former California governor.

I've been reading the late Roy Jenkins' profile of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency and just last evening, went through his brief account of FDR's controversial plan to add one new justice to the Supreme Court for every then-sitting member who was seventy years of age or older. Of course, Roosevelt's plan, never really embraced by his own administration and ultimately rejected by a Congress overwhelmingly controlled by his fellow Democrats, was triggered by his frustration that the Court was ruling many of his New Deal prescriptions for the ailing US economy unconstitutional.

According to Jenkins, FDR would have been better off to have simply waited for the Court's membership to turn over, rather than expending precious second-term political capital on a futile battle. Within a short period, the President had what can surely be described as a Roosevelt Court:
In place of [Willis] Devanter he appointed the young senator Hugo Black. Then, in the next few years, Supreme Court vacancies occurred like November's falling leaves. The president was able to appoint his own solicitor general, Stanley Reed; Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard academic; William O. Douglas, an equally liberal Yale academic; Attorney General Frank Murphy; Senator James Byrnes of South Carolina, later to be Truman's not entirely satisfactory secretary of state; and Robert Jackson, Murphy's replacement as attorney general.
There are several points to this little history lesson:
1. The justices nominated and confirmed during Roosevelt's tenure fairly reflect the varied walks of life that have usually been represented on the Supreme Court. Black and Byrnes were politicians; Frankfurter and Douglas were scholars; Reed, Jackson, and Murphy were lawyers with political experience. They weren't all White House lawyers whose views were known only to those who served with them in the Executive Branch. All of these nominees had extensive public records whether in political decisions or legal scholarship. These were people who had taken sides and everybody knew what sides they had taken. That didn't prevent them from being confirmed.

2. The standards to which judges were held in those days were both more political and less ideological. It was assumed that Presidents would nominate people for membership on the Court who were more or less sympathetic to the President's basic philosophy.
In making these two points, I'm not criticizing this President Bush or his father for nominating stealth candidates to the Court. In the poisonous atmosphere which has often surrounded Supreme Court nominations over the past thirty years, Presidents have their reasons for offering up persons with scant public records who they believe will reflect their views, but not attract opposition or controversy on the way to being confirmed.

In John Roberts and Harriet Miers, the President has put forward two people with whom he and the members of his administration are familiar, but who don't have a boatload of "incriminating evidence" that potential opponents--on the right or the left--might use against them.

The result is a process in which little information is shared, the President and his administration winkingly ask their supporters to trust them, and an opposition, often driven by purely ideological motives, is frustrated.

Harriet Miers may be confirmed and she may turn out to be a great justice. She seems competent and hard working. But one day, a stealth nominee is going turn out to be a massive failure not because their judgments displease people, but because of incompetence which a strangely-constricted confirmation process doesn't surface.

So, How About Some Encouragement?

I wrote earlier on discouragement and antidotes for this common experience. Below are links to a series I wrote some months ago:

The Power of Encouragement, Part 1: The Impact of Encouragers

The Power of Encouragement, Part 2: Encouraging without Words

The Power of Encouragement, Part 3: Principles for Parents

The Power of Encouragement, Part 4: Encouraging Leaders

The Power of Encouragement, Part 5: The Ultimate Source of Encouragement

The Power of Encouragement, Part 6: A Community of Encouragement

Discouragement and Some Antidotes

I've been thinking lately about discouragement. (That's partly because I've been wrestling with feeling a bit discouraged about a few things in my life and because I've been dealing with lots of other folks coping with some sizeable cases of discouragement.)

This morning, in an unsystematic way, I jotted down a few things that cause discouragement. The list includes:
1. Things not going the ways we want them to go
2. People not cooperating with us
3. Being taken for granted by others
4. Persistent failure (or the perception of persistent failure)
5. Taking the short view of things
6. Feeling that nothing we do matters
7. Financial difficulties
8. Insufficient reliance on God
9. Shame, something that comes to us when we either refuse to accept God's forgiveness for past sins or when we have sinned and refuse to repent, allowing the sin to become part of our personal make-ups.
Here are a few antidotes for discouragement that I listed:

1. Altering our expectations. Notice I didn't say "lowering" our expectations! One example of altered expectations would include accepting that things don't always go our ways and so, having the humility and sense of humor to try our best and let the chips fall where they may, as the saying goes.

Another might be accepting that, contrary to the Coldplay song, Fix You, we can't fix other people or make them do what we want them to do. Why would we aspire to be such control freaks that we would want to "fix" people anyway?

2. Accepting that I'm not God. I believe it was Chuck Swindoll who first alerted me to two fundamental facts about life that lead both to sanity and faith: God is God; I'm not.

3. Learning to pray and really mean, "Your will be done." That's the central and most important petition of the Lord's Prayer, the template prayer taught by Jesus.

Don't misunderstand: There is a difference between faith and fatalism! But once we've prayed and tried our hardest--in our relationships, in our work, and so on, we need to be able to let it go and to let God be in charge.

4. Related to #3, rely on God. One of the most common prayers I'm offering to God these days is a simple one: "Help!" or "Help so and so!" or "Help me!" I used to try to micromanage God, describing in detail how I thought he should go about helping me or others. But if it's true that God is God and I'm not, this is a bit presumptuous.

What, someone might ask, about the statement in the Old Testament that if we approach God in prayer, He'll give us the desires of our hearts?

I believe that the deeper we go in our relationships with God, the more our desires will be reflective of His will and even when they're not, our greatest desire will be that God's will be done.

Besides, there is absolutely nothing wrong with telling God what we want, so long as we're willing to accept that He may have better ideas than we do. (The may in that last sentence is meant to be ironic, folks.)

5. When daunted by a seeming profusion of failures, count your successes. The old Irving Berlin song sung by Bing Crosby in the movie, White Christmas, says, "When I grow weary and I can't sleep/I count my blessings instead of sheep/And I fall asleep, counting my blessings."

Homely advice? Terminally unhip? Yes and yes. But still valid advice. When things are going poorly, it's easy to fall prey to thinking that everything always has been and always will be lousy. Remembering blessings reminds us that this isn't true.

Some people I know keep their prayers in a notebook and as each one is answered, sometimes in ways they never would have anticipated, they make note of the answers and the dates on which they learned of these blessings.

Years ago, I began a habit of putting all the thank you notes I receive into file folders. When I'm feeling discouraged, I leaf through those notes. They remind me that I'm not as incompetent or unworthy as I might be feeling in my discouraged state.

However you do it, counting your successes--so long as you don't take too much credit for them--is one more antidote for discouragement.

6. Because some forms of discouragement stem from sin and its consequences, repentance and acceptance of God's grace is another antidote for discouragement.

God is gracious. That means that He has our best interests at heart and that in spite of our imperfections, He willingly forgives those who turn from their sin (which is what repentance means) and sends His Holy Spirit to help them avoid that sin in the future.

There's a big difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is God's way of getting our attention. The person without a capacity for guilt can't sense forgiveness or know the joy of having God renew them. Guilt drives us to the God we know in Christ, where we can find brand new starts and God's love for us.

A passage in the New Testament says this:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (First John 1:9-10)
Shame, on the other hand, walls us off from God. It makes us think that we are our sin, makes us despair, overwhelmed by the seeming futility of our lives.

We need to let God love us to restoration and healing.

Just a few thoughts on discouragement and how to combat it.

Miers: Another Stealth Nominee?

Two things strike me about the revelation that President Bush intends to nominate his White House counsel, Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

First, I'm struck by the fact that this story broke before an official White House announcement. Aides leaked it to the press before the Communications office confirmed that on Sunday night, Mr. Bush offered the nomination to Miers.

In past administrations, this wouldn't be a surprise. But the Bush 2 White House has been relatively leak-proof. Was this a trial balloon? Or has the once-vaunted discipline of the administration begun to erode?

There are probably good arguments one could advance to answer yes to either of these questions.

I'm also struck with how little anyone seems to really know about Miers at this point. That will probably change quickly. While she may not have judicial paper trail--she's never been a judge--she does have a public record. She served, for example, on the Dallas city council and as chair of the Texas Lottery Commission. Democrats, under pressure to placate liberal interest groups, will undoubtedly go through that record with a fine tooth comb.

Certain conservative groups, apparently concerned that Chief Justice Roberts will turn out to be a closet liberal, will also be exerting pressure on Republican senators to make sure that Miers votes their way once she's on the Court. But it seems to me that just as it was wrong to exact pledges from Roberts on how he would vote as a member of the Court, it would be wrong to seek promises from Miers.

In a way, it seems that Miers, like Roberts before her, is a variation of the stealth nominee strategy that began with Justice Souter's appointment to the Court. Ideological pressure groups, feeling that the stakes are even higher when it comes to choosing the successor of Sandra Day O'Connor, will severely test whether the strategy can continue to work.

UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt writes, "Harriet Miers isn't a Justice Souter pick, so don't be silly. It is a solid, B+ pick. The first President Bush didn't know David Souter, but trusted Chief of Staff Sunnunu and Senator Rudman. The first President Bush got burned badly because he trusted the enthusiams of others."

Speaking only for myself, when I compared this nomination to that of Souter, it had nothing to do with either how well this President knew this nominee or whether Miers might be a "closet liberal." I meant only that there are no apparent red flags inviting opposition from the opposition party to her nomination.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Hillary, the Methodist

This profile of Senator Hillary Clinton may be a puff job by the New York Times. But I was intrigued by it nonetheless. And I find one of its central assertions, that Mrs. Clinton's views that abortion is a tragic option that should be exercised rarely, her concerns about film violence and sexual explicitness, and that morality matters don't stem from a desire to shift to the center, but genuinely-held beliefs, plausible.

Like Mrs. Clinton, I spent formative years of my youth in the Methodist Church. With missionary zeal, Methodists have historically not only striven for evangelization of the world and the internal spiritual transformation of believers, but to put that faith in action through social ministries. That spirit of do-goodism, a description I use with appreciation, is something that the young Hillary Rodham could have imbibed as much as the Goldwater Republicanism to which she once adhered.

None of this is to say that I see Senator Clinton's politics as being Christian any more than I see President Bush's in this way. But the probable spiritual roots of her views on a range of subjects are as likely to be imbued with Christian sensibilities as those of the President. God isn't a Republican or a Democrat. God is God and it's not right to trivialize Him by putting him in partisan pigeonholes.

Real Worshiping

Philippians 3:4b-14
[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on October 2, 2005.]

This past week, a new law went into effect in the state of Maryland. It says that within the first five months of receiving their licenses, new drivers under the age of eighteen may not have any minor passengers with them unless a seasoned driver is also in the vehicle. Besides that, the law says that new drivers may not operate any electronic devices, including cell phones, while driving. The intention, of course, is to force the new drivers to focus on the demanding job of driving.

I suspect that some Maryland teens may regard this as a terribly unfair law, even though some of us might think that it would be good if such restrictions were placed on drivers of every age. But if that happened, there would be a huge outcry, such as occurred when cell phone use while driving was banned in New York City a few years ago. We seem to view doing lots of things as once, or multi-tasking, as it’s called, as our constitutional right.

But this multi-tasking stuff doesn’t always work so well. Presbyterian pastor and theologian Mark Roberts, who I’m looking forward to meeting at a conference for Christian bloggers in the Los Angeles area in a few weeks, enjoyed seeing the remake of the old movie, Cheaper by the Dozen, a few years ago. Mark writes that while there was a lot of the juvenile slapstick you might have expected, the film also conveys a serious point:
In scene after scene, the father of 12 children, Tom Baker, played by Steve Martin, is being multi tasked to death as he attempts to balance the impossible demands of work and family. Now I don’t have 12 children, thank God, but sometimes I feel almost as out of sorts as Tom Baker.

When we’ve got so much going on in life, when voices all around us clamor for our attention, it’s easy to lose focus. We can forget why we’re here and what we’re living for. We end up charging off in all directions at once, and arriving at none of them.
That’s true, isn’t it? We live in a world of wonders, filled with all sorts of delights and possibilities, career paths and hobbies, entertainments and enterprises that are worthy of attention, dedication, and passion. Many things cry for our attention. At the end of Cheaper by the Dozen, Tom Baker, decides to leave behind his promising career as a head football coach in order to spend more time with his children. He forswore the good to embrace the better.

You and I are called to do that kind of thing every day. It’s exactly what the writer of our Bible lesson for this morning, the first century preacher and evangelist, Paul, is talking about. Paul wrote these words to the church in the Greek city of Philippi.

A group of persuasive preachers had come to the Philippians and thrown them into doubt about their standing with God. They wondered if they really belonged Christ or if they would be with God in eternity.

That’s because these preachers had told them that it wasn’t enough for them to believe in Jesus, to trust Him with their lives. They told the Philippians that they also must become practicing Jews. The men would be required to be circumcised, for example, and all would have to observe the rituals and the laws of the Jewish religion.

The Philippian Christians had probably once been stirred by the truth that Jesus shared in John 3:16, telling that God had loves all of us so much that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him will live with God forever.

Now, here was this gang telling them that their belief in Jesus was okay, but now they also had to jump through religious hoops. Otherwise, God wouldn’t love them and they wouldn't be with God forever.

Martin Luther used to say that any time a person tells you that Christian faith consists of "Jesus and..." anything, they're not talking about Christian faith. Not even if it's "Jesus and" the very best things of which you can think. Rightness with God doesn't come from "Jesus and being a good person," or "Jesus and your family," or "Jesus and community service." Salvation and rightness with God have to do with only one thing, Jesus.

Paul said that these people who were commending circumcision, ritual observance, and good works in addition to Jesus were following the way of this flesh-and-blood world, not the God we know in Jesus Christ.

When Paul got wind of what the Philippians had been told and were starting to believe, he was furious!

These false preachers were taking their spiritual confidence away from the Philippian Christians. Our confidence as followers of Jesus has nothing to do with the things we do and everything to do with what Jesus Christ has already done for us from a cross and an empty tomb!

This is the way Paul expresses himself to the Philippians:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
In other words, Paul is saying, “All these people commanding you to conform to all legalistic provisions to be right with God are off the beam. I was a better Jew than any of these so-called Judaizers. I had climbed up the ladder of Judaism. I was a religious superstar!”

But, Paul wants them to know that he considers all that religion stuff to be “rubbish” compared to what he had through Jesus Christ: the gift of an everlasting relationship with God not based on anything he could do, but only on what Christ has done for us already. Our translation puts it a bit too daintily, by the way. Paul didn't say that he regarded his old life as mere rubbish. The word literally can be translated as excrement. That's what a life devoted to self-elevating works--even good religious works--is like compared to having faith in the Savior Jesus Who gives us everything worth having for free!

Then, Paul talks about the choice he has made in response to the incredible free gifts of life, forgiveness, love, hope, and confidence that comes through Jesus Christ. Paul isn’t going to multi-task with his life. He’s going to choose make following Christ his highest priority through all the ups and downs of life.

He writes:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Folks, last week, we said that authentic faith means worshiping God every day of our lives. Today, Paul reminds us that living lives worshiping God--knowing Jesus and moving toward being like Him--entails making Him the focus of our lives.

Pastor Mike Foss tells the true story of a business executive in his congregation. Says Foss:
John’s life and career were on the upswing. He had just closed a major deal that lead to a large bonus. Membership in the country-club, driving a luxury SUV, and having a fine home and cabin up north, just seemed to be standard fare for one whose accomplishments were so many and frequent. Then it happened: his wife was diagnosed with a terminal disease. Putting his career temporarily on hold, he made certain that she got the very best medical care and, when he didn’t like the diagnosis and treatment plan, he took her to a world-class medical center. But the doctors all seemed to come to the same conclusion: she would die after a long time of decline. They recommended that he put her in a nursing home, visit her regularly, and go back to his career. But John couldn’t do that. Every time he looked at her, he didn’t see the sickness—he saw the woman...he loved, the partner in life with whom he had shared family and faith. And after one night of restless prayer, he made his decision. He quit his [job] to care for her, saying, “I’ll never get a chance to love her again. But I can always go back to work.” So, he sold his cabin and house and moved her to a single-level simple home where he loved her until the end.
What that man did was an act of worship. No, he wasn’t worshiping his wife. There may in fact be times when our devotion to Jesus Christ will necessitate our giving attention to things other than our families. I think that many parents today are not being very loving toward their children by their willingness to drop everything whenever their kids want attention. Our children cannot learn to put God and others first, they cannot learn to be responsible, loving adults, if their parents always cater to their kids’ desires. Nor do we help our kids by enabling them in being selfish or inconsiderate or by bailing them out every time they make a bad decision.

Authentic worship of the God we know with Jesus Christ entails responding to Christ’s love by letting His priorities, His ways, and His love overtake every aspect of our lives. That’s what did John when he put his career behind and stretched out for the way of Jesus.

Every day, we must choose: Christ or me? Christ or my ego? Christ or my priorities? Humbly following Christ or following the religion that makes the world think me pious? Or for our teens perhaps, following Christ or impressing those around me? Every day, we’re called to follow Jesus rather than the world. And this isn’t something we can multi-task. We can’t follow the risen and living Jesus and a selfish and dying world at the same time. We will either have all of Jesus or none of Him.

To have none of Him is unthinkable. To have all of Him is to have everything that really matters for all eternity.