Saturday, October 22, 2005

McCartney Gives Suitor "Permission" to Propose Marriage

I loved this story because it combines two interests of mine: the music and impact of Paul McCartney and northwestern Ohio, where we lived for six years.

The marriage proposal will give special meaning to the playing of, This Never Happened Before, a selection from Macca's newest LP, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, perfect for wedding receptions anyway, for the couple to dance to come their nuptial day.

As Wilma Rages...

my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Mexico in this storm's path. I'm praying for others projected to be in the way if and when Wilma finally makes its slow, torturous departure from Mexico. May God keep people safe, help those impacted by the storm to rebuild their lives, and experience God's provision and compassion in the weeks and months to come.

So Much for Being a Milquetoast (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 18)

Someone--I don't remember who--has described the usual stereotype of Jesus as Mister Rogers in a bath robe. In fact, we turn Jesus into such an utterly innocuous and unexceptionable figure that it's hard to imagine why people got so upset with Him, upset enough to call for His execution. After all, some may have found Mister Rogers, the closely-related alter ego of the late, great Fred Rogers, annoying. But that's no ground for crucifixion.

What a close reading of the Gospel of Matthew demonstrates is that Jesus was no milquetoast. Through His words and actions, He represented a real threat to religious traditions. (He still does!) He also threatened the positions of those religious leaders who relied not on God, but on those traditions. (He still does!)

The point is that Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, has a demonstrable personality. Absolutely loving and absolutely just, bent on bringing the fallen human family, back into relationship with God, He has decided preferences. He cannot abide those who deliberately obstruct others' view of God. He is intolerant of the legalisms that religious dictators use to elevate themselves, knock others down, and leave God's true will for us in the dust.

1. Matthew 15:1-9. Matthew 15 opens with the Pharisees posing a question designed, as most of their questions of Jesus were, to trip Jesus up. "Why," they asked, "do your disciples play fast and loose with the rules?"

Specifically, the Pharisees wonder why the disciples don't ritually cleanse their hands before eating. Mosaic law said that if a person touched something impure, then they would be rendered impure and unqualified to participate in any religious rituals. Jesus doesn't necessarily disagree with the customs of His people. Nor is He commending bad hygiene. But He does believe that the Pharisees have got things backwards. Religious law, Jesus says, is meant to benefit us. We don't exist for the benefit of the law.

Jesus will not allow the Pharisees to take a holier-than-thou approach to Him or His disciples. Instead of answering the Pharisees' question, He shoots one back at them:
"Why do you use your rules to play fast and loose with God's commands?..."
Notice that Jesus isn't talking about God's rules, but the Pharisees' rules. They had found 612 rules in the Bible (our Old Testament) and from them, they had extracted all sorts of other rules. They were quick to use them as strait jackets on others.

They also had created casuistic exceptions to their rules. For example, if a person wanted to travel on the Sabbath, they could get around the command, the Pharisees thought, by only traveling "a stone's throw," that is the distance you could throw a stone. The Pharisees eluded violation of this rule and traveled great distances by continuously throwing stones ahead of them as they traveled. (Can you picture this in your mind? How stupid the Pharisees must have looked? But how righteous they would have convinced themselves they were being? Lest we laugh too hard at them though, aren't their things that we do just so our neighbors will think we're good people?)

The Sabbath, as Jesus was prone to point out, was not invented to be a noose around human beings. The Sabbath was meant to be a day of respite for people and a time to hear God's Word. In other words, the Sabbath was meant to bring liberation.

But the Pharisess, as was their inclination, turned Sabbath law into one more arena in which they could proudly "earn" spiritual merit badges. (Although not in God's eyes. From God, we cannot earn salvation or merit. It's all a gift to those who believe in Jesus Christ!) They also demonstrated how much contempt they actually had for the law--and by extension, the God Who gave the law--by bending it to do what they wanted it to do.

Jesus went on:
"God clearly says, 'Respect your father and mother' and 'Anyone denouncing father or mother should be killed.' [Jesus knows the Law better than the Pharisees.] But you weasel around that by saying, 'Whoever wants to, can say to father and mother, "What I owed you I've given to God." That can hardly be called respecting a parent. You cancel God's command by your rules. Frauds!..."
Jesus is here referring to a Jewish custom--the law of Corban--that said that anything that belonged or had been offered to God couldn't be used for anyone else. The Pharisees said that if you had some personal belonging which you would prefer not to be used by your parents, you could claim it was devoted to God and be freed from any obligation to share with or care for your parents. This loophole was used willfully by some to sidestep God's command to honor mothers and fathers.

There's not a trace of milquetoast in what Jesus says. He excoriates the Pharisees for giving their religious rules higher place than God Himself, the love of God and neighbor to which God calls us, or the very commands they ostensibly uphold.

2. Matthew 15:10-20. Jesus then calls the crowd together to explain why His disciples didn't undertake the proscribed ritual cleansing before having dinner. "It's not what you swallow that pollutes your life," Jesus says, "but what you vomit up."

Nothing that comes at us from the outside can inevitably tear us from a relationship with God. It's only what we do that can do that.

3. Matthew 15:21-28. We see the extent of Jesus' compassion in an incident involving a Canaanite woman. It takes place in the region of Tyre and Sidon, two cities that are important in this area where non-Jews, specifically Phoenicians and Canaanites, live. If you remember anything about the Old Testament, you know that the Canaanites were the occupants of the land God gave to His people, the Israelites, many hundreds of years earlier.

For more on this passage, read here.

4. Matthew 15:29-39. More of Jesus' compassion, in contrast to the seeming indifference of His disciples, is seen in the balance of the chapter. Jesus is bent on fulfilling His mission of bringing the Kingdom of God to the whole world. He makes it clear that we are either in His way or standing with Him. Never think of Jesus as a milquetoast!

[Check out the previous installments of this series:

Long-Awaited Savior

Scholars from the East

The Freedom to Be Weird

This is a Test

Trusting What You Can't See

The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression

Explicating the Beatitudes...and More

Authenticity and Trust

Jesus' Radical Ethics

Friend of the Outcasts...

The Conflict Deepens

Guidelines for Loving the World for Christ

No More Religion!

The Subversive God

Stories About the Kingdom

The Emperor Who Had No Clothes vs. the God Clothed in Humanity]

Two Law Prof Bloggers Weigh In (Again) on Miers

Hugh Hewitt, while revering George Will, believes that Will is wrong and that Harriet Miers should be confirmed for a seat on the Supreme Court.

Ann Althouse, on non-ideological grounds, thinks that Miers should not be confirmed. Althouse believes that Miers lacks the requisite analytical skills to be a Justice.

Read, Pray, Act on Darfur Crisis!

Charlie LeHardy points to a round up of news on Darfur here. This is a major human rights disaster. Do what you can for the people of Darfur!

Schroeder on the Church Being Where the Need is Most

As I told John in the comments, his post has the marks of the Holy Spirit because it's convicting and convincing.

Two Lessons from Cohen's Sons

Richard Lawrence Cohen is a favorite blogger. Check out these two lessons--one on Literature and the other on the scientific phenomenon of momentum--from his young sons, Agents 95 and 97.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Sharing C.S. Lewis and 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe' with Some Fifth Graders

One of our local public elementary schools invited several adults in the community to school today. Each of us talked about our favorite children's books and their authors and then, read a some to them.

I read the first chapter of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to about seventy fifth-graders, preceded by giving the students a little background on Lewis' life.

The kids seemed really into it and I had a fun time interacting with them.

I'm happy to be in a community where the local school district, the nineteenth largest of Ohio's more than 600, tries to maintain strong ties with folks. Every year, for example, something like 200 local residents join high school teachers in listening to graduating seniors' presentations of their Senior Exit Action Projects (SEAP). These are interdisciplinary projects that the seniors begin working on in the fall of the school year. In addition to a faculty advisor, they also have a person in the community who is their general advisor. Over the past two years of judging, I've heard and seen presentations on automobile design, entrepreneurship, anorexia among high school and college wrestlers, criminal forensics, and a host of other topics.

It's sort of vogue for people to cast stones at public education. But in our district anyway, there's a real desire on the part of educators and administrators to forge partnerships helpful to the young people. I'm sure that all of this works to the benefit of our students.

Yes, Pakistan is a Long Way from the US...

and yes, there have been many natural disasters recently. But Lores Rizkalla reminds that we all share this planet and that every human life is important. She writes on her blog:
the death toll in the Pakistan quake has now reached 79,000!

That's 26 times the number of Americans we lost on September 11. Where is the public cry for help and relief in our nation. I was so proud of the way we responded to the victims of hurricane Katrina.

Thankfully, there are organizations, like Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse, without an ethnocentric bone in their organizational body, just as committed to helping the victims of this terrible quake as they were those who survived Katrina.

I challenge you, even as we prepare for yet another massive storm to hit the shores of our great nation, to take a moment to figure out what your role is to support the victims in the wake of the disaster in Pakistan.

Whether your role is to pray or to contribute financially, do it. God knows, we would want the same done for us.
There's a lot of talk about compassion fatigue these days. All these tragedies are overwhelming, to be sure. But, as Lores points out, if you or I were the victims of tragedy, we would hope and pray that God was keeping our fellow human beings from developing cases of compassion fatigue.

Lores is right that our capacity to express compassion may be the simple ability to say a prayer each day. We can ask God to help people rebuild their lives, to bless the efforts of relief organizations, to speed aid to those who need it, and to use each tragedy as a conduit by which the message of His love and redemption through Jesus Christ can be heard, seen, and felt. Every prayer offered in Jesus' Name is an invitation to God come to invade the world with His love, grace, and goodness.

If we can do other things out of compassion for others, that's great, too. Lores mentions making donations to Samaritan's Purse, which does great work. I would also mention Lutheran World Relief and Catholic Relief Services.

UPDATE: John Schroeder at Blogotional also has important things on militating against compassion fatigue.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 15

1. As Genesis 32 opens, the tension which seems to be a constant element in the Jacob narrative, meets us again.

Jacob learns that his brother Esau, into whose territory he and his family are entering, is on his way to meet Jacob, along with four-hundred men.

Jacob is certain that his brother, who had once wanted to kill him, is coming out to fulfill this fond desire. So, the Schemer schemes again, dividing "his people, sheep, cattle, and camel into two camps." Jacob did this so that if Esau fell on one of the groups, at least the other would have a shot at escaping.

2. But then, something very interesting happens. Jacob prays. This, I have little doubt, is an authentic prayer. Regular readers of this blog know that I subscribe to the theory advanced by the late Norwegian theologian Ole Hallesby that for prayer to be authentic, two elements must be present:
First, there must be faith.

Second, there must be helplessness.
Without this second element, we may rely too much on our own abilities. In fact, most of what we call prayer probably isn't really worthy of that name because truth be told, we regard God as a back-up plan. Generally, we trust ourselves more than we ever trust God.

But Jacob's words reveal how desperately afraid he was and how utterly dependent on God he saw himself as being in that moment.

Interestingly, in his prayer, Jacob includes reminders to God of His promises to Jacob and his antecedents. God makes promises to us, too. There's nothing wrong with expressing our reliance on them and on God when we pray.

3. Nonetheless, as is true of us, Jacob prayed, "Your will be done" at night and then, prepared gifts for his brother the next day. Jacob thought that he could placate his brother and defuse his anger, by presenting him with wave after wave of gifts. Jacob's fitful dance between surrender and self-reliance isn't unlike my own imperfect following of Christ. Realizing this, I take comfort in remembering that Jesus Christ makes it possible for an imperfect sinner like me to walk with God forever. That's incredible!

4. After Jacob sets everybody and all his possessions on their way across the Jabbok, we come to one of the strangest and most mysterious, as well as one of the most beautifully evocative passages, in all of Scripture.

A man wrestles with Jacob until the break of day. It would have been natural for Jacob to initially assume that this man was Esau or someone sent by Esau, and that his mission was to kill Jacob. One can only imagine the fear and ferocity with which Jacob strove to fend off this attack.

Interestingly, the man can't "get the better of Jacob." At this, he throws out Jacob's hip and then, begs Jacob to let him go.

Jacob's refusal may be somewhat understandable. After all, he seems to have "the man" pinned. But, clearly, Jacob doesn't see himself as "the man's" superior. Why? Because Jacob asks for his blessing.

What happens next shows that the outward appearance of this strange encounter has little to do with what is actually happening. There is something more, something deeper, going on. The man asks Jacob his name, as though Jacob is in a subservient position. Jacob clearly believes himself to be subservient and immediately complies with the request.

The man's response reveals what Jacob has been slowly coming to realize:
The man said, "But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it's Israel (God-Wrestler); you've wrestled with God and you've come through."
Perhaps somewhat impetuously, Jacob asks God what His Name is. God responds with a question that may be rhetorical, but may also be the heavenly version of, "Duh!" Instead of answering Jacob's most recent question, He grants Jacob's request: He blesses Jacob.

Jacob is incredulous! He can't believe that he has seen God face to face. God's luminescent perfection was deemed by the Old Testament people to be so overpowering, so, to use a phrase employed by theologian Paul Tillich, "wholly other," that no human being could look at his face and live. This is why Jacob called the place where he wrestled with God, Peniel, God's Face.

As the chapter ends, Jacob, newly rechristened Israel, limps to whatever fate may await him in his encounter with Esau.

Now, what are we to make of this incident? I'm not so foolish as to suggest a single answer to that question. But here are a few thoughts, based on my consultation of scholars' commentaries, as well as my own prayerful reflection:
a. Above all, we see God's grace, His unconditional charity toward believers, no matter how imperfect, playing out here. In spite of Jacob's past sins and shaky faith, on hearing Jacob's desperate prayer, God showed up. God still does that for imperfect people who approach Him in the Name of His Son, Jesus (John 14:13-14; First John 5:14-15).

b. Jesus' words about having faith as a mustard seed seem appropo here. As I've pointed out before, we don't need to have big faith in order for God to move in our lives. A little faith will do, because our faith is reposed in the big God of the universe.

c. It's difficult to resist a metaphorical interpretation of this passage which connects prayer to wrestling. Anyone who has ever wrestled with God in prayer will know what this means. Often, when we pray, we struggle with ourselves--with our imperfect perceptions, our impatience, our puny faith--and with God. It's interesting that one interpretation of the meaning for the name of God's people, Israel, is Wrestling with God.

Whenever I read this account of Jacob wrestling with God, I think of Tevye, the main character in the fantastic musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye constantly wrestles with God. Through all this wrestling, Tevye is able to let go of his religious tradtions in order to hold onto God more tightly. He leaves his village of Anatevka for the uncertainties of life in America, believing that God would go with him.

Jacob leaves this encounter with God not knowing what may happen to him, but at peace with the notion that God is with Him. This is precisely the assurance that we can have when we place ourselves in the hands of the God made known to the whole human race through Jesus Christ. Through our faith in Christ, we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God, that Jesus is always with us, and that He will never leave us or forsake us!

d. Jacob's limp puts the lie to the notion that when we come into contact with God, we will be made invincible. God's love is invincible, to be sure. God can impart to us the power to live beyond the grave. But God wants us to learn how to be vulnerable, to depend on Him to complete what is incomplete in us, to acknowledge the reality that we are not omniscient or omnicompetent. Unless we can own our deficiencies--including both our sins and our finitude as human beings, God will have no room to work in our lives. This is why the first-century preacher, Paul, said, "When we are weak, then we are strong."

The believer in God Who came into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ is never so strong as when she or he relies completely on God!
[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
Part 13
Part 14]

If Harriet Miers Doesn't Get Confirmed

During informal discussions in between sessions at last week's GodBlogCon, talk turned to President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. Some bloggers suggested that either the President would withdraw Miers' nomination or the nominee would pull out herself.

I have never stated an opinion about whether Miers should be confirmed or not. Nor will I. But as a student of politics, I had to tell the bloggers predicting her demise as a nominee for Associate Justice that I disagreed emphatically.

But now I'm not so sure. Today, I can imagine a withdrawal of her nomination.

If Harriet Miers doesn't get confirmed, it will be because a White House spooked by a series of missteps, perceived and real, and by decreases in presidential popularity, quickly forgot how to get a justice voted onto the Court.

The formula, as seen in the Roberts nomination, is simple: nominate a stealth candidate, insist on the candidate saying nothing about how she/he might vote on hypothetical cases, see the candidate perform credibly during Judiciary Committee hearings, and then, wait for the Senate to say, "Yes."

Using this simple plan, Miers, whose background is at least as strong as Sandra Day O'Connor's was when President Reagan nominated her for the Court back in 1981, would have won easy confirmation from a Republican Senate.

Had the White House diplomatically ignored the criticisms that came from some conservative pundits that the President had failed to make the right choice, all would have been well from W's standpoint.

Instead, the folks at 1600 let paranoia get the better of them. They started making calls and public statements designed to assuage their base. In direct contradiction of the formula and what they had successfully done with the Roberts nomination, the President and others began talking up Miers' evangelical Christianity and her past opposition to abortion.

What were they thinking?

No matter how riled up members of the President's base might have gotten, there was no way they were going to defeat Miers once her name came up for a vote.

Now, the President and White House have managed to insult the Religious Right, which feels that they should not be expected to support someone just because that person happens to be an evangelical Christian. So, the usually politically-adept White House has only extended the argument within the GOP over Miers.

In the meantime, by making such a big deal of Miers' past efforts regarding abortion, the White House has also heightened the chances that the Dems will invoke the "extraordinary circumstances" clause of the Gang of Fourteen's agreement, further imperiling the Miers' nomination by holding it hostage to the once-shrewdly-avoided filibuster.

At the very least, the poor manner with which the selling of Harriet Miers has been handled by the White House assures that this confirmation process is likely to be more contentious than the recently-concluded Robertson procedure was.

If the Bush Adminstration fails to get Miers onto the Court, the succeeding confirmation process could be the most bruising we have ever seen.

I still think that Miers' chances of being confirmed are better than even. But her odds shouldn't be so daunting. Even with the questions about her credentials, she could have been a slam dunk.

She's a Person, Not an Instance of 'Avoidable Suffering'

So says former Washington Post reporter and bureau chief Patricia Bauer in this remarkable essay that appeared in the Post yesterday. Increasingly, it seems, America is becoming an Aryan nation. Read Bauer's powerful words. (Thanks to Wittingshire for leading me to them.)

Message for Apocalyptic Tea-Leaf Readers: Get a Grip

My brother, comedian Marty Daniels, told me that some comic who claims to be Christian recently told a group of people--in all seriousness--that the spate of recent natural disasters proves "without a doubt" that the end of time is upon us.

Obviously, this is one person who needs to get a grip...on a Bible.

Jesus says:
‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ (Matthew 24:36)
Jesus also says that every natural disaster that would need to occur as a sign of His return had already taken place before He spoke with people two-thousand years ago.

Our task as followers of Christ isn't to worry about when God closes the curtain on the old life of Planet Earth. Our task is to keep doing what God has called us to do: love God, love neighbor, share Christ with the world.

Jesus puts it this way:
‘Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.’ (Matthew 24:45-46)
A lot of the Jack van Impe-style non-Christianity would be cleared up if people took the time to read what the Bible really says.

So, whether Jesus comes back today, tomorrow, or five-thousand years from now is immaterial. We're to keep on keepin' on just the same.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

What If I'm the Source of Another Person's Discouragement?

In one of his wonderful books, psychologist, pastor, and author Alan Loy McGinnis talks about a man who had come to receive his counsel. The man's problem? He was discouraged. And the source of his discouragement? His wife.

If ever there were a time when she was pleased with his efforts, happy with his choices, or even glad he was in her life, the man told McGinnis, it would lighten the oppressive weight of discouragement under which he lived day after painful day. Nothing he did seemed to please her. No success was worthy of a compliment.

The man was discouraged because he simply didn't see that things would or could ever get better.

You've probably heard the story of the experiment done with a predatory fish. He was placed in one-half of a large tank divided by a glass partition that would have been invisible to him. On the other side of the partition, were oodles of his favorite prey, fresh little fish delicacies just waiting to be gobbled up by the predator with which they shared the tank. The predator lunged for the food, but came up empty on hitting the partition. That's weird, he must have thought in his predatory fish brain. No matter, he'd just try again. And he did. Over and over and over. Always the same result: a head sore from beating against the partition and still no food!

Later, the experimenters slid the partition out of the tank, leaving the tiny fish the predator so wanted to munch on utterly exposed. But the predatory fish didn't make a move to catch them. These little guys would actually swim right next to the predator, their scales brushing against his and nothing happened!

Why? The predator had become discouraged. He was sure that no matter what he did, he could never get hold of those little fish.

Here's the point: When spouses, parents, leaders, or others consistently deride, belittle, or make light of others' concerns or needs, discouragement sets in.

As long as we human beings have a realistic hope that things will get better in our marriages, families, jobs, communities, or our churches, we can handle setbacks and disappointments. But once we no longer have hope for improvement, discouragement rears its ugly head. The discouraged person thinks, "Others may have reason to hope. But not me." The light starts to go out in their lives.

This was why the man came to see McGinnis for counsel. He wanted his marriage to work. But after years of exposure to the corrosive effects of a constantly-critical and carping spouse, he had begun to grow discouraged.

One of the most interesting passages of Scripture to me comes in a series of bits of advice given by the apostle Paul in the New Testament book of Colossians. Paul says:
Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart. (Colossians 3:21)
This passage intrigues me because I think it helps us see how one person brings discouragement to another, whatever the nature of the relationship. We discourage others when:
  • Provoke them to anger without giving them the chance to give their sides of any story.
  • As a corollary to that, when we fail to truly listening, belittling their concerns or complaints.
  • When we're unfair.
Now, here's the bottom line, as I see it: We discourage others when we "throw our weight around," using power we may or may not legitimately possess.

Discouragement happens to people any time we feel mortified by a sense of powerlessness.

When a spouse, who's supposed to be a partner in a 50-50 relationship, always gets his or her way in both overt and subtle ways, they set off discouragement in the marriage partner.

When parents abuse their responsibility to discipline and correct by always telling their children, "No," simply because they can get away with it, because of unwarranted fears, or because of the desire to dominate, discouraged children result.

When leaders no longer lead, but manipulate, those being led will eventually become discouraged.
Discouraged spouses may turn to obsessions with alcohol, drugs, or a multitude of other destructive habits and addictions. They may get involved with affairs or more understandably, give up on marriages which have, because of the domineering ways of their spouses, become marriages in name only.

Discouraged children will become rebellious, heedless of their parents. (Having been critical of James Dobson's forays into ward-heeling politics, I should mention that one his dictum on parenthood has exerted immense influence over me through the years. Parents should discipline out of love, not punish out of anger. He also says that the job of parents is to shape the character without crushing the spirit. Good advice!)

Discouraged followers may torpedo the initiatives of leaders or jump ship.

Some discouraged people, certain that their situations cannot improve and feeling personally impotent from years of abuse, may even contemplate suicide.

I've observed all these effects of discouragement many times in my twenty-one years as a pastor.
So, what should we do if we suspect that we are the source of others' discouragement. Here are a few steps I would recommend:
  • Listen to the other person. Even be so bold as to open a conversation with them with an open-ended question, "Do I ever discourage you?" (This is really rooted in Jesus' command on how to resolve disputes over sin within the church.)
  • When you have these conversations, eschew all defensiveness and always refrain from going on the attack or being dismissive of the other person's point of view. After hearing the other person out, respond not as though you were in a debate. You're out to resolve things, not score points. That means making, "I feel..." or "I think..." statements rather than, "You've got it all wrong..." statements.
  • Be open to the possibility that you are in the wrong and open to seeing some legitimacy to the other person's perspective.
  • Apologize for past wrongs to the person.
  • Repent for past wrongs in prayer with God and ask God to help you become an encouraging person.
  • Think of Jesus' Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," without countermanding rationalizations or self-justification.
  • In every relationship, see yourself as a servant first. This doesn't mean being a doormat. It does mean thinking of the other person's interests, welfare, and preferences.
  • With regard to the previous statement, never automatically presume that you know what's best for the other person.
  • Before being critical of another person: Stop. Pray for guidance. Think about what you're going to say. Ask yourself, "Will what I'm about to say be helpful or hurtful?"
  • Find the most helpful thing you can say even when you must be critical.
  • As the old saying goes: You have two ears and only one mouth. Listen twice as much as you talk.
I'll have more to say on this subject of discouragement, which I think has reached epidemic proportions in today's world, in later posts.

[Here are the previous installments of this occasional series:
Discouragement and Some Antidotes
Discouragement and Mr. Nice Guy
Discouragement and the Human Touch]

Jordan Summarizes His GodBlogCon Experience

Reflectively and thoroughly, just as you'd expect, Alex Jordan gives his takes on the very first gathering of Christian bloggers held last week, GodBlogCon.

Even if you don't know what a triangulation pillar is...

you might be interested in this geography test at the BBC News site. I did fairly well locating cities, rivers, and such. But I was abominable on other questions.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Discouragement and the Human Touch

In my mid-twenties, I went through several years of trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Finally, at age twenty-six, I sensed the call to become a pastor. At first skeptical about taking this path, my wife ultimately gave her approval to my desire to enroll in seminary. Four-and-a-half years later, we moved to the first parish I served as a pastor, a wonderful congregation in rural northwestern Ohio.

For me, this new life daily brought new challenges I found stimulating. And while my wife was enjoying our new setting, the transition was not always so wonderful for her. She'd gone from working professionally in the Arts and in special events planning in an urban area to being, at first, a stay-at-home mother amid the soybean and corn fields. It was a life of relative isolation, relieved by occasional encounters with people she barely knew. Most of the time, the only company she had were our three year old son and our brand new baby daughter.

Some days, anxious to prove myself to my parishioners and to get to know them, I was on the go from early in the morning until 11:00 at night. In retrospect, I realize that I didn't treat my wife very fairly. While she quickly made good friends and I made every effort to stay at home at least three nights a week, there still was no way to completely compensate for the droning demands imposed on her by day-after-day mommydom.

Then, little more than a year into my ministry, I got the chance to attend an out-of-town conference. After three days away, I was pumped and inspired for my work and ready to see my family. I got back in mid-afternoon. The house was quiet, a sure sign that nap time had arrived. I thought that my wife would be reading in our room and that perhaps we could steal a little time to talk about this energizing conference I'd just attended. When I walked into our bed room, I found her spread out on her stomach, face buried into the mattress, her hands cupping both temples.

"Hi, honey!" I enthused.

Slowly, she replied, each word sounding like a painful paragraph, "Why don't you just go away?"

What happened? It's really pretty simple. I had selfishly allowed my wife to fall prey to the effects of isolation. Yes, she'd made a few friends with whom she had occasional contact. Yes, I was there regularly and so too were our then little children.

But she needed more human contact. We all do. While most men don't realize how desperately they need to interact with other people or how important friendships are, most women seem to be attuned to these realities.

Often, wives, to the bafflement of their clueless husbands, communicate this need and the men are hurt. "What's wrong with me?" they may wonder. "Aren't I good enough company for my wife?" You probably are good company. But if husbands are the only good company their wives have, it can be crushing for the woman. Disconnectedness creates discouragement.

And that's true for everyone, male or female.

Take the businessperson or doctor, male or female, who sees himself or herself as a person whose life and identify revolve around living not as a human being, but a human doing. The human touch gets lost and discouragement sets in.

The same thing happens to pastors who see themselves not as persons, but as parsons.

It happens too, to elderly folks who fail to be proactive in maintaining friendships.

The late priest and spiritual leader Henri Nouwen wrote, "Boredom, resentment, and depression are all sentiments of disconnectedness."

God has made us to be in relationships, with God and with others. According to the Old Testament book of Genesis, for example, God concluded that it wasn't good for the first man, Adam, to be alone. That's when God made Eve.

And when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He said that first, we're to love God completely. But then, He noted that the second one was just like it, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

So, here are a few suggested steps for defeating discouragement by fostering connectedness, in ourselves and in others:
  • At work or at home, when you ask someone, "How are you doing?," look them in the eye and really listen to their answer.
  • When interacting with your spouse or kids, take some time to put down the newspaper or turn off the TV to talk together.
  • Pick up the phone and call a friend.
  • Treat the harried clerk at the store with respect.
  • Offer your help to someone, especially when you'd rather not do it.
Someone has said that if you want to know what the right thing to do might be, ask yourself what is the hard thing to do. It's hard to militate against things like workaholism, habit, or the temptation to measure our worth by productivity and instead, to focus on simply being with others. But it's also liberating...for us and for those whose lives we touch.

[This is part of an occasional series. Previous posts:
Discouragement and Some Antidotes
Discouragement and Mr. Nice Guy]

Monday, October 17, 2005

Can the Person Who Puts Jesus First Rule Fairly on Constitutional Questions?

In the comments section of this post, James asks:
I'm curious as to your feelings on the idea of placing an avowed evangelical Christian on the Supreme Court bench. If such a person has made a personal promise to hold God above state (as you mention in your post), wouldn't this pose an inherent conflict for that person in a role in which the Constitution is supposed to be the ultimate authority?

I don't ask this to be inflammatory but rather to try and understand the opinions of Christians on the matter (as I don't count myself among the devoted).
It's a very important question.

In response, the first thing I would say is that I agree with conservative Christian blogger Rick Moore that a person who is an evangelical Christian (or, I would add, any kind of Christian) isn't necessarily more qualified for a seat on the Supreme Court or to hold any position of governmental responsibility.

While I believe that Harriet Miers is qualified to sit on the Court, it has nothing to do with whether she's a Christian or not. I find it downright embarrassing, as it strives to placate the Religious Right, that the White House acts as though a churchgoer is better qualified for the Supreme Court than others. It just isn't so.

But I also don't believe Miers' Christianity automatically eliminates her from consideration for membership on the Court.

Whether devotedly or not, for example, virtually every President in the history of the Republic has been a Christian, believers in the God Who calls His followers to put Him first in their lives.

This is not so different from any adherent to other theistic beliefs and were we to disqualify all who believe in God in some way from government service, the pool of available talent would be negligible. That's because only about 3% of the adult American population identifies itself as atheist.

Nor for the Christian is there an inherent conflict between following the God we know in Jesus Christ, on the one hand, and holding government office, on the other. This is probably most famously conveyed by Jesus in an encounter He once had with some religious folks who wanted to force Him into saying something that would incite the anger of the Roman occupiers of their Judean homeland:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. [Matthew 22:15-22]
Jesus wasn't here putting God and government on an equal footing. But He was saying that citizens of nations can do their duty to the nations without violating their call to be citizens of heaven first and foremost! This applies whether the duty in question is paying taxes, serving in office, sitting on a jury, voting, obeying speeding laws, or being a member of the military.

In fact, Christians have almost always held that believers have a moral obligation to be good citizens who support their governments unless those governments ask them to do unconscionable things.

I was taught that Christians need to keep two great passages that appear in the New Testament book of Romans in tension.

The first is Romans 13:1-7:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.
Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. [Romans 13:1-7]
Written to Christians who lived in the very undemocratic Roman Empire and in that empire's capital city, the first century preacher and evangelist Paul is saying that God and Christians have an interest in the maintenance of governments.

Reformer Martin Luther explained this in his famous essay on the two kingdoms. In a nutshell, Luther said that God ruled humanity through two kingdoms. The kingdom of the right, as he called it, is where those who voluntarily submit to the authority of Jesus Christ over their lives reside. Here, people volunteer to accept God's direction not out of fear that God will destroy them, but out of gratitude for His "amazing grace": the unconditional acceptance, forgiveness, and new life that God grants to all who allow Jesus to be at the center of their lives.

The kingdom of the left, on the other hand, is the coercive manner God must use with the rebellious. This is the kingdom of laws and governments, whereby God forces societies to do the right things whether they're disposed to doing them or not. God institutes governments in order to create order and justice. Without the kingdom of the left, Luther says, Christians would readily be destroyed, like lambs among ravenous wolves.

Christians therefore, have a stake in seeing to it that governments function and are respected. Just and functioning governments create peace for believers and non-believers alike. From the Christian perspective, they roll chaos back enough to allow them to freely share Christ with others.

But what if governments are unjust or even evil? Should Christians mindlessly support them anyway?

Sadly, this is precisely what many in my Lutheran tradition thought that Christians should do when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. These "quietists," as they can be called, kept quiet while one group after another were pronounced enemies of the Third Reich, persecuted, and killed. Theologian Martin Niemoller wrote repentantly of the quiestist's unconscionable acquiescence to the sins of Nazism:
When Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church -- and there was nobody left to be concerned.
This brings us to the second great passage to be held in tension in this question of the Christian and the government:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2]
Christians are called to be gentle and cooperative subversives, if you will. We're to support governments, even participate in them. When governments become unjust, this may lead us to fight against them or it may cause us to seek to serve within those governments, bringing positive changes that uphold justice. The highest calling of Christians is to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Nothing about this two-pronged call precludes government service.

One implied question in your query, James, is with the God we know through Jesus as our highest allegiance, if we Christians won't necessarily be inclined or even obligated to impose our faith and our beliefs on others? Or will we denigrate things like the Constitution and replace them with the Bible?

Remember what I said about the kingdom of the right? It is inherently non-coercive. While we can certainly point to people who identify themselves as Christians simply because their parents did so or because they might be members of a church, the fact is that every person who is genuinely a Christian is someone who has consciously and voluntarily surrendered themselves to Christ.

This cannot come about by coercion. Governments may decree that all people must be Christians. But even if people give their outward acquiescence to such decrees, it won't change a thing about their internal relationship with Christ.

The Bible says that it is the kindness of God that leads people to repentance (and thereby, we see, to new relationships with God). No authentic Christian person who holds an office in government would think of forcing others to make outward submission to Jesus Christ!

That means that if Harriet Miers is confirmed as a justice of the United States Supreme Court, her responsibility as both a judge and a Christian is to decide all matters before her on their legal merits alone. She will be called as both a jurist and a believer to rule on the bases of what the Constitution says. Christians voluntarily acquiesce to the instruments of government authority because it's what's best for all, because it allows God to rule through the kingdom of the left, and because such cooperative participation in government honors God and wins friends for Jesus Christ. (I'd add parenthetically, that in Old Testament times, people like Joseph and later, Daniel, served foreign kings who worshiped other gods, maintaining the integrity of their faith while not imposing it on others.)

One of the best ways Christians who serve in public office can incite others to consider surrendering their lives to Jesus Christ is for them to conduct their business with fairness and impartiality, willingly submitting to the laws that bind us all, Christians and others alike.

I hope that this answers the big question you posed, James. Thanks for being so earnest!

Is This the Best Magazine Cover of the Past Forty Years?

I don't think so.

I'm a Beatles fan and I always hated that picture. The look of utter indifference on Yoko Ono's face always struck me as strangely anomalous. For those of a more sinister turn, it may seem emblematic of their worst suspicions about Ono, that she was a sort of golddigger. Lennon, of course, was no choir boy and Jack Douglas, the producer of their joint project, Double Fantasy, once reported that Ono was afraid of incurring Ono's displeasure.

The picture is strange in another way. It clearly was meant to allude to the first joint Lennon-Ono project, Two Virgins. On the front and back covers of it, both appear naked. Perhaps Ono rejected suggestions that she appear au naturelle here. (Which is absolutely fine with me, by the way.) But the effect of the naked Lennon next to the clothed Ono is that it gives him the appearance of an almost pathetic dependence, an impression only deepened by his nearly fetal posture. This adds to the suspicion held by many, apparently unwarranted of Ono acting as a kind of Svengali to Lennon.

(An interesting side note to make is that in most Hollywood movies and TV shows, women in love scenes with men are far more likely to be shown naked or nearly-naked than their partners. I don't think it's a great stretch to believe this is so because sexist men like the notion of women being vulnerable and in need of their protection and their "superior" acumen as lovers. So, at least at one level, the Lennon-Ono photo is a reversal of that unfortunate fact.)

Whatever, I always thought the picture was stupid, silly, and self-indulgent.

(Thanks to Althouse for putting me onto this momentous story.)

Japan's Koizumi Shows Power of Symbols

Symbols play an important role in our lives and psyches.

The symbol may be the ubiquitous golden arches that tell us almost anywhere we go in the world that, "Semi-edible fast food is to be had in this building." It might be the Nike swoosh. Flags are symbols, of course. As are crosses, crescents, and Stars of David.

People can become symbols, too. In fact, many politcians cultivate or expolit having themselves seen as symbols of one virtue or another. In the wake of 9/11, Rudy Giuliani came to be seen as such a symbol of leadership that even the most conservative of Republicans, who disagree with him on things like abortion and gay marriage, express a willingness to vote for him for President in 2008. President Bush was seen as a symbol of resolve after appearing at Ground Zero, megaphone in hand, alongside a New York firefighter.

I thought about all this today as I read this account of Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi once more visiting a shrine to Japanese veterans of the Second World War. The caretakers of the shrine claim that the Japanese undertook their brutal aggression in the 1930s and 1940s in order to liberate Asia from the West and that the United States actually lured Japan into war.

Particularly incensed by Koizumi's renewal of what has become an annual pilgrimage for him are China and Korea, which like America, are nations victimized by Imperial Japan's savagery.

So, why? Why does Koizumi go to this shrine and pray each year? Why does a seemingly intelligent man appear to give his assent to a blatantly false notion of history, an assent that inflames friends and foes alike?

The answer, I think, resides in the power of symbols.

Japan, along with the other vanquished powers of World War Two, Germany and Italy, were well-treated. Having learned the tragic lesson from World War One that brutalizing and humiliating beaten enemies only breeds resentment and sows the seeds for future war, the Allied powers, including the United States, assisted the three Axis powers in developing democratic institutions and opportunity economies.

But especially in Germany and in Japan, there remain pools of resentment toward the US. Nationalism is a powerful force, even in this age of globalization. In spite of the fact that probable majorities in both countries are allergic to anything like patriotism for fear of where it might lead, resentment against the US and the other nations that beat their countries in World War Two is still there.

Hence, some Germans and Japanese look for something to restore what they deem to be lost dignity. Some even cave into what I would describe as "Oliver Stone History," false constructions of past events that put their own 1930s-1940s military machines in white hats, fighting for virtue, truth, and beauty. For this small group of people, to acknowledge their nations' abilities to do the monstrous things that history convicts them of doing--along with other nations in other times and places, including our own--is unthinkable.

But why does Koizumi visit such a shrine? I believe that he's trying to split the difference, placating those who think that some sort of legitimate patriotism should gain asendancy in Japan, but not going so far as to flat-out endorse what Imperial Japan did. He added to the symbolism of his visit this year by not coming attired in formal wear, but dressed in a simple suit and tie.

For the Chinese and Koreans especially, the softening of the symbol is lost. All they see is a Japanese prime minister seeming to embrace the conquest, butchering, and torture of their countries.

Many in Japan are also upset with Koizumi for these trips. Again, the reason is the symbolic nature the prime minister's visits. A court has ruled that they are an unconstitutional violation of the separation between religion and government in that country. Koizumi, as the Times article indicates, splits the difference again, claiming that he only prays as a private citizen. (It's interesting to note though, that this visit comes after a campaign promise to visit the shrine again.)

Seemingly innocent gestures can be seen as offensive symbols by others. Dan Rather once violated a major Arabic taboo when he crossed his legs, allowing one-time Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who he was interviewing, to see the bottom of his foot. In that part of the world, because the bottoms of feet are viewed as the filthiest portions of the body, it's seen as a grave insult to expose them to others. (This is why it came as such a shock to Jesus' disciples that He chose to wash their feet on the night of His betrayal and arrest. It's also why so many residents of Baghdad, in one of the most memorable televised images of the past decade, pounded on that toppled statue of Saddam after US forces had rolled into their city.)

Of course, in an era that features the dictates of various forms of political correctness, it's possible to be overly sensitive and overly concerned about offending the sensibilities of others through symbols and gestures.

Columnist Mark Steyn has recently documented Britain's absurd efforts to appease seemingly hyper-sensitive Muslims in that country. In Dudley, he says, the town council has outlawed all images of pigs in public places because one Muslim was offended by a picture showing Piglet with Winnie the Pooh. Burger King no longer sells ice cream in Britain because a design on its packaging looked too much like the Arabic spelling of "Allah" to some. Steyn goes on to show that Christians aren't "so coddled" in Britain. When Christians were outraged last year by a play portraying a gay Jesus in that country, they were basically told to not be so sensitive. Steyn concludes, "If Islam cannot co-exist with Pooh or the abstract swirl on a Burger King ice cream, how likely is it that it can co-exist with the more basic principles of a pluralist society?" (I believe that Islam can co-exist with a pluralistic society. That's another st0ry, though.) [Steyn's Daily Guardian article is summarized in the magazine, The Week.]

But Prime Minister Koizumi's pilgrimages to this shrine aren't innocent gestures. They're premeditated nods to the dark side of Japanese nationalism. But the prime minister must be careful. Placating the marginal in any society risks not only offending other nations, it can both embolden and legitimize false and misguided ideas within his own country as well.

[For more on the power of symbols, you might want to check out the following:
The Bushfish, Part 1: What the Fish Means for a Christian
The Bushfish, Part 2: First Objection
The Bushfish, Part 3: Second Objection
The Bushfish, Part 4: Third Objection]

Two Virginians for President in 2008?

In response to this post by Ann Althouse, I speculated (in the comments) that Governor Mark Warner seemed the likeliest nominee of the Democratic Party for President in 2008 and that I couldn't even venture a guess about who the Republican nominee might be.

Victoria offered her view that Senator George Allen, also of Virginia, could be the GOP standard bearer.

That got me thinking:
It would be interesting if two Virginians ended up with the nominations of their respective parties in the 2008 presidential race.

The last time I think that happened was 1920 when two Ohioans, Warren Harding and James Cox, were the Republican and Democratic nominees, respectively.

That's doubly interesting because Ohio and Virginia both claim to have had the most presidents come from their states. A new Virginian would break the tie.

In the past, Virginia was a natural breeding ground for presidents. Joseph Ellis points out that in the early years of the country's history, "Virginia contained one-fifth of the nation's total population and generated one-third of its commerce" [Founding Brothers, p.79]. Virginia was to the early United States what California is to the US of today. (California is so populace that it has 55 of the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives. Were it spun off as a separate country, it would have the sixth largest economy in the world, is to our country today)

Virginia is not nearly so important or imposing today, of course. But because it combines both the old South and the liberal proneness of the highly government-dependent DC suburbs in the north, it's possible that it could produce nominees for both parties.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

An Imelda Marcos Musical

This comes as no surprise. Mrs. Marcos' outsized lifestyle and seeming tone deafness to popular sensibilities make her a natural subject for a musical. Unlike Eva Peron, there will be no tragic elements to Marcos' story. She can be portrayed in all her Graceland-like campiness.

Two Bloggers I Wish Had Been at GodBlogCon

There are two bloggers I wish could have been at our conference in Los Angeles. Our discussions and fellowship would have been enriched by their presence: Deborah White and Rob Asghar. I also hope that Rob will get back into blogging.

Both are evangelical Christians whose politics is largely liberal. They prove what John Mark Reynolds asserts (and I've asserted): God isn't a Republican or a Democrat.

Check Out the GodBlogCon Blogscape

Okay, this isn't a blanket endorsement. (Who knows how many would endorse my blog?) But here's a complete list of the bloggers who attended GodBlogCon.

BY THE WAY: One big change I would like to see for next year's gathering of Christian bloggers is its name. I'd like to call it ChristBlogCon, indicating that this isn't just a nebulous gathering of theists, but of people striving to follow Jesus Christ.

Vision: Every Pastor a Blogger

It got said more than once at this week's GodBlogCon, the conference of Christian bloggers I attended: Every pastor in America should blog!

I agree. Why?

Because in an increasingly busy, overscheduled society, we need to have this efficient mode of communication with church members and the world.

Because, as one of my favorite bloggers, Tod Bolsinger, said, we can invite the members of our parishes (and people from beyond our parishes) into the specific journey of deepening faith we can take together.

Tod suggests that throughout the weeks prior to preaching on specific texts and themes, we pastors should post our tentative notions on our blogs, telling what we're learning as wqe study, pray, and reflect, inviting others to comment and more sigificantly, to get involved in the journey with Christ we're meant to take together.

Christian faith is an inherently communal and relational thing. In it, God calls us into relationship with Him through Jesus Christ and into a relationship of love with others.

We need more blogging pastors.

And, as Andy Jackson, another blogger and pastor said during the conference, we pastors need to dare to expose our congregations to the thoughts of other pastors of other churches and theological backgrounds: Faith grows when it's challenged and exposed to new perspectives.

[By the way, I would judge that about ten percent or less of the bloggers attending GodBlogCon were pastors. I love that! Maybe every Christian should try her or his hand at blogging. It's a great way to learn as we dialog with one another in cyberspace!]

Preserved Text and Live Perfomance at a Blog Near You

I returned late last night from Los Angeles' Biola University, site of GodBlogCon. This was the first large gathering of Christian bloggers ever.

For me, GodBlogCon was a tremendous experience. Having the opportunity to meet and talk with other Christians who blog was great. While there was divergence in the types of blogs represented and some in the theological and political perspectives of the bloggers in attendance, there was a common commitment to sharing Christ with the world.

I was also challenged and stimulated by the ideas presented in both plenary and breakout sessions during the conference. I'll be presenting a few highlights in this and future posts.

Here, I want to talk about philosopher and blogger John Mark Reynolds' Thursday night discussion of two major forms of communication: preserved text and live performance.

Preserved texts, a slightly misleading term because it refers to more than the written word, includes things like books, magazines, movies, newspapers, and recordings. Each involves a performance or a piece of communication that is executed and completed. Whether through applause, indifference, or outright conversation, these media are insusceptible to dialog.

Live performance includes any live presentation for which there are audiences or spectators. It can include mere conversation, but incorporates plays, stand-up comedy, and even worship. Something of dialog always inheres in this mode of communication.

I think that Reynolds is onto something. For centuries now, live performance has become less significant and preserved texts have become more so. For example, few people attend plays. More go to movies. (And more recently, fewer are going to public screenings of movies, preferring to wait for movies to come out on DVD, so that they can be viewed privately. Some film companies are now beginning to release movies to theaters and onto DVD at the same time.)

Another example of this would be the death of the Chatauqua Movement, which saw prominent writers, educators, and others traveling to even the remotest hamlets of nineteenth century America to hold forth on art, literature, philosophy, and life. People who might readily be dismissed as hayseeds today showed up for these lectures and apparently, understood them. Today such people might be seen being interviewed by Chris Matthews or Charlie Rose...and be ignored by the millions.

Reynolds argues that while there is some fixity to blogging, it's more like live performance. There's a spontaneity to blogging and it invites dialogue.

He also argues that with the ability of individuals to publish to a worldwide audience, we're witnessing something akin to the Gutenberg Revolution in communications. But unlike the printing press, now everybody is invited to the party!

I think that Reynolds is largely on the money in this.

To read more about Reynolds' lecture, check out the following links:

Murdock from the A-Team
Charles Lehardy
B Relevant
A Voice in the Wilderness
Skye Puppy
Sharper Iron

Reading the Bible in Real Life

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on October 16, 2005.]

First Thessalonians 1:1-10

To start off this morning, I'd like to show you a few books from my personal library.

This first one is a paperback version of the New Testament in the Good News translation. It was given to me by my parents’ church in Columbus when I graduated from college. This Bible is especially important to me because this was the one I read when I first fell in love with Jesus Christ! It was on these pages that I came to learn more about Who Jesus is and the depths of His passion for me and you and everybody.

Acts was the first book of the New Testament I read in this edition. I remember being especially stirred when I read this verse, which came after an account of how the apostles, the leaders of Jesus' post-resurrection Church had been beaten for their faith in Christ:
The apostles left the Council [that had beaten them and told them to never speak in Jesus' Name again], full of joy that God had considered them worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name of Jesus. [Acts 5:41, Good News version]
To this day, I can hardly read that passage without choking up. Imagine it: These followers of Jesus derived joy from having the privilege of suffering for their allegiance to Him! By contrast, I complain about being inconvenienced by people for whom Jesus died and who Jesus has called me to love.

Next book from my library: Later, through the American Bible Society, my early mentor in the Christian faith, Martha Schneider, a person I’ve talked about before, secured this hardback version of the whole Bible in that same translation.

When I went to seminary, we were each required to have a copy of the Oxford edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, no longer in print. I used this Bible throughout my seminary career and into my early years as a pastor. After it got worn out and had pretty much fallen apart, no matter how much Scotch, masking, or duct tape I put on the binding, I bought another one to replace it.

It was from this Bible that I read on the night before my family and I trekked to our very first congregation twenty-one years ago. Just before I went to bed, I read Paul’s letter to a young pastor named Timothy. In the book called First Timothy, Paul gave Timothy advice that I felt that I needed as a then-young pastor myself:
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Till I come, attend to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. [First Timothy 4:11-16, Revised Standard Version]
Later, I bought this Study Bible. I still use it sometimes.

Later still, I bought this Life Application Bible. Like the others, it’s now showing its age, too, although I haven't had to resort to duct tape on the binding on it yet. I’ve had it for about seven years and still use it.

More recently, I’ve added The Message translation to my arsenal of Bibles.

Now, I’m not showing you all these different Bibles to impress you. (Chances are, you’re not impressed anyway.) My point is this: Since 1976, reading the Bible has been an almost daily part of my life.

And if you were to open most of these editions of the Bible I've laid out, you’d find in them underlines and notes. You'd find questions in the margins. If the Bible is God’s Word, as I believe it is, then what you would see in those notes and underlines and questions is the record of my ongoing dialog with God, the conversation to which God invites us on the pages of the Bible.

This morning, I freely confess that I sin and mess up every day of my life. I do things that are wrong and say things I shouldn’t say. And I think things which, if any of you were mind-readers, would cause you to want to avoid me at all costs. The Bible hasn’t made me perfect. But it has introduced me to the God Who loves imperfect people like me and is committed to helping those who daily surrender to Him. It's shown me the God Who's committed us to become all that God made us to be in the first place.

I feel like the backwoods Christian I’ve mentioned many times before. He said, “I ain’t what I wanna be and I ain’t what I’m gonna be. But thank God, I ain’t what I was.” A big reason for that is because on the Bible I've met the God Who is patient with me and keeps on loving me and counseling me even when I sin.

When we spend time reading God’s Word, it brings changes to our real lives, usually in ways we can’t readily articulate. Years ago, a London newspaper printed a letter to the editor from a disgruntled church member that said something like this: “I’ve been in worship virtually every Sunday for the past thirty years and I have recently realized that I can’t remember a single sermon I’ve heard in all that time. Therefore, I’m going to quit going to worship. It’s obviously a waste of time.” Several days later, another letter to the editor appeared. It began: “My wife has always cooked the meals in our family these past thirty years. Recently, I have realized that in scanning my memory, I can’t really remember more than a handful of specific meals she has prepared. Therefore, I’m going to quit eating.”

Daily taking the time to read God’s Word, like weekly worship, is another way God feeds us and nourishes us. I certainly don’t remember every specific conversation I’ve had with God as I’ve read and written on the pages of my Bible these past twenty-nine years. I don’t remember more than a few of them with any specificity.

But I do know that when I take the time for this daily discipline, God enters my real life that day.

I receive His counsel.

I find what displeases Him and for what I need to ask forgiveness.

I see how He provides for me and how He wants to be with me forever.

I’m encouraged in my downtimes, guided through life’s mysteries, and brought down to earth when my ego is riding high.

But it takes time spent reading and paying attention to God's Word for all of these things to show in our lives.

I'm a slow-learner across the board in life. It took me years, for example, to learn how to blow up a balloon. I’d want to give up too soon and end up with these pathetic, half-sized balloons. Or, I’d take my fingers off the tops of them and they’d fly all over the place as the air let out. You can only blow up a balloon if you steadily, bit by bit, blow air into it, making sure that you hold the tip of it together, and then, making a knot in it.

The moment you turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ, you are part of God’s kingdom. But growing up in the faith, living in the confidence that God willingly gives His children, being able to face whatever life throws at us, and becoming the high-impact people of faith we’re made to be, that is a process.

There’s no such things as instant discipleship. It happens only insofar as we give God access to our wills and our lives day in and day out!

It happens through things like regular worship, regular prayer, regular service, regular giving, regularly encouraging others with the love of Christ, regularly inviting others to worship with us, and regularly reading God’s Word.

This is what Paul is talking about in our Bible lesson for this morning, composed of the opening passages of his first letter to a church in the Greek city of Thessalonica. He begins by saying how thankful he is that the Christians in this Aegean Sea-coastal city are so faithful to Jesus Christ. He writes:
For the Word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Acaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known... [And then Paul goes on to write:] For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, so that we have no need to speak about it. [First Thessalonians 1:8-9]
Do you see what happened?

The Thessalonians had daily feasted on the Word of God. It had become integrated into the very marrow of their souls. The results were predictable. People who lived miles away heard about how Jesus Christ was at the center of their lives and how His Word made a huge positive difference in how they lived and faced each day.

The Thessalonians learned something taught eighteen centuries later by the great Christian preacher John Wesley. For over fifty years, he maintained a discipline I admit hasn’t been my own. He woke up at 4:30 in the morning to read the Bible and pray. To a young lay pastor, who said that he didn’t have time for a fixed appointment of Bible reading and prayer, Wesley wrote, “...begin! Fix some time each day for prayer and Scripture. Do it: whether you like it or no. It is for your life! Else you will be a trifler all your days.” Christians who don’t make the time to read God’s Word and pray are frittering their lives away! (Take it from someone who has spent entirely too much time frittering in my own life!)

When we daily take in God’s Word, each verse becomes like one of those time-released medicine capsules that, at just the right moments, positively work within us and then bring into being things like joy, compassion, hopefulness, and deep faith. This phenomenon, in turn, is seen by others and as was true of the Thessalonians who influenced other people, we will bring God’s Word to those around us. God’s Word enters us and our lives become God’s Word for others.

Last week, we said that authentic faith leads us to read the Bible. This week, I urge you to make reading the Bible a daily part of your real life.

Wear out your Bibles!

Make notes in the margins!

Memorize verses that are meaningful to you!

Ask God to explain passages that you don’t understand.

Ask God to help you apply the things that you do understand.

Ask Him too, to set off the power for living with joy, peace, and hope that comes to all who let God’s Word act as their guide through life.

[This message and the series of which it's a part has been inspired by the work of the staff at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota.

[The quote from John Wesley is cited in Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People by Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser.]