Saturday, October 29, 2005

Time Away

Liz has an interesting reflection on the restorative powers of getting away, close to nature.

Jackson Poses Question Worth Pondering

Andy Jackson has interesting reflections sharing Christ with Muslim people on his blog, Smart Christian.

The Mall Spitting Contest

Today was one of those crisp, sunny days that give Autumn such a good reputation. So, my wife and I decided to go for a walk on a hiking trail at a park not far from us.

It was great! We got the chance to talk about the important things in life, to hold hands, and to just be together.

After our walk, as we got into our car, she asked me if I'd like to go to our favorite shopping mall, Kenwood Towne Centre. I said that sounded like fun.

We entered the mall by way of Macy's. What I saw there surprised me. The Macy's cosmetics department seems to have grown to something like three times its previous size. And everywhere I looked, the place was crawling with women of all ages looking at make-up or being attended to by strangely painted cosmetic technicians.

Once outside of Macy's and into the mall itself, we encountered a place filled with Saturday afternoon shoppers. But time and again, I noticed that the cosmetics stores--and there were several such places newly installed--were especially jammed, full of women shopping for...whatever it is that women buy in places like that.

It seemed too, that as we went from one place to the next--we didn't buy anything except our dinner at Panera Bread, by the way--I kept seeing these women young and old, in expensive clothing, and obviously painted from head to toe in various hair dyes, creams, and foundations. While someone somewhere may have deemed them attractive, to me, observing them was a bit like watching a profusion of circus clowns scurrying from an Izetta.

Finally, sitting at a table situated outside the Panera, close to the entrance to The Parisian, with our French Onion Soup and Caesar Salads in front of us, I shared my mystification with my wife. "Why on earth do these women do this?" I asked her. "Do they think that all this make-up and other fakery make them look attractive?"

My wife spoke with disarming insight. "They don't do it for the men. They do it because of each other."


Women distort the way they look in these often bizarre ways because they're in some competition with other women?

And the competition isn't over how attractive they might be to the other sex, but how much they can intimidate other females with the idea that they're more attractive to the opposite sex?

As a guy, I guess I can understand that. Young boys have contests to see who can spit the farthest. My gender often continues such pointless competitions, in varying forms, our whole lives.

So, the Saturday rush for cosmetics is the female equivalent of a spitting contest. Who knew?

Frankly, I'm glad that my wife and daughter are countercultural enough--and secure enough in God's love for them--that they've never bought into such foolish (and expensive) competitions. Their focus has always been on striving to be good people. I think that other members of their gender would be happier if they learned from their examples.

Serving in Real Life

[I had originally intended to share this message with the people of Friendship Church tomorrow. But this afternoon and this evening, as I worked on a message I'd originally thought I would simply share as a handout, I became convinced that it needed to be my Sunday morning message. This one is based on Matthew 23:1-12, about which I've written several times this week. I hope that you find it helpful. This particular message was inspired by the work of the fantastic people at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota.]

A man I know fairly well who lives not too far from here. Some twenty years ago, he left his job with a major corporation, where he was on the fast track to the top. He was tired of the corporate culture and he had an idea for starting his own business. He did that and within about seven years, he became extremely successful. By that point in his life, he was cruising along, volunteering many hours at his church, growing in his faith, mentoring younger men to follow Christ, and happy that his kids, now fully grown, were launching into their adult lives.

That’s when he and his wife received a full body blow. They learned that she was suffering from a severe degenerative disease. This man, a bit like the fellow I told you about some weeks ago who was a friend of another pastor in Minnesota, left his work, selling his business. Today, his full time job, done without fanfare or self-consciousness, is being with his wife.

If you even suggested that what he was doing was noteworthy or extraordinary, he would simply change the subject. He’s doing what he thinks the God Who loves us completely calls us all to do.

Last week, we said that real faith serves. It does so for a rather simple reason: God has loved us and our appropriate response to that love, given to us ultimately through Jesus’ death and resurrection, is to love God and to love others. That’s what Jesus Himself told us in our Bible lesson of last week.

But this must be more than a theological proposition. In real life, Jesus goes on to tell us today, our serving and loving aren’t rendered to call attention to what wonderful people we want the world to think we are. Our loving and serving are simply rendered in acknowledgement of God's love for us. Our loving and serving are means by which we can share the blessings of God's love with others.

Today’s Bible lesson begins what might be thought of as Jesus’ final pitch to His disciples and to all those people I call nibblers. Matthew, the writer of the Gospel book from which our lesson comes, calls this latter group of people, the crowds.

Nibblers are people like some of those who worship at every church every week everywhere in the world. They sing the songs at worship. They listen to the messages. They plunk their offerings in the plates or baskets as they pass by.

But they never really surrender their lives to Christ.

They never ask Jesus to take control of their lives, their psyches, their relationships, or their decisions.

They’re nibblers. They nibble on little bits of Christian faith, but never enough for it to make a difference in their lives.

As our lesson begins, Jesus is standing in the Temple in Jerusalem on the Tuesday before His Good Friday rendezvous with the cross. He has just completed a contentious argument with a group of people who have grown to hate Him: the Scribes and the Pharisees.

The Scribes, you know, were experts on the letter of God’s law. The Pharisees were members of the largest sect or movement among Jesus’ fellow Jews. They too, put a lot of stock in God’s laws, certain that they could do enough good things to make God open up heaven to them.

Both groups looked down their noses on others, certain that everyone who didn’t agree with them and didn't do all the right things they said God proscribed were going to hell. They even looked down on Jesus.

Jesus, we’re told, turned from the Pharisees to address His followers--the disciples--and the crowds--the nibblers--and said of those who hated Him, within the haters' earshot:
...They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. [And then Jesus said:] The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
There are no doubt all sorts of good reasons we might advance for becoming servants of others who humbly refuse to call attention to ourselves in our serving. A 1998 study cited by psychologist and author David Niven says that those who volunteer at least one hour of their time per week are 25% more likely to enjoy their regular jobs than those who refuse to lift a finger to serve others. Service is good for your mental health.

But in the end, for the Christian, there really is only one good reason to take the ethic of selfless serving and love of neighbor into our real lives. That reason is Jesus.

Although He was the King, Creator of the universe, and God almighty, Jesus, when He became a human being, lived as a servant.

Do you remember what He did on the night He was arrested, just two days after the events discussed in today’s Bible lesson?

He had gathered His closest followers for a final meal together, knowing that later that night He would be arrested and that on the next day, He would be killed on a cross. It might well have been a time when Jesus could expect others to take care of Him.

But after the disciples had all arrived, Jesus stood up, took off His outer garment, wrapped it around His waist, and then took a basin of water in order to wash the feet of each disciple.

Later, He would undertake the greatest act of love and service the universe has ever seen or will ever see: He died on a cross, taking the punishment for sin you and I deserve so that all who believe in Him will rise to live new life with God as Jesus did on the first Easter.

Love like that deserves a response.

The best response is a life that allows the serving love of Jesus to permeate our day-to-day existences!

I have to tell you when I consider the life of selfless, humble servanthood to which Jesus calls me, I recoil.

As a servant, I have been a failure. I have spent entirely too much time in my life acting like the Scribes and Pharisees, hankering to be a big shot and having all the world tell me what a wonderful guy I am. I’m utterly ashamed of that aspect of my personality!

A poem by Ruth Harms Calkin speaks well for me:

You know, Lord, how I serve You
with great emotional fervor
In the limelight.
You know how eagerly I speak for You
At a Women's club.
You know my genuine enthusiasm
At a Bible study.
But how would I react, I wonder,
if You pointed to a basin of water
and asked me to wash the calloused feet
of a bent and wrinkled old woman
day after day, month after month,
in a room where nobody saw and nobody knew?

Today is Reformation Sunday. On October 31, 1517, a young monk, priest, and theologian named Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses for debate on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. (Church doors in those days were the equivalent of today’s bulletin boards and power point presentations.)

Luther was concerned that the Church of his day had fallen into thinking akin to that of the Scribes and Pharisees.

Rather than humble surrender and lives of humble response to the undeserved and unearnable love of God, to new life granted as a free gift to all with faith in Jesus, the Church was placing heavy burdens of legalism and pious hoops on people.

Luther, in effect, said, “No more! Christ proves that God loves us as we are. He sets all with faith in Him free from sin and death. Because of Christ’s amazing grace, we can live in humble response to God’s love for us.”

As Luther would remind us were he here this morning, the Christian knows that she or he can never be good enough to earn God’s love. But once that love has come to us, failing to serve God and neighbor, family and Church, world and community is to pour contempt on the grace and goodness of God.

It’s a bit like being handed a blank check from Bill Gates and not saying, “Thanks.”

Or like having someone cure us of cancer and not ever turning back in gratitude.

It's like being given a new lease on life and not making the very most of that life. (In fact, it's exactly like that!)

So, today, I challenge you and I challenge myself to live in humble response to God’s love for us all.

Consider embracing servanthood, freely given without fanfare or self-consciousness, as your life style.

One thing you might do is volunteer for a Sunday morning ministry at Friendship.

Spend time praying about your servanthood this week. Tell God, “Lord, I know how much You have done for me. How can I, without desire for reward or recognition, express my gratitude to You?” Then look for selfless ways to love others, in your household, among your neighbors, and through our church.

I believe that as a congregation and as individuals, you and I have only scratched the surface of the Christian life--we’re just nibblers--when selfless service in Christ’s Name isn’t part of our days.

Let’s dig deep in the Christian life by making love and service our way of life. The Savior Who loved us all the way to a cross deserves nothing less!

[The Calkin poem is cited in Chuck Swindoll's book, Improving Your Serve, which I recently read and reviewed.

[David Niven, not to be confused with the late actor, has written a number of books popularizing the results of various psychological studies. The one cited in this message can be found here.]

We Should Form a Support Group

Lores Rizkalla confesses to some pet peeves surrounding common malapropisms. I can identify with her. Maybe we need help.

A Book Worthy of a Place in Your Personal Library

My mentor, friend, colleague, and one-time parishioner, Ron Claussen, has written and published a book of devotions called What? God...You Want Me To Do Something?

Back when I was a new pastor, called to serve a church in northwestern Ohio twenty-one years ago, God blessed me big time: Ron was serving a neighboring parish composed of two congregations, each about three miles from me. The day after I arrived on the scene, he visted me and gave me the best advice on being a pastor I've ever heard. "Love the people," he told me.

Whenever I was disappointed that I wasn't proving to be the Lutheran version of Billy Graham, packing them in Sunday after Sunday, or when the grey winter skies, so prominent on the flat farmland that surrounded us, brought me down, my wife co-conspired with Ron. She called him and said, "Ron, it's time" and unaware of their conspiracy and amazed by his providential timing, I received a telephone call from Ron, who asked, "Want to go out to lunch today?" Because of his listening ear and his solid Biblical counsel, I always felt better after those lunches!

The area where we served in northwestern Ohio included the most-heavily Lutheran county in the United States, Henry County. (The building facilities of the church where I served as pastor, Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Okolona, Ohio, set on the line between Henry and Defiance Counties.) We used to joke that you couldn't spit without hitting a Lutheran there and Lutheran church buildings dotted every hamlet and just about every other country road. Each of them was close to being packed to the rafters on Sunday mornings. Because there were such strong ties among those churches and because unlike the rest of us, Ron had taken the time to figure out how everybody in a four-county area were related to one another, he was known and beloved by every member of every one of those churches. We pastors thought of Ron as our "bishop" and of ourselves as his assistants.

But it wasn't just the Lutherans who sensed the powerful presence of Christ and His love in Ron. Congregations of several different denominations facing pastoral vacancies harbored the hope that maybe they could cajole Ron into becoming their pastor. He also had an easy way of relating to non-believing people, an authentically friendly manner that earned their confidence and their trust.

When he became development director for the Filling Memorial Home of Mercy in Napoleon, Ohio, a Lutheran facility for severely and profoundly mentally retarded children and adults, churches and individuals from throughout our area became more deeply involved in volunteering and financially supporting the institution. On a bigger stage, Ron shared Christ's love and "loved the people." They, in turn, saw the Filling Home as a great way to share the love of Christ with those in need and, at the same time, support the ministry of a pastor they had come to revere. (One of the auxiliary blessings that flowed from Ron going to the Filling Home is that he and his wife and family joined the congregation I served as pastor!)

Ron has retired and now confined to a wheelchair as the result of being victimized by polio back in 1952, he still is loving the people. He has an active email ministry and has, as I've mentioned, written and published What? God...You Want Me To Do Something?

I heartily recommend it for you to help you grow in your life of faith. It's composed of 52 weekly devotional pieces that each conclude with a challenge to the reader to compose their plans for living the devotion over that seven day period. The devotions, in other words, are a lot like Ron: A terrific communicator of the Good News of Jesus Christ, his life has always nonetheless been his greatest witness.

Getting your own copy of Ron's book will be a bit of a challenge. You can't, unfortunately, order it from Amazon. But the effort you take will be worth it. Here's how to get it:

(1) If you live outside of Ohio, send a check for $13.75 to Ramblings from Ron Ministries. (That's $12.00 plus shipping and handling.)

(2) If you live in Ohio, send a check for $14.50 to Ramblings from Ron Ministries. (That's $12.00 plus shipping and handling, plus sales tax.) For accurate record-keeping, please note your county of residence on the Memo line of your check.

(3) Be sure to note your return address on accompanying piece of paper.

(4) For every additional book, add 50-cents to cover shipping and handling.

(5) Mail your orders to: Ramblings from Ron Ministries, 24544 Kammeyer Road, Defiance, Ohio 43512.

There is nobody I respect more in pastoral ministry than Ron Claussen. He is the gold standard, as far as I'm concerned. Do yourself a favor and buy this inspiring book.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 16

Have you ever dreaded something so much that thinking about it kept you up half the night?

Maybe it was a meeting with someone you knew was critical of you.

Or you had to make a speech.

Or you were going to take a test.

Or, more seriously, you were to attend the funeral of a loved one.

Whatever it was, that experience will help you understand what Jacob felt as Genesis 33 opens.

Of course, his night-time of wrestling with God had resulted in a blessing. But not even blessings from God make all the bad stuff of this world go away. The Bible never promises that God's blessings or that having a relationship with God will make the bad things that happen during our lives on this transient planet disappear. Sometimes, in fact, our faith in the God we know through Jesus will bring us trouble and pain.

People of Biblical faith know that we live an already-not yet existence. God's Kingdom has already entered decisively into our world through Jesus Christ. In Him is God's ultimate self-revelation. Through Jesus, we see that God is for us, that the grace and forgiveness of God is available to all with faith in Him. Through Jesus, we know that God promises to be with us always. Through Him, we know that one day we will live with God. But we also know that the Kingdom hasn't fully begun. That awaits what the Bible calls "the day of the Lord," when the risen Jesus returns and makes all things right. Until then, we live by faith, an imperfect faith, the view of which is obscured by our finitude and sin.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, was killed by the Nazis in the waning days of World War Two. Bonhoeffer, desperate to end the demonic Third Reich's hold on his beloved Germany, had been involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested and lived in a prison camp for two years.

During that time, says a foreword to Bonhoeffer's most well-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, he became known for the care he showed other prisoners. We're told:
His own concern in prison was to get permission to minister to the sick and to his fellow prisoners, and his ability to comfort the anxious and depressed was amazing. We know what Bonhoeffer's words and religious assistance meant to his fellow prisoners, especially during their last hours (even to Molotov's nephew Kokorin, who was imprisoned with Bonhoeffer in Buchenwald, and to whom the teaching of Christ was brought home); we know what Bonhoeffer's practical aid meant in prison...during political trials to those men of whom ten or twenty were sentenced to death by a military court every week in 1943 and 1944. Some of these (among them a British soldier), charged with sabotage, were saved by him (and his father and solicitor) from certain death. We have heard that his fellow prisoners were deeply impressed by the calmness and self-control which Bonhoeffer displayed even in the most terrible situations...
Clearly, Bonhoeffer knew and experienced the presence of the God made known ultimately through Jesus Christ. He knew that God's Kingdom had already broken into our world. But he also knew that it was not yet fully present, that the world in its death throes could still be a dangerous, difficult, and deadly place, although its danger, difficulty, and death do not have the last word in the lives of those who entrust their lives to the crucified and risen Jesus.

In a poem, written during his confinement, and also presented in the foreword to The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer gives witness to this already-not yet perspective. It's called Who Am I?:
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell's confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making.,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!
Maybe these eloquent words of Bonhoeffer's would have spoken well for Jacob as Genesis 33 begins. Jacob knows that he has God's blessings and God's presence with him. But he's also afraid of what evil his brother Esau may do to him.

Genesis 33:1-4: Knowing that Esau is coming with four-hundred men, Jacob is afraid and he acts on that fear. He separates his family, so as to give each a chance to escape if the worst happens.

But Jacob's fears are unwarranted. "Esau ran up and embraced [Jacob]..., held him tight and kissed him. And they both wept." Esau, amazingly, holds no grudges against his brother. God obviously had plans for Jacob, in spite of his imperfections. The same may be said for you and me as well.

Genesis 33:5-20: Jacob, the recovering schemer, finds it difficult to accept that his brother has dropped his grudge.

Perhaps Jacob feels so guilty, he can't imagine that his brother has forgiven him.

Maybe Jacob's heart has been so calloused by his experiences with his father-in-law, Laban, that he can't imagine Esau being the straight-shooter he appears to be.

Or, maybe Jacob can't help but project his own usual self-centeredness and suspicion onto others.

Whatever the case may be, he is wary about taking his relationship with Esau to too deep a level, though this is clearly what Esau would like.

Agreeing to follow Esau to Seir--after making a lame excuse about needing to get a late start in order to accommodate his flocks and children--Jacob instead heads for Succoth. Although undoubtedly transformed by his encounter with God in Genesis 32, Jacob still carries a full complement of human imperfections and the baggage of years of bad and sinful habits.

This shows us another aspect of the "already-not yetness" in the lives of human beings with faith in the God of the Bible. They already belong to God forever. They already own forgiveness of their sins. But they're not the fully restored and sinless people they will be in eternity. They are part of God's new creation, but they're not yet what God has made them and Jesus has died and risen to make them.

[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
Part 15]

What is the Measure of Your Success?

So asks an old song by Steve Taylor, one of the best Christian satirists and composers of the past several decades. But it's a question with which I wrestle each day. The definitions of what constitutes a successful and worthwhile life in this world are so alluring. At least it is for me.

And so, I find myself worrying about how many people are in worship on Sunday mornings at the church I pastor not so that more people can hear God's message of love for them, but as a reflection on my preaching prowess.

I stew about how many people are visiting this blog.

I compare the achievements of my family to those of other families, as though that reflects positively on me.

And on and on it goes.

Charlie LeHardy has some thoughts on success, triggered by another blogger's reflections on the subject. Both pieces are definitely worth reading.

UPDATE: Please check out this related post by another blogger, like Charlie LeHardy, I met at the recent GodBlogCon in Los Angeles, Alex Jordan.

ANOTHER UPDATE: In February, I wrote a series of posts on a related topic. The series was called Goal-Setting: A Christian Approach. Here are the links to each installment:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

I Wonder If He'll Install Sitemeter?

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has a new blog. (I found out about it from Glenn Reynolds.) I agree with Cowboy Neal at Slashdot that Hastert doesn't seem to have delegated the writing to a ghost blogger. Kudos to the Speaker!

Thinking About a Road Trip to New York

I'd like to see the show written about here.

More Notes on This Sunday's Biblical Text: Matthew 23:1-12

I'm continuing to share some of what I'm learning this week about the Biblical text on which I'll base my Sunday message. The notes here are based on the commentary on Matthew 23:1-12 found in The New Interpreter's Bible, volume VIII. (The copy of this commentary which I consult is housed in the library of Mount Saint Mary's Seminary of the West, part of The Athenaeum in Cincinnati. I'm a Lutheran. But I have borrowing privileges there and I appreciate the institution's hospitality.)

1. This passage is part of a single speech from Jesus, spoken on Tuesday of Holy Week. That's the Tuesday after the Palm Sunday when He was welcomed triumphantly into the city of Jerusalem, three days before His execution on the cross, and five days before His resurrection on the first Easter Sunday.

The extended section begins at Matthew 21:18-22.

2. This passage is part of a single speech that runs from Matthew 23:1-25:46. The New Interpreter's Bible enumerates seven reasons for seeing it as such. The three that interest me most are:
a. Matthew 22:46 brings Jesus' confrontation with His opponents to a close (p.428). Here, he begins to address His followers. The use of the word then at the start of Matthew 23:1 is "disjunctive," connoting "a new beginning."

b. Intriguingly, the commentary points out that Matthew's "overall structure calls for five major speeches" (p.428). This is true. Many scholars think that Matthew's structure is patterned after the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, always deemed by the ancient rabbis as the most important portion of the Scriptures.

c. "Thematic connections bind the section 23:1-25:46 into one discourse bound together, in part, by the overarching theme of judgment and a focus on eschatology (end times).
Specific to the verses:

vv.1-3a: Jesus is in the Temple precincts, where He has been throughout this Tuesday of Holy Week, going all the way back to Matthew 21:23.

Pivotal: Here, Jesus addresses the disciples and the crowds, the latter group being people who are open to following Him.

The Scribes and Pharisees are distinct, but overlapping categories.

Scribes: "...a professional class with formal training...schooled in the tradition and its application to current issues" (p.430).

Pharisees: Group "within Judaism defined by strictly religious rules..." They're mostly laypersons with no formal theological training. It's thought that by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel account, the Pharisees were the dominant leadership group in Judaism. That would not have been true when Jesus was walking the earth; at that point, the Saducees were the leaders.

"Moses' seat": Metaphor "representing the teaching and administrative authority of the synagogue leadership" (p.430).

Jesus only condemns the practices of the Scribes and the Pharisees, not what they teach. He previously defended the Pharisees' doctrinal views over against those of the Saducees (Matthew 22:23-40).

vv.3b-7: What is Jesus' critique of the Pharisees? (a) They say, but do not do; (b) They burden others with harsh religious obligations while failing to act on them themselves; (c) They act for the wrong reason, to make an impression on others (p.431).

vv.8-10: Jesus here addresses the disciples directly, using you or your eight times in these verses.

Rabbi originally meant my great one (p.432).

Brothers and sisters is a better translation than students, which is how it's rendered in the New Revised Standard Version.

Among members of the family of God "distinctions emphasized by titles are inappropriate" (p.432).

Father is a traditional and Biblical honorific title. Elijah and Elisha were given this designation.

"Matthew's church did have a class of leaders, but Matthew regarded them in a more charismatic and egalitarian perspective" (p.432).

vv.11-12: "Leadership in the Christian community is to be servant leadership" (p.432).

Deacon [diakanos]=servant

[Here are links to the two previous parts of the discussion of this coming Sunday's text:
Part One
Part Two]

Looking Forward to Reading Rubin's JFK Portrait(s)

Author Gretchen Rubin, who is developing the specialty of looking at prominent leaders through multiple windows of perspective, has a new book out this week. Forty Ways to Look at JFK was released two days ago. I'm looking forward to reading it. Here is the Amazon info.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Miers Nomination: A Simple Plea for Fairness

I have not and will not express an opinion about whether Harriet Miers should be confirmed for a seat on the US Supreme Court. I'm a pastor, after all, and what I think politically doesn't matter to anyone who reads this blog.

But, as a Christian and a citizen, I've said time and again, I am interested in fairness, as I think everyone should be.

It astounds me that Harriet Miers is being subjected to vicious, ad hominem attacks--which are never right or smart--before she has even had the opportunity to testify at Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.

I'm not talking about those--such as Ann Althouse and Glenn Reynolds--who dismiss her nomination based on their notions of what credentials a Justice should possess, although their reasoning, based on the qualifications the Constitution enumerates for members of the Court, seems elitist to me.

I am talking about those who extrapolate Miers' judicial philosophy from articles she wrote for the Texas Bar Association or her brief tenure on the Dallas City Council.

One can only speculate what lay behind this vicious assault from some Republicans.

But Democrat, Republican, or Rotarian, the Senate should vote Miers' nomination up or down based on the facts. And those facts haven't been surfaced yet. They won't be until hearings take place.

Maybe Miers' performance will be so hideous that a vote against her will be warranted. But this rush to judgment is unseemly and grossly unfair.

This Coming Sunday's Text (Matthew 23:1-2): A Second Consideration

Listen here to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. about service which play when you first hit this site. (You'll have to turn the sound on your computer, if you're not accustomed to that.) Thanks to Deborah White for putting me onto this. (Deborah also authors this site.)

I hope to post more on this coming Sunday, which is also Reformation Sunday, later today.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

With All the Tragedy Unfolding in the World These Days... seems like a good time to link to these posts again:

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 1
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 2
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 3
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 4
The Light of the World!

I hope that all who seek to comfort the hurting and the hurting themselves will be helped by these pieces.

Rosa Parks 1913-2005

Rosa Parks, as you surely know by now, has died.

For many years, a myth has developed around this woman, whose simple action of refusing to cede her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus spoke truth to racist power. That myth has said that she was a sort of milquetoast.

In part, that was the image which she and the local NAACP, which had carefully chosen her to be the person to overtly challenge institutionalized racism on the bus lines, wanted to portray. Here, her presence and persona indicated, was a simple, unassuming seamstress tired of being treated unjustly. Only a sympathetic figure could effectively challenge the law which told blacks to go to the backs of buses and to give their seats to whites. A fire-breather wouldn't do.

As the New York Times obituary for her says today:
Her act of civil disobedience, what seems a simple gesture of defiance so many years later, was in fact a dangerous, even reckless move in 1950's Alabama. In refusing to move, she risked legal sanction and perhaps even physical harm, but she also set into motion something far beyond the control of the city authorities. Mrs. Parks clarified for people far beyond Montgomery the cruelty and humiliation inherent in the laws and customs of segregation.
Like Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in Major League Baseball, Parks needed to show restraint and dignity in the face of racial debasement. The aspirations of an entire race and whether they appreaciated it or not, all Americans, rested on her shoulders.

Because she played her role so well, people overlook the steel, the resilience, the righteous indignation, and the commitment that necessarily underlay her willingness to undergo the ordeal she endured.

Minority Americans will, of course, understand immediately the debt they owe to Rosa Parks. By sitting down on that Montgomery bus, she opened up doors of opportunity which, by the grace of God, will only be widened in future years.

White Americans owe her a debt as well: She called us to the tough but rewarding will of God, that we love God completely and love our neighbors as ourselves. She called us to begin to purge our souls of the sin of racism.

But the fact is that all Americans owe her a debt; she beckoned us to fulfill the promise of our national charter, the Declaration of Independence, when it stated simply that all are created equal.

[By the way, the designation of persons as milquetoasts is usually applied to the wrong people in our world. The real milquetoasts are members of the go-along gang, the conformists who never stand up--or sit down--for what's right. See here, here, and here.]

UPDATE: LaShawn Barber has an exhaustive listing of links to other bloggers' reflections on Rosa Parks' legacy along with her own thoughts.

Are the Gospels Reliable?

Harvard-trained New Testament scholar Mark Roberts is writing an outstanding series of blog posts on whether the New Testament Gospels are reliable. He takes a look at all the evidence--historical, literary, linguistic, archaelogical. He also acknowledges the problematic. Take a look. It's, as is usual with Mark, an impressive bit of work.

Monday, October 24, 2005

This Coming Sunday's Text (Matthew 23:1-12): A First Consideration

During the recent GodBlogCon gathering in Los Angeles, Tod Bolsinger suggested that one of the ways pastors could use their blogs to help their congregations' spiritual development was to invite them into considering the Biblical texts from which the pastors are planning to preach on succeeding Sundays.

Tod also challenged we pastors to regard our blogs as places where we dare to present the "first drafts" of our thoughts, inviting feedback.

I loved this idea!

So, obeying the rule that says, "Thou shalt steal good ideas," this is my first consideration of the text for this coming Sunday. It's one which legions of preachers, those who employ what are called lectionaries--essentially, Bible lesson plans--will use as the basis for their preaching, Matthew 23:1-12.

One of the things that most strikes me in this passage is how Jesus condemns what two commentators call, "religious ostentation." Talmudic rules gave specific regulations about how a student (the word in the Greek of the New Testament is mathetes, which we usually translate as disciple) was to relate to his teacher (or, rabbi). The disciple was to be in a position of utter deference to the rabbi. These regulations told disciples that they couldn't walk beside the rabbi. Nor could they initiate greeting him.

Jesus appears to condemn all this deference. This seems to be the case even allowing, as two commentators, Albright and Mann point out, Jesus' words were not geared to the world at large, only to those who belonged to Jesus' followers. They were to regard Jesus only as their teacher. They were only to regard the Father in heaven as their father. To give such deference to earthly people seems to be a kind of idolatry or aggrandizement that's contrary to the humble subordination to God to which Christ calls us. Albright and Mann, in fact, link verse 12 to Proverbs 29:23:
A person’s pride will bring humiliation,
but one who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.
Here, as in many other places, we see Jesus condemning those who use religion as a way of elevating themselves over others. That's why He condemns those who like to be seen wearing phylacteries. These were little leather boxes which religious leaders wore on their arms or foreheads. They contained sheepskins on which were inscribed a passage from the Old Testament Scriptures, usually Deuteronomy 6:8 or Exodus 13:9, 16. These passages spoke, it would appear metaphorically, of keeping the Scriptures in the forefront of our thinking. But the Pharisees and Scribes used this call to devotion to God as an occasion for engaging in what I call "showdog faith": to be seen as being faithful without actually having to be faithful.

Of course, all of faithful people--including me--wrestle with hypocrisy, with not living the faith we confess. But Jesus singles these religious elitists out for laying heavy legal burdens on others without themselves being willing to obey God in spirit as well as in word. As Albright and Mann put it, among the Pharisees, "the minutiae were observed, but God's love, of which the Law was an expression, was easily forgotten."

Lest we forget in the midst of Jesus' withering criticism of the Pharisees, He doesn't condemn the Law that God has given the human race. The Law, designed to show us the perameters within which life is good, really is an expression of God's love, in the same sense that a parent's admonition to a child not to play in the street is not just a restriction, but an expression of love.

It's interesting too, that the passage begins with Jesus telling His hearers to obey what Scribes and Pharisees teach because they "sit on the seat of Moses." I want to unpack this more in my study this week. But Jewish tradition held that "councils of three" (like Jesus' "two or three gathered in My Name") were like "council of Moses," the great Law-Giver (more appropriately the Bringer-of-God's-Law).

Albright and Mann add that the "Moses Seat" was a place from which discourses on God's Law were given in the temple in Jerusalem?

Questions? Ideas? Let me know in the comments section below.

Holly Reviews "Old New" Tru

Michiko Kakutani writes in the voice of Truman Capote's classic character, Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's, to review an old Capote novel newly published. Kakutani captures Golightly's unique voice to perfection. One can almost hear Audrey Hepburn, who memorably--and I think, faithfully--brought Golightly to life in the film version of the novel, with every word and turn of phrase.

I probably won't read the book. But Kakutani's review is a work of art. Or at least of artful spoofery.

Reviews of Recent Reads

From time to time, I like to mention books I've read, along with my recommendations. Three recent reads are worth mentioning.

Joseph Ellis won a Pullitzer Prize for his book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. In it, Ellis presents a series of profiles of people like Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. It was Ellis' recent biography, His Excellency: George Washington, in fact, that incited me to read this earlier work.

On this blog, I've described His Excellency as commendable. But it's neither as eloquent or as insightful as the Washington biographies written by Richard Norton Smith or James Thomas Flexner, Smith's being the best of the lot, so far as I'm concerned.

I was primed for reading Founding Brothers also, because I'd recently read David McCullough's Pullitzer-worthy 1776.

While Founding Brothers is adequate, there's really nothing special about it. It presents no new insights into the minds or interactions of the Founders, although it might be a good introduction for anyone who knows nothing of what Ellis rightly argues here was, at least in a political sense, America's greatest generation.

I say it might be a good introduction. But Founding Brothers suffers from excessive wordiness. Ellis sometimes seems like the smartest kid in the class trying to show us how smart he is. He expounds on a point and then keeps expounding on it longer than is necessary, pages after we've understood what he wanted to tell us. Ellis could learn something about brevity and effective communication from McCullough. I found myself growing bored and restless as I read Founding Brothers.

Improving Your Serve: The Art of Unselfish Living is a book from Chuck Swindoll, written back in 1981. While I don't always agree with his theology, I've always been a fan of Swindoll's. This book, like all of Swindoll's stuff, is full of Biblical insight, great illustrative stories, and self-deprecating good humor.

It's also positively inspirational. Let's be honest: Servanthood is one of the least attractive elements about following Jesus Christ. In a look-out-for-number-one world, Jesus' call for us to serve one another or Paul's admonition to concern ourselves with the interests of others over our own aren't things we want to hear. (This helps to explain why the anti-Christian theology of someone like Joel Osteen finds such resonance in our culture.) Swindoll, particularly in one chapter toward the end of the book, acknowledges the difficulties associated with embracing a servant lifestyle. Yet, Swindoll, through much of the book, also effectively conveys why it's good to live Christ's way rather than our ways.

I suppose I wish he hadn't included a whole chapter on rewards for faithful servanthood. Having life with God forever as the result of trusting Christ and what He's done for us on the cross seems reward enough to me, an undeserved reward at that. Servanthood, as I see it, is simply an appropriate response to God's undeserved charity--the word charity being a transliteration of the New Testament Greek's word charitas, which is usually translated as grace.

Nonetheless, this is a fine book and I recommend it.

Finally, I'll mention a book which will probably only be of interest to pastors and those in lay congregational leadership, Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People by Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser.

The subtitle is a bit misleading. There's little here about self-care, a contemporary obsession among American clergy, it seems. It's entirely okay with me that the topic is given short-shrift.

This is a book about leading, but from the standpoint of a servant of God and of neighbor. It incorporates not only the counsel of Scripture and of the history of the Church and its spiritual giants, but also such contemporary leadership gurus as Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis.

There's a lot in this book on which I'll be cogitating for awhile. (I usually make notes on interesting or important passages of books on blank pages in the backs of them, noting where the key passages appear. I've made two-and-a-half pages of notes in this book.)

I like the way Shawchuck and Heuser talk about vision here. It's less mystical and more organic than what most leadership gurus expound. In other words, there's an accountability built into their ideas of vision. Vision isn't something that a domineering leader palms off on a congregation with the words, "Thus saith the Lord!" Instead, as Shawchuck and Heuser conceive it, the leader's vision is forged in her or his interaction with the community, both the community of the congregation and the larger community the congregation is called to serve. That vision, which really answers the question, "What shall we do?", resonates with the congregation.

I'm also intrigued by the three questions that Shawchuck and Heuser say leaders must ask themselves:
  • What do I do well? (This isn't necessarily what I most like to do, by the way)
  • What is the one thing that only I can do that this organization needs and how can I get it done?
  • How can I project what I do well on what most needs done?
This book also places emphasis on the importance of the pastor spending time in Bible-reading and prayer. This may be what the authors had in mind in the book's subtitle. But, as they emphasize, no congregation can progress in its discipleship (or in what I would call its followership) beyond that of its pastor. The pastor must tend to her or his relationship with Christ in order to create an example (spirituality, as the authors point out, is more caught than taught), to be given direction for their leadership, and to be sustained through inevitable challenges.

This is a book to which I will turn again, I'm sure. I also intend to share it with some of our congregation's leaders.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Real Faith Dares to Serve

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on October 23, 2005.]

Matthew 22:34-40

It’s called compassion fatigue. That’s the term that experts on charitable giving and volunteerism use to describe what happens when people are overwhelmed by a long string of disasters. When compassion fatigue sets in, we’re apt to say things like, “I have nothing more to give.’ Or, “I can’t help everybody.’ Or, “That’s so far away.”

This morning, I don’t intend to beat you over the head with condemnations for the evils of compassion fatigue. But, I don’t want to be misunderstood: It is evil for us to grow weary of being compassionate or loving toward others.

We see just how evil when we consider our reaction to a true story from the life of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. He apparently was a butterfly afficionado. One day while on an excursion, he saw a rare specimen and began obsessively chasing it. He later returned to his home, ecstatic that he'd caught his quarry. Almost as an afterthought, he told someone there that while in the woods, he'd come across a man who had tripped and sprained an ankle badly. "Did you help him?" Nabokov was asked. "No," he said. "I had to find my butterfly."

I wonder if Nabokov suffered from compassion fatigue? Would it make his decision to ignore another person's needs any less defensible?

Jesus’ words in today’s Bible lesson show us that there is absolutely no mystery about God’s will for our lives. It boils down to two equally important things: We’re to love God with everything we’ve got and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Now, you and I all know this. So, how is it that compassion fatigue sets into the lives and psyches of Christians, as well as non-Christians?

How many of you have heard or read the term impulse buying? Raise your hands. Okay. Now, how many of you have ever been guilty of impulse buying? Be honest!

If you raised your hand on that last question, welcome to the club! But I have to tell you, its membership isn’t very exclusive. Especially in America, where we seem to have forgotten all about being frugal.

I nearly re-upped my membership in the Impulse Buyer’s Club on Friday night. My wife and I had stopped at a discount store in order to look in on our daughter, who was working there that evening. While there, we decided also to look around. We ended up in the Book Department. A book of classic stories from the Superman comic books caught my eye.

I leafed through it with rising excitement. I turned to my wife. “Take a look at this!” I enthused. “Cool!” she said. “I think I might buy this,” I told her. “Well, P-Diddy [a blog euphemism] might like to read it too,” she suggested. “You would too,” I told her. “How much is it?” “Thirteen dollars. Do you think we should get it?” I asked. “If you want to,” she said. I held it in my hands and even started to walk toward the register with it. But then, I thought, “I don’t need to get this. At least, not right now.” So, I took it back to the Book Department.

Impulse buying happens any time we fall prey to momentary emotions. We see something we like and we derive a rush from capturing it and making it our own.

The funny thing is that the more we give into impulse buying, the less enjoyable the buying becomes. Quite apart from getting ourselves in debt, we also suffer from something we could call buying fatigue.

It’s at this point that impulse buyers come to a fork in the road. Either they’ll keep buying, looking for that high, or they’ll learn to engage in more responsible and ultimately, fulfilling, spending patterns.

So, why bring all this up? Because there’s an analogous phenomenon I call impulse loving or impulse serving or giving. We see the devastation in Pakistan and we write a check. We see the suffering in Louisiana or Mississippi and we collect gently used clothes to be donated. We see people in need of shelter and we volunteer for a Habitat for Humanity project.

Those are all good things to do, of course. But if we do them as the result of fleeting emotions, flashes of empathy, we grow weary of being compassionate. They're acts done out of guilt or spasms of concern. Compassion that’s rooted in our emotions will dry up because it isn't deeply rooted in us and because our emotions are so changeable.

To become the loving people God calls us to be, we need to learn to make our love less dependent on our feelings.

From the standpoint of the Bible, love isn’t primarily about emotions. Thank God it isn’t.

If God’s love for you and me was dependent on God’s emotions, we would be in a heap of trouble. Every time we sinned, God wouldn’t love us any more. Fortunately, love--real love--is about a lot more than emotion.

I’ve told the true story before of the man and woman who had arranged to visit a pastor friend of mine one day. They were both members of his congregation, but each were married to other people.

They wore smiles on their faces as they told my colleague, “We’ve fallen in love. We want you to help us tell our spouses and then you can do our wedding. We’re sure this is from God.” My colleague told them that he was even more sure that this wasn’t from God. “But we’re in love,” the man told him. My friend gave him a very Biblical response: “So what?”

Love is about an ongoing commitment, whether that commitment is to a spouse, a child, a neighbor, or God. It is not limited by our fleeting or fluctuating emotions or moods.

Love listens.

Love sets aside time for others.

Love goes the extra mile to speak the other person’s language of love.

At this point, you may feel even more guilty or frustrated than you did when I started talking. Hold on!

If we’re inclined to get compassion fatigue, but God expects us to love everybody even when we don’t feel like it, is there any way we can ever love like God calls us to love? One of my favorite passages of the Bible to use with couples who are getting married is one in which Christians are told to “Put on Christ.”

The resilient love and the commitment to serving others of Jesus is foreign to our natures. But when we put on Christ and let His love live in us and guide us, we won’t suffer from compassion fatigue. Christ will be loving the world through us.

So, when we’re given the chance to spend time with someone who needs us, we just pray, “God, I’m not capable of loving or serving this person as they need or deserve. So, please help me to take the time and make the effort so that You can love them through me.”

I talked this past week with a man who was dreading a luncheon meeting with an old friend. This guy knew that all this old friend wanted to do was talk about old times. The guy really didn’t have a lunch time to spare for reminiscing. But he did anyway. Some of you parents or spouses who’ve been exhibiting compassion fatigue with your own families might ask God to love your kids or your husbands or your wives through you and then, take the time to let that love do its wonderful work.

Now, in calling you to love and serve others, God isn’t asking you to save the world. After all, Jesus has already done that. But He is calling you to serve whatever piece of the world you can.

You’ve undoubtedly heard or read the story of the man who used to throw starfish that had become stranded on the ocean shore back into the water. A friend who walked with him as he did this asked the man why he bothered. “If I don’t,” the man explained, “they’ll die.” “But you can’t possibly make a difference to all of them,” his friend objected. At that, the man bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. “It made a difference for that one,” he said.

Whether it’s filling a shoe box for Operation Christmas Child, donating food here on the second Sunday of each month for the Amelia food bank, volunteering for Power Hour, the homework help time at our local Boys and Girls Club, caring for a family member suffering from cancer or Alzheimer’s or loneliness, listening to the people under your own roof, or undertaking a ministry here at the congregation, all God calls you to do is to let His love shine through as you take the time to be an instrument of God’s love for someone.

When you do that, you won’t be fatigued; you’ll be recharged.

[This series of messages is inspired by the work of the staff at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Burnsville, Minnesota.]