Saturday, December 17, 2005

Don't Forget Darfur!

Charlie Lehardy at AnotherThink points us to a collection of posts on Darfur and reminds of the roles that each of us can play in relieving the suffering of the people there. Charlie's post includes a link to that fabulous BBC Q-and-A.

For more on Darfur, see here, here, and here.

Inventor of Walkman: Post-Modern Thomas Edison?

Andreas Pavel invented the Walkman, but for decades, Sony tried to deny him royalties. His story is in this morning's New York Times.
"I filed my first patent a complete innocent, thinking it would be a simple matter, 12 months or so, to establish my ownership and begin production," he said at the house where he first conceived of the device. "I never imagined that it would end up consuming so much time and taking me away from my real interests in life."
Pavel reports that when he initially shopped his invention to numerous audio equipment manufacturers, they dismissed the idea as loopy. Who, they wondered, was going to strap stereo equipment around their heads as they went through their daily activities?

It reminds me of the IBM exec who was certain no one would want a computer in their home, that it was solely a business tool.

What are your favorite examples of ubiquitous products that at first, people supposedly in the know dismissed as having limited appeal?

A Rerun: Go To Radioblogger and Vote for Me!

That's what my GodBlogCon colleague Rick Moore says I should be telling all you folks.

Recently, I wrote a review of the movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

At Radioblogger, it's one of a number of such reviews you can read and then vote for the one you think is best. (I'm suggesting here that mine is the best.)

Rick said he'd voted for my review and that I should campaign for your vote in order to win a new Crosley radio. (Actually, the thought of that appeals to me because the Crosley folks came from Cincinnati.)

I'm a little rusty on this because the last time I campaigned for anything was when I ran for the State House of Representatives last year, but...go over to Radioblogger and vote for me!

By the way, here's a link to my review.

(Thanks, Rick!)

Friday, December 16, 2005

Go to Radioblogger and Vote for Me!

That's what my GodBlogCon colleague Rick Moore says I should be telling all you folks.

Recently, I wrote a review of the movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

At Radioblogger, it's one of a number of such reviews you can read and then vote for the one you think is best. (I'm suggesting here that mine is the best.)

Rick said he'd voted for my review and that I should campaign for your vote in order to win a new Crosley radio. (Actually, the thought of that appeals to me because the Crosley folks came from Cincinnati.)

I'm a little rusty on this because the last time I campaigned for anything was when I ran for the State House of Representatives last year, but...go over to Radioblogger and vote for me!

By the way, here's a link to my review.

(Thanks, Rick!)

December 15, 2005: A Very Good Day!

In a short time, good friends of ours, two couples we've known for most of our years in this area, will join us for a Raclette dinner. The son of one of the couples has done one tour in Iraq and may go back next month.

I bring this up because I would be remiss if I didn't mention on this blog, the extraordinary vote, involving Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, that took place in Iraq yesterday. No matter what one's feelings about the war there may be, the President is, as Chris Matthews is saying on his show right now, to be commended for his stick-to-itiveness and his big gamble for democracy.

Of course, the Iraqis themselves are to be commended for courageously going to the polls, ignoring the enormous risks, voting not just for a new government, but for democracy itself.

Freedom and democracy appear to be on the march, sprouting up insistently in a region of the world where many have deemed it an impossibility. Much work, prayer, and sacrifice have made this happen.

It was an extraordinary day there, no matter what one's politics!

I continue to pray for peace in Iraq and for the moment when American military personnel, along with our friends' son, are all back home!

To me, almost as extraordinary as the Iraqi voting yesterday, was the deal worked out between the White House and the Republican Congress to say empahtically to the world that torture is not the policy of the US government. The reports of torture, of renditions, and of US prisons in Europe concerned me at several levels. First, as a Christian, torture ought to be the policy of bad guys, not of those protecting the safety and well-being of the free. Second, as an American, I was concerned by the possibility that if we torture, others will later feel free to do the same to American combatants.

There was another reason behind my concern over torture reports. Several days ago, I received an email from a German Lutheran pastor with whom I correspond. This is a guy who reveres and respects America and unlike the majority of his countrymen and women, supported the US invasion of Iraq. But he told me that he was terribly concerned about reports of torture. We in the West don't advance our cause, he told me, begging me not to be offended in light of his love for America, if we act like the thugs and madmen we fight. In short, reports of torture, the lion's share of which have not been corroborated, hurt the cause of freedom. It was that fact that caused the US to originally press for the Geneva Conventions on these matters in the first place.

In two different parts of the world yesterday, the world saw America at its best. Uninterested in domination or colonization, the people of Iraq voted in a government under the approving eye of America. Uninterested in going down the path of dehumanization, America bluntly repudiated torture.

It was a very good day!

What? No Popemobile?

One of the most interesting new blogs, Either End of the Curve, cited this post, leading me to a spray promising to give someone instant understanding of Modern Art.

Reader__iam, the author of the Curve blog, said that her favorite item on, where the spray was featured, was a Sigmund Freud Action Figure

That triggered a memory...

Some months before his death, we saw a John Paul II doll at Half Price Books.

He was fully vested and wore a miter. I could just see some kid, after getting the doll for a birthday or Christmas, staging fights between his GI Joe and the Pope.

Not long after that, my wife and I were in this little shop that stocks all sorts of unique items. On a rack with various paper doll books, I spied one featuring John Paul at different stages of his life. You could dress and undress the young Karol; do the same thing with Father Karol; and later, accessorize the Pope.

One thing I have yet to see though, is a Popemobile at Toys-R-Us.

Third Pass at This Week's Bible Lesson: Luke 1:26-38

This will be shorter than the previous two posts on this week's Bible lesson, representing my reflections from a look at what Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen has to say about Luke 1:26-38.

1. Stoffregen quotes one of my favorite Bible scholars, the late Raymond Brown, in his enormous book, The Birth of the Messiah. Like other commentators we've already looked at this week, Brown compares and contrasts the "annunciation stories" in Luke's Gospel: the announcement of John the Baptizer's impending birth to his father, Zechariah, and the announcement of Jesus' impending birth to his mother, Mary.

By comparing them, one sees that, at every turn, Jesus is portrayed as the greater of the two children to be born. John's birth to a post-menopausal woman is miraculous in its way, of course. But, Brown points out: "The birth of Jesus was like the miracle of creation--out of nothing, God created life." Creation out of nothing (to which some apply the Latin phrase, ex nihilo) exactly describes the birth of a child to a virgin!

2. Regarding Mary's favored status, Stoffregen quotes Eduard Schweizer, from the latter's book, The Good News According to Luke:
At the end Mary is indeed highly favored...If the virgin birth originally expressed the uniqueness of the Son of God, for the first narrator of our story it served far more to express the grace and favor of the word of God, which calls forth life out of nothing.
3. Mary's "finding" of God's grace or favor isn't the result of her searching. It's simply a matter of her receiving a gift that is offered.

As I personally reflect on this, this is exactly how God's grace always works. We do nothing to earn God's blessings, most especially the blessing of new life offered to all with faith in Christ. God offers it. Mary, I suppose, could have spurned God's favor, just as we can. But having found that favor, Mary was loathe to reject it!

4. Mary, says Stoffregen, is "a model believer." I agree! She responds to the angel's announcement by fashioning herself as "the Lord's slave." This contrasts with Zechariah's response to Gabriel's announcement of John the Baptizer's birth; Zechariah didn't believe.

5. The biggest scandal of Jesus' birth has nothing to do with the virgin birth, but that a peasant is portrayed as king in David's lineage and that He's referenced as the "Son of the Most High," designating Him as enfleshing God Himself.

6. Finally, I like Stoffregen's citation of Cullpepper's commentary on Luke:
The ultimate scandal [in the Lucan narrative of Jesus' birth] is that God would enter human life with all its depravity, violence, and corruption. Therefore, the annunciation ultimately is an announcement of hope for humankind. God has not abandoned us to the consequences of our own sinfulness. Rather, God has sent Jesus as our deliverer. There is another way, a commonwealth under Jesus' Lordship that is without end.

[The first two passes at this week's Bible lesson are here and here.]

Christmas Classics Rerun #2: My Favorite Christmas Films

First posted this list last year...

1. It's a Wonderful Life (of course!)
2. Bishop's Wife
3. White Christmas
4. The Muppet Christmas Carol
5. A Charlie Brown Christmas (not released theatrically, but whatever)
6. Miracle on 34th. Street (the original)

Christmas Classics Rerun #1: My Favorite Christmas Books

Every year, TV networks and publishing houses trot out tried-and-true Christmas classics for us to enjoy. So, why shouldn't the same thing be the case with blogging?

Okay, so maybe this isn't a "classic blog post." But here are my favorite Christmas books, as first presented last year. It's become a little dated. That's what happens to Christmas classics and is part of their charm. (I hope.)

Ten Favorite Christmas Books (compiled in 2004)

Many families have their own particular cherished Christmas customs. The Daniels Family is no exception. Being unregenerate bibliophiles, one of our Christmas traditions, naturally, is collecting Christmas books, which we tote out in early December and keep around throughout the season in order to be read and enjoyed again and again.

The collection is now comprised of well over twenty books. They're all enjoyable and each has a particular significance for us. But some of them are especially loved.

In fact, parting from my usual habit of naming five favorite thises or thats, I found that I couldn't cull this list of favorites down below ten.

These books are all family, or even children's, books. But like the best books in these categories, they're no less meaningful or fetching for adults.

So, here they are, my ten favorite Christmas books.

1. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. Our son, now 23, read this book when he was in the third grade. He asked my wife and me to read some of it to him. We were so taken with it that we ran out and bought our own copy. On Christmas Day that year, as we drove to see relatives, my wife behind the wheel, I read the whole book aloud. I've repeated the performance virtually every year since.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells the story of the Herdman kids and how, hoping to get free cookies and other goodies, they became part of the church Christmas pageant. The Herdmans are the most raucous, uncontrolled, ill-behaved, and bad-mannered children you can imagine. For page after page, I still sometimes laugh until I hurt when I read about them.

All that laughter gives the touching ending of this book great impact. I can't read its final chapter without misting.

If you want a gentle, hilarious reminder of the true meaning of Christmas, as well as an insightful gander into the hypocrisy of church life, I recommend this book. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever truly is one of the best Christmas books ever.

2. Santa's Favorite Christmas Story by Hisako Aoki and Ivan Gantschev. This book, filled with beautiful, mixed-media illustrations, tells the story of what happens one cold December when the animals in the forest found Santa Claus sleeping. They become alarmed, fearing that Santa would be unprepared for his annual global trek and that Christmas would have to be cancelled.

But Santa assures them that, with or without him, Christmas will happen. "Christmas," Santa says, "hasn't got anything to do with me." Santa then proceeds to tell the animals his favorite Christmas story, that of the first Christmas.

For years now, I have been using this book for my children's messages on the Sundays just prior to Christmas. The book still mesmerizes and it gently challenges our consumerist Christmas, using jolly old Saint Nick to talk about the birth of the Christ Child.

3. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. I've yet to see the movie version of this book, which has been a favorite at our house since it was first published back in 1985. I wonder whether I'll like the film or not. The text is sparse and mysterious, the illustrations beautiful, adding to the text's mystery and wonder. This book is not so much about Christmas as it is about growing up and the ability to dream. I love it.

4. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. (Ours is the Ideals Children's Book edition, 1989) O. Henry named his now-classic tale of Christmas gift-giving by a poor married couple after the magi--magicians or wise men--who came from the East to bring gifts to the Christ Child at Bethlehem. In this story, we learn about love and self-sacrifice, which really were the motivating reasons behind the mission of Jesus when He came into the world. (First Timothy 2:1-6) The poignant tale is enhanced by illustrations that evoke the era in which O. Henry wrote.

5. The First Christmas: A Festive Pop-Up Book by Tomie de Paola. This is the first of three books on my Christmas list from this first-rate and often-imitated artist and children's author. Here, de Paola has presents the story of the first Christmas with his typically stunning artistry, enhanced by the pop-up format. This is one to show your children until they're old enough to handle its delicate features.

6. The Clown of God by Tomie de Paola. This isn't a Christmas book, technically. But it is the story of a juggler who gives his greatest gift to the Christ Child. It is poignant and a call to each of us to give to the Savior Who has given everything to us!

7. The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie de Paola. This is one of several books de Paola created to honor his Old World heritage. Befana is a character, sometimes thought of as a witch, who plays a Santa character who leaves cookies and other goodies on the Twelfth Night of Christmas. De Paola adds his own whimsical touches to the old legend. This is a fun book.

8. Why Christmas Trees Aren't Perfect by Richard H. Schneider with illustrations by Elizabeth J. Miles. This book spins a legendary tale about how a once-perfectly shaped Christmas tree became imperfect, yet valued. It's a tale of self-sacrifice and compassion. It also encourages each of us to accept ourselves, imperfections and all. This is a wonderful story for children of all ages.

9. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. This wordless book tells the charming tale of a boy's adventures with a snowman. That may not sound like much. But it really is beautiful, the perfect book for cuddling up with your child in front of a fire just before you take them to their beds for evening prayers. (This book, by the way, has been made into an equally enchanting short film.)

10. The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. This is such a fun book! The Ahlbergs' central character, the Postman, delivers a series of cards and letters to people along his route. What's fun is that readers are able to open the items up, reading the notes the postman delivers. The book affords all the delight that people of the Victorian era must have felt as they rummaged through the nooks, crannies, and drawers of a giant desk. You'll never outgrow the delight of this book.

That's my list of ten favorite Christmas books for right now. Hopefully, this Christmas season we'll find another volume to add to our collection and our celebrations.

So, what are your favorite Christmas books? Use the "Comments" button below to tell me.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

High and Low (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 20)

[This post continues a long-suspended series about looking at Jesus from a fresh perspective. To do that, I'm using Eugene Peterson's fresh, vivid translation/paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.]

Matthew 17

This chapter moves Jesus and His disciples from an intense high to a humdrum low.

1. Less than a week after telling His closest followers that He was bound for Jerusalem, where He would be killed and then rise again, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the peak of a high mountain. (Matthew 17:1-3)

2. For reasons easy to imagine, even for those of us who are so unimaginative that we need people like filmmakers and video game designers to do our imagining for us, high places were often used in the ancient world for memorials, shrines, or altars to deities. By going higher up, they seemed to feel, they got closer to the objects of their worship.

In Old Testament times, God's people were frequently upbraided for providing for the worship of deities other than the one true God of the universe, the God revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, on the "high places" of their country. The prophet Elijah was emphatic that the impulse toward syncretism, the attempt to make all spiritual approaches similar and to make all gods equal to God Himself, must be eliminated from Israel. He and other prophets said that these altars to false gods should be pulled down!

The high places were also where God met His people.
  • It was on Mount Sinai that God gave Moses, his face aglow with the fire of God's presence, the Ten Commandments.
  • At Mount Carmel, during his contest with the false prophets of Baal, Elijah built an altar which, after he'd flooded it with water, God consumed with the fire of His holiness.
  • It was on Mount Zion that the Temple was built.
  • When the waters of the great flood had subsided, Noah, his family, and the animals on board their ship came to rest on Mount Ararat, where Noah worshiped God.
High places were great places for intimate encounters with the mighty God of all!

3. Jesus was a wise leader, which I guess you'd expect of God-in-the-flesh. His modus operandi was to spend some time with crowds of people, more time with the twelve close followers who would later be called apostles (sent ones), and the most time with three key leaders: Peter, James, and John.

Interestingly, we have more material critical of these three disciples than of any of Jesus' other first followers--with the possible exception of Thomas in John 11 and John 20; yet, these guys emerge are clearly the ones Jesus sees as being the leaders of the others, the ones in whom He invests the most time and energy.

4. While on the top of the mountain, as Peterson renders it:
His [Jesus'] appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from His face. His clothes were filled with light. Then they realized that Moses and Elijah were also there in deep conversation with Him.
Jesus' dazzling appearance suggests His connection to or sameness with the God Who was so bright that the Old Testament said that, with the exception of Moses, Israel's greatest leader, no one could look at Him and live. The light of God denoted His perfection and purity, His total "otherness," to paraphrase a description of God from the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich.

5. How Peter, James, and John knew that the men with whom Jesus was speaking were Moses and Elijah isn't conveyed. But the significance of these two figures speaking with Jesus is clear. The people of Jesus' day often referred to the Bible they had--our Old Testament today--simply as "the Law and the Prophets." Jesus, in fact, claimed that His coming fulfilled all that was written in "the Law and the Prophets."

Moses and Elijah represented these two strands of Biblical tradition. Moses had been entrusted by God with the Law, the Ten Commandments, as we noted earlier. Elijah was considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the one who, some said, would appear to point others to the coming Messiah.

In essence, the coming of these two at this moment represented a kind of anointing of Jesus.

6. Peterson's translation then says:
Peter broke in, "Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain--one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?'

While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: 'This is My Son, marked by My love, focus of My delight. Listen to Him."
Peter wants to do what all religious folks are inclined to do, I suppose. Instead of savoring the moment or looking for what God might be telling them in such special moments with God, they want to capture the moment. Unintentionally, these folks want to domesticate, trap, and bottle up God.

But it's good to remember here what is repeatedly said of Aslan, the Christ-figure, in C.S. Lewis' wonderful Chronicles of Narnia novels. As is true of Aslan, God isn't tame, but He is good. We can't control, trap, channel, use, or confine God to mausoleums of stone. He is too big, too free, too beyond us to stand for that!

7. Nonetheless, it's easy to understand how Peter feels, isn't it? If you and I observed something so incredible--what is called the transfiguration of Jesus, we might be afflicted with similar impulses.

But the voice of God the Father tells Peter to knock off the yammering or the impulse to frenzied building and instead, to simply pay heed to Jesus.

8. Peter, James, and John do what only makes sense: They fall on their faces in worship! But Jesus reassures them, touching them, and telling them not to be afraid.

9. In Matthew 17:9, Jesus tells the three not to talk about what they've just witnessed until after "the Son of Man," Jesus' strange third-person appellation for Himself, has been raised from the dead.

Two points here:
  • Jesus swore them to secrecy because it would only be after His death and resurrection that the glory they've just observed in Him would make sense. As the events of Holy Week, when the disappointed masses abruptly moved from hailing Jesus as a king to calling for His execution, prove, people weren't looking for a Savior Who would call them to repent of their sins so that they could receive His forgivenees. They wanted a Savior Who would let them go on ignoring God and neighbor--in other words, who would let them go on sinning, unchallenged--and give them all the glory they could ever want, too. Until people saw Jesus dead and risen, they could never accept His call to repentance and to lives tuned into God.
  • How is it that the disciples seem to consistently miss Jesus' telling them that He will rise from the dead. Mightn't it be because the experience was so foreign to them, as it is to us? It seemed too good to be true and maybe delusional on Jesus' part.
10. On the way down the mountain, in response to their question, Jesus says something very curious about Elijah, intimating that John the Baptizer had fulfilled the prophecy that said Elijah would come back to earth to prepare people to know and follow the Savior. It should be kept in mind that Elijah is one of only two figures in the Old Testament who didn't die, but were simply taken into heaven.

11. From the highs of their mountaintop experience, Jesus, Peter, James, and John move to the valley of everyday experience. A boy is thrown about with seizures by a demon and none of the other nine disciples are able to help. Jesus casts out the demon and the disciples wonder why their efforts proved to be so impotent.

Jesus tells them that if they had only a shred of faith in the big God of all, they could do great things. God can make our gigantic opponents puny!

After this, Jesus reiterates His prophecy: He will go to Jerusalem to be killed and to be raised. Just as the disciples probably didn't dare to believe in a resurrection, they likely also found it difficult to believe that Jesus would actually be killed.

12. Jesus makes clear that even those who put God first are to uphold the authority of government and pay their taxes. (Matthew 17:24-27) For some, this may be the lowest point of the whole chapter.

But surely, one of the clear messages of this whole chapter is that whether in highs or lows, in death or resurrection, the God we know in Jesus Christ is still our God and still available to us!

[Here are links to preceding installments in 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

So Much for Being a Milquetoast

Don't Ignore the Obvious]

Leadership Lesson #7: The First Thing a Leader Must Do to Get People to Follow

Robert Kennedy told the story of the fictional French general, probably based on the mercurial Charles de Gaulle, who betrayed his faulty idea of "leadership" one day. The general saw a group of people demonstrating. He looked at them and declared, "There go my people. I must follow them so that I may lead them."

One thing that pretender-leaders do is "follow the crowd." They try to figure out what everybody else likes and then live to please people. That's not leadership. While leaders must be sensitive to what people are thinking, the only leaders worthy of the title are those who can say, "This is where we need to go" and be willing to live with the possibility that they and their leadership will be rejected . (More on this in the next post of the series.)

So, if you're a leader, how do you get people to follow you? We've talked about some of the important elements of leadership in the first six installments of this series. But the only people who really are leaders are those who have followers. And here's how leaders get followers: They never ask those they lead to do anything more than they themselves are willing to do. The first thing leaders must do to get people to follow them is demonstrate a willingness to get their uniforms dirty. They are, as I indicated in an early post, servants.

When Jesus sent out seventy of His followers to preach, teach, and heal, He was asking them to do nothing more than He had been doing for several years. (Of course, in addition to Jesus' example, the seventy were empowered by God to do their three tasks. When they returned to Jesus after successful mission trips, they betrayed the mistaken belief that all the good they'd accomplished was from them and not Jesus. He had to spend the balance of His earthly ministry straightening them out on this point.)

Later, Jesus would ask His followers to "take up their crosses," the exact thing He did for the whole human race. How could you not follow a leader so willing to do precisely what He asked of you?

Leaders who are willing to do the things they ask of those they lead will earn both credibility and loyalty. In one of her books, business consultant and leadership guru Laurie Beth Jones tells of meeting a CEO at a post office. He was taking care of a mass mailing for his company, something that one of his subordinates might just as well have done. When Jones asked him about that, he explained that everybody else was extremely busy, the post office was on his way, and at that point, it was simple for him to take care of the task.

Of course, leaders must delegate. We've already talked about. But if you want people to follow your lead, you must be willing to do "the grunt work" that you ask others to do.

You'll notice a key word that's already appeared here several times: willing. There's a reason for that.

I was born with two left hands and all ten digits are thumbs. But a few years back, I wanted our congregation to get involved in Habitat for Humanity. So, I volunteered to work on a Habitat construction site on Saturdays and got a few of our folks to come along. A few of our members embraced this ministry with enthusiasm. But after several weeks, one of them approached me and said that while he appreciated my commitment, "We all have our gifts, Mark. Please don't come back here or you may end up getting killed." He could see that no matter how good my intentions, I wasn't made for contracting work.

You see, my willingness to participate in Habitat construction projects was enough for some of the people of my congregation to say, "I'll give it a rip, too."

One of the most poignant passages in Scripture appears in the Old Testament. Under David's leadership, a group of misfits and malcontents had become his "mighty men of war." They were encamped at the cave of Adullam, close to Bethlehem, where David's enemies were. David looked at Bethlehem and said wistfully, "O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!"

It was a wish, not a request, still less an order. It would be like me saying, "I wish that I could have a pizza from Tommy's in Columbus." Or, "It would be nice to go to the Fiesta Bowl in January." In neither statement would I be requesting or ordering the things for which I wished.

But three of David's warriors heard the wistfulness in their leader's voice and set out, risking their lives, in order to draw some water from that well for him.

They brought the water to David, but the Bible says, "...he would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, for he said, 'The Lord forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?'" (Second Samuel 23:13-17)

For years, I couldn't read that passage without choking up. Even today, it's likelier than not to bring tears to my eyes. Why? David, a man the Bible describes as being "after God's heart," had earned his position of leadership because of his willingness to do nothing other than the very things he asked the people he led to do.

[Here are links to previous installments in this series:
The First Thing Every True Leader Must Be
The Most Overrated Attribute of Leaders
The First Thing Every Leader Must Do
The Inefficiency Every Leader Must Embrace to Be Successful
The Hardest Thing for Me to Do as a Leader
The Indispensable Habit of Every Great Leader]

Was Mona Lisa Happy?

The BBC reports that a computer program used at the University of Amsterdam has concluded that Mona Lisa, the subject of the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, was mostly happy.

Given the fact that many Art scholars seem to believe that Mona Lisa was actually da Vinci himself, I guess this tells us that da Vinci was, at least as he posed before a mirror for the painting, "mostly happy."

The BBC explained the computer program on which the assessment is based:
The program, developed with researchers at the University of Illinois, draws on a database of young female faces to derive an average "neutral" expression.

The software uses this average expression as the standard for comparisons.
Pardon me if I'm a little skeptical. The reading of body language is, I think, more art than science and susceptible to being wrong.

Besides, even acknowledging Mona Lisa's long-alleged enigmatic quality, she is smiling. That's a big hint that she was happy at the time the artist captured "her" face on the canvas.

The word happy, as I've talked about before, is related to our word happen. Happiness describes that fleeting emotion resulting from things like compliments, jokes, or encouraging news. Happiness is dependent on circumstances.

Joy, by contrast, is something that we possess irrespective of circumstances. It's down-in-the-soul serenity rooted, I believe, in a relationship with the eternal and ever-present and loving God we know through Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

McCartney's 'Follow Me' and the Question of Faith

Alex Jordan has an interesting post delving into the spirituality of Paul McCartney, triggered by the song, Follow Me, on Macca's latest CD, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 1:26-38

The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB) has become a favorite resource for my message preparations. I spent some time studying what it has to say about this week's Bible lesson, Luke 1:26-38.

Here's the lesson:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Below are my notes. My personal reactions to it are in brackets.

General Observations:
1. This scene appears initially to be a continuation of the narrative of the child to be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, both older and the latter past child-bearing years. It refers to the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy. But v. 26 brings a shift of gears, conveying an even greater miracle than the story of a child born to barren parents.

[Of course, the miracle of children born to barren parents is a common Old Testament motif. Abraham and Sarah, the founding ancestors of God's people, the Hebrews, were advanced in years and Sarah was well past menopause, when they became the parents of Isaac.

[First Samuel tells how a woman named Hannah prayed for a son in spite of her advanced years and became the mother of a great prophet. (In fact, there are many allusions to Hannah and Samuel in the Bible lesson for this week.)

[Because childlessness was regarded by the ancient Hebrew people as a curse from God, denoting some flaws or sins in the couple unable to have children, the birth of a child to older folks was also seen as a vindication of their righteousness.

[It's interesting how often the Bible flouts these conventions and makes those who might be looked down upon into heroes and leaders of the faith. In addition to barren couples who are given children, we could also mention shepherds, younger sons, and foreigners.

[Shepherding was regarded the profession of dirty, lower-class, marginalized people. Yet Moses, the greatest leader of Israel, was a shepherd. So was Jacob, Abraham's son. So was David, Israel's greatest Old Testament king. And when God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, He called Himself the good shepherd. In the Old Testament, the most famous of its hymns, Psalm 23, declares, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

[In Old Testament and New Testament societies, oldest sons inherited the wealth of their fathers. The younger sons often spent extended years working for their older brothers or others to build up some sort of estate for themselves and their families. Yet, the second-born son, Jacob--through some machinations--becomes the prime heir of his father, Isaac, for example. And Joseph, the eleventh-born son, becomes the favorite of his father Jacob. Later, Jacob blesses the second-born of Joseph's sons.

[Israel was prohibited from intermarriage with Gentiles. Yet, Gentiles, particularly Gentile women, became heroes of the faith in Old Testament times. A Gentile prostitute, Rahab, collaborates with the Hebrews before they take over Jericho. Ruth, a woman from Moab, marries into the Hebrew faith, and becomes the ancestor of King David. During Jesus' earthly ministry, He expresses amazement of the faith in Him demonstrated by Romans.

[Clearly, in many ways, God isn't constrained by ordinary human conventions; He cares about all people and is unlimited by religious traditions. (This doesn't mean that God doesn't obey His own laws of righteousness. Jesus said that He hadn't come to alter a single "jot and tittle" of God's Old Testament law. It does mean that the fake righteousness of smug religious tradition has nothing to do with God.)]

2. The scene that unfolds in this passage is The Annunciation. Here, the angel Gabriel announce to Mary that she will give birth to the God-Man Jesus. But there are many annunciations in the Old Testament and in fact, there is one in the preceding chapter of Luke.

In the latter annunciation, Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth are to have a son, John the Baptizer.

NIB points out that there are similarities between the two annunciation stories in Luke. In both, the recipient:
  • is told not to be afraid
  • is called by name
  • receives assurances of God's favor
  • hears of the birth
  • is told the name they are to give to the child
  • hears the role to be played by the child, a role rooted in the Old Testament
  • questions the angel
  • receives a sign
  • sees the angel depart
3. But, there are differences between the two annunciations, NIB points out. Zechariah receives his annunciation visit after a time of deep, sustained prayer. Mary's angelic visit, by contrast, comes out of nowhere.

On top of that, there's the fact that John's parents are past normal child-bearing ages, while Mary is a virgin.

The biggest difference, of course, is that Jesus' role as Savior is much larger than that of John the Baptizer. The latter is to prepare people to welcome Jesus.

Specific verses:

God is the central figure here, not Gabriel or Mary.

The words in v.28 are like Hannah's in First Samuel 1:18. (Also look at Judges 6:12.)

The apocryphal Jewish book of Tobit, with which Mary may have been familiar, tells the story of "a jealous angel who appeared on a bride's wedding night each time she married and killed her bridegroom." This may be what underlies Mary's perplexity over the greeting offered by Gabriel. Did Mary fear something similar when she saw the angel?

[For this question to make sense, you have to understand the wedding customs of the time. As I pointed out last week, marriage happened in two phases in first-century Judea. First, there was the betrothal. This was more than an engagement. As NIB points out, if a bridegroom died at this point, although the wedding ceremony hadn't taken place, though the marriage had not been consummated, and the bride had not moved into her husband's home, she would be considered a widow. The betrothal, the agreement to marry, was considered binding.

[Second, there was the actual ceremony, followed by the bride moving in with her husband.

[The period of betrothal could last up to a year and the groom could show up with his friends at any time of day or night for the ceremony. This latter fact is what lay behind Jesus' parable of the Ten Wise and Foolish Virgins, which He tells about the end of the world and which I'll discuss, perhaps, another time.]

To assuage her fear, Gabriel assures Mary of Gods favor.

The role defined for Jesus, to be Son of God, sets His definitely apart from John the Baptist (Luke 1:16-17).

Mary's question is like the one posed by Zechariah during the annunciation in Luke 1.

Mary receives two announcements: (1) Her own pregnancy; (2) The pregnancy of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth's pregnancy is a sign to Mary of what God can do. He can make the barren give birth. He can do the same thing with a virgin.

Gabriel's words are like Sarah's in Genesis 18:14, one of the funniest passages in Scripture, and Jesus Himself in Luke 18:27.

Because of what God can do in these two women, Mary and Elizabeth, God can also bring about resurrection from a burial tomb and send the Holy Spirit to empower the Church to grow from a few unreliable people into a worldwide fellowship of believers in Christ.

Mary echoes Hannah (First Samuel 1:18), which she will do big-time in a few verses.

Mary is obedient! Jesus later says that His true family are those who are obedient to God (Luke 8:21).

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Empathetic Coughing Can Build Community...

and give classroom presenters time to recover. My guess is that it might also give solace to sufferers from glossophobia.

The White Witch and Evil

Spencer Troxell has some interesting thoughts on the portrayal of evil, as seen in the character of the White Witch, Jadis, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He points out, basically, that this is far more understated and so, realistic, embodiment of the demonic that we're likely to find elsewhere.

I think that Spencer's right and it adds to the power of the film and the book on which it's based.

Reactions of Some to Execution of Williams Disturbing

Stanley Tookie Williams was a deadly killer who, in spite of books and statements condemning gangs, never repented for the four brutal murders he committed and refused to cooperate with authorities wanting to bring his gang, the Crips, to justice.

But unlike some commenters this morning, I can derive no glee from his execution.

I have no desire to debate the issue of capital punishment here. Once upon a time, I was utterly opposed to it. Today, I would describe my attitude as ambivalent about it. I recognize that there may be some whose crimes are so heinous and who are so remorseless, that the state is within its right to take their lives. Stanley Tookie Williams seems to have been one of those people.

I have no argument with the prosecutors, jury, appeal judges, or Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the decisions they've made. They did their duties as they saw fit and seemed to do so with appropriate gravity.

But I describe myself as being pro-life. I'm not using that term politically here. (Although when I ran for the Ohio House of Representatives last year, I did have the endorsement of all the right-to-life groups.) I mean to say that life is a gift from God. I mean to say that the taking of another life is a gravely serious matter.

I can think of situations when the taking of life is unavoidable--an intruder threatens a loved one, or an attacker kills many in an act of war, just to name two examples. But as a Christian, I have a bias for the protection, the preservation, and the nurturing of every human life.

This is why I've found the past several weeks' almost gleeful pleading for Williams' execution by people who describe themselves as pro-life so disturbing.

And I find it difficult to understand the near-celebratory attitudes of some of these same people in speaking of his execution early this morning.

It seems to me that it's one thing to advocate capital punishment, and a legitimate thing, but quite another to appear to enjoy it when it's used.

This is no time for glee, but a time for everybody, no matter what their feelings about capital punishment or about Stanley Tookie Williams, to pray that the glorification of violence endemic to our culture these days will be destroyed by the power of the God of peace Who came to us on a Bethlehem night long ago.

It's only the God-Man Jesus Christ Who can transform hearts darkened by sin and give us all such an appreciation for the humanity of others that murder will become unthinkable and capital punishment rendered unnecessary.

Of course, it would be naive to think that violence or murder will cease to be part of the human experience. The last people to succumb to such naivete should be believers in the God of the Bible. After the first human parents, Adam and Eve, fell into sin, one consequence was that one of their sons, Cain, murdered another, Abel. The condition of human sin, that state of alienation from God and neighbor, into which we all are born, means that, until Jesus returns to the earth, there will be other Cains...and other Stanley Tookie Williamses.

But I have seen much evidence that when Jesus Christ enters the lives of once-violent people, transformations begin to happen. So, as a Christian, I intend to do three essential things following Williams' execution:
  • I intend to keep praying that God will open the wills of those hardened by sin and to send the Prince of peace to them in ways of God's choosing in order to begin softening them.
  • I intend to ask God, as Jesus commands, to send "workers into the harvest," that is, people who will share Christ with those whose lives are ripe for living with God.
  • I intend to try, in my imperfect and sin-infested way, to share Christ with others.

Monday, December 12, 2005

How John C. Wright Came to Faith in Christ: Richard Lawrence Cohen Makes Me Think, Part 2

Richard Lawrence Cohen has linked to this incredibly interesting piece about how science fiction writer, philosopher, and one-time atheist John C. Wright came to believe in the God proclaimed by Christians.

It's an incredibly magnanimous piece for Richard to point to, because while he's not an atheist, he's also not a Christian. The piece is worth reading in its entirety and appears on Speculative Catholic here.

I wrote more comments for poor Richard to read:
While I can't claim the intellectual prowess or rigor of Wright, his coming to faith is similar to my own.

I too, was an atheist, and I too thought that whole Christian business was absurd.

But at both the intellectual and as [Wright] would call it, the supernatural levels, Christ as God-enfleshed and Savior was the hypothesis that wouldn't let me go. (I guess I would call the latter category, the practical level, in a way, since there is nothing more practical than a God Who can help us when we suffer from a heart attack.)

It won't surprise you either, to learn that as was apparently true for Wright, the writings of C.S. Lewis were important in my conversion. I read none of Lewis' novels until twelve years ago, when our children were twelve and nine years old. I read 'The Chronicles of Narnia' to them and my wife as we drove to Florida and back. The first of his books was a work of fiction, although it was fiction that seemed teeming with reality, 'The Screwtape Letters,' ostensibly the letters of a senior devil to a junior tempter. Next, I read 'Mere Christianity,' still my favorite Lewis book.

Where I really identified with Wright though, was when he described his conversion to faith in Christ as being like falling in love. This is exactly how I have always described my own conversion. Jesus, the One Who loves us unconditionally, swept me off my feet.

I hadn't fully realized what happened to me [until] I had a dream one night. I don't usually remember my dreams. But this one I haven't been able to forget, although it came to me nearly thirty years ago. In it, I was walking and saw Jesus walking toward me. He approached me and wrapped His arms around me. I could even feel the fabric of His cloak. He said nothing. He simply welcomed me, like the Prodigal I was...and still sometimes can be. I woke up, smiling.

Merry Christmas: Cohen Provokes Me to Think, Part 1

Earlier today, on her blog, Ann Althouse, mentioned a piece written by writer Richard Lawrence Cohen on his blog last Christmas Eve. (Because I'm usually fairly busy that day, I must have missed it when it first appeared.) It begins:
As a Jew, a liberal, a lover of the Constitution, and a loather of Fox News, I wish to declare that the word “Christmas” does not faze, throw, offend, upset, or disconcert me in the slightest.
(Read the whole thing, as they say.)

I found the post interesting and although it was written almost a year ago, I had to send this comment:
You crack me up, man! I love the way you express yourself here.

Your tolerance blows me away.

If in bygone days, Christians were thoughtlessly imperialistic about expressions of our faith at this time of year (and some still are), today I feel that we are made to feel almost guilty about expressing our religion. Christianity is an inherently public and collegial faith. The One we call Savior has told us that, as we go through life, we should share the Good News that we believe about Him, something we believe can make a difference in everybody's life. But we aren't called to force our faith down other people's throats!

My feeling, Richard, is that you have identified an overlooked "happy medium" in this entire discussion.

Of course, there should be no established, state-sanctioned religion. I believe that not just as an American who reveres the Constitution, but as a Christian. Faith in Christ cannot be compelled by coercion. In fact, no one should be so foolish as to think it can be.

One can only come to faith by way of the gentle wooing of God through loving, Christ-filled people! (That's why a lot of the political rhetoric identified as Christian these days simply isn't and it frankly ticks me off that these bigots have taken control of the media's perceptions of Christian faith!)

No one should regard a Christian's heartfelt expressions of faith as a threat to their religious freedom.

Nor, in my estimation, are such expressions inherently insensitive. A friend of mine, an atheist, lost his wife to cancer. I conducted her funeral. Several days later, he came by to see me and we talked for awhile. As he left the house, I put my hand on his shoulder and said what I felt at that moment, "God bless you," I said. Then, wondering if I'd said the wrong thing, I told him, "I'm sorry." 'That's okay, Mark," he told me, "you can say it."

It seems to me that too many verbal firebombers on all sides of this question have been allowed to dictate the terms of debate and action. As a Christian, I don't so much chafe under it, as find reason to mourn.

Thank you for your post, Richard. As always, what you say is warm and loving and sensible.

And...God bless you, my friend.

Mark Daniels

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 1:26-38

Influenced by my friend, Tod Bolsinger, I began a new custom here at Better Living. I invite the people of the congregation I serve as pastor--and anybody else who might be interested--to look with me at the Biblical passage on which our weekend worship will be based.

Most weeks, this should be helpful to the majority of churchgoers because the Bible lesson is one of those passages appointed in the lectionaries, or Biblical lesson plans, and used by the vast majority of Christians around the world.

The Bible lesson for this week, the Third Weekend in Advent, the first season of the Church Year, is Luke 1:26-38.

A few notes about Luke:
  • Only Luke and Matthew, two of the four books known as Gospels in the New Testament section of the Bible, give accounts of the birth of Jesus. Mark and John do not have birth narratives.
  • As this Bible lesson exemplifies, Luke tells the story of Jesus' birth from the vantage point of His earthly mother, Mary. Matthew tells it from the perspective of His earthly father, Joseph.
  • Luke is at pains to put the events He recounts within the context of history, especially political history. This is also seen in what is the second volume of his history, Acts, another New Testament book; it recounts what happened after the risen Jesus ascended to heaven and continues the story of the early church through about 70 A.D.
  • Luke emphasizes the now-ness of God's presence in Jesus and later, in God's Holy Spirit. The kingdom of God is now, for example. The point is that eternity has invaded this world and put those who follow Christ into the kingdom now.
  • Luke also emphasizes the immediate accessibility of God through prayer. Jesus is portrayed as praying here more than in the other three Gospel books.
  • Luke is obviously a well-educated person. Like the rest of the New Testament, the book of Luke is written in Greek. Mark's Greek is primitive. John's language is sublime. Matthew's is more that of the scribe. But Luke even creates his own complex compound words that make utter sense.
  • Luke has the most well-known of Jesus' parables. Among them is the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.
Here are my down-and-dirty initial notes on Luke 1:26-38, with more details to follow later in the week, I hope:

v. 26: Mary's relative, Elizabeth, who is to give birth to John the Baptizer, is six months into her pregnancy, when the angel Gabriel visits Mary.

On the Church Year calendar, the birth of John the Baptizer is remembered on June 25, six months before Christmas.

It interests me that Gabriel is identified as the angel who announces to Mary that she will bear the Savior of the world. Gabriel had appeared to Daniel some five-hundred years earlier. (Check out Daniel 8:15-17; 9:21)

In the first of those two passages in Daniel, the angel had "the appearance of a man." In the latter, Gabriel showed up while Daniel was praying.

The word, angel, means messenger. Angels are not human beings, contrary to popular myth. The Bible indicates that they are separate creatures, of a lower order than human beings. It also indicates that when incarnated, they may take different forms.

v. 27: This verse establishes the strange circumstances and conditions of Mary's situation.

v. 28: Putting myself in Mary's place, I can't help but think that momentarily, she'll have reason to doubt her "favored" status and to wish that the Lord weren't so "with" her.

v. 29: What makes the greeting of Gabriel so perplexing to Mary? The notes in my Bible say, "Mary was young, poor, female---all characteristics that, to the people of the day, would make her seem unusable by God for any major task. But God chose Mary for a very important act of obedience..." Good point!

v. 30: "Do not fear" or "Be not afraid" is a fairly stereotyped manner for angels to greet people, no doubt indicating that there was something of the startling luminescence of heaven about them. Interestingly though, these are not the very first words of Gabriel to Mary. Once again though, he calls Mary, "favored."

v. 31: This is incredibly direct for so momentous an announcement! But it is precisely these sorts of matter-of-fact ways of communicating that buttess the credibility of the Bible.

v. 32: Son of the Most High is a title that conveys no descendance, but oneness. Jesus is to be the very embodiment of God. The next phrase, ascribing descendance from the great King David, conveys that the Savior Who is true God is also true human.

v. 33: The "house of Jacob" seems to denote all of Israel's children.

v. 34: Talk about perplexed!

v. 35: This will be no usual pregnancy!

v. 36: I think this is funny. As if Mary hasn't had enough perplexing news, Gabriel gives more to her!

v. 37: God can do anything!

v. 38: In spite of the seeming implausibility of it all, Mary surrenders to the will of God for her.

After this passage, the angel simply leaves. I wonder if Mary momentarily questioned if she's imagined the whole thing. Apparently not, as v. 39 indicates.

[For more on this passage, check out Brian Stoffregen's exegetical notes here.]

Okay to Make a 9/11 Film? I Think So...But by Oliver Stone?

Apparently, some are bothered by the very idea of a feature film built around the events of September 11, 2001. Blogger Ann Althouse calls the very idea "unspeakable." To be honest, it doesn't bother me.

Some say that any such project would be an instance of exploitation. But it seems to me that one might as well dismiss any effort to write history or create historical fiction as being exploitative. Our past has always been grist for dramatic presentations, going all the way back to preliterate humanity, who would tell stories about ancient ancestors and that day's hunt while sitting around the campfire at night.

What does bother me about the film being produced about 9/11 right now is that its director is to be Oliver Stone. Stone has a contemptible track record of distorting the historical events he claims to chronicle. That offends me as a student of history.

I've never seen a Stone film. But when I read excerpts from the script for JFK, I tuned him out. Anybody familiar with Jim Garrison knows that he was a headline hunter whose tenuous grasp on reality negated his every assertion about the assassination of President Kennedy.

Back in the late 1960s, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson hadn't gone completely Hollywood. (In fact, the show was still being done in New York.) Drawing on his undergraduate degree in Journalism and his natural inquisitiveness, Carson would sometimes conduct serious interviews. One night, he spent an hour-and-a-half interrogating Garrison and ended up demolishing the prosecutor's assertions about some grand conspiracy.

Stone could not be unfamiliar with that interview and the countless other ways in which Garrison's case was long ago destroyed. But he refused to allow the facts to get in the way of his movie, thereby foisting lies, on a generation of uninformed movie-goers.

If I were in charge of doling out money at a major movie studio, the only way Oliver Stone would be able to do a movie is if he showed me a script that was historically responsible and if I could view the dailies to make certain that he wasn't veering off into la-la-land.

I think that it is possible to make a responsible film about 9/11, even through the use of fictional characters. Something similar was done a lot--chronicling and fictionalizing events still vivid in people's memories or still part of their experiences--during World War Two and nobody seemed to mind.

In fact, I think that it could be useful to have such a film as a reminder to a people grown complacent about the dangers we face in the world today of the threat posed by hate-filled enemies.

But Oliver Stone is almost the last person I would pick to make such a film.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

West Coasters: See National Geographic Special on Avian Flu

If you haven't yet been convinced of the need for our federal, state, and local governments to prepare for a possible Avian Flu pandemic, watch the National Geographic special tonight at 9:00 Pacific Time. I watched the show earlier this evening here. It confirmed my conviction that we need to do much more than we have so far in anticipation of this decided and deadly possibility.

Narnia Film: A Review

As my family, friends, and I walked out of Theater #10 of our local multiplex cinema last night, through the hallway that would take us to the lobby and out the front doors, I was quiet. I frankly didn't know what to say. I was thinking too much and I was feeling too much for me to be able to identify any one thing to articulate.

I had, in fact, sat mostly in silence while watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, various reactions washing over me as its classic story, with a few alterations, unfolded.

The first time I saw the beautifully-animated Aslan emerge from his tent and noticed the breeze catch hold of his glorious golden mane, a chill overtook me, every hair on my arms seeming to stand in awed attention, and tears came to my eyes.

Smiles and laughter inevitably rose in me when characters joked about commonplace things like a husband's expanding waistline. This movie is seasoned with generous, gracious humor.

Tears came again as I watched Aslan, the great Lion, give his life on the Stone Table for the once-treacherous Edmund.

I felt the same pang of sadness registering on the faces of Tumnus and Lucy as, shortly after the latter's coronation as one of Narnia's royal persons, they watched Aslan walk away, remembering that while Aslan wasn't a tame lion, he was good.

And as I watched the movie's final scene, I found myself yearning, like Lucy and Professor Kirk, to go to Narnia, not for Narnia itself, but for the chance that I too might encounter Aslan, the beautifully-wrought version of Christ created by writer C.S. Lewis in the seven books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia.

It's a yearning that fairly approximates the intense, soul-deep desire that literally haunts me every day of my life that I may one day see my Savior Jesus face-to-face, although like the characters in Lewis' wonderful books, I know that when I do finally gaze at Jesus, I'll feel overwhelming fear as well as overwhelming love until the moment I hear Him say to me, "Peace" and a pure love, unlike anything I've yet experienced in this life, will flood my being.

While those who brought The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to the screen have made a number of changes in the telling of the story, none of its substance has been altered. (If you would like a more literal dramatic adaptation of the books, I advise listening to these CDs, to which I've listened many times. But of course, nothing can replace reading the original books by Lewis who, a professor of English at Ohio State once told me, wrote "like an angel.")

One of the most interesting additions the film makes to the story is its prelude, showing us something of the lives of the four English children who are the book's main characters just prior to their being sent to the country to avoid the German aerial bombardments of World War Two London. Later, in a Medieval-like battle scene, Peter, the oldest of the four children, soon to be enthroned High King of Narnia, uses talking birds to drop stones on his charging enemies, looking like the bombers we saw pictured at the movie's beginning.

The film though, is true to the book. It remains, in the hands of the filmmakers, a story of good versus evil; of redemption; of the importance for people of action to rely on Someone greater than themselves; and of unexpected, undeserved, unmatched, inexplicable grace.

The film is, in short, a moving adaptation of one of the greatest works in literature. I don't throw around superlative accolades, but I believe that it's destined to be regarded as a classic.

Even now words fail me in describing this film, though. Let me tell you instead what happened in that hallway as we left the theater. Several of our group and others around us were sharing their reactions to the film, when my wife turned to me and asked, "Well, Mark, what did you think?"

I tried to speak. But to my surprise, I began to weep. I was embarrassed, but the tears kept coming. Finally, all I could say, almost in a whisper, was, "It's beautiful. It's just so beautiful."

Overcoming Evil Through Christ

(This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church during worship celebrations on December 10 and 11, 2005.)

First Thessalonians 5:16-24

We’re in a season when, twenty-four hours a day, we can turn on our radios or visit a store and be certain to hear songs like, Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, or It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, or The Christmas Song (you know, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."), or even, Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.

Everywhere you look, you see lights and tinsel and elaborate displays. The other night, our son and I went to Chipotle's for dinner and saw one of those big inflated Christmas displays: Santa in sunglasses on a motor scooter underneath a Palm tree.

Television commercials tell us just how happy we and our loved ones will be when we buy that new car or video game or iPod or diamond ring. (Thankfully, this year I, have so far, at least, been spared seeing commercials for the Chia Pet or the Clapper!)

The point is that this is a time of year when everybody’s supposed to be happy. But we all know that, perhaps because of the disconnect between our culture’s expecations and the realities of our lives, many people become depressed. The suicide rate actually goes up.

Frankly, there are rational reasons for us to be somewhat sober at this or any other time of year. Charlie Lehardy is a Bible translator, a fine writer, and a guy I met at the GodBlogCon gathering I attended in October. He began a post on his blog in this way the other day:
I read these items in the morning newspaper: A woman testified that she had been tortured by members of Saddam Hussein's regime, because they considered her an enemy of the state;

A young mother is suspected of murdering her 3-month-old son by putting him inside a running clothes dryer;

A couple has been charged with keeping several adopted children in chicken-wire cages;

Defenseless female refugees are still being attacked and raped by gangs of Arab men, the Janjaweed, in Darfur, Sudan, despite worldwide condemnation, much finger-wagging, and the use of the word "genocide" by the US State Department.
One big reason we find it difficult to buy into the “get happy” mandates of today’s secular culture is because evil is real. This fact may be even harder for believers in Jesus to accept than it is for other people.

After all, we believe in an all-powerful and completely-loving God, the sort of God Who would come into our world on the first Christmas as a baby in order to grow to be the Savior Who died on a cross and then rose so that all who believe in Him may live with God forever.

We also believe that one day, Jesus will return to the world and make all things right.

How do we, who have placed our lives, bet our every breaths, including the last ones we draw on earth, on Jesus Christ, deal with the reality of evil?

The people of the first-century church in the Roman colony of Thessalonica wondered the same thing. For them, evil was a present, personal, painful reality.

You see, Thessalonica was a city that from the first, believed in sucking up to the rich and the powerful. Sycophancy was a long-standing tradition there. The city was founded by one of Alexander the Great's generals, who named the place for Alexander's sister. (Talk about sucking up!)

After Alexander died, his generals couldn't agree on who should be in charge and eventually, with the willing acquiescence of Thessalonica's citizens, it came to be part of the Roman Empire.

When that happened, the Thessalonians went to work buttering up the Roman emperor, Augustus, treating him as though he were more than just a king. The emperor fell for it, too. When the Romans decided to build the ancient equivalent of a new Interstate highway connecting Rome to its eastern colonies, the route chosen went right through Thessalonica, making it one of the major trading centers of the Empire.

The leading citizens of the city bought the fictions of Roman ideology without question. They saw the emperor as being a king of godlike attributes. They hailed the "peace and security" that Rome gave them. (The famous Pax Romana that we learned about as schoolkids, an imposed and ruthless peace and stability not unlike what Saddam Hussein gave to Iraq.)

Most of the people of Thessalonica were so loyal to the Roman Empire that they viewed these Christians, who called Jesus "the King of kings" and the only true guarantor of peace and security, as a threat to everything in which they believed. And so, the Thessalonian Christians were subjected to all sorts of persecution, to both the threat and the reality of death, to economic pressures, and to beatings.

When we human beings face evil, we have several impulses that, if we’re to be true to Christ, we must resist.

One is to seek revenge. Like Jesus though, we’re called to seek justice for others and for our communities or nations, perhaps, but not just for ourselves. Hard as it is, we’re called to turn the other cheek.

We’re called to remember that vengeance is God’s prerogative, not ours.

U2 addresses this in a song called Peace on Earth that contains some of the urgency for the intervention of Jesus Christ today that the Thessalonian Christians must have felt back in the first century:
They say that what you mock/ Will surely overtake you/ And you become a monster/So the monster will not break you
The temptation for us when we confront monstrous acts of evil is to lash out at it, becoming monsters ourselves. Jesus died and rose for us not so that we would become monsters though, but to make us more like Him.

That’s why Paul writes in another place:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...(Philippians 2:5-7)
Another impulse we have when evil befalls us is to take action. We want to institute a program, get busy. Busy-ness has its place, of course. Christianity isn’t a sit-on-your-duff-and-soak-up-the-karma sort of religion. But it is a religion that waits on God, seeks God’s direction, and confidently looks for God to show us the way, so that we’ll know what our parts should be.

The Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, writes that, "those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31).

This weekend, the film based on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe debuted. In the classic book, I have always been interested in one scene. Edmund, one of the four youngsters who has gone to that other world where the land of Narnia exists, has turned up missing. He has in fact, defected from his siblings, and gone to be with an evil witch named Jadis.

Immediately, his three siblings want to form search parties. They want action! But the creatures with whom they’ve just made this discovery say that would be unwise. First, they say, they must go to Aslan, the Christ-like figure in the book. He will help them recover their lost brother from the evil all around them.

Without Christ informing and empowering our actions, we’re like one of those Rube Goldberg machines: lots of movement, but no results.

Of course, Christians must fight evil. That’s why historically, believers in Christ were the first to start hospitals, why Christians opened orphanages and were among the first to open compassionate treatment centers of alcoholics, why Christians started Alcoholics Anonymous, why they worked against slavery, why they fought for equal rights for women, and why they were in the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. The Christian faith has a strong tradition of fighting evil and of advocating for social justice. But all of these laudable actions were preceded by seasons of prayerful and sometimes painful waiting. First came prayer, then action.

To help the Thessalonians cope with the evil around them and to prepare for Christ’s intervention in their lives, Paul gives the Thessalonian church--and us--two sets of three imperatives on how best to await Christ’s coming to us.

The first set is short and sweet:
  • Rejoice always;
  • pray without ceasing; and
  • give thanks in--not for--all circumstances.
If there’s one phrase I would use to describe this set of imperatives, it would be, “Hang in there with God!”

George Mueller was a pastor and social reformer in an evil time. Victorian England, back in the 19th.-century, was a place where the poor were treated like cattle. If you were indebted and couldn’t pay your bills, you were thrown into prison. Disease and alcoholism and abandoned children were everywhere.

After his conversion to Christian faith at the age of twenty, Mueller became a pastor and moved to the city of Bristol. The small church he pastored grew over the course of his lifetime and starting with just a few pennies, he founded an orphanage for which, before his death, he had raised the equivalent of about $7.5-million.

Mueller was a hard working person of action, but he was also a man of prayer. Everything he did was built on the foundation of having waited for God's green lights after seasons of prayer.

This past week, I read excerpts from his diaries. In November, 1844, they record, he began praying that five different young men, children of friends, would come to faith in Christ. He prayed for them every single day, no matter where he was and no matter how he felt.

Eighteen months after he began, one of them came to faith. He thanked God and kept praying for the other four.

Five years later, the second one came to faith. Mueller thanked God and prayed for the other three.

Six years later, the third one came to faith.

One year after he died, fifty-three years after Mueller began praying for them daily, the last two surrendered to Christ.

Hang in there, Paul says!

The person who hangs in there with Christ is doing more damage to evil than anybody else can. You are, in that wonderful phrase of Canadian rocker Bruce Cockburn, kicking at “the darkness until it bleeds daylight”! (Isn't that a great image?)

Then, Paul presents another set of three imperatives:
  • Don’t “quench” God’s Spirit (In other words, don't let the inspiring flames of faith go out in your soul.);
  • don’t despise the words of the prophets, but test everything people say comes from God against what you know about God from the Bible (Ronald Reagan said that his principle in negotiating nuclear arms reduction with Mikhail Gorbachev was "trust, but verify." Paul is saying here, "Trust that people may have words from God to speak to us. But always verify the truth of those words by checking them against what you know about God from the Bible.);
  • and let go of evil, hold onto good.
I believe that this set of injunctions, can be summarized like this: Let God into your life, every part of it. God may be dealing with evil without your even knowing it as you live out this life style.

In fact, isn’t that how God has always dealt with evil? Millions of people were on this planet when Jesus was born in a Bethlehem manger two-thousand years ago. They had no idea that God had taken on flesh and was moving resolutely toward a cross and a resurrection where He would completely destroy the power of evil to keep us from knowing God or living with Him in eternity. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is giv’n,” the Christmas song tells us. But a few did see what was God doing in Jesus.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah listened for the voice of God in things like thunderstorms and earthquakes. But finally, he heard God in whisper to his soul, speaking in "a still, small voice." If Elijah hadn't been paying attention to God, inviting Him into his every moment, he might have missed God's powerful whispers.

While most of the world fails to see God's activity in the world, those who look for Him with the eyes of faith can't fail to see Him.

And whoever lets Jesus into their lives, find themselves, their ability to hope, and their capacity to cope, transformed.

As we move toward Christmas, 2005, we don’t have to accept the world’s shallow definitions of happiness.

We can embrace the joy that belongs to Jesus-Followers no matter what.

And we don’t have to be overwhelmed by evil. We can hang in there with God and allow God to have complete access to our lives.

This Christmas, let’s take our marching orders from God: Let’s stick with Christ in our living, praying, and thinking, and let's allow Christ access to every single part of our lives!

I believe that when we stand with Christ in these ways, the wintry evils of the world begin to melt and the freshness of a new spring begins to dawn on us and on our world.