Saturday, January 07, 2006

Shame: Microsoft Acquiesces to Chinese Regime's Demand and Shuts Down Dissident Blogger

The Chinese government remains one of the most repressive in the world.

Simultaneously, it is:
  • increasing the size of its military to alarming levels;
  • using its vast population, willing to work for low wages, to cripple the United States and other countries with vast trade deficits;
  • cannibalizing the technological and entertainment intellectual property rights of the West; and leveraging its size to get vast amounts of property and stakes in the businesses of this and other countries.
Repressive regimes love to export their totalitarianism and the government of China gives every indication of wanting to do that throughout Asia and the Pacific Basin.

Meanwhile, the United States is blithely underwriting the Chinese government's steady movement in this direction, thereby giving aid and comfort to the greatest threat to democracy and to the United States in the world today. The threat posed by terrorists like Osama bin Laden pales by comparison with the damage an increasingly powerful and unrepentantly repressive regime like that in Beijing is likely to bring to freedom and to America.

Many American corporations, dazzled by the huge Chinese market, are increasingly dancing to the tune played by the government there, going along with the government's repression of its people.

The latest example of American corporate acquiescence to totalitarianism is the decision by Microsoft to shut down the blog site of a Chinese dissident. Microsoft defends their action, saying they have an obligation to obey the laws of the countries in which they operate. Maybe so. But they have no obligation to operate in those countries!

Corporations, especially ones the size of Microsoft, overlook the leverage they have over a Chinese regime anxious to placate the masses so desperate that they're willing to give up freedom in exchange for a higher financial standard of living.

It seems to me that if these corporations refuse to do their duty to America and to the cause of freedom by taking a pass on being agents of Chinese repression, then the US government ought to force them to act responsibly.

British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, the "peace in our times" guy who acquiesced to Hitler's demands for territory, is often seen as a failed and naive peacenik. In fact, Chamberlain was acting on the basis of no utopian vision, but to what he thought was sound business principles. He wanted to do what he could to avoid a confrontation so that the businesses of Europe could keep humming along, people's freedom be hanged. Clearly, Microsoft has adopted the same shortsighted Chamberlain-attitude about the regime in China. I hope that our government hasn't done the same thing!

[Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for mentioning this story.

Watch Out for Arrogance! (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 21)

Matthew 18
[I've been taking far too long to complete this series. The premise is simple: To look at Jesus with "fresh eyes," using Eugene Peterson's The Message paraphrase to do so. The link above is to the New Revised Standard Version translation.]

Seventeen years ago, my wife and the people of my former parish pulled off a surprise birthday party for me. It consisted of a "roast," during which my friend Ron Claussen told us about a conversation that supposedly happened between a member of our congregation and me. Ron reported that I asked the woman, "How many really great people do you think there are in the world today?" The woman replied, "Probably one fewer than you think there are."

From little kids on playgrounds to grown-up heads of government, we human beings care about who's best, biggest, strongest, richest, most influential, and greatest. It's been that way since Adam and Eve allowed themselves to fall into sin by believing the serpent who told them that they could "be like God."

As Matthew 18 begins (Matthew 18:1-11), Jesus' key disciples ask Him, "Who gets the highest rank in heaven?"

Jesus gives them an object lesson in response. He places a child among them and says, "...unless you return to square one and start over like children, you're not even going to get a good look at the kingdom, let alone get in."

I love Peterson's rendering of this passage because I think it gets at the true essence of what Jesus told the disciples. Most of our English translations, perfectly fine and faithful to Jesus' words, can unintentionally take us down the worm hole of sentimentality if we're not careful.

Most of those translations, like the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) will tell us things like, "unless you change and become like this child..." That's fine except that we have such idealized stereotypes of children. We tend to buy into the notion that children are selfless innocents, sinless tabula rasas on which a nasty world has written things like selfishness.

Not true! Anyone who's ever had a child knows that kids come fully equipped with self-will, with an almost feverish intent to get their own ways. We are born in the condition of sin sin (Psalm 51). It's this condition, one of enmity to God and to others, that leads us to commit sins. As I often tell people, "Plumbers plumb. Teachers teach. Sinners sin."

Jesus isn't idealizing children here. He's saying that if we're going to learn about following Him into His Kingdom, we need to start fresh. We need to be pliant and teachable. We need to be as trusting as kids tend to be unless, as Erik Erikson taught us, an early experience has made trust difficult for them.

A child is also powerless. No matter how willful children may be, they know that they're surrounded by people who are bigger than them. They live in a state of enforced humilty, so to speak. Jesus says that way before we get to any questions about who's going to be great in God's Kingdom, we should be concerned about getting into it in the first place. And the only ones who will get in, He says, are the humble.

To me, being humble means several things:
  • Acknowledging that God is God and I'm not.
  • Acknowledging that while my sinful condition make me unacceptable to God, I can entrust myself to Christ and not only will God begin to transform me from the insider out, He'll also welcome me into the Kingdom.
  • Putting Christ first and learning to be a servant of God and neighbor.
This latter point should not be seen as odious! When we know that we have God's stamp of approval through Christ, God frees us from the anxiety that lays behind our concerns over who is best, biggest, strongest, richest, most influential, or greatest.
  • Jesus frees us from anxiety.
  • Jesus frees us to be our best selves.
  • Jesus frees us to love God and others, no matter what the risks.
  • Jesus frees us to fight injustice against others.
  • And He does all this by promising us a forever future with God.
In Matthew 18:8-10, Jesus tells us to recognize how precious the free gifts He offers to those with faith in Him really are. We need to be willing to flush anything that obstructs our relationship with God. Why? Because through that relationship, we get life. To cut ourselves off from God is to commit suicide.

Jesus also warns us to do nothing that will prevent others from enjoying a relationship with God. This is a sobering warning, I think.

In Matthew 18:12-14, Jesus discusses just how valuable every person is in His eyes and how important it is for those of us who are God's emissaries in the world--that's every Christ-Follower according to First Peter 2:9-10 and Second Corinthians 5:18-20--to make every effort to share Him with others. Jesus here is talking about the need to reach "simple believers": folks who believe but perhaps because of the misbehavior, inattention, or arrogance of other believers have wandered away from Him and the fellowship of His Church.

This leads naturally enough to a famous passage of Scripture, Matthew 18:15-20, where Jesus gives a template for conflict resolution among believers. I say "naturally enough" because often believers stray from the fellowship of other Christians precisely because of unresolved conflicts.

The focus of Jesus' method of conflict resolution is to not tell others when we have a beef with someone, but to discuss things directly with those with whom we have our conflicts. Accountability is also built into the process. The result toward which Jesus' process leads is mutual forgiveness--the Greek New Testament word is aphieme, meaning release.

After hearing this story, the disciples, led by Peter, are looking for loopholes that will get them out of this forgiving stuff. I love the way Peterson renders what comes next. At the beginning of the next section, "Peter got up the nerve to ask, 'Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister [here Peter is talking about a fellow Christ-Follower] who hurts me? Seven?'"

Peter probably thought that he was being magnanimous here. Many first-century Judean rabbis taught that believers needn't forgive others more than seven times, seven being thought of as "the perfect number."

But Jesus tells him, "Try seventy times seven." Jesus doesn't mean we're to cut off forgiving at 490. He's trying to show that believers who have been graciously forgiven by God should be as lavish in their forgiveness of others.

It's here that Jesus tells one of His most powerful parables, one that I won't obstruct by getting interpreting it here. Like all great stories, it stands on its own without needing a preacher to get in your way.

As a believer in Christ, I am a recovering sinner. Arrogance is still bred in my bone. But thank God that through Christ, I have forgiveness and I'm beginning to learn what it means to follow Him.

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study: Links to All 24 Parts

[Here are links to all the installments of 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
Part 16
Part 17
Part 18
Part 19
Part 20
Part 21
Part 22
Part 23
Part 24]

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 24

We're heading toward the finish line of our look at Genesis. Over the long months that these posts have appeared, I've heard from people, both within and outside the congregation I serve as pastor, that they've found them helpful. At least one person sent an email to inform me that they have formed the basis of a study of Genesis at another church.

Starting this coming Tuesday, I'll be leading a new session of studies at Friendship, this one based on the New Testament book of Acts. So, as has been true with our study of Genesis, I hope to post notes on our look at that book here, too.

Genesis 46: 1-27: Throughout the Old Testament, you find these counts of different kinds. Quite frankly, while there are gems of insight that Biblical scholars sometimes find imbedded within them, they make my eyes glaze over. An accounting of the families of Jacob's sons comprises most of this chapter.

Genesis 46:28-34: (1) The reunion with Jacob is told with surprising economy, although it does say that Joseph "wept on his [father's] neck a good while."

(2) But, ever the planner, Joseph almost immediately tells Jacob and the others about how he will present them to Pharaoh.

The Egyptians, as was true of New Testament Judeans, regarded shepherds as low-lifes. They had almost no interest in shepherding. So, while the Pharaoh would have likely disdained Jacob's family, he wouldn't have regarded them as a threat. He might have said something like: "They want pastures for their flocks? That's no big deal. Nobody else wants pastureland anyway."

Genesis 47:1-6: The tale of Joseph and his family falling on their feet continues here as Pharaoh tells Joseph to put Jacob and family in charge of his own personal livestock.

Genesis 47:7-12: The conversation between Jacob and the Pharaoh is interesting for several reasons.

First: The Pharaoh seems almost deferential to Jacob.

Second: Jacob is almost comical. (He reminds me of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.) He says that his life has been "long and hard" and then says that his 130-year lifespan to that point is nothing compared to how long his ancestors had lived. Like Tevye, Jacob seems to glory in being a patriarch of God's chosen people, but may sometimes wish that God would choose someone else.

Third: Most amazing of all, perhaps, is that at the conclusion of their interview, Jacob blesses the Pharaoh. Keep in mind that the Pharaoh was regarded as a deity by the Egyptians, another key element in the story of the deliverance of the Hebrews from an Egyptian Pharaoah some 430-years later, as recounted in the book of Exodus. Yet Jacob blesses the Pharaoh here. In doing so, there is an implict expression of the superiority of the God of the Hebrews, the God of all creation.

Genesis 47:13-26: Joseph's policies are portrayed as shrewd and wise, although in our modern eyes they might be regarded as unkind or exploitative. In effect, he extends the power of the Pharaoh by forcing the hungry masses to sign over their land and belongings to him.

He also establishes a 20% tax rate for everybody but the priests, who are tax-free. These are not Hebrew priests, of course, but the priests who oversee the religious life of Egypt.

One class participant, after we'd talked about the tax-free status of the Egyptian priests, looked at me with a smile and said, "I'll bet you wish we had a similar policy." I laughed, but I really don't wish that we had such a policy in America today. In fact, I think that churches ought to pay taxes. But that's a topic for another post. As for we modern "priests," most US clergy--yours truly included--are in a weird tax category: The IRS considers us to be employees of our churches or agencies; Social Security considers us self-employed. It makes for an interesting tax return each year.

Back to Joseph: In this part of his saga, we see exemplified a classic historical truth. In times of crises, whether involving war, economics, public health, or perceived danger, the power of governments tend to increase. That was certainly true of Pharaoh's power in the face of Egypt's seven-year famine.

Genesis 47:27-48:22: This is the beginning of Jacob's long goodbye. As he prepares to die, he especially blesses Joseph and his two sons. Interestingly, he deliberately blesses the younger of the two, thus continuing a family tradition of violating the traditions of Hebrew culture.

Genesis 49:1-27: This is often referred to as Jacob's Blessing. But in fact, as commentator Gerhard von Rad and others point out, Jacob blesses some, recites aphorisms about others, and condemns others. In this mishmash, Jacob discusses not only what will happen or has happened in the lives of his individual sons, but also presages what will happen in their descendant tribes.

Judah is the son/tribe that comes off "smelling like a rose." Judah would emerge as the most important of the tribes and the land from which the nation of Judea, following the split of God's people into two kingdoms, would come. From Judea came the Savior Jesus.

Genesis 49:28-50:14: Jacob is given, in effect, a state funeral by the Egyptians. He is accorded astounding honors!

Genesis 50:15-21: The shame and paranoia felt by Joseph's brothers displays itself again after their father's death. They concoct the obvious fiction that the dead and honored Jacob had told them to tell Joseph not to harm them in retribution for their selling him into slavery many decades before. Joseph sees through the subterfuge and is deeply moved by his brothers' shame. (And perhaps, by their inability to flush the family penchant for scheming.) He weeps and then tells them, in one of the most poignant passages in all of Scripture:
"Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as He is doing today."
Joseph had long ago learned the lesson that even when we are sinned against, God is the primarily offended party. He also learned that God can take even the rotten situations in our lives and, if we will submit ourselves to Him, bring good out of them.

Genesis 50:22-26: Though nearly the youngest, Joseph dies before his brothers. One may speculate as to whether the hardships he endured contributed to his early demise. But I think the key thing to remember is that the goodness of a life isn't measured by its length, but by the extent to which a we allow God to direct our paths. In this, I have a lot of surrendering to do.

Friday, January 06, 2006

"I thanked God for this country."


Happy Epiphany!

January 6 is the oft-overlooked Epiphany.

On the calendar of the Church Year, this is the day set aside to celebrate the arrival of the wise men (magi) from the East, who brought gifts of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh," hailing Jesus as the world's Savior.

Historically, Epiphany was the day on which many Christians exchanged gifts, something we've now pushed back to Christmas Day on December 25. (Friends of ours, when their children were small, were visited by Father Christmas on the night before Epiphany. He brought gifts for the children that night, which they opened on the morning of January 6. It always struck me that Father Christmas was shrewder than the red-coated guy with the fat belly. Unlike Santa Claus, Father Christmas apparently took advantage of the after-Christmas sales for these gifts opened by the children on Epiphany morning!)

The word epiphany is a transliteration of a word appearing in the original Greek of the New Testament. Epiphane means to shine upon. (To transliterate a word means to take it over into a new language, largely unchanged, maintaining the same meaning.)

On the first Epiphany, a star shone upon the place where the Christ Child was living, guiding the magi to Him. Matthew is the only one of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection to recount this event.

It's interesting to note that the first Epiphany occurred some time after the first Christmas, in spite of our penchant for collapsing the two events into one crowded night at a Bethlehem barn. According to Matthew, after Jesus' birth, Joseph and Mary and the baby took up residence in Bethlehem for awhile. Matthew tells us that the wise men found the child not in a barn, but living, along with his parents, in a house.

Another indication that some time passed between Jesus' birth and the events of the first Epiphany is the order given by Herod after the wise men revealed the nature of their mission in Judea. He ordered the killing of all males two years of age and younger. (You can read Matthew's account of the first Epiphany here.) It was apparently thought that the birth could have happened that much earlier than the day when he personally spoke with the visiting magi.

On the church calendar, Epiphany comes at the end of the traditional, Twelve Days of Christmas. As the song of the same name reminds us, there was another tradition, particularly among Christians in the British Isles, of giving small gifts throughout this twelve-day period. (With five gold rings being an apparent favorite. I'm kidding.)

January 6 kicks off an entire season of the Church Year known as Epiphany. It runs until the beginning of the Lenten season. During Epiphany, the Gospel lessons recount the early manifestations of Jesus as God-in-the-flesh. In other words, they look at key moments when Jesus was shown to be "the Light of the world." Through Jesus, the pure, undefiled Light of God shines on the human race.

The Sundays that fall within the Epiphany Season are bracketed by two events in which the light of heaven shines in particularly notable ways:
  • This coming Sunday--and Saturday for those of us who have worship on that evening as well--the Gospel lesson will be about the Baptism of Our Lord. (This year, Mark 1:4-11, will be the account read in most churches. By the way, as Pastor Brian Stoffregen points out, while there are only two accounts of Jesus' birth and its attendant events--like the first Epiphany--in the New Testament, there are six accounts of His baptism.)
  • On the last Sunday of the Epiphany Season, we will celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord. This remembers the time when Jesus, accompanied by His key disciples, Peter, James, and John, went up on a mountain and was transfigured before them, His appearance being dazzlingly pure, and Jesus was seen speaking with two Old Testament figures from centuries before, Moses and Elijah.
Epiphany is a great set-up for the Lenten Season. Lent, a time of spiritual renewal and preparation for Easter, ends with Good Friday and Holy Saturday, commemorations that remember, respectively, the day on which Jesus was killed and the one on which He lay dead in a Jerusalem tomb before rising on Easter Sunday morning. Epiphany explains why the world spurned and killed Jesus. We human beings are presumptuous, you know. Adam and Eve were lured into sin because they wanted to "be like God." Jesus wasn't killed because people didn't know He was God; He was killed precisely because humanity knew He was God and we human beings had a chance to bump off the competition, freeing us from the obligation to love God or love neighbor.

The events recounted in the Gospel lessons of the Epiphany Season make clear the legitimacy of Jesus' claim to be God, the very claim that caused the religious leaders of first-century Judea, the political leadership of the Roman Empire, represented by the governor, Pontius Pilate, and the masses from throughout the Mediterranean Basin gathered in Jerusalem on that fateful Passover weekend to want Him dead.

C.S. Lewis says that in the manifestations of His God-ness and the claims of Deity that Jesus makes about Himself, we are left with three choices:
  • We may decide that He's a liar.
  • We may conclude that He's a madman.
  • We may decide that He's telling the truth.
Epiphany presses us to accept the third choice. If that's the case, then we have little alternative but to join Thomas, the disciple who doubted Jesus, and fall down before Jesus and worship Him as our "Lord and God."

Happy Epiphany!

[I mean for this piece to be a companion to the first two "passes" at considering this weekend's Bible lesson at our congregation. You can find them here and here.]

Cleaning Up After Pat Robertson...Again

Pat Robertson is at it again. A news account says:
The Reverend Pat Robertson says Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke could be God's punishment for giving up Israeli territory.

The founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network told viewers of "The 700 Club" that Sharon was "dividing God's land," even though the Bible says doing so invites "God's enmity."

Robertson added, "I would say woe to any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course."

He noted that former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Robertson said God's message is, "This land belongs to me. You'd better leave it alone."
Sometimes, as a Christian leader and writer, after Pat Robertson makes a public statement, I feel like the guy following the elephants with a scooper. His latest spew requires some more scooping. So, here goes:

First: You must understand that Pat operates from a notion that modern Israel is the heir of historic Israel. Most Christians, myself included, think that's whacked. In the Christian view, historic Israel fulfilled its critical role in history--to be a light to the nations--in the Person of Jesus Christ. The first believers in Christ, Jews themselves, even called the Church, "the new Israel."

Israel has a right to exist among the family of nations. But the greatest leaders of modern Israel, starting with David Ben-Gurion himself, have not seen a direct line between historic and modern Israel.

Second: Robertson is one of those who believes that it's possible to somehow force God's hand, bringing about the return of Jesus by provoking a war in the Middle East. His support for the modern state of Israel, then, is rooted in no love for Israel, but in his notion that such a war is a necessary prelude to Jesus' return.

This belief is sick at several levels:
(1) For a Christian, it subordinates God's sovereignty to our machinations. Apparently, Mr. Robertson has forgotten one of the petitions of the Lord's Prayer: "Your will be done."

Jesus said during His time on earth that all of the conditions for His return had been met and that only God the Father would call the shots on the timing.

(2) Robertson's views make an entire nation--Israel--a mere toy in the hands of a selfish and manipulative group of "Christians." He would prevent peace in the Middle East in order to advance his wrong-headed interpretation of the New Testament.
Third: Robertson claims that God is telling modern Israel that, "This land belongs to me. You'd better leave it alone.”

Actually, the Bible says that the whole earth is the Lord's, not just pieces of it. I find no evidence to indicate that God minds at all people voluntarily ceding territory in order to gain peace. I rather think that the God Who prompts us to share and sacrifice--you might want to check out the Sermon on the Mount, Pat--would take a positive view of these efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.

Cleaning up after Pat can sometimes feel like a full-time job!

[I first saw this story here.]

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Second Pass at This Week's Bible Lesson: Mark 1:4-11

Continuing to consider the Bible lesson for this weekend's worship celebrations, there are two issues I want to briefly address regarding Mark 1:4-11:
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
(1) Why is Jesus baptized? After all, we're told that John's baptism at the Jordan was for the repentance and the forgiveness of sin. But Jesus was sinless.

Mark, in his typically clipped fashion, doesn't do much in the way of explanation or interpretation and as I explained in my first pass at this text. His account of Jesus' baptism certainly conforms to his usual pattern.

In Matthew's telling, John at first refuses to baptize Jesus:
"I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" But Jesus answered, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." (Matthew 3:14-15)
In other words, being baptized in a baptism of repentance was part of Jesus' solidarity with the human race, something most fully expressed when He bore the twin curses of our sin and our death, the common fate of humanity, on the cross.

This solidarity with us is an essential element of Jesus' mission in the world. Only a representative of the human race could bear our rightful punishment for sin. But only a sinless Savior could rightly escape eternal imprisonment to rise from death and liberate all who entrust their lives to Him.

Jesus' solidarity with us is well expressed in the Bible lesson for last Sunday, Philippians 2:5-11. (See here and here.) The New Testament book of Hebrews alludes to this same theme when it says:
Because He Himself was tested by what He suffered, He is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:18)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have One Who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
I believe that the conversation at the Jordan between John and Jesus, as recorded by Matthew, explains why Jesus was baptized. But why does Mark leave it out?

Don't let the brevity of Mark or his use of an almost primitive Greek fool you. There is method to his narrative style. He begins his breathlessly-rendered Gospel with an incomplete sentence and if the scholars are to be believed, ends it without an actual resurrection appearance--only a fearful reaction to the announcement of His resurrection--at Mark 16:8.

The point? Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are only "the beginning of the Gospel" (Mark 1:1), the Gospel being the good news of God working to bring new life and the forgiveness of sin to all who believe in Jesus Christ. Mark would say, I think, that the risen and living Christ is still in business, still available to all willing to dare surrendering to Him. And, He seems to be saying, life in Christ is an open-ended business. There's no telling what might happen in the life of a person who follows Christ. But it will be an eternal adventure!

But, by ending His Gospel account at Mark 16:8, Mark seems to be saying, "God isn't going to show you everything right now. You need to trust and follow!"

Perhaps the absence of detail in Mark's Gospel then, has nothing to do with a lot of the reasons usually cited by scholars (i.e., he didn't have access to as much of the alleged Q-document or other "source materials"; or, he wrote at a time closer to the events he describes, yada, yada, yada). Maybe Mark's telling was the result of a deliberate decision by a narrator to give the reader sufficient information to demand a verdict about Who Jesus is, but not so much as to take away the crucial element of trusting faith. Maybe he wanted his readers to experience "the beginning of the Gospel" in precisely the same way as those who first encountered Jesus.

I'm grateful for the details provided us by the other Gospel writers. But in declining to include explanations of things like why Jesus was baptized, Mark is prompting us to focus not on what we don't know, but on what we do know. Someone has said that Mark's Gospel is little more than "an extended passion narrative." Mark is most interested in telling us about Jesus' suffering and death, His act of solidarity with us which led to His resurrection, the source of our hope as Christians. For Mark, everything else is pretty much unimportant.

(2) The translation of the opening of the heavens as "being torn about" is a good, literal rendering of the Greek. As Pastor Brian Stoffregen points out in his interesting exploration of this passage (see here and here), when something is torn, it's ruptured. He quotes Lutheran scholar Donald Juel, in the latter's book, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted:
The importance of an accurate rending of the Greek is difficult to overestimate. The image in Mark is strong, even violent, and the moment that is noted, the imagination begins to work. If the heavens are opened, then they may well close again. If they are torn apart, however, then we may think of some permanent damage or rupture that cannot be repaired. Further, those who know Mark at all think immediately of the tearing of the temple curtain at the moment of Jesus' death: And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom (15:38; the verb is the same, eschisthe). The images form an inclusio: A pattern that begins here at Jesus" baptism ends with his death.

... When the heavens are torn, the Spirit enters Jesus and a heavenly voice addresses him as "son." At the moment of his death, he "breathed out his spirit" (15:37, au. trans.); the temple curtain tears; and a centurion -- not God -- makes a declaration about Jesus' sonship. [p. 34]

... Viewed from another perspective, the image may suggest that the protecting barriers are gone and that God, unwilling to be confined to sacred spaces, is on the loose in our own realm. If characters in the story find Jesus" ministry threatening, then they may have good reason.

The imagery has enormous power to shape imagination and to open readers to the story. That is, Mark's narrative is about the intrusion of God into a world that has become alien territory -- an intrusion that means both death and life.
Great stuff!

I'm likely to have one more (and brief) post on this text tomorrow, if I can get to it.

(Here's a link to the first pass at this passage.)

Federal Money Shouldn't Be Used to Rebuild New Orleans on Same Site

[The following represents my opinion only. I'm not speaking in my official capacity as a pastor.]

One of the running jokes in our household has to do with a geology class my wife took back when we were both students at The Ohio State University.

Geology 100. First minute of the first class session. The professor began, "If you get nothing else out of this class, I hope it's this: Never build your house on a flood plain."

It's good advice, right up there with such gems as, "You don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind."

My guess is that a corollary to that geology prof's proverb would be, "Never build your house near water, below sea level."

Of course, we live in America. Because of that, I support the Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom to be unwise. That is, until your lack of wisdom has an effect on others. It isn't fair to ask the larger society to pay the price for people's mistaken judgments!
  • Go ahead and smoke your lungs out. Just don't subject others to your second-hand smoke.
  • Ride your Harleys down the highway without a helmet. But don't expect that your health insurance or the public health system will pay for injuries you sustain as a result of that decision.
  • And, go on and build your house or your business in New Orleans. Don't ask the federal government to underwrite loans you want to get to rebuild your flood-lost businesses and homes or for new developments. Don't expect a federal statute mandating insurers to cover your unwise choices.
Yet, there are proposals to use federal dollars to rebuild businesses and houses in precisely the same spot of old New Orleans. This one, proposed by a conservative Republican lawmaker from Louisiana, apparently is gaining support from the Washington GOP.

If the good people of New Orleans and Louisiana want to use local and state tax revenues and regulatory authority to try to rebuild their city in the same location as before, well and good. That's their right. But is it fair to the rest of us to be forced to enable their unwise course of action?

[For more, see here, here, and here.]

Barry and I Were Right

I peeled off my Gortex jacket, exposing my screaming-scarlet Ohio State sweatshirt just as our waiter began to introduce himself to us. My wife and I were settling into our booth at Tadich's Restaurant in San Francisco with our Bay-area friends, Rob and Marie.

"My name is Barry," the waiter began, when he spied my sweatshirt and stopped. "All right, Buckeyes! You and I are going get along just fine!" He gave me a high-five.

Each time Barry came back to our table, we learned a little more of his story. He grew up in the Cincinnati area and landed in California. But he was still a big Buckeyes fan. "I wanted to go to the Fiesta Bowl," he told us, referring to the game of several days ago in which Ohio State ultimately defeated Notre Dame in only the fifth meeting between the two storied football programs, "but I couldn't arrange it."

As our dinner wore on, Barry warmed to the topic of Ohio State football. Turning to our California friends, as though he was a sawdust evangelist trying to convince pagans of the truth of the Gospel, he said, "Bank it: Ohio State will beat Notre Dame. No contest." He let that sink in just a bit and then told them, "And Texas will beat USC."

He turned to me for a second to his emotion. "I don't know if the Fiesta Bowl will be 'no contest,'" I said, "but yeah, OSU wins, definitely, and Texas wins, definitely."

There were a few moments during last night's national championship game in the Rose Bowl when I wondered whether Texas would beat SC. But I realize now I was guilty of momentary insanity. I had forgotten one very important fact: Vince Young, the Texas quarterback.

When, with about three-minutes left in the game, Young pulled his team to within five points of the Trojans, I turned to my son and said, "Vince Young is the best college quarterback I've seen in my life."

Of course, there's data to support such a statement. The biggest piece of evidence: Young is the first QB in college football history to gain 2500 yards in the air and 1000 yards rushing. But all you have to do is watch him play to know how good he is!

I confess to feeling a certain wistfulness about Texas' performance in the national championship game. In what was my beloved Ohio State's second game of the season earlier this year, the Longhorns beat the Buckeyes by four points. It was a game which most of us in Buckeye Nation felt that our team should have won. Maybe if the Buckeyes hadn't been forced to platoon the quarterback position at that early point in the 2005 campaign, there would have been a different outcome. I wonder what might have been.

But there is little doubt that just as the Ohio State squad improved immeasurably over the course of its season, the Longhorns did the same thing. I always felt that they would beat USC's Trojans. I just didn't realize how hard it would be for Texas to pull out this victory, having underestimated, as we Easterners are wont to do, how great the Pac10 champs are.

One final point: A wonderful man named John Warner of Houston, Texas, designed the web site for the congregation I serve as pastor. Several years ago, John initiated me as a member of an exclusive club: The Buckhorns. The other two members are University of Texas fans who esteem Ohio State. I'm an Ohio State fan (and alum) who respects Texas. So, tonight, in honor of my brother Buckhorns, I'll say something I've never said before: Hook 'em horns! Good job, Texas. And good job, Vince Young!

And Barry, wherever you are tonight, you and I were right, man!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Sharon's Illness Threatens New Party's Ability to Bring Peace to Middle East

I'm praying for Ariel Sharon's recovery, of course. But at stake in his new health crisis also is the chance his new political party has to bring peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. I talked about the importance of succession planning on Sharon's part here.

List of Abramoff's Personal Contributions

This list is just the tip of the Judiciary Department's investigative iceberg, I'm sure. These are the legal contributions.

More Thoughts on Abramoff and the Culture of Corruption

Ann Althouse, who continues to have one of the best blogs around, scoffs at a lobbyist who says that Jack Abramoff's practices make people suspicious of their profession. "What profession?," Althouse seems to wonder. Even at its most "honorable," lobbying is little more than having the capacity to raise money for politicians' campaigns and to schmooze.

Anyway, I responded to Althouse's post this way (with additions in brackets):
...I'd like to see the whole [lobbying] "profession" done away with altogether.

Back when I worked at the State House of Representatives in Columbus, it was clear that lobbyists were an utterly unaccountable portion of the permanent government. Most legislators, forced to be generalists who juggled lots of different topics, were incapable of seeing through [or chose not to see through] the baloney of the various cabals that make up this permanent establishment--lifetime bureaucrats and the lobbyists, in particular.

Other legislators who chaired committees or had seniority tended to develop very cozy relationships with lobbyists, usually ones that were helpful to the lobbyists, whether actual quid pro quos existed or not.

Term limits in Ohio have only made the lobbyists more powerful. There is simply no opportunity for term-limited public officials to sufficiently "get up to speed" to see through all the schemes that cross their desks each day. By the time they develop that ability, they're preparing to take a job with some lobbying firm or trade organization or running for a different office.

If we could get rid of lobbyists, things would be a lot better. [Not perfect, mind you. Reform will always be necessary because, human nature being what it is, people always find ways to subvert the system.]

At the very least, as I suggest here, we need to ban former members of Congress, former Congressional staffers, and former members of the executive branch from lobbying...for life. They represent the most dangerous of all the lobbyists, whether on Capitol Hill or at State Houses.

Abramoff: Bribes' Biggest Victims?

Jack Abramoff engaged in massive corruption schemes, the dimensions of which have never been seen in Washington before. In them, he apparently found a web of Capitol Hill co-conspirators. In the end, Abramoff may be shown to have bribed or illegally colluded with as many as sixty Capitol Hill figures, members of Congress and staffers.

Who or what has been most victimized by all this corruption? The answer to that question can be seen in several paragraphs of the USA Today story on the case:
The developments appear to be damaging Americans' perception of their elected representatives.

A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Dec. 16-18 found that 49% of American adults say they believe "most members of Congress are corrupt." That's 1 percentage point below the level of 1994, when voters turned control of Congress over to Republicans. The GOP appears to be tarred by scandal slightly more than the Democrats; 47% said "almost all" or "many" Republicans are corrupt, compared with 44% for Democrats.

Among registered voters, 55% said the issue of corruption will be the "most important" or a "very important" factor in their decision on whom to vote for next year. The poll has a margin of error of +/—3 to 5 percentage points, depending on the question.
From the vantage point of politics as usual, Republicans are likelier to be hurt by these scandals than Democrats. Abramoff is a Republican, with tight connections to the Republican leadership. But he also apparently bribed Democrats and, when one considers it, engaged in bribing schemes which seem to have incited Republicans to vote against such conventionally Republican principles as limited government and fiscal responsibility.

Be that as it may, who really cares which political party is hurt most by this stunning and widespread corruption of our political system? Far more important than damage control or spinmeistering at this point is the restoration of trust in Congress and our political system.

Americans have long been skeptical of the integrity and veracity of their public officials. But reports on alleged and actual official corruption of the most blatant and disgusting dimensions had, even before Tuesday's developments in the Abramoff case, already produced an assumption on the part of about half of the public: If you hold political office, you're corrupt.

It's not true, of course. But it's a shame that enough corruption does exist that increasing numbers of Americans hold their own government in contempt.

The Justice Department is to be applauded for pursuing this case. It should be allowed to pursue this scandal wherever--and to whomever--it may lead, no matter which party is implicated.

The biggest victim of the corruption that Mr. Abramoff and his Congressional co-conspirators engaged in and enabled is our democracy!

In the end, for democracy to work, there must be a basic trust that even if government sometimes does things with which we disagree, its decisions aren't the result of lobbyists greasing the palms of legislators or other officials.

Every government official who took a bribe needs to do time.

And every person who gave a bribe or bilked a client should not only do time, but pay back every single penny.

The goal of the Justice Department and of the Congress needs to be restoring the trust of the American people in their elected officials and ultimately, in their democracy.

And for goodness' sake, Congress: Pass legislation now making it illegal for anyone who has ever served in the government to act as a lobbyist for life!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Mark 1:4-11

[To help the people of Friendship, the Lutheran congregation I serve as pastor, prepare for worship on the weekends, I provide notes summarizing some of what I'm studying and thinking about regarding the Bible texts around which worship will be built. This coming weekend brings us to the yearly celebration of The Baptism of Our Lord.]

Mark 1:4-11
4: John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5: And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6: Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7: He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8: I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. 9: In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10: And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11: And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

A few initial thoughts...

v. 4: John's appearing is a bit mysterious in Mark's telling. John shows up in Mark's Gospel in precisely the way most people would have experienced it happening, suddenly, out of the blue, unannounced.

As you read Mark's Gospel, you find that this rather breathless, get-on-to-the-next-part-of-the-story style is one of his consistent characteristics. I tell people that Mark is the Wolf Blitzer of the four Gospel writers. (Matthew, Luke, and John are the other three.) If you've ever watched Blitzer, a reporter and anchor on CNN, you know that he practically caroms through his newscasts, barely coming up for air as he smashes sentences together like a crazy sculptor slapping dabs of clay on top of each other.

Journalists, it's said, write the first drafts of history. Mark is the journalist of the four Gospel writers, presenting the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection unadorned by much in the way of interpretation and without any attempt to impose much structure on the narrative. (Luke is the historian; Matthew, the scribe; John, the artist.)

Mark lets the facts speak for themselves and lets the reader decide what they all mean. His intent to stay "on task" in the telling of the tale seems underscored by his repeated use of a single word: immediately. By its use, Mark takes us immediately from one event to another, showing us how all the events of Jesus' short earthly ministry moved toward their planned denouement: His death and resurrection. (The word immediately also conveys to me the immediacy, the closeness, the intervention of God in our lives.)

The reference to John as "the baptizer" is, says the old Interpreters Bible, peculiarly Markan. You can find another instance of the term in Mark 6:14, 24.

John's baptism isn't the same as the baptism which will later be commanded by Jesus. John, toward the end of our lesson, in fact, draws a distinction between the two baptisms. His, John says, is all about water and the cleansing it symbolizes, whereas Jesus' Baptism brings the fire of the Holy Spirit to those doused by water which is connected with Jesus' commanding word.

Jesus commands baptism in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20) and says elsewhere--John 3:3--that those so baptized are born anew. Jesus' Baptism, in fact, alludes to the creation of the world, talked about in Genesis. There, God's Spirit moved over the waters of primordial chaos and life came into being. Similarly, in the Baptism instituted by Jesus, the Spirit hovers over the waters of Baptism and brings new life to the Baptismal recipient.

John's baptism is more of a symbolic gesture, indicating a turning from sin and a preparation for the coming of the Anointed One (the Messiah or the Christ). It has no lasting effect. It's primarily a subjective experience of an individual penitent sinner for whom water symbolized cleanliness.

In that sense, John's baptism was no different from the various baptismal rites widely practiced in the Judaism of his day. There were several such kinds of baptism practiced then. Gentile converts to Judaism would undergo a baptism akin to this. Women sometimes underwent such a baptism after their menstrual cycles, symbolizing their ability to resume their participation in religious rituals from which they would have been barred during their periods. In each case, the reason for the baptisms was to denote cleanness.

Jesus' Baptism, as opposed to John's or these other baptisms I've cited, is primarily God's action. The Baptism Jesus initiates is not a symbol, it's a living sacrament in which God does something. In it, He imparts new life. In the Baptism initiated by Jesus, God is the subject and we are the objects of His grace, forgiveness, and power to give new life.

Fleshing things out in his New Testament letters, the apostle Paul says that Baptism in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit brings about the death of the old self and the power for the new self--the new God-self--to rise.

The phrase "baptism of repentance" to describe John's baptism, the Interpreters Bible says, "is a Semitism, meaning 'a baptism which symbolized or expressed repentance.' It followed upon repentance and signified cleansing from the sins that were repented of..."

It's also important to remember that repentance is not the same as penitence. Penitence is "godly sorrow for sin." Repentance, which in the Greek of the New Testament is metanoia, means a complete and total change of mind. Think of it this way: In old days, sailors navigated by the North Star. It was their guide. Most of us navigate through our lives by such "stars" as convenience or selfishness. When we repent, we navigate by way of a different star, the God we know in Jesus Christ!

Repentance is a change in direction. However imperfectly, we aim our lives toward Christ. This is why Martin Luther said that a key element in the life of a Christian is a lifestyle of "daily repentance and renewal."

Consistent with his clipped narrative approach, Mark spends almost no time telling us about the preaching of John. It's extraneous to the story Mark is telling. After all, John is just the opening act. Jesus is the main attraction.

v. 5: There's a dispute over what exactly is meant by the phrase "baptized by him." Most scholars believe it doesn't mean that John baptized everybody personally. Rather, it indicates that they were baptized in his presence or under his direction. In fact, it was common for baptismal rites like John's (and even apparently, the earliest Christian Baptisms) to be self-administered.

The phrases "all the people" and "the whole Judean countryside," it's commonly agreed, aren't to be taken literally. The idea is that a lot of people, apparently struck by their sins, attracted to the preaching of John, or perhaps, anxious to welcome the Messiah, went to the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized.

Another phrase that raises a question in this verse is "confessing their sins." Did the repentant people from Jerusalem and Judea verbally confess their sins to John or to other persons? Says the Interpreters Bible: "The rite itself [the baptism] signified the acknowledgement of their sins; whether or not an oral statement of their actual misdoings...was required, we do not know."

v. 6: The Broadman Bible Commentary emphasizes that by his attire, John the baptizer was showing contempt for the lifestyles of his "wealthy contemporaries." I imagine this would be especially so of the religious elites in first-century Judea.

Some say that John dressed like the prophet Elijah, whose return to usher in the coming of the Messiah was expected by many (Second Kings 1:8). Others point out that his camel's hair clothing was like that of the nomads and was the uniform of a prophet (Zechariah 13:4).

Today, it's said Arabs eat dried locusts when food is scarce. There are apparently several varieties that are edible. (I'm not interested in finding out. Not even with chocolate topping! What, do I look like I'm French or something?)

v. 7: John says that he isn't worthy even to undertake the work of a slave for Jesus. John never claimed to be anything other than a servant of God pointing others to the coming Messiah.

v. 8: John, as I've already pointed out, drew a distinction between his own baptism and the one that Jesus would institute.

The Spirit, as the Pentecost account in Acts 2 shows, is also associated with fire. In other words, Jesus would unleash the Spirit, purifying us of sin and fitting us for eternity with God.

v. 9: As always, Mark tells this part of the story with amazing economy! Unlike the other Gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism, there is no dialog between Jesus and John about it (see Matthew 3:14-15), no explanation as to why a sinless Savior must be baptized, no ceremony. It happens and then it's over!

v. 10: The word "immediately" goes on to describe what happens next. Mark uses that word 41 times in his Gospel!

In Mark's Gospel, the appearance of the dove after Jesus is baptized appears to be an utterly subjective experience. In other words, Jesus sees the heavens opened and Spirit descending on Him like a dove, but Mark doesn't mention anybody else catching sight of it.

The word "opened," says the Interpreters Bible, would better be translated as "rent asunder" or "torn apart," alluding to Isaiah 64:1.

I'm intrigued by this verb, because it's the same word in a different tense as the one we find in Mark 15:38. There, on Jesus' death, the curtain concealing the Holy of Holies in the Temple was torn from top to top, denoting that Jesus' sacrificial death has erased the barriers between God and followers of Christ. In other words, Christ gives us unfettered access to God. In the account of Jesus' baptism, it's seen that through Jesus, heaven has come to earth. As the Broadman Commentary says of the phrase "he saw the heavens opened":
The phrase means that the whole world of spiritual power and truth was unveiled before Jesus.
The dove, according the Interpreters Bible, not only stands for things like gentleness, peace, innocence, and purity, but also for "the creative power of God," an allusion to the hovering Spirit in Genesis, chapter 1.

v. 11: Mark doesn't have to say that the voice is that of God: It comes from the opening in the heavens.
Keep the miners and their families in your prayers! (see here)

Monday, January 02, 2006

Greatest Hits of 2005: June Posts

More of the most popular posts on this site, as well as the ones I've liked best. Here are the June hits:

How To Cope with Rejection
Our Daughter's Getting Married: People Wonder How I Feel About That
Mistakes Help Make Weddings MemorableThree Attributes I Hope Would Always Characterize Christian Witnessing
Politics Endorsed by the Church? I Don't Think So!
Confessions of a Recovering Snob
Christians Should Welcome Ten Commandment Rulings
Baby Boomer Crowned Heirs Ready to Throw Mama (and Papa) Off the Train
The Love We Need to Make Our Marriages Work
Could We Do with Resurrection of the Art of Persuasion?
Message from Port Reality: Today is All We've Got
Trusting in What You Can't See
Limerick for Host-in-Chief
Why Schmidt Won and DeWine Lost in Special Congressional Election
Hugh's Tips for Bloggers and His Case for Blogging
Smiling here in Buckeye Nation!

Re-Runs for Kerry and Gore in 2008?

Ann Althouse reacts with an "Ugh!" to reports that John Kerry will enter the 2008 presidential race. She dismisses him as a candidate who's had his turn and says that Al Gore has more right to a re-run than the Massachusetts senator. I reacted:
There has been one tradition in US politics of losing nominees from major parties being renominated for the presidency. Unfortunately for renominated candidates, another part of that tradition is that generally, the candidates have lost again.

William Jennings Bryan lost three times...and deservedly so. Thomas Dewey lost twice. Adlai Stevenson lost twice. Richard Nixon, as you point out, is the only one to break "the curse," so to speak, winning in 1968 after losing in 1960. (He also lost the California governorship in 1962, making his subsequent win all the more remarkable.) It's fair to point out that after having pulled off one of the most notable comebacks in US political history, Nixon also disgraced himself as President and was forced to resign; so, his resurgence as a presidential candidate may be seen as a hollow thing.

The key to Nixon's comeback, by the way, was that he campaigned hard for Republican candidates in the 1966 elections. GOP success that year came two years after Barry Goldwater was crushed by Lyndon Johnson in the presidential election amid predictions that the Republican Party was, if not dead, then ticketed for permanent minority status. Nixon was seen as a key ingredient in the Republican resurgence that year and many newly-elected or re-elected Republicans owed him big-time for their wins. Nobody else, including the successful Republicans of 1966 who didn't owe Nixon anything for their victories and who challenged him for the 1968 nomination, notably Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney, had as many chits to call in as Nixon did that year. The lesson is clear: If Kerry and Gore want to run for President again, they need to campaign for Dems in 2006 as though their political lives depended on it.

But of course, the incidents of political resuscitation I've mentioned represent the exceptions, not the rules, in our presidential politics. Americans, it seems, may be forgiving in many ways; but once they've spurned a major party nominee for President, they're pretty much voted off of the White House island forever.

Kerry and Gore though, both have some legitimate reasons for thinking that they each deserve another shot and that they could win the whole thing.

Gore nearly won in 2000 and Kerry got more votes than any Democratic nominee in history...and he did that in the middle of a war when Americans were inclined to rally 'round the flag and the Commander-in-Chief.

Both are lackluster campaigners--except when Al gets into one of his bizarre moods and sounds like an angry, volatile, sawdust preacher-wannabe. If either of them do run, I doubt that they will perform well.

But who knows what might happen in a crowded Democratic field in 2008?
It seems to me that both parties are going to produce a boatload of candidates for President in 2008, making their nomination processes more like crapshoots. That will embolden people with only the slightest chance of being nominated or elected--even Gore and Kerry--to get into the race.

Dems, anxious to support a consensus candidate able to beat George Bush in 2004, fell in behind Kerry in a hurry after his surprise win in the Iowa caucuses. They may not be as inclined to move to consensus so quickly in 2008, especially since the current frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, would probably be a disastrous nominee in the general election, even if Dems love her for being a "true believer."

The crapshoot quality of the process will likely give every candidate reason to hope that lightning will strike their campaigns. But in the end, I think Democratic voters are going to go for someone they think can win, rather than casting "statement votes."

What do I mean by "statement votes"?

Dem voters might want to make the statement that in 2000, they thought they were "robbed" and so vote for Gore.

They might want to make the statement that "Bush lied" and thereby secured his 2004 victory by voting for Kerry.

They might want to state that they are unreconstructed liberals and that "impeachment-was-about-sex" by casting their votes for Clinton. (Hillary may be their recipient of statement votes on behalf of the idea of a female president as well.)

But in the end, I suspect that the desire of Democrats to win back the White House in 2008 will incite them to forego making statement votes and to simply cast their lots with the candidate in the field closest to themselves ideologically and the one most able to carry the fight credibly in the fall.

I've said here and other places before, I think, that I believe that Mark Warner will win the Democratic nomination in 2008, no matter who else runs in his party.

More on Christian Political Activism

John Schroeder says a mouthful!

"Do religious ideas undermine democratic discourse?"

That's the question Ann Althouse asks today, based on an op-ed appearing today in the New York Times that looks askance at Democrats' efforts to dial into the votes of politically-concerned Christians. One commenter, Ron, pointed out that if the Dems were going to engage in "monkey-see, monkey-do" approaches to Christian voters, the strategy would blow up in their faces. I agree and made these comments:
As a Christian intensely interested in politics, I make two points:

(1) I agreee with Ron that mirroring or mimicry on the part of the Democrats won't indicate a genuine understanding of the importance of religious conviction among much of the American electorate. That will simply be pandering.

(2) The Religious Right, in my estimation, is guilty of many things. But worst of all its sins, perhaps, is that the movement renders a cartoon caricature of Christianity for the non-religious public, appearing to boil faith in Christ down to a series of political do's and don't's.

This is salvation by works or performance, precisely the false kind of religion from which Christ came to liberate the human race. There was no group of people Jesus more roundly condemned than religious legalists, people who took the gifts of eternal life, forgiveness, and hope that God freely offered--gifts under God's control--and subjected people to a bunch of rules, agendas, and proscriptions that they could control.

Beware of any Christian, conservative or liberal, who claims that their political agenda comes from the Bible! That includes Pat Robertson, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, James Dobson, and Jerry Fallwell!

Of course, as a Christian, I like to see people in office who bring certain Christian sensibilities to their work. I believe that the country would be better off if authentic Christians were among our prominent officeholders. And though this it's a goal not politically pursued, I believe that the country and everybody would be better off if they enjoyed the kind of relationship with God that's available to all people through Jesus Christ.

But the moment people act as though their political ideology has come straight from Mount Sinai, you know that they're either manipulating voters or that they're suffering from a strain of Jim Jones-like megalomania! The Republicans and their Religious Right buddies have been doing it in recent years. I hope that the Democrats don't make the same mistake.

Greatest Hits of 2005: May Posts

More links to my "greatest hits" from 2005, posts that elicited a lot of traffic and interest or that I liked a lot. Here are the hits from May:

Leadership and the Call for Sacrifice
Why I Find the Bushfish So Objectionable, Part 4 (with links to previous installments)
It's Not Just Losing Parties That Need to Define Themselves
Will Condi Be Nominated by the GOP in 2008?
What Audio Books' Rising Popularity May Say
Trash-Sorting and Shame
Reactions to Newsweek's Koran Story
Prayer for Healing, One Approach

Just So You Know...

I'm not the Mark Daniels who wrote this.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

One Political Junkie's Early 2006 Predictions

I can't remember a time when I wasn't a political junkie. My addiction goes back at least forty-eight years...and I'm fifty-two.

So, a few predictions for 2006 and the world of politics:

1. Mike DeWine will win re-election to his Senate seat from Ohio. But Sherrod Brown, a guy I used to know back twenty-plus years ago when he served in the Ohio House of Representatives where I served as page supervisor, will mount a solid campaign.

2. Donald Trump's trial balloon testing his viability as a Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York, will fall flat. Although New York Republicans will beg Rudy Giuliani to make a run for Albany, he'll refuse to hurt his chances for a 2008 presidential bid by losing in 2006. Democrat Eliot Spitzer appears unbeatable in his run for governor there, although former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld could make a credible run. (The hallowed New York tradition of carpetbaggerism will work to Weld's advantage, but not overcome Spitzer's obvious advantages after years as an esteemed New York attorney general.)

3. Jim Petro will win the three-way race for the Republican nomination for governor in Ohio. Because of the pasting to their reputations that State House Republicans have taken during current Governor Bob Taft's tenure, the Democrats may have a real shot at breaking the GOP's stranglehold on statewide office here in 2006. In the end though, I think that Petro will prove to be too strong a candidate and will win the fall election. Petro has already shrewdly blunted the effects of Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's conservative run by picking pro-life conservative and Cincinnatian Phil Heimlich to be his lieutenant gubernatorial running mate.)

4. If Arnold Schwarzenegger can win the Republican primary for governor, he will be re-elected. The governator has positioned himself well to win a general election in the state, but must be concerned about conservative dissatisfaction with him. His recent decisions to allow the execution of Tookie Williams to go forward and to roll back scheduled tuition hikes at California universities likely play well with middle-of-the-road voters.

5. Can anybody stop the Hillary steamroller in New York in 2006? No. Can Hillary win the presidency in 2008? No.

6. The most interesting and hotly-contested race in the country this year may be the US Senate election in Pennsylvania. Incumbent Rick Santorum will face Bob Casey. Like Santorum, Democrat Casey is pro-life. Unless one of the candidates makes a huge mistake or some unforeseen national or international event has an impact on the race, I predict that it will be as close and un-callable in November as it seems to be right now.

7. Here in my own Second Congressional District, where Jean Schmidt is the newly-minted and fire-baptized representative, there will be a contest: Schmidt will likely be challenged in the Republican primary from the right. Several potential candidates--three, as I understand it--are considering challenging Schmidt. They will run at her for being either disrespectful of the military or, based on her record in the Ohio House of Representatives, too inclined to support tax hikes and big government.

Meanwhile, national Dems have been running ads in local papers here, also accusing Schmidt of being anti-military, based on her now-famous speech from the well of the US House.

In the end though, I suspect that Schmidt, always adept at fundraising, will either scare off potential GOP challengers or beat them in the primary.

No Democrat has any shot at beating her in this district. Those inclined to disbelieve this assertion are advised to remember that Schmidt's thin victory over Paul Hackett last August came in a special election when activist Dems from all over the country could readily be activated to provide financial and volunteer support. A repeat performance by Dems this fall, when 435 House seats, governorships, and one-third of the Senate will be up for grabs, is highly unlikely, thus giving Schmidt a decided advantage in this overwhelmingly Republican district.

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 23

[I'm scurrying to finish these notes on a study of the Old Testament book of Genesis we recently completed at the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Church. At the bottom of this post, you can find links to the first twenty-two installments.]

Genesis 42:1-5
1. This section introduces what Genesis commentator Gerhard von Rad refers to as a caesura. I'd never seen the term before reading it here a few weeks ago, that I can remember. But its meaning makes sense. A caesura, named for Julius Caesar, is like a cut in the narrative flow. It's a pause or interruption in the story being told.

As von Rad points out:
Up until the events of ch. 41, Joseph and what became of him was the narrator's subject. From the beginning up to the wholesome measures of the grand vizier the reader did not lose sight of Joseph. In ch. 42, this line is broken.
This "break" in the story, of course, is essential to recounting what happens in Joseph's life and, ultimately, how the unseen hand of God can and does work in human history. What happens next proves a truism which by now, I've shared with several generations of Catechism students: Either God gets His way or God gets His way.

2. The section begins with a sarcastic line from Jacob. He considers the situation in which he and his family find themselves, victims of a famine that has hit Canaan, where they reside, as well as Egypt. He turns to his sons and asks, "Why do you keep looking at one another?"

Jacob apparently never held the sons who came to him by way of Leah, Zilpah, and Leah--the -ah mates--in the highest esteem. His preferential treatment toward Joseph, the son of his beloved Rachel, in fact, bred the resentment that caused the ten oldest sons to sell Joseph into slavery. Apparently, the family dysfunctionality, preferential treatment, and parental sarcasm continued during the years of Joseph's slavery.

3. One might wonder how it is that ten sons, grown men with their own wives and families, were taking orders from their old man. This was an intensely patriarchal culture and Jacob continued to call the shots--with a few exceptions that have already been noted in these posts--until he died.

4. Because Benjamin, like Joseph, was the son of Rachel, Jacob didn't allow him to go with the other ten sons to Egypt where, it was learned, an aide to the Pharaoh, his identity unknown to them, was selling grain from stockpiles.

Genesis 42:6-38
5. It's understandable to me that the brothers wouldn't have recognized their brother. Let me list the reasons, as I see them:
  • They thought he was dead. The life of a slave was hard and usually short. It wouldn't have occurred to the brothers that Joseph would still be alive.
  • Even if they thought that Joseph might be around, they probably couldn't have imagined that he would by now be governor of Egypt, irrespective of his dreams that so incensed them.
  • He would have been attired as an Egyptian royal personage, very different from the clothing he'd once worn as the son of a nomadic shepherd.
Have you ever had the experience of seeing someone that you knew in a place you were unaccustomed to seeing them? Although you had the thought, "I know that person," you probably eventually dismissed it as a figment of your imagination. Even if one of Joseph's brothers thought that Joseph looked familiar, they probably, like you or me, would have convinced themselves that they were wrong. In any case, we have no indication that the brothers had any such thoughts about the Egyptian governor.

6. This section finds Joseph going through an elaborate scheme evidently designed to discern his brother's honesty and trustworthiness. The section is full of many apparent seams that scholars believe reflect the melding of different tellings of the story.

7. Egypt was a place that residents in the area known as Canaan, later to be referred to as Palestine and Israel, often went to, looking for food. Drought was frequent in the stony hills of Palestine. Egypt can usually rely on the waters of the Nile to provide sufficient moisture for grain-farming.

Genesis 43
8. Leaving Simeon behind in Egypt, the brothers return to Canaan with food and their money bags filled. Jacob is understandably convinced that yet another of his sons has died. When the food runs out and he becomes desperate, Jacob finally relents to allowing Benjamin go to Egypt with them for more grain, fulfilling the strange request of the still-unidentified Joseph.

As von Rad writes, once Jacob decides to allow Benjamin to take the trip:
...he turns at once to the very practical necessities of this ticklish journey. Bringing gifts to a high official is still practiced in the Orient and is no more than a sign of good breeding.
9. Von Rad also points out that what the New Revised Standard Version calls "the choice fruits of the land" can literally be rendered as "strengths, powers of the land."

10. Benjamin receives preferential treatment from Joseph, his full brother. Yet the other brothers display no resentment. They "drank and were marry with" Benjamin.

11. The brothers would have eaten separately from the Egyptians because the Egyptians' religion would have called these Hebrew nomads "unclean."

Genesis 44
12. This brings the strange denoument of the Joseph narrative, with its test of the brothers' integrity. When Judah offers himself to take the place of Benjamin as Joseph's slave, his heart is moved and he is convinced that he can reveal his identity to the brothers.

13. It's interesting to me that Judah chooses to reveal the long-ago guilt of he and his brothers respecting to Joseph. The guilt had hung over them for twenty-plus years!

Genesis 45
14. Joseph gives the brothers an early indication of his attitude about his years of slavery when he tells them (v.5):
And do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.
This isn't fatalism, but faith. Faith sees God working good even in the midst of heartache. Faith understands that God can work good even in tragedy.

Faith doesn't sugar-coat the truth: Joseph acknowledges the guilt of his brothers. But in faith, Joseph also absolves the brothers of that guilt. He points them to the gracious hand of God at work even in what was an evil and painful situation.

Later, we'll see that the brothers will need to be reminded once again of God's grace and Joseph's forgiveness of them. In this, I suspect, they're as human as you and me. (Okay, maybe not you, but me, because I know that God's grace always seems too good to be true.)

[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
Part 16
Part 17
Part 18
Part 19
Part 20
Part 21
Part 22]

Just When You Think You've Got The Whole Time and Space Thing Figured Out...

...something like this happens. The universe in which we live is full of mysteries and wonders we can hardly imagine or fathom. As James Taylor noted, even "Einstein said he could never understand it all." He got this one right, but who'd have thunk it? It's so cool, it had to have been dreamed up by God! But God bless the scientists who "think God's thoughts after Him." (Thanks to Quick Picks)

Bird Flu May Be Spreading...

...US dithering, at all levels of government needs to stop. Congress ought to put preparations at the top of its agenda once it returns to Washington.

What Causes Whales to Become Beached?

That's a mystery science is unable to answer. But I have my suspicions that it has something to do with the pod being led by males unwilling to ask for directions.

Greatest Hits of 2005: April Posts

I'm presenting links to my most popular posts or the ones I personally like the most from this past year. Here are the greatest hits from April:

John Paul II and the Power of Genuine Passion
A Word to the World on How We Americans View You
Reflections on Cardinal Ratzinger's Sermon
Fasting from Prayer, Part 3 (with links to the preceding installments)
Unlock the Doors and Live!
What Does It Mean to 'Abide in Christ'?
Is There Ultimate Truth?
Leadership Lessons from Pat Brown
Like Being Peas and Carrots with God

The Path We Can Choose in 2006

[This message was presented to the people of Friendship Church on January 1, 2006.]

Philippians 2:5-11

If you’ve ever seen the movie, Saving Private Ryan, you know that the climactic scene comes when Captain John Miller, a Ranger, is seen as he lays dying from battle wounds. His mission had been to save an Army private, played by Matt Damon. All of Private Ryan's brothers had earlier been killed in the war and because of that, he had to be found and sent home. As he lays dying on the ground, Miller looks at Private Ryan and says, “Earn this.”

Pastor Tom Allen, a fan of the Army Rangers, has said that he loves the movie, but absolutely hates that scene. He explains that, “The Rangers' motto for the past two hundred years has been [in Latin] Sua sponte, [meaning] 'I chose this.' [By that phrase, Rangers say:] I volunteered for this.'

"So [Allen explains], when Private Ryan bent down, if Tom Hanks was really a Ranger he would have said, ‘Sua sponte, I chose this. This is free. You don’t pay anything for this. I give up my life for you. That’s my job.’”

Our Bible lesson for this morning, on this first day of a brand new year, says that Captain Miller's job was like the job for which Jesus Christ volunteered. He chose to voluntarily give up the privileges and pleasures of deity in heaven in order to give His life for the whole human race, including you and me.

Look at how the writer of the lesson, the first-century preacher, Paul, describes the mission for which Jesus volunteered:
...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, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.
Jesus volunteered to become a slave. The word is doulos in the Greek of the New Testament. A similar word, hebed, is found in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. To be a slave, quite simply, is to be owned by someone else, to be at somebody else's disposal.

Slavery is a hateful, despicable thing when one person imposes it upon another. That was why Christians in nineteenth century Britain and America were among the most insistent and passionate abolitionists.

These days, I'm reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's fantastic new book, Team of Rivals. It tells the story of how Abraham Lincoln, both wisely and shrewdly, brought into his administration the Republican leaders who had vied against him for their party's presidential nomination in 1860. Among those is a person whose name will be familiar to many of you, because the law school at Northern Kentucky University was named for him: Salmon P. Chase. The reason for that name is that Chase spent most of his adult life in Cincinnati, where he practiced law. Goodwin says that Chase was a deeply committed Christian and ardently opposed to slavery because of his faith.

Before the Civil War, owing to its location on the Ohio River across from Kentucky, Cincinnati reaped financial benefits from slavery. When a local publisher railed against enslaving human beings in his newspaper, an angry mob forced its way into the paper's office, trashing the place and ultimately, throwing the printing press into the river. They next headed for the publisher's house in order to tar and feather him. When Chase got wind of their intentions, he went to the man's house and stood in the doorway, telling the angry throng to go home. Some in the group threatened Chase. He boldly told them that he could be found at any time.

One year later, a slave-owner from Missouri came to Cincinnati, a young slave woman, who happened to be the slaver's father, took refuge among the free blacks in town and begged to be allowed to be free. Her father insisted that she needed to go back to Missouri with him. Chase took her case as the woman's lawyer.

Salmon Chase is just one of many examples of nineteenth century Christians who favored the abolition of slavery. Christians have been the fiercest foes of anyone who would enslave another against their will.

But when one chooses to be a slave or a servant, beautiful things happen. We see this repeatedly in the Bible.

A slave of Abraham, in the book of Genesis, secured a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac, and thereby insured that God’s promise of a nation and a land from which the Savior would eventually be born many multiple centuries later, would all come true.

Also in Genesis, Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph became a slave, willingly rendering service to the Egyptian king and so, saved thousands of people from a famine, along with God’s chosen people.

In the Bible, to be a slave or servant of God, doing God’s bidding, is an exalted position.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the book of the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah. There, portrayed in four different places, is a suffering servant who, some scholars identify as Israel itself, but which I firmly believe talked about Jesus seven-hundred years before His birth.

Moses, David, Peter, Paul, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Wilberforce, and others, from Bible times right down to our times, are people who voluntarily chose the path of servanthood in following the Servant Savior Jesus.

We think highly of them all, don’t we? We study their lives, have holidays in their honor, give them prizes. We see that they risked their lives, their comfort, their possessions, and their reputations, among other things, in order to be slaves of God and we applaud them.

But then we think, "That’s all very fine for them, but maybe not for us." After all, we’ve got lives to live, bills to pay, kids to get through college, houses to maintain, and pleasures to seek. Servanthood might be the way for spiritual giants, but it's not our way, right?

Making servanthood the domain of the super-spiritual might get us all off the hook except for one little phrase that appears at the beginning of Paul’s words to us this morning: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...” In other words, Paull is saying: “Volunteer to be a slave of God like Jesus.” And those words are directed at all of us!

Even if we had the luxury of removing these particular words from God’s Word, the Bible, we would have other words in the Bible which say pretty much the same thing. Jesus Himself said, for example, that we should take up our crosses and follow Him. And on the night of His betrayal and arrest, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, work done by slaves, and said, “Do the same thing for others. True greatness resides in being a slave of God.”

But I have a confession to make this morning: I can’t say that I really want to be like them. I don’t want to be a slave of anybody. Do you feel the same way?

Maybe our revulsion at being slaves of God is rooted in a misunderstanding of what that means. Do you remember the great judgment scene described by Jesus in Matthew, chapter 25? There, Jesus judges the eternal destinies of two groups of people. He refers to them as the sheep and the goats. You’ve heard me talk about this passage before, but it’s so informative that it’s worth another mention. To the sheep, Jesus says, “Come into My everlasting kingdom. When I was naked, you gave me clothing. When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me water. When I was behind bars, you paid me a visit.” But, as Jesus tells it, the sheep scratch their heads from forgetfulness. “When did we ever do any of those acts of service?” they wonder.

They wonder because being a servant or slave of God doesn’t involve making a list of New Year’s Resolutions.

Christian servanthood isn’t fulfilling a set of grim and distasteful religious duties in order to impress a demanding God.

Christians don’t serve because the Savior peers at us from the cross and says, “Earn this.”

We can’t earn the love, forgiveness, and life that Jesus offers to all who turn from sin and receive Him. It’s a gift to those who lay aside the frenzied concern about themselves and the desire to impress others that can even motivate seemingly pious acts of service.

While waiting for our flight out of San Francisco the other day, Ann and I got to meet and have breakfast with two really neat people, both salespersons, friends who were traveling through Cincinnati and then, onto Paris.

One of them, we’ll call her Megan, told us that from her travels in Asia, she’d learned a valuable lesson and did things differently than she would have otherwise. Any time she asks for directions in that part of the world, she asks three different people. “People in Asian cultures so dislike the notion of not knowing something when asked,” she explained, “that rather than admitting they don’t know how to get somewhere, they’ll just make up directions. You have to ask several people in order to make sure you get the right directions.”

We talked about that for awhile when the other salesperson--we’ll call her Sarah--said that while she would never go so far as to give fake directions to a stranger, she sometimes shied away from offering help to others for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing.

We all admitted that we could be that way, too. And then someone said, “I guess that we need to get over ourselves.”

And this brings us to the truly central point of the Bible lesson and of today's message: To be authentic servants of God, we need to get over ourselves and, in Paul’s phrase, have the mind of Jesus Christ.

Christian servanthood is the lifestyle of the person who hears the Savior say to them, “I volunteered for this. I did this for you.” They know that they already have God's approval over their lives. They have nothing left to prove. Once Jesus has entered one's life, our motives for living and breathing each day are transformed. Now, we don't serve to be saved; we serve because we've already been saved.

In a few short weeks, we’ll begin the Lenten season that leads to Easter. During those forty days, we’ll be considering what it is to be a servant or a slave of God and how to become faithful servants or slaves of God. We’re calling it Forty Days to Servanthood.

This will be more than just Friendship’s version of Forty Days of Purpose. It will be designed to help us all become the people Jesus Christ died and rose to help us be.

Martin Luther once said that, “A the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” In other words, on the one hand, the follower of Jesus has been freed from the imposed slaveries of sin, or death, and chasing after the fleeting rewards of a world dying by the minute. On the other, followers of Jesus volunteer to enslave themselves in love to the only things that will outlast time or this dying universe: God and others.

The call to servanthood is a call to true joy, of unself-conscious living, the freedom in little everyday acts of sacrifice and love, to turn the world and ourselves toward the only source of life and renewal that exists, the God Who made us.

The call to servanthood is a call to get over ouselves in the confident assurance that no matter what, for all eternity, God has our backs!

As we move toward Forty Days of Servanthood, I ask three things of you:

(1) Ask Jesus to take control of your life and of the life of Friendship;

(2) Ask God to teach us all what it means to be slaves of God; and

(3) Ask God to use Forty Days of Servanthood to transform our church, our community, and ourselves.

Mother Teresa said that, “Small things done with great love will change the world.” As the mind of Jesus and the lifestyle of Jesus Christ takes hold of us, we will begin to serve not from a sense of duty or obligation, but because the mind and life of Christ have taken up residence in our minds and lives. Others will see Jesus in the thousands of little kindnesses we commit in His great Name and also hear His message from a cross and an empty tomb.

Through us, they’ll hear Jesus saying, not, “Earn this,” but, “I chose this. I volunteered for this so that you can be Mine forever.” We’ll be slaves of God, whose lives are a constant mission of mercy in our world. I can’t imagine anything being more exciting or rewarding!

[Pastor Tom Allen's take on the climactic scene in Saving Private Ryan is from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion.

[The anecdotes on Salmon P. Chase are in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

[Also helpful as I prepared this week's message were: Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster and A Theological Word Book of the Bible by Alan Richardson.]