Saturday, April 08, 2006

Does Society Regard Sodomy of Boys As No Big Deal?

Four days ago, Dr. Helen Smith, a forensic psychologist and blogger, publicized the case in which an eighteen year old and a nineteen year old, working as camp counselors, were let off with the equivalent of a slap on the hand after sodomizing 18 boys in at least 40 different instances.

After a court made light of these crimes, describing them as nothing more than a hazing, Helen said:
Apparently, sodomizing a young boy with a broomstick and a flashlight does not constitute a sexual violation, merely a "hazing" (whatever that means).

Wow, in a world where a man can lose his job for being falsely accused of trying to sodomize a girl, young men can almost get away scot-free if they actually sodomize boys.
Smith believes that there are two brands of justice in America: one that treats rape or sodomy of girls as a serious issue; another that treats such treatment of boys as inconsequential.

When I first read Smith's post, I thought that the light punishment meted out to the criminals who sodomized all those boys had more to do with the influence of an Arizona State Senate president, father of one of the sodomists, than with societal or legal attitudes about the sexual violation of boys.

But then, our local paper, The Cincinnati Enquirer ran this item about a case from the northern Cincy suburbs today. Here, sodomizing boys was not characterized as "hazing," but as "horseplay." At least that's what one lawyer is saying. He'll probably use the Arizona case as a precedent. However you describe it though, it's vicious criminality!

If there weren't a body of opinion in our society inclined to excuse this unacceptable act of sexual violence, no lawyer would have the unmitigated gall to advance such a stupid, insensitive, immoral defense of the indefensible!

Maybe Smith is right, then. Maybe there is a tendency in our society to dismiss the sexual violation of boys as an inconsequential thing. If so, attitudes must change!

UPDATE: Helen Smith of Dr. Helen has linked to this post. Thanks, Helen!

Check This Out

Mark Roberts, one of my favorite bloggers, has a report on The Gospel of Judas.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 35

Servants sometimes ignore their SHAPE.

Over the past week, we’ve talked about how servants find the kinds of servanthood for which God seems to have designed them by paying heed to what Rick Warren calls their SHAPE. That’s the acronym he uses for a servant's spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality, and experiences.

But sometimes, servants ignore their SHAPE and simply do the thing that most needs doing. Servants recognize that the words, “That’s not something I’m good at,” which are meant to sound humble, are often little more than a polite way of refusing to serve when service is needed.

One can imagine, for example, that the priest and levite who passed by the wounded man in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan might have justified their refusal to serve with those words, “That’s not something I’m good at.” (Luke 10:25-37)

Sometimes, God calls us to do things we’re not good at, so that we realize that without His help, we can do nothing, but that with God, all things are possible. (John 15:5; Matthew 19:26)

Shortly after I became a Christian, our small home church in Columbus wanted to offer a Vacation Bible School (VBS) to the community. But we were shorthanded and the people who had led the program in the past were tired. I had never taught elementary school-age children and had never run a VBS before. But I had always enjoyed attending VBS as a child and thought that it could be a means by which our church could reach out to the children and families of our neighborhood with Christ’s love. On top of all that, it was just something that needed to be done. So, I volunteered to run and be a teacher in our VBS that summer.

It didn’t necessarily reflect my SHAPE. But I learned a lot about God, about children, and about our congregation and we had a VBS that taught our congregation’s children and the community’s children about Jesus Christ.

The only ability God cares about, someone has said, is availability. Are you available when God needs a willing servant?

In order to serve, servants sometimes ignore their SHAPE.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (Luke 10:33).

Friday, April 07, 2006

Five Years Later

Five years after what is variously described as a riot and an uprising in Cincinnati, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has invited various area luminaries to blog about race and race relations in the metropolitan area. A friend of mine has been asked to be one of those bloggers. Here's a link to the blog. It might be of interest not only to people who live in southwestern Ohio, but folks in others places.

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

These "passes" are designed to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, and anybody else who is interested, in preparing for weekend worship. This weekend brings us to Palm Sunday.

Our Bible Lesson: Mark 11:1-11
1When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
General Comments:
(1) In many churches, this weekend will bring the celebration of The Sunday of the Passion. After a procession featuring the reading of our passage from Mark, the Passion History, the account of Jesus' betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion from one of the four New Testament Gospels, will be read.

For years now, I have chosen to focus exclusively on Palm Sunday for several reasons:
  • As will become clear, the later repudiation of Jesus by the adoring throngs who called out to Him on the first Palm Sunday is foreshadowed by the very nature of their greeting. On Palm Sunday, it seems to me, it's important to deal with the question of why the crowds turned on Jesus.
  • We read the entire Passion History during the most solemn worship gathering of the Church Year, the one that happens on Good Friday, just before Easter Sunday.
(2) Each of the four New Testament Gospels tell this tale a bit differently. John is the only one who speaks of palm branches. Mark talks about leaves or leafy branches cut from the nearby fields. (In Mark, this procession happens outside the city walls, in the countryside.) Matthew has them cutting branches from trees. Luke doesn't mention any use of leaves or branches. (Stoffregen)

(3) Here's what Stoffregen has to say about those branches, something very helpful to understanding what happened on the first Palm Sunday:
One suggestion is that the actions described by John resemble one of the standard processions of Tabernacles where the people carried twigs of myrtle, willow, and palm. Originally these were used in the construction of booths (Nehemiah 8:13-18). Later some of them, at least, were bound together into a sort of festal plume, called the lulab, to which a citron was also attached. The lulab was a symbol of rejoicing and was carried ceremonially during the daily singing of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118).

Another connection -- a stronger one, I think -- is with 1 & 2 Maccabees. I'll quote the appropriate sections from the Contemporary English Version (with my emphases in boldface)

1 Maccabees 13:49-52 -- Capture of the Pagan Fort in Jerusalem

The enemy troops in the Jerusalem fortress still could not go into the country to buy food, and many of them starved to death. Finally, the survivors begged Simon for peace. He agreed, then ordered them to leave the fortress, so he could remove everything that made it unclean according to their religion.

On the twenty-third day of the second month in the year 171 [141 BCE] of the Syrian Kingdom, Simon led his soldiers into the fortress. They carried palm branches [baion] and praised God with all kinds of songs and musical instruments. God had completely crushed their powerful enemy! Simon decided that a joyous festival should be held on this same day every year. He strengthened the wall on the side of the temple hill that faced the fortress. Then he and his troops made the fortress their headquarters.

2 Maccabees 10:1-8 -- The Rededication of the Temple [Hanukkah]

The Lord led Judas Maccabeus and our troops into battle, and they recaptured the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Then they destroyed the places where the foreigners had worshiped, including the altars they had built in the public market.

Judas and his followers made the temple an acceptable place of worship once again. They built a new altar for sacrifices and started a fire on it by rubbing flint rocks together. After this, they offered sacrifices for the first time in two years. They burned incense, then lit the lamps and brought out the sacred loaves of bread.

When all of this was done, the troops lay face down on the ground and prayed, "Our Lord, please don't let us suffer such terrible troubles again. If we should ever turn from you, don't correct us so harshly. And please, never again hand us over to these foreign savages, who insult you."

The dedication of the temple took place on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev -- the same day of the same month that the foreigners had made the temple unfit for worship. We celebrated a joyful festival for eight days, and it was just like the Festival of Shelters. In fact, while our people celebrated, they kept remembering the recent Festival of Shelters, when they were forced to roam the hills and live in caves like wild animals. But now they walked around carrying sticks [klados] decorated with twisted ivy and holding up branches, including some from palm trees [phoinix]. They sang hymns and thanked the Lord for making our holy temple clean again. Afterwards, everyone decided to make this a yearly festival for our whole nation.

The use of palm branches in Maccabees was related to military victories. Is that what the people were expecting from Jesus? When they shout "Hosanna" = "Save us" (not part of the shout in Luke); do they consider that "salvation" to be like that of the Maccabees -- driving out the occupying forces from Jerusalem? If so, then Jesus failed miserably to live up to their expectations.
This failure, in turn, would have led to the crowds turning on Jesus. They had placed short-term hope in Him and He instead had come to deal with the deeper and more significant problems of sin and death. This entailed not wagging a finger at others for their sins, but taking responsibility for one's own sin, turning from it, and turning in surrender to Jesus in order that we might die with Him and then, rise with Him.

Anyone familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous or any Twelve Step program knows well how difficult--and how essential--it is for an addict to admit that they have a problem they cannot overcome.

None of this is to say that the justice for which the Palm Sunday crowds yearned was unimportant. The Bible makes it clear that God hates oppression and that Christians are to be in the forefront of the fight for justice. But Jesus said that before we can remove the splinter from our brother's or sister's eye, we must first be willing to have the logs removed from our own. The Palm Sunday crowds were quite happy to maintain a firm hold on their addictions to sin and didn't want some Savior calling them to repentance and a new life!

[A note on First and Second Maccabees: Neither Jews or Protestants have ever accepted these two books or the others that make up The Apocrypha as part of the Biblical canon. However, looking at them can be helpful in considering the thoughts, customs, and expectations of those who surrounded Jesus during His time on earth.]

A Brief Verse-by-Verse Consideration:
v. 1: (1) The Mount of Olives sets northeast of Jerusalem. Bethphage is south of that; Bethany east of that, southeast of Jerusalem, almost to the Dead Sea.

(2) The two disciples aren't named.

(3) Jesus, as was true in the Mission of the 70 and in other instances, seemed in the habit of sending people by two's. (There's a lesson to be learned in that, I think.)

v. 2: (1) There's Mark's word immediately again. (For the significance of the word in Mark's Gospel, see here.)

(2) a colt: Usually referring to a horse, which fits with the crowds' expectations of a conquering hero.

v. 3: (1) There's immediately again!

(2) There's a lot of speculation about how Jesus' borrowing of the animal worked. Had Jesus arranged things earlier? Is this another example of Jesus' supernatural power? Are those who question the borrowing among those eagerly awaiting the arrival of the conquering hero?

Mark doesn't answer these questions. But several points can be made:
  • Positive answers to all of these questions aren't mutually exclusive.
  • The main point seems to be that Jesus is in control, even though others think they're controlling Him.
v. 7: The cloaks make a kind of saddle.

v. 9: (1) The cry of Hosanna is a way of crying for mercy. It literally means, Save, I pray. Mercy appears different from grace. Grace is God's undeserved favor. Mercy is generally regard for one whose cause is just.

(2) The crowds quote from Psalm 118:25-26 which, along with the leaves or branches, portrays the ambiguity of this moment. On the surface, the crowds seem to acquiesce to Jesus' kingship. But the leaves, replicating events of conquest or revenge from the intertestimental books of First and Second Maccebees, and the particular words quoted from the psalm indicate that Jesus is welcomed conditionally, "You're our king if you throw out the Romans and establish our material well-being."

Psalm 118:25 displays an incomplete parallel in its poetry:
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
The verse is composed of two segments of two strophes each:
  • (1) a. Save us b. we beseech you, O Lord
  • (2) b. O Lord, we beseech you c. give us success.
Success is seen as a parallel, albeit an incomplete one, to salvation. But Jesus' version of salvation has nothing to do with success, whether in military or economic terms. In fact, Jesus promises that in this world we will have troubles. But He makes a grander promise:
"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33, The New International Version)
In other words, Jesus has conquered the dominion of sin and death through His own death and resurrection, making it possible for all who turn from sin and death and turn to Him to be in His kingdom forever.

v. 11: (1) The slight difference in Mark's setting for this event is seen here: "Then, he entered Jerusalem..."

(2) Jesus simply observes how things are in the Temple. The cleansing happens the next day in Mark's Gospel.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 34

Your SHAPE will change over time.

I’m not talking about what will happen to some who spend time in the weight room or to others when middle age hits. I’m talking about what will happen to your personal SHAPE, what we’ve been addressing over the past few days. SHAPE is an acronym created by Pastor Rick Warren standing for spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality, and experiences.

It’s likely that as you grow in your dependence on Jesus Christ and grow older, God will give you new passions (heart), new experiences, and new abilities. This in turn will likely cause you to change the ministries in which you become involved.

John and Mary (not their real names, in case you hadn’t guessed) were deeply involved in ministries of serving within their congregation from the day they were married. Both were committed Christians. For years, John took hot meals to elderly people in their small town and sang in the church choir. Mary was the volunteer janitor and played the piano for worship. But, after they retired, they began to look for new opportunities to serve. John said that at about that time, they noticed all the teenagers in their community who seemed listless, without direction. So, he and Mary asked their pastor if they could help with the congregation’s youth ministry, with the idea of reaching out to kids who weren’t part of the church. The pastor was enthusiastic in his affirmation of them.

It took awhile, but eventually, John and Mary had become the instruments by which about twenty kids who, along with their families, had been spiritually disconnected, got involved with the Church and came to know Jesus Christ.

John and Mary are now in their late-sixties, still active in youth ministry, something they hardly could have imagined ten years earlier.

Moses was eighty years old when God called him to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Everything up to that point had been preparation for the most important ministry of his life. As you maintain a lifelong commitment to serving God, you will change and so will your area of serving. There’s no such thing as retiring from the kingdom of God.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” (Philippians 1:9).

Thursday, April 06, 2006

If Hillary Pinched Bill's Speech, Did Bill Pinch Ike's

A tempest has arisen over a speech in which Senator Hillary Clinton told a group earlier this week, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right about America."

It is very like a line in President Bill Clinton's first Inaugural Address. Then he said, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America."

Says Rupert Cornwell:
Mrs Clinton's use of the phrase could have been a slip. Possibly, though, it was Hillary herself - one of the most influential first ladies in US history - who was author of the original line 13 years ago, which was then inserted into her husband's address.

But either way, one Clinton is starting to sound very much like another...
But, it struck me that both Clintons sounded an awful lot like another American political leader. Sure enough, a Google search yielded this quote from President Dwight Eisenhower:
There is nothing wrong with America that faith, love of freedom, intelligence, and energy of her citizens cannot cure.
Is this plagiarism? No. But it does display a motif in the rhetoric (and perhaps the thinking) of US politicians.

Anti-Semitism Tragically Still Lives

Danny Miller of Jew Eat Yet? and also a contributor to The Huffington Post recounts the antisemitic blather to which he was subjected after writing that he would like his son to be circumcised. I just left this comment, remembering that Danny and I have had some disagreements in the past:
Danny, you and I don't always agree on things...and I've enjoyed corresponding with you on our differences in the past. Maybe "enjoyed" is the wrong word. I would say "appreciated" might better describe it. But both words, enjoy and appreciate, do convey what I feel about your blog and from it, what I know about you. You're a caring, engaged person who doesn't take himself too seriously, one willing to engage in dialog, to hear other points of view, and even admit when your opinions may not be completely based in fact. (At least "the good Danny" you described some months ago wants to foster that sort of dialog. So does the good Mark, by the way.)

It's too damned bad--and I mean that it is literally damnably bad--when people refuse your good-natured invitation to dialog, preferring instead to engage in bigoted diatribe.
Richard Lawrence Cohen has also written about Danny's experience and while I don't agree with the analogy that Richard draws between circumcision and abortion, his post is worth reading.

What About the 'Gospel of Judas'?: A First, Brief Consideration

For several weeks now, the National Geographic Society has been touting a TV special on 'The Gospel of Judas.' Today, the society has revealed the text of a second-century papyrus copy of the document. As described in a New York Times article, the Gospel of Judas is 26-pages in length and a Coptic translation from the Greek in which it's thought to have originally been written about one-century before.

As reported by both the Times and on NPR's Day-to-Day, this is seen as some bombshell revelation. The Times, for example, claims that, "The text gives new insights into the relationship of Jesus and the disciple who betrayed him, scholars reported today." But frankly, there's nothing new here and certainly nothing that undermines the credibility of Biblical teaching about Jesus Christ.

The Times article rightly asserts:
The most revealing passages in the Judas manuscript begins, "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover."
That is revealing, a signal that the Gospel of Judas is an example of an early Christian heresy called gnosticism. The Gnostic movement arose among early Christians and was rightly seen as being inconsistent with the revelation of God found in both the Old Testament and in Jesus Himself.

The term, gnostic, comes from the Greek word, gnosis, meaning knowledge. Gnostics said that Jesus gave certain secret knowledge to various people--who differed from one gnostic group to another. This secret knowledge, it was taught, gave those who learned it special insight or special wisdom not possessed by others.

But of course, while Jesus did sometimes teach only three or twelve of His disciples, that teaching was always an explication either of long-known Old Testament truth or of teachings which in some form, He shared with large numbers of people. This is the point behind Jesus' remark to His accusers, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret." (John 18:20)

And once, when asked to account for his faith by King Herod Agrippa, the apostle Paul recounted Jesus' life, death, and the Christian assertion of His resurrection and observed:
Indeed the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. [Acts 26:26]
There were many "gospels" floating around in the first, second, and third centuries. One reason that gnostic gospels like the Gospel of Judas or the documents that lay behind Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, didn't make it into the Bible we have today is that there are no secrets with Jesus Christ. He's been revealed to the world. And so has the way of eternal life He grants:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." (John 3:16)
Gnosticism appeals to our egos. Orthodox Christian belief affirms that "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9) But gnosticism says, "Not so. You need to know this or that." It thus establishes a law the obedience or mastery of which brings salvation. This is utterly contrary to what Jesus taught, what the Old Testament taught, and what those writers whose words are in the canonical New Testament taught.

As Paul puts it in Romans:
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
Like all mass movements in history, early Christianity contained various groups with slightly different takes on what beliefs were (and are) central to Christian belief. The New Testament book of Acts and the writings of Paul honestly portray the arguments, councils, prayers, and understandings through which the early Church went, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and with the memory of the historic Jesus, to arrive at what was of central importance. (For an excellent survey of the diversity of theological emphasis in the early Church, read The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.) There is still much diversity today.

The early church also had what might be called sub-Christian movements, groups that started with Jesus but wandered far from the teachings of both the Old and New Testaments that a relationship with God is not captured by certain works or certain knowledge, but is a free gift to all who dare to surrender to Him. In Jesus Christ, this relationship has become available to all people. The Gnostics couldn't accept this.

Gnostics also upheld a notion imported from Greek philosophy, one in which Hindus believe today. They disdained the physical body and thought that we needed to be liberated from it. But when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, He was resurrected in bodily form. He even invited Thomas to touch the wounds on His hands, feet, and side. The Gospel of Judas has Jesus telling Judas to betray Him, thus more quickly liberating Him from His body. Orthodox Christian faith, consistent with Old Testament teaching, has never disdained the human body, seeing it as part of God's good creation. Furthermore, we believe that one day all believers in Christ will be resurrected in bodily form under the power of the One Who made heaven and earth.

So, there's nothing new in the Gospel of Judas...and nothing particularly useful in it, beyond satisfying a certain historical curiosity.

UPDATE: Rick Moore at Holy Coast has linked to this post. Thank you, Rick.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt has linked to this post, as well as my Lenten series, 40-Days to Servanthood. Thank you, Hugh!

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: John Martin of Martin's Musings has linked to this piece in a wonderfully informative post of his own. Thank you, John!

AND STILL ANOTHER UPDATE: Thanks to Mark Olson at Blog Watch for linking to this post and to Pastor Donald Sensing at One Hand Clapping for doing so as well, in a really good post on his site.

UPDATE #5: To the web site version of its original story on the Gospel of Judas, the New York Times has posted links to this blog and several others. Thank you, NYT!

AND ANOTHER UPDATE: Ryan McReynolds at McRyanMac has linked to this post. Thank you so much, Ryan!

ALSO: Thanks to Carl K of On the Right Path for linking to this post.

ALSO #2: Alexandra von Maltzan of All Things Beautiful has linked to this and other pieces on 'The Gospel of Judas,' while presenting some information there herself. Thank you!

UPDATING AGAIN: Mark D. Roberts has written a fantastic analysis of the Gospel of Judas and has also linked to this post there. Thank you, Mark, for your faithful scholarship and for leading some of your readers to this site.

AND: Thanks to Common Sense Journal for linking to this post.

ANOTHER WORD OF THANKS to Neophyte Pundit for linking to this piece.

Two Haiku, Plus Two (Jacob Talks to God)

Today I hate you
for reasons unclear to me
and unfair to you

I hate the sound of your voice
I hate the sight of your face
I hate the way you're right
I hate the way you love me even when I hate you

I hate the words that you speak
I hate your understanding
I hate how you call me
I hate the tender strength with which you keep loving me

I don't understand
how you love someone like me
and so...I love you.

Haiku 50

She has the face that
sank a thousand hopes sent out
on her promises

Haiku 2

He blinks madly to
lose his sleep and tear open
the day's gifts outside

A Haiku

A catamaran
never plunging in, content
to ride the surface

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 33

There are at least as many ways to be a servant of God as there are Christians.

Your SHAPE is the prism through which the light of Christ is filtered and turned into a life of servanthood. Today, we explore the last two attributes in the SHAPE acronym invented by Pastor Rick Warren.

Personality: Parents of more than one child will often observe: “Our kids were raised in the same home. But the two of them couldn’t be more different!” Everyone, even identical twins, is utterly unique.

Your personality will have a lot to do with how you serve others in Jesus’ Name. You’ll serve best in ways that flip your personal switches.

Experiences: The best teacher in life is experience. More than anything, we are shaped by our difficult experiences.

Recently, I preached a message in which I mentioned that I was once fired from a job. I revealed that while it had been painful, getting fired had freed me to work at the State House of Representatives in Columbus, something I’d long wanted to do. But, to my surprise, I became indifferent to my new job. I described that feeling of being first, rejected, and then feeling empty in my new work as a wilderness experience in which God met me and ultimately led me to become a pastor. In the congregation on the day I shared this experience was a visitor to worship who later told me, “I just got fired from my job and what you said inspired me.”

My painful experience allowed me to connect in a helpful way with that woman. Your painful experiences may have been far more severe. You may be a recovering alcoholic or addict. You may have lost a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or suffered the death of a loved one killed by a drunk driver. You may be someone in remission from cancer, a person who was downsized out of your career, or a woman whose husband abandoned you and your children. You may have a learning disability that you've overcome.

But whatever painful experiences you've weathered, they may lead you to a ministry. The experiences God has led you through can become the basis on which you provide helpful, relevant Christian service to others.

There are at least as many ways to be a servant of God as there are Christians. I urge you to use your SHAPE into your ministry of service to the Church and through it, to the world.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ's body, let's just go ahead and be what we were made to be” (Romans 12:5-6, The Message)

UPDATE: Thanks to Bruce Armstrong for linking to all of the posts in this series and for his generous comments about them. I hope that people find them helpful!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 32

Servants pay attention to their SHAPE.

Several days ago, I mentioned the five ways in which the light of Christ shines through believers as they express gratitude to God for all His gifts. These five ways have been summarized by Pastor Rick Warren in the acronym, SHAPE. The “s” stands for spiritual gifts, at which we’ve already looked. Let’s examine two other elements today.

Heart: When I was a boy, I developed several intense interests. I loved to read, write, and speak. I took an interest in faith issues and in the Bible. I enjoyed interacting with people and helping them solve problems. My great-grandmother, who died, when I was eight, unbeknownst to me, called me her “little preacher,” feeling certain that I would one day become a pastor. What she saw in me even then, was some of my areas of passionate interest.

Of course, one’s heart implies more about us than our professional pursuits. When we have passionate interests, those passions will also be expressed by Christians in our ministries of service, pursued in more than our 9-to-5 lives. That’s why, in addition to pastoring, I write (for free) for the local newspaper and volunteer for various community service projects.

Warren advises: “Don’t ignore your interests. Consider how they might be used for God’s glory. There is a reason that you love to do these things.”

Ability: In the Old Testament, God said of a man named Bezalel, “I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft...” (Exodus 31:1-11)

Bezalel's "knowledge in every kind of craft" described his abilities. God has filled you with abilities, too, all given for the purpose of helping you play a vital role in the Church’s ministry of servanthood. Whether your ability is cooking, carpentry, accounting, musicianship, needlework, videography, financial investing, public relations, management, or whatever, it may have something to do with your God-shaped area of servanthood.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the rest of your SHAPE.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it” (First Peter 4:10, The Message)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

No One Should Get Off Scot-Free for Committing a Crime

Not even the politically-connected. (Thanks to Dr. Helen for pointing out this story. But I agree with commenters on her blog who question her assertion that prosecutors and courts are less likely to go after sexual assaulters whose victims are male. Is there corroborating data to support that?)

Gnarls Barkley Destined To Be a Trivia Answer

Gnarls Barkley, AKA Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse, two Brits, has the number one song in Great Britain, an R&B track called Crazy. What' makes this single the certain subject of future trivia questions is that while it's just been released on disc today, it's already a chart-topper.

As a report today on NPR pointed out, this is an historic first made possible by the downloading. Warner Brothers released the tune as a downloadable single three weeks before it went to stores as a CD.

But this is destined to be more than fodder for future editions of Trivial Pursuit.

It's also a harbinger of the future of the music business. Not too long from now, songs will be hits without one sale being transacted in retail stores. There will be no hardware, just digital product.

I must confess that I lament this to some extent. Whether in the old days of vinyl, reel-to-reels, 8-tracks, cassettes, or CDs, there was a certain excitement associated with tearing into a new LP, especially after the 1967 release of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, lyrics on the back, giant foldout photo of the Beatles in SPLHCB garb on the inside, and the enclosed cutouts of the Sergeant and associated band paraphernalia.

Beyond the music itself, most of which one wouldn't have heard before lowering the phonograph arm or pushing the play button, the entire package would have been a surprise!

Who can forget the poster of fat-bottomed female bicyclists inserted in a Queen LP? Or Dylan's indecipherable liner notes on the cover of Planet Waves? Todd Rundgren's explanation of each track of the two-disc Something...Anything?? The enormous poster with pictures on one side and lyrics on the other that came with the White Album, actually simply titled The Beatles, along with four portraits of McCartney, Starr, Harrison, and Lennon? Or Lennon's parody photo stuffed inside of Imagine, showing him holding onto a pig after the manner of McCartney with a ram on the cover of Ram?

Beyond little extras like these, I've always loved reading LP credits, seeing who produced, engineered, and played and sang on each track. It's fun to see the connections, artistic and otherwise, that develop among musicians. You get to know the work of a particular producer or horn player and you say to yourself (and any of a small company of interested friends and family), "That's why this song sounds that way!"

Through the years, the covers, packaging, and even the credits became part of every recording, making the music and the musicians more accessible. I hate the thought of losing that. (I even love the smell of new releases, by the way, sometimes holding the booklets now inserted with CDs up to my nose the way I do a new book, so that I can inhale deeply. How pathetic is that?) Hopefully, a way to compensate for this loss will evolve as the downloading option becomes more prevalent.

By the way, the interviewer on NPR's report on Crazy points out that the song sounds a bit like something from country-soulster Al Green. True. But interestingly, the end of it reminds me of the beginning of another song, Goodnight Tonight by Paul McCartney.

[For more on Crazy, which has nothing to do with the Willie Nelson-composed tune of the same name, can be seen here.]

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Out on DVD Today

The wonderful Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is out on DVD today. I can't wait to get to a store for my copy.

Read my review of the film, written when it was released to theaters in December, here.

'The Da Vinci Opportunity'

On May 19, a new Ron Howard-directed film will be released. I might otherwise look forward to that, given that I have been a fan of such Howard movies as Cocoon, Parenthood, and A Beautiful Mind. My excitement would ordinarily be enhanced by the presence of Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou (of Amelie fame) in the cast.

But the film in question is an adaptation of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code. The novel did considerable violence to historically demonstrable fact, something which Hollywood does with unfortunate regularity, of course. However, this time, the history being messed with is all that we know about Jesus of Nazareth, who we Christians believe has been revealed to be God-in-the-flesh. People have right to question religion (or to even lampoon it). But when such questioning happens, the questioner (or the lampooner) have some responsibility to only present as facts what truly are facts. This, Dan Brown hasn't done.

But, New Testament scholar (Harvard-trained), pastor, and blogger Mark D. Roberts believes that Christians ought to regard The Da Vinci Code as an opportunitiy, or more accurately, a set of opportunities for Christians to interact with others on a variety of important topics:
...though The Da Vinci Code does indeed pose a threat to classical Christian faith, Christians should see it as much as an opportunity as a threat. The Da Vinci Code will get people talking about Jesus, the Bible, the role of women, and the nature of salvation. This conversation will allow Christians to explain ways in which The Da Vinci Code strays from historical fact and how it reflects careful historical inquiry. More importantly still, it allows Christians to discuss many crucial aspects of Christian faith with those who might otherwise be uninterested.
Mark is in the midst of a series of important posts on The Da Vinci Opportunity. Check it out and be ready for the opportunities of which Mark speaks.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 31

Servants use their spiritual gifts.

I read somewhere about a man who never opened his Christmas presents. Instead, each year, he placed his newest gifts under the tree with past years’ packages, all unopened.

It’s a stupid story. But it’s the story of most Christians. God gives all believers in Christ at least one spiritual gift to be used in ministries of service. But most Christians never open their gifts.

Yesterday, we said that there’s probably no end to the numbers of spiritual gifts God distributes in the Church. But I have always felt that a good general list is shared by Paul in Romans 12:6-8. There, the apostle mentions seven gifts. Every Christian should exhibit a measure of the attributes Paul mentions. We’re all called to serve and to give, for example. But people with any of the spiritual gifts Paul lists have the capacity for expressing them at greater depth and with greater impact on the church and the world than the rest of us.

Prophecy is the capacity to apply God’s Word to current life situations.

Ministry is more than just the life of servanthood to which all Christians are called. People with this gift take service to extraordinary lengths, usually being the anonymous faithful on which every church relies. This is an all-purpose gift, indispensable to the Church. (I call people who possess this gift, "the church's utility infielders." Some experts on spiritual gifts estimate that in any given church, about 70% of the adults have this gift.)

Teaching is the ability to make difficult Biblical truths clear.

The gift of exhortation encompasses a two-sided capacity for (1) encouraging the despondent and (2) motivating the spiritually lazy or rebellious.

The gift of giving motivates its possessor to give more than the usual 10% of their income to the cause of Christ and to charitable or community causes. These folks aren’t necessarily wealthy; they know how to stretch their money to serve others.

Those with the gift of leadership don’t bark orders. They’re believers whom others seem inclined to follow in one way or another. To be diligent in the exercise of this gift means, in part, to be in constant prayer so as to avoid abusing the privileges of leadership.

The gift of compassion is exhibited by those who love to engage in ministries of mercy.

Try different ministries and learn what gifts God wants you to open.

Servants use their spiritual gifts.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us...” (Romans 12:7).

UPDATE: Dan, at A Slower Pace, has linked to this blog, making special mention of the 40-Days to Servanthood Lenten readings. Thank you, Dan!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Congratulations, Gators!

There were times in tonight's national championship game between the University of Florida and UCLA that it appeared the Gators had an extra man on the floor. Their offense seemed capable, at will, of shaking a man loose for the open shot. UCLA is a good team. But Billy Donovan's Gators were on fire!

UPDATE: See here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: See here, here, and here. I can't wait for the 2006-2007 college basketball season. Go, Buckeyes!

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 30

God gives every believer in Christ at least one spiritual gift.

We’ve said that as a believer, you are a prism through whom the light of Jesus Christ is uniquely reflected in your service to the Church and through the Church, to the world. Pastor Rick Warren says that this is done in five ways, represented by the acronym, SHAPE. You personally reflect Christ through your Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, and Experience.

What are spiritual gifts? They’re mentioned in many places in the New Testament, but most prominently in Romans 12, First Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. Looking at these passages and others, theologian C. Peter Wagner gives this definition:
A spiritual gift is a special attribute given by the Holy Spirit to every member of the Body of Christ, according to God’s grace, for use within the context of the Body.
Who has spiritual gifts? First Peter 4:10 and First Corinthians 12:1-18 lead to the inevitable conclusion that every believer in Christ who lives in the Christian community called the Church has been given at least one spiritual gift, often more than one.

A spiritual gift is different from a talent or a honed skill. A gift is supernatural, inexplicable by either the one with the gift or those blessed by it. A man I know is clearly gifted as a Christian teacher. When he opens his mouth, people listen. The content of what he says isn’t unique. Nor his style dazzling. But the Spirit of God is clearly at work in him when he teaches.

How many spiritual gifts are there? Since God is living and active, the possible number of gifts is infinite. But the New Testament lists a number of them, a few of which we’ll consider tomorrow.

To determine your spiritual gift, the best method is the one we’ve already described as trial, error, and success. Along the way, make sure that you pray about it and get the feedback of Christian friends you trust. God has a unique ministry of service for you. Uncover your spiritual gifts and you’ll be on your way to finding it.

God gives every believer in Christ at least one spiritual gift.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “To each is given manifestation of the Spirit for the common good...” (First Corinthians 12:7)

Sunday, April 02, 2006

What To Do on the Way From God to God

[Message shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship celebrations on April 1 and 2, 2006.]

Ephesians 2:1-10

Do you know how you could tell that a man led the people of God through the wilderness without even knowing about Moses? Because an eleven-day trip took forty years; a woman would have asked for directions.

I bring that up because this past week, I read about the experience of a German Biblical scholar, Joachim Jeremias, when he visited a Jewish friend in Israel. It was time for one of the great feasts of the Jewish year, the Festival of the Booths or Tents. It remembers the forty year period when God’s people, the Hebrews, wandered through the wilderness, their only homes the temporary huts or tents they erected along the way. It's a reminder that God cares about aliens and strangers and that for people of faith, our real home is with God.

Jeremias's friend escorted him to his backyard. There stood a tent with an entry way. On either side of the entry were slips of paper. On one was written the words, “From God.” On the other, “To God.”

That really is the journey which all of us take, whether we have faith or not. Our lives come to us from God and at the end of this short migration on Planet Earth, we will once more appear before God.

For some, faith in Jesus Christ is nothing more than an insurance policy. "Heavenly fire insurance," some call it. They throw in with Jesus so that their return appearance before God won’t result in Jesus saying, “Because you spurned me on earth, I must spurn you in eternity. You’ve chosen not to live with Me in your life; now you get to live with that choice forever.” (See Matthew 10:32)

For others, coming to faith in Christ is the beginning of a whole new relationship with God and a new way of living. According to our Bible lesson, it’s really a mid-course correction, changing the trajectory with which we entered this world, setting us on a pathway alongside God. Heirs of Adam’s and Eve’s rebellion against God, we’re all born in a condition the Bible calls sin, alienation from God. The Message paraphrases the words from Ephesians at the beginning of our lesson, words in which believers in Jesus are reminded of the rebellion against God in which they once lived:
It wasn't so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn't know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It's a wonder God didn't lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us.
But for believers in Him, Jesus has changed the journey from God to God. Our lesson goes on to say that far from wanting to punish us or to remain separated from us:
...immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It's God's gift from start to finish! We don't play the major role. If we did, we'd probably go around bragging that we'd done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving.
But why does God do it? Why does God let us share in Jesus’ hard-won victory over sin and death for free? Why doesn’t He demand that we jump through proscribed religious hoops to earn His forgiveness or to gain eternity with Him?

The answer is simple. Not long ago, I told you the story of my grandfather and my first car. I had been a commuter student at Ohio Statefor about five quarters. Because I didn’t have a vehicle, I took a bus back and forth each day. I didn’t mind so much. But some days, it did make it tough for me to get back home in time for my part-time job. So, my grandfather sold a car to me...for one dollar. It was a gift and the only reason I had to give him a buck was so that a price could be shown on the title transfer. He later gave the buck back to me.

I can assure you that I had done nothing to earn such a sweet deal. I think that I had always been sort of a pain in the backside to my grandfather, annoying him in countless ways though he never complained. (He used to say, "I love to see my grandkids coming up the driveway. I love to see them going back down the driveway.") There’s only one plausible explanation for his giving me that Dodge 330: He loved me and wanted nothing to stand in the way of my getting my education or working the thirty or so hours a week I worked while in college and so, fulfill the promise of my life.

God sets you in the heavenly places with Jesus Christ for similar reasons. God loves you and wants to help you fulfill the promise, the destiny of your life.

At this point, it’s right for you to ask the question that Forrest Gump asked his mother as she lay on her deathbed, “What’s my destiny, mama?” What’s our destiny, God? What did you make us for? What did Jesus die and rise to save me to do?

Here’s how our lesson answers that question:
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Secure in our place in God’s Kingdom because of what Jesus Christ has done for us and our faith in Him, our call is simple. We’re to be servants who strive, in big ways and small, to thank God by rolling up our sleeves to do the good work God has ready for us to do.

In the coming week, our daily 40-Days to Servanthood readings will help all of us to uncover the work God has given you to do. We’ll be challenged to uncover our spiritual gifts; identify how our passionate interests, abilities, personalities, and experiences can be used in God’s service; and be reminded that because we lean on the power of a big God, He can even make something of our service in areas where we may not feel competent.

In coming weeks, we’ll also be offering new ministry opportunities and training, as well as a special workshop led by Amy from our congregation will help you see the kinds of good works that God may have specifically designed you to do.

God, our lesson tells us, is an artist and He’s created you and me for lives of service.

Now that you’ve been set free from sin and death through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, don’t miss out on the life God made you to live. On your journey from God to God, savor the life you can have when you live each moment with God!

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 29

Every follower of Jesus Christ has her or his own way of serving.

Rocker Steve Taylor once wrote a song from the perspective of a new Christian. It was called I Want to Be a Clone. With tongue in cheek, Taylor sang in the last verse:

So now I see the whole design:
My church is an assembly line.
The parts are there, I'm feeling fine.
I Want To Be A Clone...

Does growing to be more like Jesus mean that we must all be the same? Not according to the Bible. In discussing what’s called “spiritual gifts” (more on that later), Paul says in the New Testament: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (First Corinthians 12:4-7).

Think of what Paul is saying in this way: A prism takes a single beam of light, filters it, and then refracts it in differing colors and directions. Jesus Christ is, according to the Bible, the light of the world (John 1:9). When that one true light floods our lives, it’s God’s desire that it be refracted through us in millions of different ways. We receive Christ into our lives and offer service to fellow believers and to others through the ministries of the Church.

Jesus Christ frees people who surrender to Him to become what I’ve called their true God-selves, the people God had in mind for us to be when He put us together in our mother’s wombs (Psalm 139:13).

We’re made to be part of a community called the Church, a community that exists in this world and in eternity. While God wants the Church to live in unity, He doesn’t expect uniformity. Some believers will feel comfortable in jeans; others will enjoy suits. For their ministries, some will sing; others will prepare dinners. Christ sets us free to refract and reflect His light in unique ways.

Every follower of Jesus Christ has their own way of serving.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).