Saturday, May 27, 2006

Listening to the DaVinci Code

While I was quite familiar with the claims made by Dan Brown about the "factual" bases for his novel, The DaVinci Code, I've never read it. With the release of the film though, I thought I'd need to do this, just to be able to respond to the questions people have about its premises. Instead of being forced to do read it though, my wife rescued me, hitting up a co-worker for the CD-version. I've been playing it in my van during errands over the past few days.

Deep into Disc 2, this is what I think of it: The DaVinci Code is a really bad impression of an implausible Robert Ludlum novel.

Apparently, I'm not alone in my yawning assessment:
There has been much debate over Dan Brown’s novel ever since it was published, in 2003, but no question has been more contentious than this: if a person of sound mind begins reading the book at ten o’clock in the morning, at what time will he or she come to the realization that it is unmitigated junk? The answer, in my case, was 10:00.03, shortly after I read the opening sentence: “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.” With that one word, “renowned,” Brown proves that he hails from the school of elbow-joggers—nervy, worrisome authors who can’t stop shoving us along with jabs of information and opinion that we don’t yet require...

Should we mind that forty million readers—or, to use the technical term, “lemmings”—have followed one another over the cliff of this long and laughable text? I am aware of the argument that, if a tale has enough grip, one can for a while forget, if not forgive, the crumbling coarseness of the style; otherwise, why would I still read “The Day of the Jackal” once a year? With “The Da Vinci Code,” there can be no such excuse. Even as you clear away the rubble of the prose, what shows through is the folly of the central conceit, and, worse still, the pride that the author seems to take in his theological presumption. How timid—how undefended in their powers of reason—must people be in order to yield to such preening? Are they reading “The Da Vinci Code” because everybody on the subway is doing the same, and, if so, why, when they reach their stop, do they not realize their mistake and leave it on the seat, to be gathered up by the next sucker? Despite repeated attempts, I have never managed to crawl past page 100. As I sat down to watch “The Da Vinci Code,” therefore, I was in the lonely, if enviable, position of not actually knowing what happens.

Of course, there are things worse than The DaVinci Code. Those Left Behind novels come to mind...

Memories, Hope, and Something Else: A Wedding Message

[This message was shared at the wedding of Sean, a fine young man from our congregation, and his wonderful bride, Alyson, on May 27, 2006.]

Today, I want to talk with you about memories, hope, and something else.

Sean and Alyson: In the back of the program for the wedding today, you talk about memories. To any wedding, I suppose, both the couples and all who gather with them bring buckets-full of memories, the common experiences that are part of our relationships together.

I bring memories to this day, too. My family and I have known Sean and his family since he was in the seventh grade. As I scan my memory, I see years of softball games, Sean's father, Eric, coaching and Sean usually pitching. I remember we had lots of fun.

I also see those garage sales at our house that your mother, Diane, and Ann used to do.

I see your confirmation day.

I remember with gratitude, Sean, how you helped our son with high school Physics, the first indication I had that you might make a teacher.

Alyson, though we’ve known each other only a few years, I also have memories of the ways in which you’ve stood by Sean in difficult times as well as good, something you’ll both be called upon to do for each other in the years to come.

So, as we gather here today, we bring our memories. We also bring our hopes. And what do we hope (and pray) for?

The lesson from Genesis, the first book of the Bible, says that “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Sean and Alyson, as you begin your married life together, this is a good place to start. The word translated there as clings, I’m told, could as easily be translated, believe it or not, as laminated. From now on, the two of you are to be laminated or stuck together.

But we all know of couples who don’t seem very stuck together and of still others who willfully tear the bond that once brought them together. Our hope...and our prayer is that you’ll remain together.

That brings us to the “something else” I was talking about. Our second Bible lesson, from First Corinthians in the New Testament, tells us that the glue that holds relationships together is love. Not the mushy version of it you see in the chick flicks, but the real thing: Love that’s patient, kind, isn’t envious or boastful or arrogant, rude or resentful. Love that doesn’t enjoy making the other person look foolish or try to get revenge. Love that endures and forgives.

Now, when I read that the description of love in that Bible passage, I’ve got to tell you, I’m overwhelmed. I’m not a good enough person to love like that and as wonderful as the two of you are, I don’t think you are either.

So, I’m going to give you a simple piece of advice: The only way to make a marriage work is love. And there’s only one place to get the love that makes marriage work and that’s from the Savior Jesus Christ, Who loved us--loved you two--all the way to the cross and then rose from death to give you and all who will turn from sin and turn to Him, life forever. He can give you the love you need to make your marriage work.

Build your marriage and build your lives on Christ and you’ll have an eternity of memories and hope and love! Make Christ the center of your life. You can’t go wrong with Christ! Amen

Does This Herald the Making of Low-Budget, Character-Driven Films by Hollywood?

Maybe so. They could make such films in addition to their blockbusters.


So, What's Memorial Day About Again?

Writes Colbert I. King in today's Washington Post:
This cannot be what Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, had in mind when he officially proclaimed Memorial Day on May 5, 1868. His thought, as best I can tell, was to set aside a day to honor the war dead. The true meaning of Memorial Day, however, has been overcome by door-buster sales, backyard cookouts and the opportunity to get a little extra sleep.
It's sad to note that this is what all of our holidays (a word that originally meant, holy days), sacred and secular, have become.
  • Christmas has become a money-making machine.
  • Easter is still a marginally-good enough holiday for some retailers to pitch clothing sales in anticipation of its arrival each year.
  • Thanksgiving brings big sales to grocers.
  • Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Veterans Day, Presidents Day, Labor Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday all give boosts to the travel and leisure industries.
But it's rare that any of us--and I include myself in this indictment--do anything even remotely related to what the holidays are supposed to be about.

On Presidents Day, George Washington, the greatest political leader in history, is turned into a buffoon with wooden teeth, for example.

And far more significantly, retailers with little regard for Jesus Christ turn the birth and resurrection of the Savior of the world into revenue streams.

I'm not disdaining people making money. Even when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, He wasn't condemning people making a living. He was condemning people who were so consumed with making money that they effectively extorted it from the pious. He was condemning wretched excess. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” He said.

Specific to Memorial Day, one has to ask if soldiers gave their lives at Trenton and Gettysburg so that Wal Mart could sell more radial tires.

Or if Marines hoisted the flag at Iwo Jima and sailors endured the Battle of Midway so that Best Buy could unload more computers.

It's time for some brave and visionary business leader to say, "Because we dare to profit from holidays like Memorial Day...and Christmas, Labor Day, and other holidays, we're going to apply a percentage of what we usually devote to advertising for sales geared to these days--say, 10%--to ad campaigns that will explain their true meanings."

The principle businesses should adopt, I think, is: If we make money from it, we need to respect what it's really about. In the creation of these special ad campaigns about civic holidays, business leaders could consult with historians. For religious ones, theologians from the traditions on which the businesses are trading should be tapped for information.

If this course of action were undertaken in anticipation of next Memorial Day, for example, maybe people, including me, would start to realize that it's more than just a day off.

[Thanks to Jan at TheViewfromHer and Charlie at ThinkChristian for linking to this post!]

[Thanks also to Allens on the Net for linking here.]

Friday, May 26, 2006

How the Decline of Religion Led to Simon Cowell

Funny...but insightful. Thanks to Deborah White for linking to this piece.

Anti-Semitism Among Poland's Roman Catholics Beclouds Benedict's Visit

Listen to the report of NPR's Sylvia Poggioli here.

Apparently This is News to Some People: Roman Catholics Are Christians

John Schroeder has an impassioned post on his blog site today. He's reacting to some folks who have apparently decided that Roman Catholics aren't Christians.

The Roman Catholic Church upholds the historic creeds of Christianity. The Bible is read at every Mass. The Church believes in the necessity of repentance. Jesus Christ is proclaimed by the Roman Church as the expiation for our sins and as the risen Savior of the world, Whose death and resurrection bring God's grace to all with faith in Him. That all sounds pretty Christian to me.

A Mini-Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 17:6-19

This weekend's Bible lesson at our congregation--and many others around the world--is John 17:6-19. It's comes in Jesus' "high priestly prayer" near the end of His earthly ministry. The text is:
6”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

11"And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

17"Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth."
Here are links to commentators who have interesting things to say about the passage:
Brian Stoffregen
Chris Haslam
Ed Markquart
Carolyn Schneider

The Pope Goes to Poland...

...where it's hoped that he'll:
  • Indicate that the process of beatification for John Paul II will be accelerated
  • Speak words of reconciliation to Holocaust survivors, the Jewish people, and to Poland itself, a nation with chilly feelings toward the Pope's native Germany
Benedict is avoiding any unpleasantness by speaking to the Poles mostly in Italian and some in Polish.

A few other things:
  • The Washington Post characterizes this foreign trip by Benedict as "rare." It's his second foray outside the Vatican since his elevation to the papacy last April. But this description can only be used by way of comparison to his peripatetic predecessor, who traveled more widely than all of his predecessors combined.
  • John Paul II broke with precedent in another way, as the article pointed out: He elevated more to sainthood than all of the previous popes together. As a Lutheran, I view this with a certain amused ambivalence. On the one hand, I think that more people should be celebrated as "saints": The Bible teaches that all who turn from sin (repent) and trust in Jesus Christ as their God and Lord are saints. This is not a term meant for the special few. I'm also disagree with notions that saints intervene for us in heaven. As I read the New Testament, Christ Himself is our intermediary and we need no other. On the other hand, if one is going to recognize particular Christian saints as being exemplary, a perfectly legitimate thing for the Church to do, one wonders if the criteria for the designation of sainthood shifted under the beloved John Paul or if they were applied with greater charity. In any case, Benedict is apparently intent on elevating persons to sainthood with less frequency and greater reticence than his predecessor.
It seems to me that in the matter of saints, the two popes may be reflecting some of their national characters. Poles are often seen as a gregarious, warm-hearted people. Germans, though no less warm-hearted, are often reticent and more orderly. Both John Paul and Benedict have been incredibly intelligent men. But as Benedict's papacy continues to unfold, differences in their personalities and emphases are becoming more apparent.

Roberts Writes About Newsweek's Cover Piece on Mary Magdalene

As always, Roberts is fair, historically-accurate, and enlightening. Check out the first two installments of his excursus from his series on 'The DaVinci Opportunity': The Mystery of Mary Magdalene:
Section A
Section B
(There will be a Section C, probably posted later today.)


Charlie Lehardy presents a wonderful essay on perseverance--and faith. It's both insightful and inspiring.

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 15

[We come now to our consideration of The Sixth Commandment, "You shall not commit adultery." Instead of writing something new, I've decided to print a re-run--with minor modifications--of a message I first presented on October 26, 2003. I hope that you find it helpful.]

True story I’ve told before. I heard it from an intensive care unit nurse twenty-four years ago and it’s stuck with me. An elderly retired pastor named Henry was under this nurse’s care. He’d had a long stay in the unit. Henry was one of those brave followers of Christ who endured adversity and dying with cheerfulness and was always grateful for any kindness the hospital staff showed him. His condition had declined sharply and now it was clear that he could die at any time. For several hours, he had been in a somewhat comatose state. Nobody was sure if he could hear them when they spoke to him. But they kept talking to him, trying to tell him how much they loved him.

The hours in an intensive care unit, at the bedside of a loved one can be excruciatingly long, you know. Henry’s wife and children had stepped out for a few moments and the nurse decided to go to Henry’s side. She remembered how much Henry loved to sing. She also knew his favorite song. And so softly, she began to sing to Henry: “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

At that, the nurse was shocked to see Henry open his eyes, lift his head off his pillow, look into her face, and tell her, “And don’t you ever forget it, either!” And with that, Henry fell back onto the bed and died.

As we look at this subject of God and the powerful force of our sexuality, like Henry we need to never forget that the God we know through Jesus Christ loves us.

That’s because there are times when we may chafe under God’s will on this subject.

And there may be other times when we feel burdened by guilt for the things we feel, think, do, or have done with our sexuality.

But God, the God Who first thought up and created sex, does love us. He wants what’s best for us. He wants to forgive us when we go wrong and He wants to help us to enjoy this gift. And don’t you ever forget that!

Once, my wife, some of our friends, and I went to the Tall Stacks Festival on the Ohio River. We spent a long time on the Purple People Bridge, looking at the paddlewheel boats and at the river itself. A river is a terrific thing, another invention of God. A river can provide people with drinking water, with a means of transportation, with recreation.

But, as theologian Richard Foster points out, when a river overflows, trouble happens. Houses and businesses can be damaged or destroyed. Crops can be wiped out. A river doesn’t seem so wonderful when it moves past its banks, its proscribed boundaries.

According to the Bible, which deals with the subject of sex a lot and more frankly than most Christians even know, sex is like a river. When we use our sexuality within the boundaries created for it by God, sex also is a good and beautiful thing. But when misused, sex can hurt and destroy and disrupt people’s lives. That’s why Proverbs 5:15-16 tells husbands:
Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets?...
We live in a culture in which sex is pouring over its banks constantly. Recently, my wife, daughter, and I started working out at Gold’s Gym. I like it a lot. But one of the things I find a little tiresome is the constant diet of music videos showing on most of the TVs there. I wish I could tell all the producers, directors, artists, and composers who create music videos that there is more to life–and more even to our sexuality–than the middle regions of the human body.

Paraphrasing and updating an observation once made by C.S. Lewis, if an alien from another planet came to earth and spent one hour watching our TV shows, including the commercials, that alien would conclude that something had gone seriously wrong with the human appetite for sex.

It’s this overwrought appetite for things sexual that makes God’s guidance on this subject so important. So what does God tell us are the ways for sex to remain within its boundaries and be the good thing it was meant to be?

First: We need to remember that sex is a good thing, created by God.

If you look at the first of two creation accounts that appear in the Old Testament book of Genesis, you’ll find God creating new things for each of six days. At the end of each of the first five days, God looks at His creation and says, “That’s good.”

But then on the sixth day, God creates human beings in His image. The Bible also makes a point of saying that God created the first humans “male and female.” At the end of that day, God declared that everything was “very good.” God made men and women to complement each other, to have the potential for becoming, both physically and emotionally, “one flesh.” That's a very good thing!

Second: According to the Bible, God didn’t just create sexuality so that we humans could make babies.

While the Bible does make clear that sex is only to happen between a man and a woman committed to one another in lifelong marriage, it isn’t meant to be used just to populate the planet. Some historians tell us that the notion that our sexuality was only to be about making babies first started in the Church with a man named Augustine. Augustine was a wonderful theologian and preacher and Christian example in many ways. But when it comes to sex, he may have felt so guilty about his past sexual philandering--regretful over how sex had once been in control of his life--that he just decided that sex was a bad thing.

One of my favorite Biblical passages on this subject comes from the story of Abraham and Sarah. That couple, you remember, were chosen by God to be the ancestors of the Israelite people. Into the nation of Israel the Savior Jesus was to be born. But there couldn’t be a nation of Israel if Abraham and Sarah didn’t have kids. Sarah had gone through menopause years before. When she hears God promise Abraham that she will still have a baby, she laughs, and asks, “After all these years, my husband and I old, am I going to have pleasure with my husband.”

Intrigued by that passage, I asked a Hebrew scholar about it. He confirmed my suspicions: The pleasure to which Sarah referred wasn’t just the pleasure of having a child. She was also talking about the pleasure of being sexually united with her husband. (I’m not making this stuff up! The Bible is full of not just good counsel about our sexuality, but appreciative celebrations of it.) God made us sexual beings for our enjoyment.

By the way, the pleasure of our sexuality doesn't derive only from having sexual intimacy with a husband or wife. Genesis says that we have been created as sexual beings. There are things that are unique to men and women. Each are different in many ways. From these differences, there comes a certain energy that doesn't exist in relationships with persons of our own gender. With the French I say, "Vive la difference!"

In his book, The Friendship Factor, Alan Loy McGinnis describes a relationship he enjoyed with a female friend of his. McGinnis was in his forties at the time and his friend was in her eighties. They had dinner together periodically. He talked about the fact that while there was no chance that the two of them would be sexually intimate, the presence of sexual energy between them was undeniable.

I remember talking with a young pastor, then in his thirties. He said that he was headed for the Bible study he did with the seventy-something women of his congregation. "They flirt with me, Mark," he told me. "They tease me about being a young man who enjoys an intimate relationship with a beautiful wife. It's all very innocent and chaste. But they flirt with me. And they love it when I flirt back."

Because God has made us male and female, there can be a wonderful and innocent complemantarity that happens between men and women even when there is nothing sexual in their relationship. God just made us that way. It's like the old saying, "God made us Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." To ignore that reality would be naive! As long as people are careful about not allowing things to rush over the river banks, it's okay to appreciate our differences.

Third: God created sexual intimacy as the sign and seal of a married couple’s love for each other. In his book, Struggling with Sex, Arthur Rouner tells the story of a married couple who had come to him for counseling. They reported being intensely frustrated with their sexual relationship. In fact, their sexual relationship had ground to a halt. They were even beginning to wonder if they would remain married.

As Rouner talked with the couple, he learned that before they were married, they both had numerous partners. Sex wasn’t a sign of commitment and love; it had no real significance to them. It was something you might do with a virtual stranger after you watched a movie.

They had drained their sexuality of its meaning before they were married and so once they were married, there was no romance, no commitment, no fun, no passion, no love in their intimacy. Fortunately, over time, Rouner was able to help this couple put their lives–their whole lives--under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. They learned to appreciate that sexual intimacy is only for married couples. And they found the excitement and joy that belongs to married couples who have made their sexual intimacy a sign and a seal of their commitment to one another.

Fourth: No matter what mistakes we have made with our sexuality in the past, God can forgive us.

This, in fact, may be the most important point that I make today.

In his book, The Pursuit of Holiness, author Jerry Bridges tells about something that he has often said when speaking with college audiences. Imagine, he tells them, that we could somehow display all of the thoughts you’ve had for the last twenty-four hours on this big screen up here. As the audience members begin to think about some of the things they’ve thought, they begin to laugh nervously.

Fact is, all of us are sinners. And Jesus says that to even look upon a person lustfully, because sexual sin begins in our minds, is the same as physically misusing sex. When you consider that, you realize it's true. Adultery doesn't begin with a physical act. Rivers overflow their banks gradually. The water rises until at last, it encroaches on the land around it.

Adultery begins with a more-than-admiring glance. An inappropriate comment. A far too intimate secret shared. A lingering touch. Obsessive thoughts. Each of those things may seem harmless enough in themselves. But unless we put our minds and bodies under God's control, taken together, the flood will begin and so will the destruction to marriages, relationships, and our very souls!

Because adultery begins in our minds, Jesus tells us, we’re all guilty. Yet, there is something else we need to realize...the very fact with which I began this message: the God we know through Jesus Christ loves us. No matter what our sins, we can turn to God and receive forgiveness and the ability to say no to future sin and yes to God’s way of living life!

I once saw a commercial on TV. The product being sold was whole-house heating, furnaces. How did they try to sell their furnaces? Sex.

A mantra of the advertising industry is, "Sex sells." If sex can be used to sell something as mundane as furnaces, it must be powerful.

But powerful as it may be, sex is only good when we let God be in charge of our sexuality.

So, four things I hope you’ll remember:
  • Sex is a good thing created by God.
  • God created sex not just so married couples could have children, but so they could bring one another pleasure.
  • God made sex to be a sign and seal of lifelong marital commitment.
  • And, when we violate God’s will–whether in thought, word, or deed–we need to remember that God loves us and through Jesus Christ, He can forgive us and help us to rededicate our whole lives to following Him.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Latest on the Chinese Government's Threat to Peace and Security


More on this and related topics here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

What It Would Take to Feed the World's Hungry

That's according to James T. Morris, executive director of the United Nations World Food Program, writing in today's Washington Post.

Of course, I'm a Christian and I believe that it's important for individuals to give to the relief of others in response to the grace and blessings we receive through Jesus Christ. So, I urge people to make donations to organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Lutheran World Relief, the two preeminent private relief groups in the world.

But one question it seems to me that US citizens ought to ask, quite apart from issues of faith or altruism is this: Is it in the long-term foreign and security interests of the United States for our federal budget to include more money for world hunger relief? Certainly, other governments should belly up to the bar.

And it would hardly break the budget--which, as a Republican myself, I think is scandalously overbloated with pork right now: Our government spends less than 1% of the total budget on foreign aid. But every penny effectively spent in that way contributes to the United States' well-being. The Marshall Plan helped secure a safe, secure, and prosperous Europe which has become a strong American partner, in spite of occasional disagreements, and a vibrant market for US goods and services.

As always, I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me worth thinking about.

Shaffer Produces Concert to Help Dave Clark Five's Mike Smith

The Dave Clark Five were part of the first wave of the British music invasion of the 1960s and always one of my favorites. Their use of a BookerT and MG's-style of organ, the saxophone, and Dave Clark's interesting drumming combined with a flare for melodies and harmonizing that made them a fun listen. Their hits included Glad All Over, Bits and Pieces, Because, Catch Us If You Can, and their cover of Do You Love Me?, among others.

Last night, for some reason, I Googled the Dave Clark Five and learned two things I hadn't known:
According to this article from the UPI:
Shaffer last year staged the 'British Invasion: A Tribute to Mike Smith' concert in New York featuring the Zombies, Billy J. Kramer, Denny Laine of the Moody Blues and Peter and Gordon...

Shaffer said he recently delivered a 'British Invasion' DVD to Smith, who he found to be 'amazingly positive for a guy in such a state of affairs.'
'He has a tracheotomy. He moves around in a motorized wheelchair. Luckily, his right arm is mobile enough to operate it,' Shaffer told the Daily News. 'Nonetheless, he`s a lovely English gentleman with a great sense of humor.'
The DVD isn't presently stocked by Amazon or Barnes and Noble. But, if for nothing but the music, is worth scrounging around to find. Purchasing it will also contribute to a good cause.

UPDATE: Dave Clark himself, always an enterprising fellow, has an official DC5 web site. It's quite incomplete, but if it were brought up to its potential would really be cool. Clark's compositions, by the way, are administered by Paul McCartney's company, MPL Communications. Macca also owns the publishing rights to music by such luminaries as Buddy Holly, Frank Loesser, and Bernie Williams. (Yeah, that Bernie Williams, center fielder with the New York Yankees.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Did Jesus Christ Exist? (Column Edition)

[This is the latest column I've submitted to the Community Press newspapers in the Cincinnati area.]

Recently, the host of a cable news channel asked, “Did Jesus Christ exist?”

Frankly, assertions that Jesus Christ never lived are akin to claims that the Holocaust didn't happen. There's simply too much evidence saying Jesus did exist to even entertain contrary notions.

A few examples of the evidence for Jesus' existence has recently been well-summarized by editors of the recently-published “Archeological Study Bible”:

One ancient text, the Babylonian Talmud, speaks of Jesus being "hanged" on the eve of the Jewish Passover.

The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, in a document written by 93AD, wrote of Jesus’ condemnation by the Roman governor Pilate, of Jesus’ death, of His resurrection, and of claims that Jesus was “the Christ.”

In a later text, Josephus mentions the martyrdom of James, "the brother of Jesus, called Christ."

In a document from the year 120AD, Suetonius mentions a riot in Rome that happened during the reign of the Emperor Claudius in 49AD. They were instigated, he said, by someone they called "Chrestus."

In 115, the Roman historian Tacitus decries the unjust execution of Christians by the Emperor Nero and talks about the term "Christian." He also mentions Jesus’ crucifixion under Pilate’s orders.

Documentary evidence from the ancient world is generally sparse. The preservation of documents, all of which were copied by hand, wasn’t an easy task to accomplish in the world before printing presses and the worldwide web. But there is more evidence for the existence of Jesus and His ministry and more of it written closer to when He walked the earth than any analogous evidence we have for the existence of, for example, Alexander the Great or some of the celebrated Greek philosophers. We have more such evidence for Jesus’ life and resurrection than we have for the life of William Shakespeare, who lived in the sixteenth century!

The contemporary Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide--like the ancient Josephus, not a Christian--has examined all of the evidence and concluded not only that Jesus existed, but that He rose from the dead. Why? Because of commitment and fearlessness seen in Jesus' first followers after Jesus had been killed on the cross.

This only makes sense. A conspiracy to support fabrications about the existence of a Savior Who both died and rose, a conspiracy involving at least 500 people--the number the New Testament says saw the resurrected Jesus--could not have been sustained in the face of rejection, persecution, and death threats unless Jesus was real and He really rose.

Did Jesus Christ exist? Absolutely! And I believe that He still does.

Did Jesus Christ Exist?

At lunchtime today, I turned on CNN and noticed a promo for Anderson Cooper's show that asked, "Did Jesus Christ Exist?" (Apparently, the show is prompted by a lawsuit in which a man claims that Jesus never lived.)

This question probably needs to be deconstructed a bit in order to fully answer it. Jesus, a given name, is the English transliteration of the Greek version of the personal name, which in Hebrew is Yeshua or, as we have it English, Joshua. (Jesus' name comes to us from the Greek because the New Testament was originally written in Greek. In the first-century and second-century, people who lived, traded, taught, studied, or governed around the Mediterranean basin used Greek either as their first or second language. Greek was to that world then what English is to much of the world today.)

Jesus is a name that means God saves and was, of course, also the name of Moses' successor in Old Testament times. The name of the man we Christians confess to be "true God and true man," as well as Savior of the world, was commonly known by His contemporaries as Yeshua bar Yosef: Joshua, son of Joseph.

Speaking of confession, the term of Christ attached to Jesus' Name is just that: a confession of faith about Jesus' identity and function. We Christians believe that Jesus, son of Joseph is the Christ.

Christ, christos in the Greek, translates a term from the Old Testament Hebrew, Messiah. Both words can be rendered as Anointed One in English.

In Old Testament times, the kings of God's people were anointed with oil during their enthronement ceremonies. Anointing was a sign of God's blessing as these leaders took on their responsibilities. Over time, prophets began to say that one day there would be a great King of kings, a Savior, to whom was commonly ascribed this title of Christ or Messiah.

According to the New Testament, when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ for the first time, Jesus affirmed Peter in that belief. (Although He subsequently chastised the impulsive disciple when Peter tried to rebuke Jesus for saying that He, as Messiah, would only fully reign after He had died on a cross and risen from the dead.) [See here.]

Now, did Jesus exist? Frankly, assertions that Jesus didn't exist are akin to claims that the Holocaust didn't happen.

A few examples of the evidence for Jesus' existence has recently been well-summarized by editors of the recently-published Archeological Study Bible.
  • One ancient text, the Babylonian Talmud, speaks of Jesus being "hanged" on the eve of the Jewish Passover.
  • The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, in a document written by 93AD, has a description of an event he claims happened during the period when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. (It should be pointed out that Josephus was not a Christian):
"At this time Jesus, a wise man (if it is appropriate to call him a man), appeared. For he was a worker of incredible deeds, a teacher of men who happily receive the truth, and he drew to himself many Jews--and many Greeks too. [The term, Greeks, was used not just of those who were from Greece, but of Hellenized Jews or of non-Jews, Gentiles.] This man was the Christ. And when Pilate had executed him at the instigation of the leading men among us, those who had first loved him did not give up. For he appeared to them on the third day alive again..."

  • In a later text, Josephus mentions the martyrdom of James, "the brother of Jesus, called Christ."
  • In a document from the year 120AD, Suetonius mentions a riot in Rome that happened during the reign of the Emperor Claudius in 49AD. They were instigated, he said, by someone they called Chrestus.
  • In 115, the Roman historian Tacitus decries the unjust execution of Christians by the Emperor Nero and talks about the term Christian. "The author of this name," Tacitus explains, "Christ, suffered the ultimate penalty at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate during the imperium of Tiberius."
Documentary evidence from the ancient world is generally sparse. But there is more evidence for the existence of Jesus and His ministry and more of it written closer to when He walked the earth than analogous evidence we have for Alexander the Great and some of the Greek philosophers.

The contemporary Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide--like the ancient Josephus, not a Christian--has examined all of the evidence and concluded not only that Jesus existed, but that He rose from the dead. Why? Because of commitment and fearlessness seen in Jesus' first followers after Jesus had been killed on the cross.

This only makes sense. A conspiracy to support fabrications about the existence of a Savior Who both died and rose, a conspiracy involving at least 500 people--the number the New Testament says saw the resurrected Jesus--could not have been sustained in the face of rejection, persecution, and death threats unless Jesus was real and He really rose.

Did Jesus Christ exist? Absolutely!
And I believe that He still does.

[Thanks to Andrew Jackson of for linking to this piece.]

An Abortion Excusrsus

Last night, as part of my series on the basics of Christian faith, I posted a longish article on abortion. It seemed appropriate. But in re-reading it, I was displeased with the piece.

So, as kind of an excursus, I'm presenting a link to a 1980 statement from the American Lutheran Church (ALC). The ALC was a predecessor body that became part of the current Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). While the ALC document has been supplanted by a later statement from the ELCA, I have always counted it as the most satisfactory statement on abortion ever produced by Lutherans in America.

I'm also presenting a 1976 study document from the ALC, which gives Biblical and theological insights on the issue.

Anything that I write won't surpass the faithfulness or quality of these two documents.

Abortion: A Statement of Judgement and Conviction, A Resolution of The American Lutheran Church (1980)

Abortion: A Statement of The American Lutheran Church (1976)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

An Incredible Array of DaVinci Code Resources...

presented by Bruce Armstrong.

"These voters weren't born again yesterday."

That's Ruth Marcus, in an insightful piece in the Washington Post. (Isn't it a great line?)

More to the point of her column, Marcus talks about Democratic efforts to woo evangelical Christians, particularly those whose theology and politics tend to be more centrist. She sees dangers for the Dems who, in their rush to win over evangelicals, could violate their core principles or engage in phonyism.

It's not like tilting at windmills for Democrats to go after substantial evangelical support, though. Back in the days of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Democratic Party was the one that spoke most frequently in Biblical terms, portraying its emphasis on justice as expressions of America's Christian heritage. Evangelicals and Roman Catholics were historically part of the liberal Democratic coalition going back at least to the Franklin Roosevelt era.

But things have changed. Many would argue that the Democrats have left their historic mission of giving voice to the voiceless with their intransigent pro-choice position on abortion, a stance so off-putting to many evangelicals that they're be unable to hear the Dems on other issues.

Writes Marcus:
To some extent, Democrats could help themselves with evangelicals simply by showing up -- at the megachurches, on Christian radio and in other venues where Democrats have been scarce...[But] occasional drop-bys and clunky dropping of biblical references aren't going to do the trick. These voters weren't born again yesterday.

Rather, the Democrats' discussion with evangelicals has to get beyond linguistic "reframing" to substantive areas where the Democrats and evangelicals can find common ground: poverty, the environment, Darfur.

The question is whether differences on the much hotter-button issues of abortion and gay rights are nonetheless deal-breakers. For the traditionalist evangelicals, almost certainly they are. But some centrists may be reachable; they may be opposed to same-sex marriage, for example, but more supportive of other equal rights measures for gays.
It will be interesting to see what happens as we approach the 2008 elections. Both Hillary Clinton, whose politics has been deeply influenced by her Methodist background, and Mark Warner, comfortable with public discussions of his faith, will undoubtedly make major overtures to the Evangelical Christian community as they run for their party's presidential nomination.

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 13

I've been discussing The Fifth Commandment, "You shall not kill." So far, in this discussion, I've shown that:
  • God cares about our lives and expects us to regard the lives of others for what they are: gifts from God.
  • There's a lot more to the command not to kill than refraining from overt murder. This commandment calls us to be mindful of the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being of others.
  • Obeying the Fifth Commandment also means proactively helping others.
But this naturally leads to another discussion. Are there circumstances in which the prohibition of killing in this commandment is breakable? Today, I want to talk about war, one of those times when I think that killing can be defensible.

War, similar to the relational breakdown that leads to divorce between a man and a woman, always results from a sinful incapacity or unwillingness of nations, peoples, or regimes to get along. The existence of war and the necessity of armed forces (and for that matter, police forces) is a judgment on the human race.

But I believe that, as Martin Luther discussed in his essay, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, God has instituted governments to maintain order and comity in a world which, because of sin, does not live voluntarily under God's reign of love. (For a fuller discussion of God's institution of government, see here.) When military force is used defensively, to preserve life, peace, and order, it can be prosecuted without violating this commandment.

Luther writes:
...the sword has been instituted of God to punish the evil and protect the good and preserve peace, ( Romans 13:1...) is proof, powerful and sufficient, that fighting and slaying and the other things that war-times and martial law bring with them, have been instituted by God...

... Although slaying and robbing do not seem to be a work of love, and therefore a simple man thinks it not a Christian thing to do, yet in truth even this is a work of love. By way of illustration, a good physician, when a disease is so bad and so great that he has to cut off a hand, foot, ear, eye, or let it decay, does so, in order to save the body. Looked at from the point of view of the member that he cuts off, he seems a cruel and merciless man; but looked at from the point of view of the body, which he intends to save, it turns out that he is a fine and true man and does a work that is good and Christian, as far as it goes. In the same way, when I think of the office of soldier, how it punishes the wicked, slays the unjust, and creates so much misery, it seems an unchristian work and entirely contrary to Christian love; but if I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves house and home, wife and child, property and honor and peace, then it appears how precious and godly this work is, and I observe that it cuts off a leg or a hand, so that the whole body may not perish. For if the sword were not on guard to preserve peace, everything in the world must go to ruin because of lack of peace...
Luther also recognizes that the use of military power can be wrongly applied by the political authorities, raising the choice of obedience to God or obedience to king for soldiers, a choice which Luther says must always be made for God. He speaks of the "office" of the soldier, an order established by God, and how the unjust use of force is not part of that "office":
There are some who abuse this office, and slay and smite needlessly, for no other reason than because they want to; but that is the fault of the persons, not of the office, for where is there an office or a work or any other thing so good that self-willed, wicked people do not abuse it? They are like crazy physicians who would cut off a sound hand, without necessity and just because they wanted to; nay, they are a part of that universal lack of peace which must be prevented by right war and sword, and forced into peace. It always happens, and always has happened that those who begin war unnecessarily are beaten, for they cannot finally escape God’s judgment, that is, His sword...
Luther's most telling justification for the existence of armies and the prerogative of governments to wage defensive wars, I think, comes in his citation of a famous incident involving some soldiers who came to John the Baptizer with a question. John was the New Testament prophet whose "office" was to prepare the Judean nation for the coming of the long-promised Messiah or Christ (Anointed One). The means of preparation, John told the crowds who flocked to the wilderness next to the Jordan River to hear his preaching, was for all to repent, to turn away from their sin. Luther writes:
...we have the greatest preacher and teacher, next to Christ, namely, John the Baptist ( Luke 3:14) who, when soldiers came to him and asked what they should do, did not condemn their occupation and did not bid them desist from it, but rather confirmed it and said, “Be content with your wages and do no one violence or wrong.” Thus he praised the profession of arms and, at the same time, forbade the abuse of it. For the abuse does not affect the office.
Had the mere office of soldiering been a sin or the killing that happens in war always an offense against this commandment, John, who never minced words and presumably would have seen the Romans as members of an occupying force, didn't call on these soldiers to repent.

Of course, we all know of the barbarism and abuse that often happens in war. We all know how soldiers immersed in battle can begin to view citizens from enemy countries as being less than human. It was from the fear of this that President Woodrow Wilson, a native Southerner born in 1856 and whose boyhood was spent under the harsh disdain of Northern dominance during the Reconstruction era, said, "Once lead this people into war and they will forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance."

Any leader who would dare to take a nation into war should prayerfully consider whether he or she will be guilty of a mass violation of this commandment. But not all wars are unjust and, just as the circumstances of life lead to the tragedy of divorce, sometimes war, with its killing, is a tragic and legitimate option.

But in protecting life, as was clearly true when the Allies fought the Axis Powers in World War Two, soldiering can be a way of keeping the Fifth Commandment.

I find that I'll need to say more about this commandment in another installment.

[By the way, there will likely be some who read this essay either as an endorsement or a condemnation of the war in Iraq. I'm making no comment about that war here or anywhere else. See here, here, and here.]

[Here are links to the previous discussions of this commandment in this series:
Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 10
Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 11
Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 12]

Monday, May 22, 2006

GodBlogCon is Set for August 3-5, 2006

GodBlogCon 2, gathering Christian bloggers for discussion, networking, and mutual learning, happens once again this year on the campus of Biola University in the Los Angeles area.

I attended last year and it was great. I hope to attend again this year as I did last. It was my first trip to California and it surely was worth it. Not only was the substance of the conference solid, but I also got to meet some blogging friends, old and brand new. I look forward the same experience this year!

I hope that lots of Christian bloggers will be there...and that includes those whose theology and politics are right, left, over, under, sideways, up. (Are you reading this, Deborah White and Rob Asghar?)

(Thanks to Andy Jackson at for the announcement.)

The Deep Descent to Coarseness

In addition to her full time job, my wife works several days a week at a greeting card shop. A few months ago, one of her co-workers caught her eye and gestured silently for her to look at the T-shirt one customer was wearing. She saw a well-groomed man in khakis. But it wasn't until he turned that she saw what the shirt said (blanks added by me): "F--- me. I'm bored."

There was a time back in the 1970s when I deluded myself with the notion that the Women's Movement, with its emphasis on equality of the genders and its rejection of what it called "the objectification" of women would enlighten us all. Men wouldn't regard women as objects to be used and sex would be more than a way to pass the time. Sexual intimacy would, at the least, reflect a mutual giving between two people who cared for each other.

The Women's Movement did bring many wonderful changes (and some not-so-wonderful ones) to our culture, opening up unprecedented opportunities to women, not to mention a new sensitivity to the rights of women within traditional marriage and family relationships.

But in many ways, we seem to have moved toward more sexual objectification of women. That's deeply disturbing!

And, it appears that women and men both accept a male-dominated notion of relationships that would make the Rat Pack blush.

In today's Washington Post, Jabari Asim, writes about Hip Hop's Tough Guy Romance. According to Asim and a twenty-two year old recent grad of Howard University and hip-hop fan, it's been twenty years since rap has produced a song that was romantic, LL Cool J's "I Need Love."

Instead, most rappers these days see women as objects to be used. Asim writes of being jarred from a reverie while filling his car's gas tank recently. (How many of us can say that we've been in reveries while pumping gas lately?) Says Asim:
The sun was shining, the weather was balmy and it felt like the kind of morning when even the most dedicated company man would entertain thoughts of skipping work. But work, unfortunately, was precisely where I was heading, as soon as I finished pumping gas.

The atmosphere didn't change all that much when a car pulled up near mine. The young man inside had a booming system that blared music powerfully enough to rattle the windows of the service station. I didn't mind. The music had a charming lilt, and the lyrics, though indecipherable, suggested a mellow day much like the one unfolding before me.

The song, I later learned, was by T.I., a popular Atlanta rapper. This particular tune was from his CD called "Urban Legend." In it, T.I. explains that he won't be spending time with his friends because he plans to spend some quality time with his significant other.

As the lyrics of the first verse became clear to me, I actually smiled, remembering when my friends and I began to seriously consider notions of commitment, responsibility and intimate adult relationships. Like my buddy Mark, T.I. was telling his friends that he was comfortable where he was. Then the chorus kicked in and he proclaimed, "I'm chillin' with my bitch today, I'm chillin' with my bitch today."

It's no secret that our popular culture's increasingly tepid offerings on romance reflect a general downward slide in the culture at large. Americans have trouble maintaining committed relationships between consenting adults, so we can hardly blame our artists for showing the same ignorance in their songs, literature and movies. Despite knowing all that, T.I.'s lyrics made my ears itch. In my lifetime, we've descended from Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour," in which he borrows a metaphor from Shakespeare to compare his love to a summer's day, to R. Kelly, who tells a young lady that she reminds him of a jeep. After "Chillin With My Bitch," how much farther can we fall?
I'm on record as favoring the overthrow of the culture of romance. We've made little gods and goddesses of romantic feelings so that when other feelings appear in our relationships, we mistakenly conclude that the relatinships must come to an end. Love, as I often say, isn't always what we feel; it's the commitment and charity we demonstrate often in spite of how we feel at a given moment.

But even romance would be preferable to picturing a woman with whom you're in a relationship as a bitch.

Of course, I was stupid to think that the women's movement was going to change the ways people think. Although I've been writing a lot about the Ten Commandments lately, the Bible itself asserts that no proscriptive rule and certainly no adherence to social customs can bring about the transformations of psyches, spirits, and cultures I once hoped that the women's movement would bring.

I entertained these naive notions, of course, back in my atheist days, when my confidence in humanity as the highest expression of intelligence and rationality was at a blissfully irrational level.

Since then, I've come to believe that there is really only one way for us to see the kind of mutuality and respect among genders that is the polar opposite of "Chillin' With My Bitch." That's through Jesus Christ.

When you look at Jesus Christ in the Gospels, you see a Savior Who was countercultural not only for His own time, but for ours. In first-century Judea, women were prohibited from speaking with men in public. But Jesus conversed with women publicly all the time. Women weren't supposed to play prominent roles in the ministries of religious teachers. But women were the first ones to tell the world that Jesus rose from the dead.

In the early church's history, as recorded in Acts, women played a prominent role as teachers and sharers of the Good News that God has declared Himself for the human race, offering new life to all who turn from sin and entrust their lives to Christ.

In discussing the mutuality that is to characterize marriages, the New Testament book of Ephesians begins by saying:
"Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Ephesians 5:21)
In other words, the key to making marital relationships work is for husbands and wives to mutually surrender any pretenses they may have about being more important than the other one as a way of expressing gratitude Jesus Christ for the new eternal life He gives. We are, as in all of our relationships, to see the Christ in one another and engage in mutual service. (Matthew 25:31-46)

As a pastor, over the years I've been privileged to see quite a few men, most of them married, come to faith in Christ or to renew their relationship with Christ. This has almost always led to conversations with their wives in which they tell me: "You can't imagine what a difference has come to ______. I feel like we're becoming a team. He's stopped being so difficult to be around."

This change, of course, cannot be proscribed. But we can pray for it. We also can work toward it by sharing Christ through life styles we model and the words we speak about Christ. Only Christ can prevent a deeper descent into dehumanizing coarseness.

[Two posts have looked at related themes. See here and here.]

It's Obvious...

...but good to see that others have noticed. Talk to most education professionals these days and they'll tell you stories of the increasing percentage of troubled children who come from dysfunctional families. They'll also tell you that they see this dysfunctionality being enabled and encouraged by mass media. The portrayal of a few more functional people and families by mass media would be a refreshing change.

[Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.]

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 12

I've been discussing The Fifth Commandment, "You shall not kill." In the last installment, I indicated that one way we violate this commandment is in tearing others down. Conversely, we become life-givers when we build up and encourage others. (For a fuller discussion of the importance of encouragement, click here for links to my series, The Power of Encouragement.)

Obeying the Fifth Commandment will also mean proactively helping others.

Jesus drove this point home in one of his most famous parables, one in which a Samaritan emerges as exemplary. Jesus' fellow Judeans usually hated Samaritans:
Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. "Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?"

He answered, "What's written in God's Law? How do you interpret it?"

He said, "That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself."

"Good answer!" said Jesus. "Do it and you'll live."

Looking for a loophole, he asked, "And just how would you define 'neighbor'?"

Jesus answered by telling a story. "There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

"A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man's condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I'll pay you on my way back.'

"What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?"

"The one who treated him kindly," the religion scholar responded.

Jesus said, "Go and do the same." (Luke 10:25-38)
We're to work for the life and well-being of our neighbor. Unlike the scholar who sought to limit the meaning of the term, neighbor, we're to see even the well-being of people in places remote to us as of utmost importance.

There's a lot more to the commandments than "you shall nots." For every proscribed behavior, there is also a prescribed behavior. When we see others' lives and well-being threatened, we're to be life-promoters. This is why many German Christians who lived through the Nazi era expressed such remorse and repugnance for their own indifference in the face of the rising terrors of the Third Reich once the Second World War had ended. Conversely, it's why many Christians have joined scores of other people in seeking to point the world's attention to the genocide being perpeptrated by the Sudanese government and its allies in Darfur.

A story is told about the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabakov. It may or may not be true. According to the story, one day Nabakov went on a butterfly-hunting expedition and spied a representative of a rare specie. In the chase, he happened across an injured person. When he told someone about the incident later, he was asked, "What happened to the person?" A quizzical look crossed the novelist's face and he said that he had no idea: "I had to find the butterfly."

If that story repels you, good! The Bible affirms that God's law is written on our hearts. Even if we're incapable of perfectly keeping that law as embodied in the Ten Commandments, deep in the core of our beings, we know that to ignore the needs of others is to perpetrate murder and we also know that's not right. As is true of all the commands of God, if this one points us to the Jesus, where the undeserved forgiveness, mercy, and new ways of living can come to us, then it's doing its work!

In the next installment, I hope to wrap up my discussion of the Fifth Commandment.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Command That Keeps Us Close to Christ

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church during worship celebrations on May 20 and 21, 2006.]

John 15:9-17
Often, when I'm out tooling around, I listen to sports radio. These days, it seems as though about half of the commercials I hear on those stations are for OnStar. Have you heard any of those?

They present recordings of actual calls made to OnStar’s call center. “I just hit a deer,” one person says. “My SUV just flipped and I can’t get out,” another says. Or, “I accidentally locked my baby in the car.”

In some cases, the OnLine dispatcher is able to solve the problem by unlocking the vehicle’s door from where they sit. In others, they get in touch with local police or emergency personnel.

Often, the dispatcher will tell the caller, “Don’t hang up!” I’ll bet that in such situations, it’s rare for a caller to say, “Bug off! Of course, I’m going to hang up. Who are you to tell me what to do?” That’s because they know that the dispatcher might have instructions or pointers that just could save a life. We're unlikely to sever our connections to somebody whose orders will ensure our well-being.

Today’s Bible lesson is part of the long Farewell Discourse--I sometimes call it Jesus’ Long Goodbye--from the Gospel of John. It starts in chapter 10 and runs all the way through the end of chapter 17, culminating in what's known as Jesus' High Priestly Prayer.

In last week’s lesson, words which immediately precede those in today’s lesson, Jesus begins to use the word abide, a word meaning to remain, to continue. Jesus uses it again today. He says:
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Jesus is telling all of us who follow Him: “Don’t hang up! Stay in touch with Me. Maintain your contact so that you can keep receiving the blessings of my love for you. Live in My love.” I know that sounds like a mushy Hallmark card. But Jesus’ love entails a lot more than mere sentiment or thinking nice thoughts about you and me.

Thoughts can inform how we live, of course. If you think grumpy thoughts all day, chances are you’re going to be a fairly grumpy person, for example. But just thinking loving thoughts about somebody doesn’t mean much.

In fact, to show you what I mean when I speak of the limits of thinking or feeling, could I have a volunteer? Okay, I’m going to set this pen on the altar. Now, standing right there and using just your thoughts, get that pen to me. You can’t do it, can you? Okay, now hand the pen to me.

Jesus didn’t just think His love for us, or simply feel His love for us. He lived it and died it. And He tells us to remain connected to Him and His love. It’s His love that can give us hope for the future, that can encourage us when things aren’t so good, and give us confidence in the face of life’s obstacles and challenges.

Author Brendan Manning tells the story of an Irish priest walking through his parish one day when he saw a peasant on the side of the road, praying. The priest was pleased and said, “You must be very close to God.” The praying man thought about that for a moment, smiled, and said, “Yes, He thinks a lot of me!”

God thinks a lot of you, too. He proved what He thinks of you by sending Jesus Christ to die and rise for you.

Christ gave Himself sacrificially for the world so that all with faith in Him can have Him with us now and in a perfect way, in eternity.

And when we know how much we’re loved by Christ, we’re no more inclined to tell Him to “bug off” than the driver in an overturned SUV is going to say that to the OnStar dispatcher who says, “Don’t hang up! Stay on the line!”

In today’s lesson, Jesus also tells us how to maintain contact with Him: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Our OnStar dispatcher is telling us that the way we remain connected with Him is to do what He tells us to do: To love just as He has loved us.

As was true of Jesus, Who went to the cross to give away His love, for us loving others entails more than thinking warm thoughts about others.

Author Philip Yancey talks about Mother Teresa's appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC during the Clinton years. Yancey says that Mother Teresa was, “… [r]olled out in a wheelchair, the frail, eighty-three-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate needed help to stand up. A special platform had been positioned to allow her to see over the podium. Even so, hunched over, four-feet-six-inches tall, she could barely reach the microphone. She spoke clearly and slowly with a thick accent in a voice that nonetheless managed to fill the auditorium.

“Mother Teresa said that America has become a selfish nation, in danger of losing the proper meaning of love: ‘giving until it hurts.’"

It’s hard for me to know how to feel about that definition of love. I want to think of myself as being loving and giving. I want others to see me in those ways, too. But I don’t want to hurt.

And yet sometimes when love really is love, it will hurt us. When Jesus Christ went to a cross for you and me, it was no picnic. He says that to maintain a connection with Him that will sustain us and encourage us through bad times and good and give us the assurance of eternity spent with Him, we’re to love in the same way.

Love entails sacrifice. It also entails obedience to Jesus command to live His love.

“The men of Block 14 were digging gravel outside the Auschwitz concentration camp in July 1941,” writer Harold J. Sala says. “Suddenly the sirens began to shriek. There’d been an escape. That evening [the fears of the other prisoners] were confirmed: [the escapee] was from their block. [That meant that their Nazi captors would take it out on them.] Next day, the block’s six hundred men were forced to stand on the parade ground under the broiling sun. ‘At the day’s end,’ [a reporter named Connie Lauerman later said], ‘the deputy commander, Fritsch, arrived in his crisply pressed uniform, and shiny jackboots to announce the fate of the terrified men in dirty...prison suits. “The fugitive hasn’t been found,” barked Fritsch. “In reprisal for your comrade’s escape, ten of you will die of starvation.”’

“The men slated for starvation were selected. One of them...a Polish army sergeant, was sobbing, ‘My wife and my children.’ Then a Polish Franciscan priest, Maximillian Kolbe, pushed his way to the front as...guards sighted their rifles on his chest. ‘Herr Kommandant,’ he said, ‘a request.’

“’What do you want?’...’I want to die in place of this prisoner,’ [he said, pointing to the sobbing man]...’I’ve no wife and no children...’ [There was] a stunned silence, and then [the commandant said curtly,] ‘Request granted.’”

What would cause a man to sacrifice himself like that? He was obedient to the command to love that comes from the One he knew had loved Him on the cross.

Father Kolbe's story isn't an isolated case. The twentieth century brought the martyrdom of more Christians for their faith than were killed in the previous nineteen centuries combined!

Thank God, our obedience to love like Jesus probably won't call us to die a martyr’s death. But we will be called to love nonetheless and in our obedience to that call, our old selfish ways will be put to death.

We'll be called to die in little ways. I've mentioned before something that one of my professors during seminary days used to tell us. "I'm confident," he would say, "that if someone came in here with a machine gun threatening to kill you unless you renounce your faith, you would all stand strong for Christ. I'm not so confident that at the next class break though, you would let the other person get to the drinking fountain first."

A few weeks ago, my son and I took advantage of his free flight privileges and spent a day in New York City. On the bus that took us to the subway stop we wanted so that we could go on to Lower Manhattan, we passed through Spanish Harlem.

At one stop, a young Hispanic woman gently led an elderly woman, also Hispanic, down the center aisle of the bus. The older woman could have been a grandmother, a mother, an aunt, or a friend; we never learned. But this young woman helped the older one to the only empty seat on the bus, one directly in front of us. Meanwhile the younger woman stood next to the elderly one, holding onto her with one hand while clutching to the overhead bar.

After the bus lurched to life again, my son and I began to discuss where we would catch the subway. The young woman overheard us and offered my son the information we needed. One stop before ours, she once more helped the elderly woman off the bus.

Now, I don’t know that young woman’s story. But I do know that "love as I have loved" usually looks like she looked that day. It entails sacrificing some of our time to help an elderly woman on and off a bus. It entails interrupting time in our own little worlds to tell two yokels from Ohio--in a nice way--where to get off!

In a letter in another book of the New Testament, the author of the Gospel of John, from which today’s lesson comes, says this: “We love because He [Christ] first loved us.” I hope that by remaining connected and obedient to Jesus Christ, you and I can say the same thing: We love because Christ first loved us.

[The "pen" illustration is based on a similar device used in a message by Pastor Mike Foss of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Burnsville, Minnesota. The Brendan Manning story is cited by Pastor Brian Stoffregen in his commentary on this Bible passage. Stoffregen also cites the Mother Teresa story from a Philip Yancey book I read several years ago.]

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 11

In the last installment, I began a discussion of the Fifth Commandment, "You shall not kill." I said that God cares about each of our lives and commands us to respect others' lives because:
  • Our lives represent a very personal investment of God in us
  • God has made us in His image, giving us a special capacity for entering into relationships of love with God and others
  • God's identity with us is so strong that He became one of us, in Jesus Christ, to give us forgiveness of sin and new life
But Jesus tells us that there's a lot more to the command not to kill than refraining from overt murder. During His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:
"You're familiar with the command to the ancients, 'Do not murder.' I'm telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother 'idiot!' and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell 'stupid!' at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill." (Matthew 5:21-22)
Any psychotheraptist can tell you about the life-robbing power of harsh words. I've read or heard a story that conveys this truth many times. I believe it's true. It seems that a little boy went to a Vacation Bible School at a church near his home and on returning, tearfully recounted to his mother what a terrible experience it had been. Some of the kids saw that his ears were outsized for his small head and began to make fun of him, calling him, Ozzie the Rabbit, over and over again.

The mother listened to her son pour out his anguished heart and then said, "You know, you do sort of look like a rabbit. That's a good nickname for you." So, the boy's own mother picked up where the bullies had left off in tearing down his self-esteem.

Can you imagine how crushed that little fellow must have felt that day? Now imagine the burden on his psyche of year-after-bruising year of being subjected to those kinds of emotional assaults by his own mother.

Ozzie grew, not surprisingly, to become a misfit. He succeeded at nothing in his life. His wife regularly berated him, just as his mother had.

Perhaps it was to prove to the world that he could accomplish something, even if what he accomplished was a horrific crime, that Ozzie---Lee Harvey Oswald---took a high-powered rifle to the sixth-floor of the Texas Book Depository on November 22, 1963, to shoot and kill President John Kennedy. Within days, Oswald's short and pathetic life would be brought to an end when an emotionally unstable nightclub owner, Jack Ruby, shot him.

Nothing can justify Oswald's crime, of course. But a pathologically discouraging mother may go a long way toward explaining why he killed our President.

None of this means, of course, that we keep this commandment by mindlessly mouthing "affirmations" at people or by telling people how wonderful they are when they're being monstrous. It does mean that we're called, as Martin Luther puts it in The Small Catechism, to "not endanger our neighbor's life, nor cause him any harm, but help and befriend him in every necessity of life."

More on what keeping this commandment might mean in the next installment of the series.