Saturday, August 05, 2006

I Loved This Movie

We watched it tonight. It's quirky, by turns funny and poignant, and ultimately filled with meaning, as it reminds of us to remember our pasts and our common humanity. Even though I had figured out what would be the big illumination after the first ten minutes, it was well worth watching.

So, what do you think of the art of Chuck Close?

In a comment at Ann Althouse's site, I called an exhibition of work that my wife and I saw in San Francisco, "barfarama." Althouse rightly pointed out that I gave my conclusion without giving my reasons. That was fair. So, I wrote this in response:
I didn't give my reason, just my conclusion.

Yes, I feel that his pieces are ugly.

I'm also put off by the constancy of himself as subject.

Of course, Art doesn't have to be beautiful and there is a tradition of artists presenting studies of themselves. But the ugliness is unmitigated and unrelieved in Closes's work.

Grim is the word that comes to mind. And maybe is the way his life feels. But the combination of grimness and self-absorption is off-putting to me, if for no other reason than these are two prime characteristics of all artistic expression these days, including film and music.

This touches on a more general observation: The artistic world is about as prone to sameness and a lack of originality as the corporate realm or any other area of human endeavor, for that matter. I read a great definition of creativity several days ago. It's not fashioning something completely new. It's fusing old ideas and different ways. The artist is someone whose calling, in part, is to take old realities and synthesize them in new ways.

When it comes to visual art and my lamenting the lack of creativity, I'm not referring so much to the images themselves, but to the feelings or the moods that lay behind them.

Darkness, alienation, and self-absorption have all become notable motifs in the visual and other arts.

This allows the artist to forego originality while simultaneously claiming that she or he is expressing what is felt toward a world that tries to make us all conform. Many artists of today seem to scream, "I'm so unique!" while safely conforming to the preferred moods of the culture.

Art, to me, is meant to be countercultural, always challenging us. Guys like Close are today's Norman Rockwells...

...I'm not disparaging Rockwell. He's a fine illustrator, a chronicler of at least a somewhat romanticized part of America. But he isn't an artist in the sense that his contemporary Picasso was.

In assessing artists today, it seems to me that we focus on form rather than function. If someone does something that sort of reminds us of Andy Warhol, we proclaim it artistically significant because of its form. What we should pay more heed to, it seems to me, is its function: How does the piece re-work themes, motifs, and media that is original?

Measured in this way, not only do I find Close's work aesthetically displeasing, but also lacking in those qualities I associate with Art.
That may have been a bit snobbish on my part, as pointed out by Knoxgirl:
I dunno, the argument could be made--and could even be correct--that Norman Rockwell was "just" an illustrator. But something about when people dismiss him like that rubs me the wrong way. I don't think to qualified as an "artist" you have to be re-working things, I think you just have to be good. Again, I could be totally wrong.
I responded:
I could be wrong, too. I may even be a bit of a snob on this subject. But the thing is, it's art. So, the bottom line for us all is that our judgments are subjective. That was one reason why in my initial comments, as Ann pointed out, I gave my conclusion without my reasons.

In fact, I love Rockwell. But in my mind, I put him in a different category from Close. Maybe that has to do with what they were seem to be trying to do artistically, too.

But you make a good point, one that's an effective antidote to the snobbishness of which I may have been guilty.
But one commenter, David, apparently has no use for Chuck Close's work. He wrote this comment:
Chuck Close has a technical ability to make banal the seamy side of life. He has succeeded in making the bad look worse.

His paralysis is apparent in his work. It is a paralysis of spirit that begs the viewer to feel guilty for not suffering as much as his subjects.

If I want a tour of the denizens of the 'under the overpass crowd' I will buy a newspaper from one of them at the freeway off-ramp or visit them at the local rehab clinic.

Friday, August 04, 2006

"Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock"

That's the headline for a New York Times profile making the rounds in the blogging world. I thank God that I'm part of a denomination and the pastor of a congregation in which the politicization of the Gospel--whether of a liberal or conservative tilt--isn't expected!

Interesting Discussion of Lebanese War



Is it rational to feel delight in a world so full of grimness? Absolutely. Charlie at AnotherThink tells you why.
...why does my life seem so delightless at times? Why do I become discouraged?

Perhaps it's a matter of focus.

When I take my focus off of loving God, knowing God, hearing God, trusting God, walking with God, my delight evaporates. If delight is the fruit of God's love, it can only grow when my heart and soul are fully rooted in God, when I am living intentionally so as to draw sustenance from God.

When times are hard, I lose that focus. Jesus himself knew this and challenged the people in the Sermon on the Mount to rejoice even when they were facing the most difficult circumstances. (Matthew 5:12). Why? Because our delight in the midst of chaos testifies more eloquently than words to our belief that there is more to it than this. There is a place where justice prevails, where peace reigns, where evil has been vanquished, where love is unfettered.

We rejoice because God lives, his Word is true and he is at work redeeming the lives of men and women, including you, including me.

If I take delight in my heavenly Father, it is not an act of blind denial of the dark realities of the world around me. Rather, it is a statement of faith in the greater reality of God's redeeming presence in my life and in the daily events of the world I live in. Delight suggests confidence in God's sovereignty, in God's goodness.

Today, I will take delight in the Lord.
Read the whole thing!

Then consider the comfort and power that comes to people when they follow Jesus Christ:
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)

These Folks Need to Get a Grip

John Hagee and his fellow travelers in the Christian Zionist movement portray themselves as great supporters of Israel. But, of course, it's all because they want to push Israel into war with Iran, the destruction of Israel, and the return of Jesus.

It's too bad these folks don't read their Bibles. Jesus says:
...about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:35-37)
That means that nobody, not even John Hagee, knows the hour of Jesus' return.

Bottom line: Jesus calls us to faithfully follow Him and leave the moment of His return to God. We cannot force the hand of God. Those who think they can force God to do anything demonstrate more faith in themselves than they do in the God we meet in Jesus Christ. They fail to respect the sovereignty of God and think that they can manipulate His actions by manipulating events on earth. Wrong!

Beyond all that, the equation of the modern Israeli state with historic Israel--which they make--is absurd.

Speaking for myself, I'm praying for an early, rapid end to the war in Lebanon.

(Hat Tip to Andrew Jackson at for linking to the article cited above.)

(Ruminating Pilgrim has an outstanding post on this subject.)

Thursday, August 03, 2006

It Figures

Kylee at Two Pretzels reports that it's National Blame Your Problems on Someone Else Month. It figures that someone set aside a whole month to put the blame on others, but there's only a day dedicated to just getting over it.

When Presidents Theologize

Most of the time, when politicians hold forth on spiritual issues, you can expect a heavy dose of blather.

For example, consider this from a New York Times story cited by Ann Althouse last April:
A Roman Catholic who has struggled at times to talk about his own faith, Mr. Kerry also told the group that he believed "deeply in my faith" and that the Koran, the Torah, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles had influenced a social conscience that he exercised in politics.
This isn't a confession of faith on Kerry's part, but pandering. We shouldn't expect candidates for public office to make confessions. But it would be nice if they would be genuine when they do decide to talk about faith.

When not engaging in such silly posturing, most US pols are likely to hold forth on what can only be called Christianity Lite, employing language that seems pious, but actually reflects a worldview that idolizes the nation, human ingenuity, or self-righteousness. President Bush's second Inaugural message exemplifies this approach. Most egregious of all of Bush's Inaugural assertions from a Christian perspective was this statement:
There is only one force that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and the tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
That sort of gives short shrift to the grace of God, mediated to repentant sinners through Jesus Christ, which the Bible asserts is the only force that can truly transform humanity.

Recently, at Hugh Hewitt's urging, I wrote a series of pieces on Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address. It is that rarest of political proclamations: one worthy of the designation, sermon.

It should be said that for most of his career as a public man, Lincoln was as guilty of using religious metaphors and metaphysic assumptions in purely political terms as Kerry and Bush were in the foregoing examples. But there is something enormously refreshing about Lincoln's second Inaugural Address. In it, you find a politician genuinely wrestling with the theological lessons of his era. (As I put it when I first discussed the speech with Hewitt, Lincoln exegetes the Civil War.) Lincoln avoided pandering, sloganeering, national triumphalism, and idolatry. He clearly seems to be working from a Biblical text, just as preachers do on Sunday mornings.

It's a brave speech, one in which he accepted personal blame for the long bloody war in which his country was engaged, assigned culpability to North and South, and hinted at a Reconstruction program that would be more reconciliation--akin to the process headed by Archbiship Desmond Tutu in post-apartheid South Africa--than retribution. It appealed to the nation's "better angels," people's capacity for accepting blame as well as responsibility, rather than to any pretense of moral superiority. Yes, Lincoln said that the war in which the nation was engaged must be seen to its conclusion and that soldiers and their families needed the nation's support. But he saw the war as a blight upon the nation, a judgment against America for slavery and indifference to slavery.

As James Takach writes in Lincoln's Moral Vision: The Second Inaugural Address, that the speech has much in common with New England's election day orations that were, in the early days, delivered by members of the clergy and called the people to repentance and renewal as they addressed the public business.

At the risk of throwing the cat among the pigeons, I can think of only one presidential address in my lengthening lifetime that made any attempt to call the nation to repentance and renewal like this. It was Jimmy Carter's famous or infamous national malaise speech. (Referred to in this way, although the word malaise never appeared in its text.)

Frustrated by the recalcitrance of a Congress seemingly answerable to special interest groups and also influenced by a reading of The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch's dead-on analysis of the American mood back then, Carter, after having called an extraordinary cross-section of American leaders and thinkers to meet with him at Camp David, delivered an address in which he said, in part:
Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?

It's clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper -- deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession. And I realize more than ever that as president I need your help. So I decided to reach out and listen to the voices of America...

These ten days confirmed my belief in the decency and the strength and the wisdom of the American people, but it also bore out some of my long-standing concerns about our nation's underlying problems...

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy...
Carter went on to describe an erosion of trust on the part of the American people in their institutions and a rising culture of self-indulgence coupled with lowered expectations for the future. He also delineated a plan of action to address these issues.

But Carter's speech didn't work and was, in fact, effectively used against him in the 1980 presidential contest by the eventual winner, former California governor Ronald Reagan. There were undoubtedly many reasons that Carter's speech didn't make a positive dent on the American public, but the biggest one was probably its rambling quality.

In his second Inaugural Address, Lincoln was direct, eloquent, and to the point. In his signature speech, Carter quoted advice that he received from people and delivered tributes to the American ego before getting to his point. The claim being made by his opponents--and even by those from whom he sought advice--that he was failing to lead seemed to be underscored by this rhetorical approach. It had no doubt been designed to demonstrate his responsiveness in those post-Watergate years when leaders were at pains to prove that they were little-d democrats. There also can be no doubt that the speech was authentically rooted in Carter's Christian sensibilities, with its belief in the importance of confession.

But through his extensive quotation of other people, Carter seemed to betray a lack of confidence in the intrinsic validity of the basic assertions he was making about America in 1979 and about what needed to be done. Lincoln quoted Scripture, but he did so without apology and offered both his diagnosis and prescription without resort to a cast of thousands, as Carter later did.

Of course, this brief comparison of a speech by Lincoln and one by Carter is inherently unfair to our thirty-ninth president. Lincoln is an icon and though I have much respect for Carter as a writer, none of our chief executives has had the sixteenth president's mastery of the English language.

But the comparison is unfair in another sense. After issuing his call for national repentance and renewal, Carter faced the electorate as he sought a second term. The nation, in essence, issued a judgment of no confidence to him. Lincoln, by contrast, was tragically cut down by an assassin one month after delivering his second Inaugural Address.

The question is: How would the nation have responded to Lincoln's address and its call for repentance and renewal had he not been killed by John Wilkes Booth?

Subsequent events suggest it would not have been well-received. His far less-able and personally rigid successor, Andrew Johnson, enraged the radical Republican Congress with his pursuit of a forgiving Reconstruction program, so much so that he was impeached, though not removed from office. Lincoln was clearly an abler politician than Johnson, but given the usual deterioration of support enjoyed by war leaders after conflicts have ended--think of George H.W. Bush following the Persian Gulf War, Winston Churchill following World War Two, Woodrow Wilson after World War One, and the barely-victorious Harry Truman after the Second World War--Lincoln's wiliness might not have been enough to carry the day for a policy of even-handed, selfless repentance as commended in his Inaugural Address.

All of which brings us to a disturbing thought: Maybe one reason that major American politicians have shied away from anything like authentic theologizing isn't just that they're not inclined to do so, it's that it's impolitic to do so. The track record suggests that any theologizing that goes beyond pandering is going to lose you votes. And even then, you may not win.

[At Hugh Hewitt's urging, I'm slowly working on a possible book on Presidents and their faith. This is part of that process. To read my seven-part analysis of Lincoln's second Inaugural Address, go here.]

Don't Bemoan Your Weak Faith

I'm using A Year with Jesus as part of my morning devotions. Today's reading, based on Isaiah 42:1-9, is from something written by Martin Luther (1483-1546). I read it without realizing that Luther was its author until I had finished. I should have known that they were his words: They crackle with freshness and life and accessibility. Here's the devotion in its entirety:
God Sustains the Weak Faith
A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.
Isaiah 42:3

If there is one thing that can frighten a believer, it is thinking he is not praying properly or that he has too little faith. But even in this the anguished soul can take comfort.

It should serve as a comfort to such an anguished soul that any prayer spoken in Jesus' name, based upon His blood and merit, is a true prayer. There is nothing more proper than this. And a faith plagued by doubt is just as genuine and beatific as a strong faith. The true desire to come to God in prayer is a demonstration of true faith because such a longing is a work of the Holy Spirit.

Every weak faith can seize Jesus and His holy merits and wounds. Satan cannot extinguish the light of faith in the heart, since darkness indeed cannot extinguish the light. Reading the Bible, waiting upon the Lord...all these strengthen faith.

Faith is God's gift, and God will not require more of you than He has given you. Christ also died for the weak in faith. He prays for them, that their faith, although weak, may ever more strengthen and never cease.

Strengthen my faith when weak and break the work of the devil so I nevermore despair, instead that I may constantly carry Christ in my heart! Amen
[See here for a discussion of what it means to pray in Jesus' Name.]

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 28

In the previous installment of this series we pointed out that the Bible insists that we needn't speculate about God or His nature. God has revealed this to us repeatedly and then, definitively, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Jewish writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews says:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
"What if God was one of us?" singer Joan Osbourne asked in her one hit song. He has been one of us! But why?

There are lots of ways we could answer that question. I want to focus on one of the answers here.

In the Gospel of John, in the New Testament, there's a curious quote from John the Baptizer, a preacher of repentance whose ministry prepared his fellow Judeans for the revelation of Jesus as the world's God and Savior. "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)

What was John talking about?

The first thing you must understand is that sin is the common condition of the human race. Sin, according to the Bible, is a distortion of the human character that is our common inheritance. It's a state of incomplete or marred relationship with God, others, and ourselves. "I was born guilty," King David says in Psalm 51:5, "a sinner when my mother conceived me."

As is true of all inherited conditions, the condition of sin has its consequences in our lives. Because we are sinners, we commit sins. Sins are those wrongs we do and those rights we fail to do that represent God's will for human beings. God's will for us is embodied in part in the Ten Commandments, which we discussed at the outset of this series.

Death is the appropriate punishment for human rebellion against the will of God for our lives. "The wages of sin is death," the apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 6:23.

But God loves us. He gave us life and He is unwilling to give up on us without a fight. And though it may seem strange to associate a creature as docile as a lamb with fighting, it's as a lamb that God fought for our lives.

In Old Testament times, God established a kind of protocol for the granting of forgiveness to His people, the Hebrews. Especially on Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement, a lamb without physical blemish or flaw was to be the stand-in for the people. (Atonement is an old English compound word, literally at-one-ment. Atonement is about being made one again with the God from Who our sins have alienated us.)

On the flawless lamb's shoulders was the burden of the people's sins from the previous year. This was important because it reflected a recognition of the deadly quality of sin. Our sins deserve death and in the sacrifice of the spotless lamb each year, the punishment was meted out, freeing the people for whom the lamb was killed to live in relationship with God and neighbor again.

Jesus came to be the spotless, sinless Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of all who entrust themselves to Him. As John explains it in the prologue to His Gospel:
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 10:1-13)
More on Jesus, God the Son, in the next installment of this series.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Is Partitioning Iraq Antidote to Violence There?

Yesterday at, readers were asked, "Would Iraq be better off if it dissolved into three ethnic enclaves?" The responses are interesting, some quite well-informed. You might want to read the entries there.

A separate Kurdish entity would be easily established. In fact, with its recently-inaugurated advertising campaign for foreign investments, Iraqi Kurds already seem to be tilting toward an independent state. (How long the Turks would allow that is an open question.)

More problematic would be separate Shiite and Sunni states. I've read that members of the two groups have historically been integrated. But, given sectarian violence which now sees something like 100 Iraqi civilians dying each day, there has undoubtedly been a migration of Sunnis and Shia to safer places. De facto partitioning may already be happening. (On the other hand, once the situation was stabilized and partitioning was put into effect, the business of reparations for those who've lost home and property would be a nightmare!)

Some argue that a dissolution of Iraq makes sociological sense, that Iraq is the artificial result of British colonialism.

But all nation-states are, of course, artificial constructs. When the United States miraculously decided itself into being, there were many reasons to believe that the thirteen colonies, which had been far more accustomed to dealing with London than with each other, would crack up. If the three major population groups in Iraq want unity, they can make it work.

On the other hand, the fledgling United States had the assets needed to make a go of it as a single nation. These included common philosophies of government, common belief that no single religion should prevail, common experiences with self-government, extraordinary leadership committed to creating national unity, and the experience of having stood together to defeat the British and establish a new nation.

Many treat the dissolution of Iraq as a "silver bullet" that will solve all of that country's problems and allow the US to withdraw. What's interesting to me is that in recent weeks, I have read comments from both conservatives and liberals commending partitioning or seeing it as inevitable. Its appeal seems to cut across ideological lines.

But important questions go unaddressed in these speculations:

  • What would be the effects of partitioning or dissolution on the global war on terror?
  • Would al-Qaeda be encouraged?
  • Would the three Iraqi states quickly submit to radical Islam or be subsumed under other nation-states?
  • If it's difficult to train a single Iraqi army, what would happen if suddenly three armies with separate command structures and infrastructures had to be brought into being?
Whatever the answers, this discussion will undoubtedly continue.

Marriage Lessons

Ten of them I wrote about on the occasion of our last wedding anniversary.

[Thanks to Ruminating Pilgrim for linking to the original post from last year.]

[Jan, whose blog, is one of my favorite sites, has linked to my original marriage lessons post and linked to another, more whimsical piece. Thanks again, Jan. Do yourself a favor and go to Jan's site every day.]


Happy 32nd., honey!
I love you and am grateful for every day that God gives us to be together.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Blair Foresees 'Cold War'

That seems to be the main point of the British Prime Minister's speech before the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles today. In it, Blair asserted that while nations like Iran and Syria may have to be confronted if they refuse to play by international rules, he seemed to commend a policy of containment of radical Islam akin to the successful four-decade approach taken by the US, Britain, and other western democracies toward the former Soviet Union.
Mr Blair spoke of how he believed "global extremism" should be tackled.

"To defeat it will need an alliance of moderation that paints a different future in which Muslim, Jew and Christian, Arab and Western, wealthy and developing nations can make progress in peace and harmony.

"We will not win the battle against this global extremism unless we win it at the level of values as much as force, unless we show we are even-handed, fair and just in our application of those values to the world."

He said this "unconventional" war must be won through these values.

"This war can't be won in a conventional way, it can only be won by showing that our values are stronger, better and more just, more fair than the alternatives," he said.

Blair expressed a desire to see a rapid end to hostilities in Lebanon.

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Ephesians 4:1-16

[Each week, I present as many updates on my reflections and study of the Biblical texts on which our weekend worship celebrations will be built as I can. The purpose is to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, get ready for worship. Hopefully, it's helpful to others as well, since most weekends, our Bible lesson is one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

This Week's Bible Lesson: Ephesians 4:1-16
1I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” 9(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

General Comments on Passage
1. For background on the book of Ephesians, see here.

2. Pastor Bryan Findlayson well summarizes what happens in these sixteen verses:
The "mystery", once hidden now revealed, namely, "the unsearchable riches of Christ", is central to Paul's letter to the Ephesians. In Chapter 1 he introduces the subject, in Chapter 2 he relates the mystery to the church, in Chapter 3 he explains his part in the mystery, and in chapters 4-6 he deals with the practical application of the mystery. In the section before us, the substantial issue is how the Spirit-empowered ministries promote unity in Christ.
3. If written by Paul, as I'm inclined to think that our New Testament book of Ephesians was, the apostle begins with a strange affirmation of his authority to give the counsel of God to the first-century church in Ephesus: His imprisonment. "Because I'm in jail," he seems to tell the Ephesian Christians, "listen to me."

But, as we've already learned from the previous chapters of the book, Paul's incaraceration is for the sake of sharing the life-saving Good News of Jesus Christ with others, the Gospel which allows Jews and Gentiles alike to be part of God's new creation. That does give him authority.

4. This is one of several places in the New Testament where Paul addresses spiritual gifts. All who believe in Jesus Christ are granted such gifts, Holy Spirit-granted abilities (s0me say Holy Spirit-enhanced natural abilities) that allow every believer to contribute to the overall ministry and well-being of the Church and, as a consequence, help us all to mature as Christians.

The object of Christian maturity is for us to become like Jesus Christ. The Church is meant to be a massive support group in which, using the supernatural gifts Christ gives all His followers, we help one another toward that goal.

5. Last week's passage from Ephesians found Paul praying that members of the church in Ephesus would be filled again with the Holy Spirit with which they were already filled. This week, Paul exhorts the church to a unity it's already given by virtue of their belief in Jesus Christ and having "one Lord, one faith, one Baptism."

Whether we Christians like it or not, we have unity. "A" may drive us crazy with his verbosity and "B" may be a mad user of cologne. But all believers in Christ are on a common adventure: Growing into Christ.

God has structured things so that each of us has something we can offer to help one another make that journey to maturity in Christ together! Christianity is not a solo religion. It is intrinsically relational. In fact, Christian faith is about relationships.

So, Paul, is saying in our lesson, get down to the business to which you were called. Livein the unity Christ has given to you and help each other grow up!

More specifics on this passage later in the week, I hope.

Hunger Striking?

As a rule, I am totally unimpressed with hunger strikes. But this one is even less impressive! (Not because of Cindy Sheehan or her cause, but owing to the fact that it's a "partial hunger strike." Sheesh!)

[Thanks to Justin at Growing Up for linking to this post.]

Mel Gibson's Apology

From the Drudge Report by way of Althouse, the full text of Mel Gibson's apology:
There is no excuse, nor should there be any tolerance, for anyone who thinks or expresses any kind of Anti-Semitic remark. I want to apologize specifically to everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words that I said to a law enforcement officer the night I was arrested on a DUI charge.

I am a public person, and when I say something, either articulated and thought out, or blurted out in a moment of insanity, my words carry weight in the public arena. As a result, I must assume personal responsibility for my words and apologize directly to those who have been hurt and offended by those words.

The tenets of what I profess to believe necessitate that I exercise charity and tolerance as a way of life. Every human being is God’s child, and if I wish to honor my God I have to honor his children. But please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith.

I’m not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one on one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing.

I have begun an ongoing program of recovery and what I am now realizing is that I cannot do it alone. I am in the process of understanding where those vicious words came from during that drunken display, and I am asking the Jewish community, whom I have personally offended, to help me on my journey through recovery. Again, I am reaching out to the Jewish community for its help. I know there will be many in that community who will want nothing to do with me, and that would be understandable. But I pray that that door is not forever closed.

This is not about a film. Nor is it about artistic license. This is about real life and recognizing the consequences hurtful words can have. It’s about existing in harmony in a world that seems to have gone mad.

I'm praying for Gibson as well as for those maligned by his remarks. See here.

Monday, July 31, 2006

The End of a Film Career

All told, I've seen a grand total of one Mel Gibson movie, What Women Want (2000). I liked it.

The Passion of the Christ, the Gibson film people might expect me to have seen, never appealed to me, although many folks I know have seen it and enjoyed it.

At the time of the latter film's release, there were accusations of anti-semitism lodged against Gibson. I had no bases for judging those allegations, although I remember thinking at the time that the charge seemed like one of a long string of abuses to which he was subjected for making a film that focused so tightly and overtly on Jesus Christ. I also wondered if Gibson was being convicted of guilt by association, owing to his father's well-known ferocity as an anti-semite.

Now, however, comes apparent confirmation that the film actor and director spewed all sorts of anti-semitic remarks to a police officer after being pulled over for allegedly driving while intoxicated.

A few thoughts...
While there have been anti-semites within the Christian Church through the centuries, it's unfathomable that anyone who confesses Christ as Lord could harbor such notions. Jesus was Jewish, after all. Every one of the early Christians, including Peter and Paul, were Jews.

In addition, the idea that the Jews were specifically responsible for the killing of Jesus is contrary to the teaching of the Bible. There, we're told that the sins of the entire world--including my sins--were responsible for His execution. It was to atone for the sins of Jews and Gentiles that Jesus submitted to the cross.

From what I've said already, it follows that Gibson's alleged drunken accusation that Jews have caused every war is also inconsistent with what Christians are taught in Scripture.

If the allegations of these statements by Gibson are true, his film career is undoubtedly over. Most people are unlikely to ever again be interested in what he does on film.

There are such things as repentance and forgiveness, of course. I believe that all sin is of equal gravity and all sin is equally susceptible to the forgiveness offered us in Jesus Christ. There are fresh starts and new chances for those who turn from their sin and entrust themselves to Christ. I couldn't wake up in the morning if I didn't believe in these things. And if I believe them for myself, I must also believe them for Mel Gibson.

But, for the human race generally, irrational prejudice of the sort Gibson is alleged to have voiced often leaves too many scars to ever be removed through the PR equivalent of plastic surgery.

Even if the mea culpa issued by his publicist represents genuine repentance, Gibson may never be able to obliterate the suspicion that the prejudices he ostensibly vented the other night reflect a sick and sickening view of the world on his part.

It's sad. His position may be like the woman described at the beginning of this post.

[UPDATE: I agree that we all should keep Mel Gibson in prayer. Who can say what role alcoholism may play in his apparent anti-semitism?]

[Thanks to Terry Hull of Terra Extraneus for linking to this post.]

I'm Still Praying...

for peace in Lebanon.

A Cautionary Tale for Christians

In The Color Purple, I'm told, one character tells a friend, "When you walked in the room, I knew there was a God."

We human beings are meant to be carriers of hope and of the presence of God to others. From the moment we come to believe in Jesus Christ, our call is to live for Christ, serve in Christ's Name, and share Christ so that others, like us, can know that there is a God, a God Who cares about people.

This story from today's Washington Post tells about a woman doused by gasoline and set on fire, allegedly by her boyfriend. Fredia Edwards was known for singing that brought the whole congregation at New Abundant Life Missionary Baptist Church into the presence of God. But then, one day not long ago, Edwards stopped showing up for worship. It mystified many in the church.

The people of New Abundant Life seem to be caring Christians. I don't know what efforts were made by the people or the pastors of the congregation to get in touch with Edwards, to express concern for her well being, to offer help or listening ears, or simply to say, "We miss you." Chances are, they did a lot!

But one thing I've learned from twenty-two years as a pastor and from studies done by church sociologists: Abrupt changes in worship patterns, whether sudden disapperances or sudden frequencies, usually indicate something major is going on in people's lives.
  • They may be indicating that they feel they no longer need God.
  • Or, they can be saying that they're angry with God or can't find Him in a particular church fellowship.
  • They may be conveying a desperate new need of God.
Whatever the case may be, a simple "how are you" telephone call or a short note conveying concern can be just the opening needed for people to know that there really is a God and that He cares for them.

Five quick points:
  • Church members, as well as pastors, need to take such outreach as one of their responsibilitie as Christians. The pastor isn't always the best person to reach those in crisis. The New Testament teaches that all believers in Jesus are part of the priesthood of all believers. You may be the person God wants to use to reach a hurting person.
  • It's best that men reach out to men and women reach out to women. The sexual dynamic can cause problems and misinterpretations on the parts of both those who reach out and those who receive notes and calls of concern.
  • You don't have to be omnicompetent. If in the course of a phone call you learn, for example, that the issue dogging the person you've contacted is beyond the scope of your competence, ask if it would okay to refer them to your pastor. Pastors will either be willing to talk with the person themselves or refer them to professionals they trust for counseling.
  • Never write a note or make a call without first praying that God's Spirit will fill and guide you.
  • Respect the grown-up status of adults. If people don't want to talk or refuse your offers of help, don't force the issue. The simple expression of concern may be a line of communication opened for later use. But take a cue from Jesus and never force yourself on anyone. Respect people's right to say, "No." If after you reach out to someone, their life blows up in some way, promise not to kick yourself. The willingness to help others doesn't entail your taking responsibility for their decisions.
Believers in Christ can do a world of good in so many ways. That includes reaching out in the love of Christ to those within their congregational families.

[Thank you to John Schroeder from Blogotional for linking to this post.]

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Abundance Beyond Imagining

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship celebrations on July 29 and 30, 2006.]

Ephesians 3:14-21
Some of you may remember the second big oil crisis that hit this country back in 1979. The Shah of Iran was ousted from power and the new radical Islamist government there lowered their oil exports, driving up the price of gas at the pump here in America. Although we had just a 4% loss of total fuel supply, there was such a panic that lots of service stations ran out of fuel for periods of time and others either limited how much gas they sold or how long they were open.

In the midst of this, my wife, a friend, her daughter, and I went to the wedding of my best man, held on one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. We stayed with friends who lived near Syracuse and on the morning after the wedding, said our goodbyes to them and then, headed for our home in Columbus. We were a little low on gas as we set out. But because a fair number of stations had been open on the way up, we were optimistic that we could find a place to fill up the tank heading home.

Boy, was that naive! As the fuel indicator needle moved closer and closer to E, we became more desperate to find a place to get gas. More than a few times, we pulled off the Interstate only to find stations that were either closed or completely out of fuel. We finally found a station, packed with cars and trucks, where we were able to get gas. Never in my life was I so happy to be able to fill it up as I was then!

Our Bible lesson for today is about getting filled up. Like all our Bible lessons of the past several weeks, it comes to us from the New Testament book of Ephesians, which has traditionally been ascribed to the apostle Paul. The passage before us today contains two prayers and a last section known as a doxology.

That word, doxology, is a compound term that comes to us from the Greek language in which the New Testament was written. Doxos means glory and logos means word. A doxology is a word of glory or praise to God.

There are many doxologies in the Bible and in song. But there’s one song often called simply The Doxology that I’ll bet you know. Would you sing that with me right now?
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.
Praise Him all creatures here below.
Praise Him above ye, heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen
There’s a reason I asked you to warble that hymn with me. It can help us to understand the two prayer petitions that Paul mentions in our lesson.

In the first, Paul says:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
Here, Paul prays for the Ephesians, that with their lives built on God’s love, God’s Spirit will fill them up and Jesus Christ will live in them.

Then Paul prays:
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Here, Paul is asking God to help the Ephesian Christians to understand the bigness of God and of Christ’s love and so be filled up with the superabundance of God.

Paul then glorifies God for being able to bless us more abundantly--to fill us with more of His love, forgiveness, and power--than any of us can imagine. Blessings flow from God and, Paul knew, God wanted the Ephesian Church to experience them. God wants the same thing for you and me.

God wants us to experience His blessings for the same reason that, if you’ll forgive a little anthropomorphizing here, a car wants gas in its empty tank. A car is designed to take people from place to place. Without gas, it can’t fulfill that purpose.

You and I can’t fulfill the purposes of our lives as Christians or as human beings unless we’re filled up with the God we know in Jesus Christ, unless we’re filled with God’s Holy Spirit. You and I are meant to glorify God in our own unique ways. Our lives are meant to be doxologies. When we’re filled with God’s Spirit, our lives can be just that!

The fact is that if we believe in Jesus Christ, we already are filled with the Holy Spirit. That’s what the Bible teaches, although we don’t always realize it. So, why would Paul offer up two prayers asking God to fill people with the Holy Spirit who already are filled with the Holy Spirit?

It may be that the Ephesians were confronted with a special challenge at the time. Consider an analogy based on one in Billy Graham’s fantastic book, The Holy Spirit: All the houses and buildings in our area are connected to water mains that supply the needs we have for water in everyday living. But what happens if a fire breaks out? Firefighters will tap into a nearby fire hydrant to get a bigger flow of water for the emergency. Christians are full of the Holy Spirit. But sometimes, the New Testament said, God filled them again so that they could glorify God, in particular circumstances.

The circumstances we face may be helping someone in need, telling a person about Christ, dealing with temptation with integrity, or confessing a sin to God so that it can’t take root in our lives. But whatever the challenges we confront may be, we can’t face them on our own. We need to tap into the power of God.

But I think there’s a more important reason that Paul prays that people already filled with God be filled with God all over again. Once, we went to Myrtle Beach and although I don’t know how to swim, I rented one of those inflatable rafts, the kind you use to ride waves onto the beach. I had been out with the thing for a long time when a huge wave came along that literally upended me, spinning me around, head over heels. When I finally gained a footing, I realized that somehow, without realizing it, I had gotten a lot further from the shore than I’d known. The shore hadn’t moved. But I sure had.

Sometimes, my life with God can be like that. I go through dry spells in my life as a Christian. Without even realizing it, I get a long way from the God we meet in Jesus Christ. I’m not proud of that. But it’s true. In those moments, I realize that God hasn’t moved, but I have. It’s possible for you and me to have God and yet, for God not to have us, not to be at the center of our lives, our actions, or our wills. Paul is praying that the Ephesians will have all of God.

Christians, more than any other people on earth, know that our lives are not our own. We belong to the God Who made us, to the Son Who died and rose for us, and to the Spirit, the Counselor, the constant companion who reminds us of God’s love and will for us. We know (don’t we?) that God has called us to glorify Him by living for those five major purposes we’ve discussed again and again since Lent, 2005:
  • to love God
  • to love neighbor
  • to serve others in Christ’s Name
  • to tell the world about Christ
  • to keep growing strong in our faith in Christ.
My prayer for you (and it should be your prayer for yourselves) is the same as that offered by Paul for the Ephesians: that grounded in God’s love, the Father will fill your inner being with the Holy Spirit and that Christ will live in you; and that the vastness of God and of Christ’s infinite love will fill you with the fullness of God so that it spills all over your life and world.

There’s another simple song that embodies the goal of Paul’s prayer. You know it. Sing it with me now, please:
In my life, Lord, be glorified.
Be glorified.
In my life, Lord, be glorified.
Be glorified today.

In Your Church, Lord, be glorified.
Be glorified.
In Your Church, Lord, be glorified today.
May the fullness of God so fill you that the whole world sees Jesus in you!

Middle East Peace? Sure! But How to Deal with Inelasticity?

Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to both Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, has a well-crafted op-ed piece in today's Washington Post. There, he outlines the rationale for and the necessary components for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

Like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Scowcroft believes that the latest outbreak of fighting presents an "opportunity" for crafting such a comprehensive peace. He believes that the US will need to play a lead role in assembling an agreement, along with partners from "the quartet": the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia.

He also argues persuasively that peace is needed in the region so that "Arab leaders to focus on what most say is a primary concern: modernizing their countries to provide jobs and productive lives for their rapidly growing populations."

But a major stumbling block I see in the implementation of Scowcroft's laudable vision is the existence of national governments like those in Iran and Syria and extragovernmental groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda, all of which insist that nothing less than the destruction of modern Israel is acceptable. There are many reasoned voices and sentiments in the Middle East. But every time peace appears to be at hand there, one of these groups or governments causes trouble, with the support of many on the Arab Street.

The government in Iran is particularly troubling and particularly capable of fomenting difficulty. Its level of irrationality was underscored just yesterday when its president issued a decree that words not rooted in Persian would no longer be used in modern Iranian Farsi. Pizzas, for example, will no longer be known by that name; they'll now to be called elastic loaves. That name alone conveys something of the inelasticity encountered in the Middle East and the difficulty of bringing the peace plan that Scowcroft outlines into being.

Nonetheless, I am praying for such a comprehensive peace.