Saturday, September 02, 2006

The drive to the national championship begins today...

See here and here.

UPDATE: One down.
After a six-game losing streak, the hunt for Reds October resumed on Friday night as Cincinnati beat the San Diego Padres, 6-2. The win pulls the Reds to within a half game of the Pods in the Wild Card race, with two more games to be played in San Diego this weekend.

I got to watch the last five innings of the game and two things struck me:
  • Reds starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo pitched with the most confidence I've seen in him since the All Star break. Without the albatross of trying to get his tenth win on his shoulders, Arroyo seemed to shake off the only trouble he got into the entire game, that in the fifth inning when San Diego scored its two runs.
  • More significantly, the Reds offense came back to life largely because nobody was pressing as they clearly had been doing over the past three games against the Dodgers. The day between the disastrous series in Los Angeles and tonight's game seems to have helped the Reds relax a bit at the plate.
With the return of three once-injured pitchers to the Reds roster, the team is in good shape for making a run not only at the Wild Card, but also, given the St. Louis Cardinals' injury plague, at the National League Central title.

A sweep of San Diego would make the return to Cincinnati next week something to really look forward to! But even two games of the three in this series would be great.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Another Unanswerable What If?: Would JFK Have Won in 1964

Someone in this discussion over at Althouse's blog said that had he not been assassinated on November 22, 1963, President John Kennedy wouldn't have been re-elected in 1964. I disagreed:
...The what-ifs are usually avoided by historians. However, several facts lead me to conclude that he would have been re-elected.

First, at the time of Kennedy's death, Barry Goldwater was the presumptive nominee of the GOP and all the polling had Kennedy way ahead of him.

Second, before sunny Ronald Reagan made conservatism acceptable to the mainstream (and before the Democrats' big government philosophy brought the war in Vietnam and enormous deficits that brought seemingly no solution to our broiling social ills), Goldwater and all conservatives of his stripe were regarded as dangerous radicals.

I remember that my parents and grandparents were big Goldwater supporters in 1964. But when we shared this with our Republican family and friends, they were all shocked. They were voting for Johnson, deeming Goldwater to be what some would today call a RINO...because he was too conservative.

If you read Theodore White's account of the '64 campaign, you see the reason Goldwater won the Republican nomination: His troops were more well-organized than anybody out there. The organizational skills his backers developed that year later allowed them to take over the Republican Party.

But most Republicans and most Republican leaders were so put off by Goldwater that when he had to nominate someone from the mainstream of the party to be his Veep candidate, the only person willing to do the job was William Miller.

Miller was a Congressman from NY and a former GOP national chairman. But in spite of that, he was no heavy hitter. Years later, he did one of those American Express, "Do you know me?" commercials, trading on his obscurity.

The Goldwater candidacy would have been in trouble in 1964 whether JFK had lived or not. He was considered out of the GOP mainstream and dangerous by the general public.

Third, JFK had a high approval rating at the time of his death. While those sorts of things change--think of Bush the Elder after the first Gulf War, Kennedy's popularity wasn't the result of a war, which always provides leaders with approval that is ephemeral. (Churchill was turned out of power after winning the second World War and Truman's 1948 post-war victory was a miracle resulting from the arrogance and complacency of Tom Dewey and his handlers.)

The fundamental point is that all the lights were green for Kennedy to win in 1964.

Of course, the great historical what ifs of a Kennedy second term are twofold:
  • Would he have pursued pretty much the same policy in Vietnam as Lyndon Johnson did? In spite of latter-day spinning by Ken O'Donnell, Dave Powers, and other JFK insiders, I believe that he would have. The indications of the direction of his policies there were in place before his assassination.
  • Would he have initiated the big government War on Poverty? I doubt it. Kennedy was not an FDR liberal the way LBJ was. He had an illiberal cautiousness born of something like indifference to most domestic issues.
By 1964, even for Johnson, the war in Vietnam was not yet an issue. Goldwater's assertion that we should be more aggressive, involving the deployment of more troops--not unlike what Goldwater's Arizona philosophical heir, John McCain, is saying today about Iraq--fell on deaf ears. Criticisms of the war on poverty had more legs among voters in 1964. But not enough to sway them to vote for Goldwater.

JFK would not have likely won by as big a margin over Goldwater in 1964 as LBJ did. There clearly was something of eulogy in the vote for Kennedy's successor.

But Kennedy would not have required what until that point, was the most lopsided presidential win in history to have been returned to the White House. (Goldwater carried Arizona and five southern states, losing the popular vote by something like [43]-million to 24-million.) Given the political climate of that time, it's hard to figure what other states Goldwater might have picked up, although the raw popular vote would probably not have been so lopsided [had he run against JFK and Dallas hadn't happened].

From the Better Living Vault: Leadership Lessons

September 1 seems like a good date to post the links to this seven part series on lessons in leadership that I've learned from living, observing, reading, studying the Scriptures, and leading.
(Why is September 1 so appropriate? I don't know, other than the need I'm feeling these days to remember these principles.)
The First Thing Every True Leader Must Be
The Most Overrated Attribute of Leaders
The First Thing Every Leader Must Do
The Inefficiency Every Leader Must Embrace to Be Successful
The Hardest Thing for Me to Do as a Leader
The Indispensable Habit of Every Great Leader
The First Thing a Leader Must Do to Get People to Follow

Thursday, August 31, 2006

"How Do You Feel About a Woman President?"

That's the question Ann Althouse has asked her readers, setting off a lively discussion. Here's a surprise: I had an opinion or three.
I have no doubt that if the country had the opportunity to vote for a compelling female candidate for President, it would do so.

Bill Clinton...has apparently said that the first woman President will likely be someone from the right, a la Thatcher. I think there's something to that, given doubts harbored by sexists of both genders over whether a woman could be tough enough for the presidency.

While that thought may lead some to tout [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice, I think that quite apart from the fact that she's not really an elective political animal (it's hard to imagine Condi talking about pork bellies or the price of pork chops at the super market), Rice would, unless she waits until 2012 or beyond, carry the baggage of an increasingly unpopular Bush foreign policy should she run for President.

I've never felt that Hillary Clinton would be a candidate for President in 2008. My guess is that, in the end, she'll conclude that though she might win the Democratic nomination--a remote prospect for a party desperate to nominate a candidate without all the negative polling numbers Clinton has--she cannot win the general election.

Besides, for the first time in her life, Clinton is doing work largely out of Bill's shadow and she's shown herself to be adept at the work of a legislator, irrespective of what one thinks of her politics.

Both her predecessor in the Senate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan--once called the greatest Senator in US history by George Will--and Ted Kennedy, who personally destroyed his chances of becoming President (a job I doubt that he ever really wanted in spite of the whole Kennedy entitlement thing) found life in the Senate to be to their liking.

I...think that Hillary Clinton will look at those examples and determine she'd rather be a successful Senator than lose the presidency in a year when every Dem in the country will be salivating for the White House and condemn her if she loses.

At present, I can't think of any Republican women who could make a viable run for the presidency. [This isn't to say that there are no able GOP women. There are. I just don't think they can make viable runs for the White House at present.]

Among Democrats, I could see Dianne Feinstein running, but time may be running out on her; she's already 73. (Though I have wondered whether Mark Warner, the person I think will win the Dem nomination in 2008 is likely to give Feinstein serious consideration to be his running mate.) In the end though, I think that Feinstein's liberalism would cause her real problems in the Red states.

Having said all this, I will end with the only appropriate summary of my speculating...or not

Third Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 1:17-27

[To learn what this is about, click here. To see the previous pass at the lesson, click here.]

(Continuing) Verse-by-Verse Comments:
17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
(1) Yesterday, I said that, "two major ideas lay behind this verse, ideas already presented in the opening passages of James." I explored the first one in the previous post.

The second big idea in the background behind this verse is that God will provide Christians with the wisdom needed to resolve their differences. As this book unfolds, you see that James, while not using the same terminology, agrees with Paul that the Church is "the body of Christ." Any conflict that divides the Church divides its witness. But more than that, because Christians belong to an indivisible eternal community, any harboring of bitterness toward sisters and brothers in the Christian community is an act of spiritual suicide, denigrating us all, eroding our relationship with Christ, and imperiling that relationship and the effectiveness of the Church.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist--or someone with a doctorate in New Testament studies--to see that one of the conflicts James identifies in the early Church is over the wealth enjoyed by some Christian believers--probably the Gentiles--and the poverty endured by other Christian believers--probably the Jews living as migrants and refugees in various places throughout the Mediterranean region.

James, as leader of the Jerusalem church, would have had a particular authority among the Jewish Christians to which this letter was written. Early on, he advises them to ask for wisdom and that if they do, they'll find God anxious to provide it. In Ephesians, Paul said that when we allow God's wisdom to inform our life styles, worship of God will be the result. James will say that wisdom from God helps the Christian community to live in authentic oneness, resolving differences, empowering life styles of faithfulness.

is reliance on God's ways and subordination to God's will, not a reliance on our own intelligence. The Old Testament figure most associated with wisdom was Solomon, who asked for this attribute from God when he became king of Israel. In the book of Proverbs, Solomon exhorts God's people:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. (Proverbs 3:5)
Faith is trusting in God. So, here, as in James' book, one sees the intrinsic connection between faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ and wisdom.

(2) In saying that in God "there is no variation or shadow due to change," James is not commending a rigid religiosity to believers. The Christian life is all about change, for it's in change that we grow more like Christ, the goal God has for us all.

James is instead pointing out that God's character never changes. He is always gracious, accessible, omniscient, omnipotent, and so on. God can be counted on!

(3) "the Father of lights": See Genesis 1:14-18. Of course, the Old Testament says that God Himself is blazingly luminescent, so much so that no imperfect human being could look at Him and live. The Gospel of John's prologue describes Jesus as "the Light of the world."

18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
(1) John 3:3 says that we are born anew by water and the Spirit, that is, in Holy Baptism.

Peter uses language similar to James in describing the new life that we have as believers, born of imperishable seed (spora in the Greek of the New Testament).

Through Jesus Christ, believers are part of a new creation.

(2) The "word of truth" no doubt refers to several things:
First: The word about Jesus as the Savior and Redeemer of believers who turn from sin and follow Him. See Colossians 1:5.

Second: The Word, Jesus Himself, Who said, "Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)." Jesus is the foundational, living truth from Whom all who turn to Him, receive new life that lasts forever.

(3) James was telling his audience that they were the "first fruits," the earliest newborns of the new community God is still establishing through Jesus Christ.

19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
(1) Here, James is dealing with the crisis created by angry intransigence among early believers. They were following the unwise ways of the world, bent on having their own ways, rather than prayerfully seeking God's will and charitably accepting that other believers might have things to say that reflect that will.

As the New Interpreter's Bible points out, James begins here to contrast various attitudes and behaviors. Living by God's word "means being meek rather than angry (v.20); "it means reversing the estimation of wealth and poverty" as God exalts the poor and humbles the rich; "it means being driven not by evil desires (v.14) but" by searching for God's wisdom (vv.5-6); "it means counting joy (v.2), an attitude possible only to those who believe in a God who gives the crown of life to those who endure such trials because of their love of God (v.12)."

(2) Clearly, James is referring here to what happens to community when disputants within the Church hold onto anger and fail to do the hard work of resolving their issues, preferring instead to fold their arms and treat them like enemies. The sentiments echo those of Paul in Ephesians:
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27, emphasis mine, of course)
When we allow our anger to fester, we give the devil a foothold and that doesn't produce God's righteousness. (Righteousness, according to the Bible, is a right relationship with God. This is initiated by God's action, particularly through Christ, and our surrender to Christ by faith.)

21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
(1) This again echoes a section of Ephesians mentioned earlier. The six verses in question there say:
For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another... (Epbesians 4:21-25)
Christians are called to put off--or displace--the old ways of life, embracing the new life God gives us in Christ. When we do, this vital organism, the Church, is uplifted to spiritual maturity, greater closeness to Christ, and enhanced faithfulness and effectiveness in fulfilling our mission.

(2) No doubt "the implanted word" is that word about Jesus Christ mentioned above. This image reminds me of Jesus' parable here.

22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
(1) This is a great summary of James' belief. Knowledge about God or the Bible means nothing if one doesn't live out the liberating love of Jesus Christ, unless we have the wisdom that comes from faith.

Christ sets believers free to be our best selves, to love God and love neighbor with abandon, to share the good news of Christ with the world, and to fight for justice for all people. Failure to "do" the life of Christ will surely entail drifting away from Christ!

That's way more than enough for today. I hope to finish up the verse-by-verse examination of this fantastic passage tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Throwing the Cat Among the Pigeons

In which I quote C.S. Lewis, link to an old post, and generally try to remind Christians of how hearts and minds are really changed.

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 1:17-27

[To see the first pass, along with an explanation of what these passes are about, click here.]

[To see the entire lesson, click here.]

One More General Comment
Behind James' letter, meant to circulate among first-century Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin (James 1:1), is his concern over nasty debating that, in his view, is keeping these early believers from living out their faith in Jesus Christ. "Quit trying to score debating points," James is saying. "Live for Jesus Christ, the Savior Who died and lived for you!"

Start of Verse-by-Verse Comments

17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

(1) Two major ideas lay behind this verse, ideas already presented in the opening verses of James:

First: Wealthy believers
can't claim to be more blessed than the poor and the poor can claim to have as high a station in the Kingdom of God as their wealthy counterparts. James 1:9-10 says:
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.
This runs contrary to much conventional ancient Jewish thinking, as reflected in the response of Jesus' first disciples in a famous exchange:
[Jesus said:] "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19-24-26)
The disciples' incredulity reflected a cultural notion among first-century Jews--and probably among twenty-first century people of every religious and ethnic group--that wealth was a sign of particular favor from God.

"Not so!" said Jesus. Those who are wealthy may derive so much comfort, ease, and status from their wealth and if they allow it to happen to them, become so insulated from reality, that they are effectively addicted to it, incapable of letting some other God, even the God of the universe, be the King of their lives.

In the Kingdom of God, wealth is entrusted to some so that they can share it with others. (See here.)

One of the themes of the Bible is that God is the great leveler, bringing down the haughty wealthy and lifting up the humble poor.

In the Old Testament, a post-menopausal woman named Hannah asked for a son. God said yes to her prayer . She dedicated that son, Samuel, to God's service. (Samuel became God's last great judge and the one who anointed Israel's first two kings, Saul and David.) When Hannah gave her son to God, she prayed:
"...My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”
Hannah saw the gift of her son as one more example of God's penchant for raising up the lowly and bringing down the mighty.

Her words were echoed many hundreds of years later in the response of another unlikely mother, a virgin, pregnant with the Savior in the world, God-in-the-flesh, Jesus. Mary of Nazareth famously told her elder kinswoman, Elizabeth (another post-menopausal woman, she the mother of John the Baptist):
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
And we get a sense of what God's purpose in bringing down the haughty and lifting up the humble is from the words of the prophet Isaiah, later cited in Luke's Gospel to describe John the Baptist's ministry of preparing the world to receive the Savior Jesus: it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:4-6, see also Isaiah 40:3-5)
God levels the playing field between the high and low, the wealthy and the poor, and the powerful and the powerless, not because He prefers anybody over another. God loves all people equally. But He lifts the lowly and brings down the lofty for the same purpose: to allow all to see Him and His love.

Wealth and poverty, both, can be obstructions to seeing and experiencing God's grace in Jesus Christ. God reaches past them to love all people, to call them to freedom from deriving identity either from riches or resentment of those who possess riches, so that all belong to Him and live in loving community with each other. This is why among the very first Christians, we're told that a strange system was established:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
This is more than enough for today. I'll go to the second major idea which underlies this opening passage and present more verse-by-verse comments in my next pass at this interesting lesson, I hope.

This California road trip has been brutal for my Reds.

But, here's a question from the peanut gallery: Mighn't it be time to bench Royce Clayton, the shortstop, and give the starting job to Juan Castro, at least for the three games left on this road trip?

Who knows whether the Reds would have gone ahead last night when, at a critical juncture, Clayton made a seemingly half-hearted attempt to lay down a bunt and ended up out?

I don't know. But I do know that Castro, a favorite of mine since his first stint with the Reds, is among the best defensive shortstops I've ever seen and he always plays with heart. I think that Castro would be a better number eight hitter than Clayton, at least right now. Castro knows how to lay down a bunt, something the eight guy in the line-up must do.

Royce Clayton may be hurt or he may simply need a breather. I don't know. But he's hurting the Reds at the plate these days with his seemingly through-the-motion at bats. While Castro will never be a great hitting shortstop on the order of the incomparable Davey Concepcion, he won't embarrass himself either. And there isn't a better defensive shortstop in the majors.

Having said that, I love the job that manager Jerry Narron, GM Wayne Krivsky, and new primary owner Bob Castellini have done with the Reds this year.

[By the way, why isn't Dave Concepcion, the best shortstop of his generation, not in the Baseball Hall of Fame?]

Why Doesn't God Do Something About Our Suffering? He Already Has!

If God hates it when we suffer, why doesn't He do something about it?

He already has.

A lesson in lawn care I received from my grandmother when I was little may help to explain. She was out in her yard, going after weeds with claws and a small shovel.

"Why don't you just pull the weeds out by hand?" I asked.

"I wouldn't get the whole weed if I did that," she explained. "It would just grow out again. This way, I get it out of the ground, root and all."

When confronted with problems, our usual impulse is to go for the quick fix. But sometimes the quick fix, is really no fix. Like the unseen root of a weed, the problem remains, only to show up again.

The suffering we see and experience in our world is a symptom of a deeper human affliction. That's why God isn't satisfied to deal with our suffering superficially. He can and often does heal suffering, of course. Many Christians can tell stories of miraculous reversals of suffering that came after people prayed.

But, based on the New Testament's habit of referring to Jesus' healings and other miracles as “signs,” actions that point to His power over life and death, we can say that these answers to prayers don't really deal with our root problem. They merely sign-ify that the God we meet in Jesus Christ can destroy our real problem, root and all, if we’ll let Him.

So, what is the root from which suffering grows?

This beautiful universe is burdened by a condition of alienation from God and goodness known as sin. When the first human beings sinned, they brought suffering, deterioration, and death into the human experience. The condition of sin, like a genetic predisposition to color-blindness or right-handedness, has been passed down through the generations. From this condition, our inborn impulse to look out for number one, indifferent to others, we commit individual acts of sin.

Of course, we cause suffering to one another when we commit sins, whether it’s the child who calls a classmate names or the person who allegedly allows a defenseless child to die in a locked closet or a hate-filled terrorist who sends planes into a skyscraper, killing thousands.

But the mere condition of sin, because human beings are God’s highest and most beloved creatures, is a pall that hangs over the universe. The New Testament book of Romans says that the whole universe groans under the death sentence of the human sin condition.

This is the root problem with which God has already dealt. Sin deserves death. “The wages of sin is death,” says the New Testament. But what if a perfect representative of the human race were to take the death sentence for all of us onto His own shoulders? It would free us to live with God forever, as we were meant to be.

Since there are no perfect human beings, God decided to do this very job Himself: God the Son, Jesus Christ, became human and on a cross, accepted our punishment for sin. Then, signifying the future that belongs to all with faith in Him, Jesus rose from the dead.

Sin is the root cause of suffering and through Christ, God has destroyed its power over us. One day, God will bring this universe’s life to a close and in eternity with God, believers in Jesus will live as human beings were meant to live, close to God, without pain or sorrow.

So, why is there still suffering in our world? Chalk it up to God’s patience and compassion. Until the curtain goes down on our universe and its suffering, we have the chance to turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ.

But how do we deal with suffering today? That’ll be the topic of my next column.

[This is the second in a series of columns I'm writing for our local suburban newspaper chain. The first installment is here.]

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 1:17-27

[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.]

The Lesson: James 1:17-27
17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

General Comments:
1. James, the earthly brother of Jesus, was a leader of the first-century church in Jerusalem. He represented that group of early Christians most devoted to maintaining their Jewish identity as they proclaimed the crucified and risen Jesus as Lord. But, displaying the flexibility that comes to those who submit to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, at the famed counsel of Jerusalem, it was James who recommended that Gentile converts not be forced to adopt Jewish ritual or religious law.

2. Some scholars dispute whether this book was written by James. They argue that it's written in a sophisticated version of New Testament Greek. (The Greek of the New Testament is slightly different from classical Greek. The language of the New Testament is known as koine Greek. Koine, not surprisingly, is a Greek word meaning common. The fairly well-known Greek word, koinonia, means fellowship or, more literally, in common together.)

The significance of the style of James' language, say many scholars, is that it was not likely to have been written by a carpenter's son from Nazareth.

Nazareth was an insignificant village, comprised of perhaps fifteen households in all. But it was also located just west of the cosmopolitan region of the Decapolis, a federation of ten Greek-speaking cities. Traders no doubt traveled through or near Nazareth from the cities of the Decapolis to other parts of Judea and on to Egypt.

Like the Gallilean fishermen among Jesus' first followers, it wouldn't have been unthinkable for any resident of Nazareth to be adept--if not downright fluent--in four different languages:
  • their native Aramaic;
  • their religious language of Hebrew;
  • the language of their Roman occupiers, Latin; and
  • the language of international commerce, as well as scholarship, Greek.
Like today's residents of so-called Third World countries or of nations that are major players in the world economy, the residents of Judea would have found to be it in their interest to know how to speak in the language of major powers. James may well have known Greek.

Another argument advanced against James as the actual author of this book is that when Old Testament passages are cited, the quotations aren't from the Hebrew Bible, but from the Greek version of it. Known as the Septuagint, this translation is thought to have been produced sometime between the third and first-centuries BC.

Scholars argue, unconvincingly to my mind, that the real James would have quoted from the Hebrew version of the Old Testament. Why that should be the case is beyond me, particularly since his original audience would have been Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin. These were people who would have necessarily been forced to be conversant with the general culture. By the time of Jesus' birth, Hebrew had ceased to be a language used in everyday conversation. Jews knew it for the sake of reading the Torah and for worship, in the way some Roman Catholics formerly knew Latin. But in discussing the Old Testament Scriptures, first-century Jews, even those in Judea, would have used their everyday languages, including Greek, which was almost everybody's second language then.

3. The book of James was not accepted into the New Testament canon until a relatively late date, although some of the early Church Fathers--like Origen--quoted it extensively and appreciatively. It was accepted as part of the inspired holy writings earlier in the eastern Church--that is, in the general Asia Minor region--than it was in the west. But by the fourth century, it was also accepted there, a region centered by that time, on Rome.

4. Martin Luther hated the book of James, believing that it shouldn't be part of our Bible and thinking that James commended salvation by works, rather than adhering to the central Biblical doctrine that we are saved by grace through our faith in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

But Luther was wrong. James' emphasis on living out our faith echoes Jesus' teaching that the changed relationship with God that comes to those who turn from sin and follow Him will be evidenced--however imperfectly--in our lives.

The New Interpreter's Bible points out that, in their writings, James and Paul were addressing different issues. And, it says:
...when read on its own terms, James is a powerful witness to both the diversity in early Christianity and the moral imperative of Christian identity in every age. [italics mine]
5. James is an example of what's known as wisdom literature, like the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament.

At first blush, James seems less cohesive than say, Romans, written by Paul. But our lesson for this week acts as an introduction to the book, helping us to see some of its themes. (I hope to address those in the next pass.)

6. James' wisdom is rooted firmly in a relationship with Jesus Christ. That will become apparent as we explore the passage more fully. This is not some generic listing of wisdom sayings. It's wisdom for Christians wanting to mature in their faith.

7. James' use of the term, law, is different from how Paul usually uses it. (Or fifteen centuries later, how Luther would use it.) James' use has more in common with the way the term is used in Proverbs or in the Psalms, as the expression of God's will that we love our neighbor.

James is mostly interested in how the law guides the believer already in a relationship with Jesus Christ. For such a person, the law is a gentle nudge from the Lord we know loves us forever, a nudge that keeps our lives moving optimally, blessedly. The first Psalm well expresses this understanding of how God's law works in the lives of those already justified by grace through faith in the God we today meet in Jesus Christ:
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1)
More tomorrow, I hope.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Hope of Heaven Gives Us the Power to Live Fully Today

The Martian Anthropologist is a blogger who suffers from a painful chronic disease.

He writes well.

He's a person of intelligence who loves his wife and his family, the sort of person with whom I think I could get along and whose company I'm sure that I would enjoy.

That last statement may surprise some of you who know that the Martian Anthropologist is an atheist and I'm a Christian.

But I'm a former atheist and like another former atheist, C.S. Lewis, I find that my faith in Christ makes it easy for me to befriend people of all faiths or no faith. My faith in Christ allows me to be open to others, even when I may disagree with them.

In a post in which he paints a poignant picture of beauty and pain intermingling in his life, the Anthropologist makes this confession:
I don’t understand religious people who look for a paradise after this life, instead of doing their best to create it here.
I suppose that we all know Christians who are so heavenly minded that they're no earthly good, as the saying goes. But it's been my experience that the hope of heaven more often gives Christians the incentive and ability to live this life to its fullest.

You see, when you're unafraid of the consequences of death, as Christians are, you can live life with abandon and joy.

This fearlessness also frees Christians to battle injustice, a very in-the-moment pursuit. South African Bishop Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out and working against apartheid, the systematic oppression of blacks in his country, in spite of constant death threats. Some of those threats came from his country's government, which had the power to arrest him and do to him what they wished any time. But Tutu kept up his courageous campaign. He did so precisely because the certainty of heaven allowed him to focus his attention and energy on this life. As Tutu explained:
There is nothing the government can do to me that will stop me from being involved in what I believe God wants me to do. I do not do it because I like doing it. I do it because I am under what I believe to be the influence of God's hand. I cannot help it. When I see injustice, I cannot keep quiet, for, as Jeremiah says, when I try to keep quiet, God's Word burns like a fire in my breast.

But what is it that they can ultimately do? The most awful thing that they can do is to kill me, and death is not the worst thing that could happen to a Christian.
When Christians gather to worship God on Sunday mornings and other times, they aren't looking "for a paradise after this life, instead of doing their best to create it here." They're praising God for all the blessings He's already given through Jesus Christ , including eternity.

, they're asking God for the power to so live in this world that they share God's blessings--spiritual, relational, and material--with others. That's why we often pray at our church that God will enlist us in helping Him to make the world a new and better creation. It's why we're committed to serving others in our community, whether in helping Habitat for Humanity build homes for the poor, working with kids at the local Boys and Girls Club, providing food, toiletries, and coats for the poor, sending Christmas gifts to kids in faraway countries, helping get clean drinking water to an obscure village in Zimbabwe, giving gas money to a family that needs it for the Mom to get to her job, providing a place for local social service agencies to plan their work, or handing out cold bottles of water to passersby on hot summer days. When you're filled with the hope of eternity, it makes a real difference in how you live today!

The Christian's hope of eternity that impacts our daily living is also why I tell the people of our congregation that the holiest moment of our worship celebrations come when, strengthened again by our corporate encounter with God, we're given a blessing and sent into the world to live a life of love for God and neighbor.

Jesus Christ doesn't insulate Christians from reality. He sends us as change agents to transform reality one moment and one person at a time!

Sad News Must Be Met with Holy Resolve

Last Thursday, I asked for prayers that Marcus Fiesel, a developmentally-delayed three year old, would be found. Just this afternoon, we have learned that well before then, the little boy was dead.

His foster parents, who, it turns out, have been living not far from me, have been charged with involuntary manslaughter. The Cincinnati Enquirer reports:
Liz and David Carroll Jr. were charged today with involuntary manslaughter in the death of foster child Marcus Fiesel, whom they reported missing Aug. 15.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said the Carrolls left the 3-year-old "restrained" in a closet in their Union Township Clermont County home while they went to a family reunion in Kentucky on Aug. 4. Investigators believe he was dead when they got home two days later.

David Carroll is accused of then taking the boy's body to Brown County and burning it. Marcus' remains have not been found.

Other family members knew about the death and helped cover it up, Deters said.

"We believe everyone was aware, everyone covered up. The press conference that they held was part of the cover-up," Deters said, who added that the Carrolls did not confess. "They lied to the bitter end."
If these charges prove to be true, what can we say in the face of such evil? How do we explain such horrors and how an entire family could conspire to conceal them?

We can say that human beings are disposed to evil, a result from our distance from God. We can also say that some are so given over to evil that they enter conspiracies, even against little ones.

In the Old Testament, the Psalmist lamented:
1 Hear me, O God, as I voice my complaint;
protect my life from the threat of the enemy.

2 Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked,
from that noisy crowd of evildoers.

3 They sharpen their tongues like swords
and aim their words like deadly arrows.

4 They shoot from ambush at the innocent man;
they shoot at him suddenly, without fear.

5 They encourage each other in evil plans,
they talk about hiding their snares;
they say, "Who will see them [a] ?"

6 They plot injustice and say,
"We have devised a perfect plan!"
Surely the mind and heart of man are cunning. (Psalm 64:1-6)
Speaking for myself, this horrible event incites three responses:
First: I will pray more for our community more, asking God to open hardened hearts to Jesus Christ. Christ can transform people from monsters to human beings. Whether the allegations against the Carrolls are true or not, others in your community and mine could engage in such plotting against defenseless children. When minds, wills, and hearts come under the Lordship of the Prince of peace, such monstrousness as is alleged here is unthinkable.

Second: I will ask God to give me greater dedication and strength to share Christ with everyone. Again, people under the Lordship of Jesus, though not perfect, are filled with His love and can tap into the self-control that goes with being a loved and loving child of God.

Third: I will pray that God will encircle our entire community with His protection. I urge you to pray for every child in our community, asking God to protect them spiritually, physically, emotionally, and relationally. Pray this especially as our schools begin their new years. Ask that every student, teacher, adminstrator, and staffer will have wills opened to Christ, that Christ will go to them to love them and guide them, and that our schools will be places of safety. Invite God to be the Lord of everyone and everything in our community!

Fourth: I will pray that if the Carrolls are proven guilty, that they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Even if the Carrolls and their co-conspirators repent for the sins they're alleged to have perpetrated against Marcus, they have also allegedly violated the law, an instrument God has given whereby the rest of society is protected from those unwilling to voluntarily love God and love neighbor under the Lordship of Christ. (I explain here how Christians regard governments, laws, and police power.)
In the face of such evil, a renewed dependence on the God we know through Jesus Christ is our only hope!

Another of the Psalms declares:
The salvation of the righteous comes from the LORD;
he is their stronghold in time of trouble. (Psalm 37:39)
Now is a good time for us to come to the Lord and ask Him in the Name of Jesus Christ to turn us and our whole community to Him and His ways!

I'm sure that Marcus has been welcomed into eternity by Jesus Christ, the Savior of mercy who told the disciples to let the little children come to Him. But I hope that we Christians will redouble our efforts to pray for our communities and to share Christ with our communities, inviting others to follow Jesus, so that what happened to Marcus need not happen to other children!

Talk of McCain 'Makeover' Silly

The Washington Post is talking about a McCain Makeover. Frankly, that's silly talk. McCain may be making changes in emphases and mending fences with those who once hated him. But nothing fundamental about the Arizona conservative has changed.

Something else is going on here.

In recent decades, Republican presidential politics has looked more like the successor planning for which General Election is heralded than conventional politics.

Like GE, which has even brought its penchant for thorough transition planning to designating the key personalities on its major NBC programming (i.e., Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams, Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien, Katie Couric to oops), Republicans have recently operated on an informal succession plan that usually rewards the presidential candidate whose "turn" is seen to be next.

Ronald Reagan was barely beaten by incumbent Gerald Ford in the 1976 fight for the Republican nomination. Reagan loyally campaigned for Ford that fall and, while he faced opposition, was deemed the heir apparent for 1980 to face off against the guy who beat Ford, Jimmy Carter.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush joined a small group of sitting US Veeps to be nominated for President and became the first one since Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson to immediately follow the President under whom he served.

Bush the Elder edged out Senator Bob Dole to secure the GOP nomination in '88 and, as Reagan was to Ford, Dole played the loyal soldier to Bush. Bush, of course, lost to Bill Clinton in his 1992 re-election bid and in 1996, who was the heir apparent for the GOP? Bob Dole.

In 2000, the Republicans didn't go with an altogether person. But George W. Bush appealed to a public grown weary of the melodrama of the Clinton years and nostalgic for his father's less complicated persona.

Republican primary voters are much more likely to turn to familiar old hands who have accepted second- and third-fiddle status while waiting their turn to get to the top of a corporate-like Monkey Move Up than are Democrats. It's the Dems who, in the past three decades, have been more prone to nominating unknown outsiders like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

So, it comes as no surprise that Senator John McCain, once seen as the James Dean of the Republican Party, is making nice with the Republican establishment and that it, in turn, appears to be embracing him. It is, after all, the Arizona senator's turn, according to the GOP's succession scheme.

That some Republicans have been slow to come McCain's way is a bit surprising. Like other recent nominees, McCain is a known commodity. Like Bush the Elder and Bob Dole, he's a certifiable war hero. He's also one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, in spite of his association with campaign finance reform, considered anathema to many Republicans. If anything, McCain has been more hawkish than the President on the war in Iraq. He's a proven vote-getter who, in the past at least, might have knitted together a Reagan-like coalition for the GOP, rather than relying on the get-out-our-vote, who-cares-about-expanding-the-base approach of Karl Rove.

Frankly, I think of McCain's current efforts at making nice with GOP leaders as much less a matter of engaging in a makeover as enacting what has become a reliable Republican rite of succession.

Will 2008 be the year when the Republicans break from their usual succession procedures? It could be. Even among Republicans, there's disenchantment with the current GOP occupants of the White House and Congress. Although McCain is by no means a bosom buddy of the President, he may get swamped by anti-Washington sentiment, pushing a Republican outsider to the fore. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts may be able to combine that anti-Washingtonism with being a next-door neighbor to get an early win against McCain and develop the momentum needed to wrest the nomination from the Arizona senator. (Being from next door has helped more than a few Dems from Massachusetts to get their party's nomination. Think Kennedy, Dukakis, Tsongas, and Kerry. And in 1964, former Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge got an unexpected win in the Republican primary.)

Still, in spite of grumbling from some, McCain has to be considered the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. That he enjoys that status is very much according to GOP form.

Thanks to...

Charlie Lehardy for his kind words about this blog and in particular, all the recent notes and messages on Ephesians that have been featured here. If you follow the link to Charlie's post, you'll also be led to other interesting places he recommends.

Charlie is a fine and thoughtful writer and his blog is always worth a visit.

It's Normal to Ask, "Why?"

Sunday morning, we all awoke to the news that a passenger jet crashed, killing more than forty people. We couldn’t help asking, “Why?”

In spite of the pattern of tragedy and sadness we see in the world each day, illnesses, hurricanes, earthquakes, marital breakups, youthful rebellion, crime, crooked politics, job losses, mass starvation, genocide, abuse, wars, and a whole host of other tragedies throw us off. They make us talk about "getting back to normal," as though "normal" was a life in which things like these don’t happen.

But in fact, sadness and tragedy seem to be the normal state of things in our world. So, it is curious that we find sadness and tragedy so offensive and hurtful. Shouldn't we be used to them?

No, I don't think that we should be used to them!

I believe that deeply imbedded in our collective DNA is the memory of a time when tragedy and sadness weren't part of the human experience. We weren't meant to live under their shadows. Somehow, we know that life is meant to be good. And so, we're right to be offended when tragedy strikes. In an ultimate sense, tragedy really is unnatural.

Let me explain. The opening chapters of the Old Testament book of Genesis contain two different accounts of the creation of the universe by God. However you interpret those chapters, a few facts emerge:

1. God is good. It's in the nature of God to give. After all, God gave the gift of life to everything from the frilled lizard to human beings. Creation is a voluntary act of giving on God's part. To be alive is to be the beneficiary of undeserved love, what the Bible calls, “grace.”

2. God's creation is good. In the first Genesis account of creation, in chapter 1, God repatedly says that what He creates is good. And when God fashions human beings, He looks at them and everything else He's created and declares them all, "very good!"

Given what we learn about God and life from Genesis, no one who asks, "Why?" when a loved one dies or a plane crashes should feel ashamed. This isn’t how our good God intended our good life to be for us.

And even God is offended by the tragedies that befall us. Want proof?

When God came to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a friend named Lazarus died. Four days later, Jesus arrived in Lazarus’ hometown and found Lazarus’ sisters and friends grieving inconsolably. That’s understandable. But what’s incredible is that Jesus, Who knew that He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, that He Himself would soon rise from death on the first Easter Sunday, and that He would offer eternity to all who turn from sin and follow Him, also mourned over Lazarus. Jesus wept.

God hates it when we suffer.

In coming columns, I want to more fully explore the Christian response to the tragedies of life. But the first thing to understand is this: Our reaction to suffering is understandable. God didn’t make us to suffer tragedy. No wonder we ask, “Why?”

[This is the latest of my columns for the Community Press newspapers in suburban Cincinnati. It's an adaptation of a post written for a series that earlier appeared on this blog. You can find the narrative of Jesus' response to Lazarus' death here.]

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Standing Against Our Greatest Enemy

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio during worship celebrations on August 26 and 27, 2006.]

Ephesians 6:10-20
These days, tragically, it happens several times a week: Reports that some US soldier or Marine in Iraq has been wounded or killed by an IED, an improvised explosive device. The stories have an awful sameness: A concealed device goes off just as US personnel approach it. The enemy, in the tradition of guerilla warfare, is unseen and simply blends in with his surroundings, only occasionally being exposed. Guerilla warfare is an example of what the tacticians call asymmetrical war because it’s typically used by those whose army or firepower can’t match a heavily-armed conventional foe. Without uniforms, with the silent complicity of fearful civilians, bombs go off which the guerilla hopes will wear down his enemy.

Our Bible lesson for today warns us that all believers in Jesus Christ are engaged in a war far deadlier and far more destructive than the terrible conflict going on in Iraq these days. Unlike human guerilla warriors, the enemy we fight is never seen. The explosions he sets off in our lives may seem harmless or, to the unwary, non-existent; but unlike the guerilla warriror’s bombs that can only take away our earthly lives, this enemy’s weapons can, if we aren’t careful, lead to eternal separation from God. And though our common enemy is more powerful than any of us, separately or together, he nonetheless engages in asymmetrical warfare, surreptitiously sneaking up on us and luring us, just as Adam and Eve were lured in the garden. Our enemy, the devil, is a vicious, heartless, miserable creature who thinks he can bring God down by destroying us, the children for whom Jesus Christ died and rose.

I know that saying this may cause some to tune me out. People may think that the very idea of the devil is an outmoded one, akin to believing that the earth is flat or that Pluto is a planet. Years ago, the Oxford University professor, expert on world cultures, and novelist, C.S. Lewis, gave a series of radio talks that became my favorite book other than the Bible, Mere Christianity. In one of his talks, Lewis told his listeners:
...someone will ask me, "Do you really mean, at this time of day [in other words, at this supposedly advanced stage of human development], to reintroduce our old friend the devil-hoofs and horns and all?" Well, what the time of day has to do with it, I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is, "Yes, I do..."
And so do I. I’m convinced that there is a devil and I’m not alone in that belief.

As a young pastor, I met weekly with a group of other clergy. Among our group was a theologically liberal guy, thirty years my senior, who once told me that he disagreed with my assertion that in the Church, we needed to make the Bible more central to our life.

Given that background, you can imagine how surprised I was at this liberal guy’s reaction when, one day, another member of our group spoke condescendingly of people who believed that there really are angels, demons, and the devil. My liberal colleague fixed this fellow with a gentle, but resolute expression and said, “John, you’ve been a pastor for twenty years already. Yes, people must take responsibility for their own sins. But, if in your lifetime or in your work, you haven’t seen evil that can only be described as inhuman, I don’t think you’ve been paying attention.” He paused and then said, “Whatever my skepticism about things in the Bible, the one thing I find easiest to believe is that there is a devil, that he wants to dominate us, and that he wants to use us for his own ends.”

We face an invisible adversary. According to the Bible, the Devil was, originally an angel. That word, angel, angelos in the Greek of the New Testament, means messenger. Angels are messengers, wordsmiths, great communicators meant to be God’s letter-carriers. (It was an angel, you’ll remember, who brought God’s message to the young Mary and told her not to be afraid, that she was going to be the mother of the Savior of the world.) The devil, resentful of the station God gave to His highest creatures, the only ones made in God’s image, you and me, led a rebellion against God.

Ever since then, the devil and his demons have engaged in a propaganda campaign, using their skills as messengers to sow discouragement, division, selfishness, and death among us, hoping perhaps, by bringing us down to bring God down. It’s the devil’s aim to lure us to hopelessness, to indifference to God and neighbor, and to self-absorption. It’s in that very state of isolation that he wants to keep us forever, never to experience the love of Christ or the touch of others.

Hell will not be a party where people do naughty things for eternity. It will be a place where those who have allowed themselves to be lured away from God will live in a perpetual state of absolute aloneness and constant regret. We would be fools to think that we can face such evil on our own. As Martin Luther writes in A Mighty Fortress is Our God: “No strength of ours can match his might! [That is, the devil’s might.] We would be lost, rejected.”

So, what can we do in the face of this evil? Our lesson for today begins with words of encouragement from the first-century preacher and evangelist, Paul:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.
Paul isn’t telling Christians to grit their teeth or to exercise will power. Trying to be strong in the face of the devil will only result in our being “lost, rejected.” In the original New Testament Greek, be strong, is actually written in the passive voice, having more of the meaning: Be strengthened in the Lord. Now, consider what Paul is saying: Be strengthened by God in the strength of His power!

That helps us to make sense of what Paul writes next:
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
In other words, let the power, grace, and goodness of God that belong to all who follow Jesus Christ, cover you and your whole life.

When asked once how he overcame the devil, Martin Luther said, “When he comes knocking upon the door of my heart and asks, ‘Who lives here?’ the dear Lord Jesus goes to the door and says, ‘Martin Luther used to live here but he has moved out. Now I live here.’ The Devil, seeing the nail prints in His hands, and the pierced side, takes flight immediately.”

The Bible says that Christ lives in those who let Him in. It’s only when we let Christ in that the devil can be turned away.

The devil wants to discourage you, sow discord in your marriage, cause you to hold grudges, foster disunity and dissension in Christ’s Church, consider violence as an answer to life’s problems, and make us all think that we are left to live life in our own power, with no one to care for us.

But all of that is a lie! Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died and rose for us and He’s living now, just waiting for you to invite Him to help you, help our Church, and help our world.

The only ways you and I can face down evil is to
  • live in the supportive fellowship of the Church,
  • regularly read God’s love letter to us,
  • the Bible, and
  • pray.
I love the way Eugene Peterson renders some of Paul’s final words to us in our lesson for today: “God's Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other's spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.”

In 1861, a Shenandoah Valley farmer named Wilmer McLean saw one of the bloodiest engagements of the Civil War, the Battle of Bull Run, fought on his property. McLean cared little about the reasons for the war. He just wanted to get away from it. So, he sold his property and moved to a place he was sure the war could never find him. Four years later, General Ulysses S. Grant chased Confederate General Robert E. Lee throughout Virginia. In Appomattox County, Grant sent a message to Lee, asking the rebel general to meet and sign a truce. The place where they met to end the Civil War was an old house in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The owner was Wilmer McLean. No matter how much McLean tried, the war that he wanted to avoid found him.

You may not think that you are a party to the war that the devil is waging for your soul, or against his greatest enemy on earth, the Church of Jesus Christ, including this congregation.

You may think that sort of thing may have happened back in the day, but not today.

Christians often think that, unfortunately.

One day, seminary professor Howard Hendricks was approached by a smiling student who announced, “Dr. Hendricks, it’s been at least three years since I can remember the devil tempting me to sin.” Hendricks replied, “That’s about the worst thing I can imagine hearing from a Christian.” It either meant, you see, that that student was so far from God that the devil wasn’t bothering with him or that he was so insensitive to the reality of evil that he had been sidelined as a purposeful Christian.

Followers of Jesus Christ have an enemy sworn to kill us. But we have a Savior, a God Who is greater than all our sin and death. When evil assails us, no matter what it’s form, we need to put on the power of God and withstand all that the devil throws our way.

And this is how we do it:
  • We pray for each other
  • We worship together
  • We read God’s Word
  • We pray for help
Against these weapons, our enemy the devil has no power. When we use them, we can be certain that He cannot defeat us...ever!