Saturday, October 14, 2006


As I've mentioned before, the only time I use this blog to express a political opinion--in other words, a policy preference--is when I feel that an issue is clear-cut from a Christian perspective.

Government-sanctioned big-time gambling falls in this category.

I've got no problem with the neighborhood or office football pool or similar friendly competitions. I've even entered one of those a time or two myself.

But if it were up to me, every state lottery and casino would be shut down now.

It strikes me as particularly unhealthy for agencies of state governments, like lottery commissions, which ostensibly work for voters and citizens like you and me, to entice vulnerable, desperate people to squander their dollars on the false promise of a big payoff.

How many impoverished families have found their poverty deepened because an easily-accessed lottery ticket has incentivized them to addiction? The number is probably incalculable.

Lotteries and other sanctioned gambling make our states (and by extension, all of us) bigger enablers than parents or spouses who bankroll their loved-ones' cocaine or crack habits.

I have similar sentiments about Internet gambling, especially relative to its effects on young people. The unreality of the Internet can lead some, especially the young and vulnerable, to think that all that cash they're losing online is like Monopoly money. Not real. And it's very easy for young people, thrilled by the hunt, to say that they really are over age 18 and know what they're doing.

That's why I'm pleased with the legislation passed by Congress yesterday:
Placing bets over the Internet was effectively criminalized by the federal government yesterday, as lawmakers work to eliminate an activity enjoyed by as many as 23 million Americans who wagered an estimated $6 billion last year.

Attached to a port-security bill signed by President Bush yesterday was the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which prohibits online gamblers from using credit cards, checks and electronic fund transfers to place and settle bets. The law puts enforcement on the shoulders of banks and other U.S. financial institutions, some of which fought the legislation.
Want to waste your money? Go out for dinner. Go to a movie. Buy a book. Pay for the toll of the person behind you on the expressway or anonymously for that family at the next table in the restaurant. Or, sheesh, I don't know, give to the Boys and Girls Club, the Red Cross, Lutheran Social Services (the biggest non-governmental social services system in America), your favorite college or university, or your local church. All of them are a safer bet than a lottery ticket, that's for sure.

It strikes me that whatever one's philosophical bent--conservative, liberal, moderate, libertarian, religious, irreligious, whatever--it makes no sense for the state to be in the business of enabling addiction.

What do you think?

Is This a Counter-Counter Reformation? Or Un-Vatican 2?

One of the primary reforms pushed by Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and others in the sixteenth century was that worship--the Mass--be said in the language of the people. After all, if worship is the work of the people (that's what the word transliterated from the Greek as liturgy means), then you want the people able to know what they're doing.

Now comes word that Pope Benedict is going to authorize the more widespread use of the Latin Mass. I like Benedict. But this seems like tradition for tradition's sake.

Would some of my Roman Catholic friends and readers like to explain the Pope's apparent intent to expand the use of Latin in public worship?

It's Dumb Enough That People Are Hung Up on "Looks"

But now The Washington Post goes on for three web pages on how good looking Democratic candidates may help the party regain political preeminence. (When do we ugly types get equal time?)

Whatever it means...

now I'm told that my blog is worth more than it was a few days ago. (The church still hasn't received the check for the previous number, by the way.)

My blog is worth $99,923.58.
How much is your blog worth?

No game can be taken for granted, but...

The march to the national championship continues today!


See here.

And, looking ahead to a national championship in Men's Basketball, see here.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Is God Green?

Tod Bolsinger thinks so.

More on the Warner Withdrawal and Say Hello to Bayh

I opined at
I still feel that Hillary Clinton will decide not to seek the presidency in 2008.

The upcoming election represents a huge opportunity for the Democrats and irrespective of how much tacking toward the center–genuine or feigned–New York’s junior Senator may undertake, she is still the most polarizing current figure in US politics. (She routinely registers about 49% negative ratings and that’s before a single vote is cast.)

My guess is that she will look at numbers like those and decide that, at least for the time being, she’ll seek to emulate her Democratic predecessor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan who, conservative columnist George Will called the best senator in US history.

But even if Clinton doesn’t back out, I think that she’ll not be given the nomination. Democrats so hate George W. Bush and so want to replace him with one from their own party that, seeing how polarizing Clinton is, they’re more apt to go the moderate route. This makes a figure like [Indiana Senator Evan] Bayh [pictured at right] more appealing, especially since service as a governor is the gold standard of US presidential politics.

Of course, I should end this time at my crystal ball by saying, “Or not.” After all, I was the guy who thought that Mark Warner would be the 2008 nominee of the Democratic Party.

(I’m not so certain that McCain will be the Republican nominee, although by the usual thinking of Republicans, it is his turn.)
And, when later pressed by Andrew Jackson, "if not Clinton, then who," I suggested:
I think at this point Bayh is the likeliest nominee: former governor, moderate, Dem who wins in a red state.
John Dickerson over at Slate seems to have had the same inklings I'd had about Warner and that now I have about Bayh:
Whether he had a shot, Warner would have been an interesting candidate to have in the race. He was running to Hillary's right and saying the kind of moderate things that would have picked a fight with the party's liberal activists. Party fights are good: They work things out, and the Democrats could use the debate. At one point, Warner said the finger-pointing about Bush misleading America into Iraq wasn't helpful and that the party needed to move on. He said tax cuts were not a universal evil and that when Democrats talk about taxing the rich, they offend those people who want to be rich themselves someday. He was not a fan of what he called the party's "class warfare" populism that many Democrats think is the key to winning back the White House.

Immediately after his announcement Thursday, Warner became very popular among candidates who were preparing to fight him in the primaries. Some called him to start the process of winning him to their side. Sens. Evan Bayh and John Kerry made their praise public. The most likely beneficiary of Warner's departure may be Bayh, who was competing for a similar sphere of donors and activists as a representative of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. As a former governor of Indiana, Bayh can claim executive experience, just as Warner could, and offer the same hope that as a favorite son he could turn a red state into one the Democrats could count on. Thursday, Warner said he wasn't dropping out of the process. His former rivals won't let him.
[UPDATE: Rob Harrington, an Indiana Democrat who supports Evan Bayh, reacts to the Warner withdrawal.]

[THANKS TO: Spencer Troxell for linking to this post.]

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Don't Give Hugo a T-Shirt

So argues Spencer Troxell in a post about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, aimed at his fellow liberals. Chavez may say all the right words to push the buttons of opponents to the current US President. But, he says, none of that can alter that he's a very bad man. Writes Troxell:
All I mean to suggest to those of my thus polarized peeps is to be careful. That harsh, partisan microscope that you apply to the vulcans and their ilk can be equally benifical when turned inwards.

I know this may all fall on deaf ears, and I'm beginning to think a radical is a radical is a radical, but just in case, please consider my appeal:

We don't need any more dictators, guerillas, or martyrs, to push our true populism forward. We don't need a revolution to change our system, just the votes. Hugo may say the right things, he may call President Bush the right names, he may quote the right authors. But he's not right. He's the dictator of Venezuala, and he wouldn't mind too much at all if we all died.

The last thing we need is to encourage some South American Despot with our placid approval, or to continue to smear the distinct, and uniquely American, tradition of populism in the same way our baby-boomer predecessors did.

In 08 we'll be under new management. It will be a long time before the same is true for the people of Venezuala.

The people want change:
How many revolutions,
Until we throw up?

Don't give Hugo his T-shirt.
Whatever you think of Spencer's politics, he puts the lie to the notion that to have a particular ideological perspective means that you can't engage in healthy critiquing of your own team's ideas. In fact, such self-cleansing, self-examination is essential. Good stuff, Spencer!

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Mark 10:17-31

[Mark 10:17-31 is the Bible text on which this weekend's worship celebration at Friendship Lutheran Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, will be built. This is the second look at the lesson I've posted this week. Click here to see the first.]

A Few More General Comments
1. I've mentioned many times here how important narrative context, where a passage falls within the particular book of the Bible, can be in understanding a particular passage of Scripture. Bryan Findlayson talks about the context of this weekend's Bible lesson:
Mark carefully places the story of "the rich young ruler" between the blessing of the children, v13-16, and the rewards of discipleship, v28-31. In the blessing of the children, we learn that the kingdom of God is received by the humble seeker as a gift of grace. In the story of the rich man we are reminded that the righteousness worthy of the kingdom is beyond any of us and this because we are all "rich" in this world's things. Then, in the disciples' response to the rich man's sad departure, we learn that the rich man's sorrow is far safer than the disciples' pride, for in the end the kingdom is given to the broken, not the proud.

2. Somewhere I've read that Howard Hendricks, the Baptist seminary professor, once calculated that Jesus addressed the issue of money more than he spoke about the topics of heaven and hell combined.

Another contextual prism through which we can view this Bible lesson is Jesus' teachings on money and possessions.

As Lutheran pastor Ed Markquart points out, each of the numerous stories (or parables) which Jesus told about money comes at the topic from a slightly different angle. But the reason that Jesus addressed this issue seems apparent: Money is a power that can become so important to us that it takes the place of God in our lives. And when God's supremacy in our lives is supplanted, we're separated from God.

Quaker theologian Richard Foster's assertion in his classic, Money, Sex, and Power, is right on from the perspective of Jesus' teaching: We will either control our money or our money will control us.

The Bible Lesson: Mark 10:17-31
17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
(1) Is the man trying to butter Jesus up? Maybe. But, in the next verse, Jesus is going to key in on the man's use of the adjective, good.

(2) The man offers a religious question. The idea is, "What do I have to do to earn the favor of God?" Jesus, of course, turns such notions on their head.

18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
(1) Only God is worthy of the term, good, Jesus tells the man. Don't throw the term around so loosely!

(2) In beginning this way, Jesus might be saying, "I am good because I am God." I've often toyed with that interpretation. But I don't think that's correct.

(3) A far more likely valid interpretation is that in saying this, Jesus, Who understands us inside out, already sees that this man deems himself good, morally uncorrupted. Confident that his behavior has earned eternal life, he wants Jesus to confirm his own goodness. Sometimes we can become so religious that we mistakenly think of ourselves as being God's moral equal, whether we say it or not. We forget, as the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich put it, God is "wholly Other."

19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
(1) Because the man apparently has a righteousness rooted in the law, Jesus begins by citing five of the Ten Commandments--not in order--and another command which doesn't appear among those laws given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai.

(2) The latter command, the one that isn't part of the Ten Commandments, is, "You shall not defraud." Why did Jesus mention this? I think that by the man's response, Jesus establishes that he hasn't become wealthy because of dishonesty. That's laudable, of course. But the avoidance of particular sins doesn't necessarily mean that we have life from God.

(3) The five commands from the Ten Commandments that Jesus mentions are all part of what's called the second table of the commandments. The first table--numbers one to three, deal with our relationship with God. The second table--numbers four to ten, deal with our relationship with others. (For more on the Ten Commandments and the varied ways of numbering them, see here.)

(4) Religious thinking is mired in the self. It's all about what I've done, how I've kept God's commands. Christianity sees God as the main actor in our lives. We don't earn His love and forgiveness; we receive the love He offers us as a matter of course. We can't earn the life made possible through Jesus Christ, we can only surrender to Him and follow Him...or not.

The man is confident that he has kept all the commandments that Jesus cites since the demarcation point between youth and adulthood, then thought to be twelve years old.

21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
(1) This is the only place in the New Testament where we're told that Jesus loved a specific person. The clear implication is that Jesus felt compassion and pity for this man. His spiritual pride--his pride in the sins he'd avoided--kept him from surrendering to God's grace.

(2) Why is it that Jesus told this man to do something then? Isn't that a religious prescription?

It was because this man's money and possessions were the source of his pride and his alienation from God. Like others of his time--and as we'll see, like Jesus' disciples--this man thought that wealth was a sign of favor of God, a sign that one was righteous and in sync with God. Poverty was seen as a curse from God.

Jesus is telling the man that he cannot rely on his wealth to establish either his identity or secure his place in eternity. The only way to get free of his slavery to wealth is to get rid of it. This is akin to what people are told when dealing with addictions in Twelve Step programs. The alcoholic can never again take a drink. If they do, alcohol will own them.

(3) This doesn't mean that wealth is inherently bad, any more than it's inherently good. But if something or someone causes us to sin, the only rational, appropriate thing to do is to flush them from our lives. No matter how many sins the wealthy man avoided, wealth was still his god. And we can have no other gods but the One Who created the universe and Who revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ.

Markquart says:
Jesus was asking for a positive action from the young man: “Do something positive for poor people.” In the Ten Commandments, people were commanded by God to avoid doing bad things to others. To avoid doing bad things is both good and proper. We should avoid doing bad things to others but that is not the same as doing good for others, especially poor people. Avoid doing something bad to someone is not the same as doing something good for them. We expect people to avoid doing bad to others…killing them, committing adultery with them, stealing from them, lying about them, defrauding them. But it is something else to do something beneficial for them. That is what this text is all about. The young man was Mr. Respectable, Mr. Honorable. Mr. Upright. He didn’t do anything bad to people but he didn’t do anything good for these poor people, to make their lives better, to share with those poor people the enormous financial resources that he had.
(4) Ed Markquart also writes:
It is important that we understand this passage and not take it literally. It is part of Aramaic hyperbole, overstatement or exaggeration in order to make a point. You don’t take these words literally or you get in trouble. Other examples of Aramaic hyperbole or strong exaggeration in language are “anyone who does not hate your mother and father and brother and sister cannot be my disciple.” Or, “if you hand sins, cut if off. If your eye sins, cut it out. If your foot leads you astray, cut it off.” These are all illustrations from the gospels where Jesus used Aramaic exaggeration to make a point. The message is: we are to generously share our economic resources with the poor and hungry of the world.

Following the same line of reasoning, we remember that Jesus did not ask Zaccheaus, who was the richest tax collector in town, to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Jesus did not ask Joseph of Arimathea, who the Bible says was rich, to sell all had had and give it to the poor. Jesus did not ask Nicodemus, the wealthy man from the Jewish Sanhedrin or Senate, to sell all they had and give it to the poor. Nor does Jesus ask us today to sell all we have and give it to the poor. To think such thoughts would misunderstand Jesus and the text.

Jesus was putting the rich young ruler to a test to see whether he personally and specifically loved God and his neighbor more than money. This test was similar to the story about Abraham in the Old Testament when God asked him to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. God was testing Abraham to see if Abraham loved God more than his son. Similarly, Jesus was testing this rich young man to see if he loved his riches more than God. That is what the story is about. God is testing us to see if we love our money and material possessions more God. We remember Jesus’ teaching when he said: “Where your treasure is, there will be your heart.” The man’s heart was in his treasures.
22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
(1) Jesus never forces Himself on us, affording us the option to simply walk away from Him and His claims on our lives. The rich man here did just that.

23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
(1) The disciples believed, like others of their culture and time, that wealth was a sign of particular blessing from God. No wonder they were perplexed!

(2) It isn't possible for us to be saved because of our works, attainments, or power, Jesus says. But it's possible for anyone to be saved in the power of God, Who graciously offers new life to all who turn from sin and believe in Him.

28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”
(1) Peter's statement is little different from the question of the rich man. He points in pride to his religious action of leaving home and following Christ.

29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.
(1) Those who genuinely put Christ first and follow will have life with God. They're the ones who humbly admit their need of forgiveness and of a Savior and find both in Christ.

31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
(1) The topsy turvy Kingdom of God!

This Truly Shocks Me

I thought that former Virginia governor Mark Warner would be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. But evidently, he's backing out of the race.

The reason for believing that Warner would take the Dem banner was simple: Democrats win the White House when they nominate Southern governors who are perceived-moderates. They did it in 1976 with Jimmy Carter and again in 1992 with Bill Clinton.

Warner's withdrawal means that now no Virginian will vie for the presidency in two years. George Allen, the state's junior Senator, a conservative Republican, self-destructed as a viable candidate during his bid for re-election to the upper chamber this year. (It appears that he will nonetheless win the Senate race in four weeks.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Where's Mark?

Here. But I haven't had the time to post today. And now, I'm too tired.

Hopefully, more tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I Have No Idea What This Means

...but you can donate the cash to the congregation I serve as pastor, which could use it to help a lot more people in our community through things like Boys and Girls Club, CASA for Kids!, and other service organizations and projects in which we're involved...not to mention reaching out to our community to share the Good News of Christ! (Hey, I can dream, can't I?)

My blog is worth $99,359.04.
How much is your blog worth?

Is it Simply 'Stay the Course' v. 'Withdraw Now'?

Regular readers of this blog know that I've not taken a public position on the war in Iraq.

As a pastor, I don't want to take the risk of being seen as saying, "This is what God thinks about the war." Because so many Christians I respect and admire have dramatically different positions on the war, I realize that my own opinion--and I do have a personal opinion on it--could be wrong. It's stupid for a pastor to claim, "Thus saith the Lord..." on any topic--but especially on one about which people have such strong feelings--unless he or she feels personally certain about the will of God!

Besides, it's far more important to me that people wrestle with issues like this as Christians, their hearts informed by the grace and counsel of God, than that I put in my two-cents' worth of probably useless advice. Better that we all struggle to find the right path through prayerful reliance on Christ than that Pastor Mark have his ego stroked by getting some people to agree with him.

But, I do feel comfortable saying this about the debate over the war: It seems to me that the mainstream media and bloggers of both the Right and the Left have turned the whole discussion about the war into a choice between two simple alternatives.

I guess that shouldn't surprise us: Public communicators of whatever ilk seem to like battles between white hats and black; cops and robbers; Christians and lions. But I think that most people's thinking is more subtle than that!

Marshall Thompson is doing a walk for peace in opposition to the war. In this post, he excoriates those who advocate what he calls "staying the course" in Iraq as being unrealistically idealistic in their views. Be that as it may, I responded to what I regard as his--and others'--oversimplification of people's views on the war:

There are some who were opposed to the US intervention in Iraq but nonetheless oppose withdrawal from the country now. Many of these folks tell me that they believe that the US "broke" Iraq and that it would therefore be irresponsible to leave before "fixing" the country.

...In fact, one ardent dove and very liberal Democrat told me last week that the only honorable thing to do now is for the US to re-institute the draft and to send 1,000,000 soldiers to both Afghanistan and Iraq! His arguments are, for me, bookends [to views] advanced by a group of very conservative, pro-military, American Legion-member Republicans I partied with recently; they all advocated an immediate withdrawal from Iraq...

Whatever the merits of such arguments, their existence demonstrates that debate on the war is far more complicated and the views of the public considerably more complex than consideration of two alternatives--"stay the course" or "cut and run"--would suggest.

My guess is that a majority of the country adheres to neither position, but varied gradations of the two.

It's disappointing to see how frequently our politics devolve to a kind of Chinese restaurant menu: one from column A or one from column B, but no combinations or any consideration of a column Z alternative.

How Can the Amish Forgive?

Susan Henderson wonders--profanely--over at The Huffington Post how the Amish community violated by a gunman can pay "their respects at the murderer's funeral and set up a fund for his family." It is, as she describes it, "astounding."

But the Amish community is clearly witnessing to an important, and sometimes impossibly difficult, aspect of Christian life: forgiveness.

Among the things they're teaching us about forgiveness are these:
  • Forgiveness is the attitude with which we're to meet the world.
We're to forgive as we've been forgiven. The Christian knows that in Jesus Christ, God has made forgiveness available to all people. To withhold it is not rightly in our power.
  • Forgiveness can't be earned or merited.
You can only decide to receive it when it's offered...or not. This act of deciding to receive forgiveness is what the Bible calls repentance. To repent--the Old Testament word used to describe it literally means to change directions, back toward God and the New Testament word means to change one's mind--is to accept God's (and other's) acceptance of us.

Jesus painted a vivid portrait of forgiveness and repentance in His parable of the Prodigal Son. The father in the story, emblematic of God, never stopped loving or wanting a relationship with his son. His forgiveness was always available for the taking. When the son came back, even before the boy was able to utter his words of contrition, the father was surrounding him in a bear hug of forgiveness.
  • Forgiveness is release.
In fact, the New Testament Greek word most often used to describe forgive is aphiemi, a word that means I release. When we forgive, we release not only the person we forgive from their bondage to shame, we release ourselves from the corrosive, killing effects of vengefulness and obsessive victimhood. We release ourselves to live.
  • Until we willingly forgive others, God's forgiveness can't reach us.
"Vengeance is mine," God tells us. He's the One to put things right spiritually and eternally. Not us. When we decide to act vengefully, we're taking to ourselves God-like dominion over others, an act as damnable as that of the murderer who decided to take the lives God gave to those Amish children.

It's not for nothing that Jesus teaches us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." When we withhold forgiveness from others, we block from our lives the forgiveness and life God wants to give us.

Three things that forgiveness is not:
  • It's not approval.
Forgiveness is not say, "Oh, that's okay." Murdering children is not okay. When we forgive, we're not saying that the other person doesn't have issues to work out with God or perhaps, the criminal justice system.

In fact, the Christian's hope and prayer in offering forgiveness to others will cause the person to want to repent and enjoy a whole, personal relationship with the God revealed in Jesus and the restoration of other relationships. The New Testament teaches that it's the kindness of God that leads people to repent. Christians hope that in offering forgiveness, people will experience God's kindness and so, want to walk with Him too.
  • It's not an indication that the person we forgive is right with God.
God's forgiveness must be appropriated, accessed. That only happens when there is repentance. Forgiveness may be offered. Accepting or not is up to us.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t replace the proper working of the judicial system.
Because not everybody lives under the voluntary kingdom of God, God also rules through the coercive means of civil and criminal law. Civil authority exacts from the unbelieving what believers are called to willingly give to each other, things like mutual respect.

So, Pope John Paul II visited his would-be assassin within months of the attack that nearly ended his life and forgave Mehmet Ali Agca. But the Pope also left Agca in prison. The man still had to pay his debt to society. (See here.)

One final point. A commenter on Henderson's post, a person named Queenie, wrote this:
Thanks Susan for tribute to Amish. If only the Christians of our country had followed the lead of the Amish instead of the Falwell/Robertson crowd, we would not be bogged down in Bushs' Iraqi killing debacle now.
Leaving aside any discussion of the war in Iraq, I responded:
I can assure you that the Falwell/Robertson crowd represent but a fraction of we Christians in the United States and it ticks us off the way they've been able to hijack the perceptions of gullible people about what Christianity is about. In this sense, the Amish, who are also Christians, are more representative of what is best in us. Of course, none of us is perfect. As an apt bumper sticker puts it, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." The Amish are reminding us of that.
My personal experience tells me that to forgive in ways that the Amish are demonstrating right now is impossible when we rely on ourselves. It can only happen when we rely on Jesus Christ...and even then, one must go to God again and again and again, asking to be released from the feelings of hatred, anger, and hatred that can sometimes dog us so that we can get down to the business of living our lives. My experience says that only a Savior Who has forgiven all my sins--and the sins of the world--can give me the capacity to forgive as I've been forgiven.

The Amish are showing us all how the very practical life skill of forgiveness happens and how it works.

[UPDATE: Thanks to Andrew Jackson of Smart Christian for linking to this post.]

[ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE: Written by a Mennonite pastor. While I think that there's a lot of food for thought in this piece, I also think that governments are authorized by God to use force and other coercive power. This isn't necessarily an endorsement of US policy. I'm simply saying that God rules in two different ways over different constituencies. See here and here for posts that contain discussions of the two different means of rule God employs.]

[THANKS TO: Pastor Jeff at Conblogeration for linking to this post. Go over there and read the poignant personal story of forgiveness told in the comments by Des Moines Girl.]

[THANKS ALSO TO: The Ruminating Pilgrim for linking to this post.]

[I ALSO THANK: Susan Henderson, the blogger whose original post on The Huffington Post elicited this response from me. She wrote a gracious email to me, expressing regret that her post, which she intended to both laud the Christian graciousness of the Amish and to confess a personal desire to be more like them, had attracted so many "Christian-bashing" quotes. Susan's personal blog is here.]

[THANKS TO: Bonnie at Intellectuelle for linking to and summarizing this post.]

Monday, October 09, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Mark 10:17-31

[Most weeks, 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 Bible Lesson: Mark 10:17-31
17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

General Comments:
1. The New Testament contains four books known as gospels. The word gospel is from an Old English compound word, God-spell or good-spell, meaning good news. Good news, in turn, is a direct translation of the New Testament Greek word, euangelion. (From this latter word, we've received the transliterated words of evangelism and evangelist. Evangelism refers to the common call of all Christians to share the Good News of Jesus. An evangelist is the title given to those persons who are especially gifted spiritually to share the Good News. An apt one-word translation of evangelist would be good newser.)

The Christian has good news to share with the world. It's summarized well in John 3:16, the most familiar passage of the Bible.

The four books called gospels--Mattthew, Mark, Luke, and John--tell the true story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

2. Mark is the shortest of the four gospels and tells Jesus' story with an almost breathless, journalistic brevity.

3. Like John's Gospel, Mark does not include an account of Jesus' birth.

4. The Greek in which Mark's Gospel is written is more primitive than that used in the other three.

5. Many scholars believe that Mark's was the first of the four accounts to be committed to paper.

6. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have many common narratives among them. This is why they're referred to by scholars as the synoptic gospels, synoptic being a compound word which basically means to see things similarly.

[I hope to share some verse-by-verse comments with you later in the week.]

Sunday, October 08, 2006

"When I Look at the Stars...": Four Marks of a Good Steward

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship celebrations on October 7 and 8, 2006.]

Psalm 8
As most of you probably know, I’m not exactly a nature boy. My idea of roughing it is a night without my computer or my library at a Holiday Inn. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate nature.

Three years ago, we had the chance to take a two week vacation, traveling to Colorado and back. What a great trip! I loved seeing the farms and prairies along the way. I loved Kansas! It reminded me of the flat, neat farmland of northwestern Ohio.

But I was stunned by Colorado! All my life, it seems, I’d heard people talk about how gorgeous Colorado was, how the mountains left you awestruck, how the air was clear, and the skies seemed to go on forever. I’d heard John Denver sing about his “Colorado Rocky Mountain high.” I'd heard Joe Walsh tell how he'd "spent the last year Rocky Moountain way, couldn't get much higher." (Although he may have been talking about something other than natural beauty!)

But I thought all these words about the beauty of Colorado was a bunch of hype. I was wrong! We stayed in a house on top of a mountain outside of Durango. Whether sitting on the deck of the house or peering out through its picture windows, there were breathtaking views everywhere. There were birds I’d never seen before, all within just a few feet of us. We took a ride on the Durango to Silverton scenic train and, in a few hours, saw more majesty than I’d ever seen in my lifetime: Mountains climbing into heaven. Gorges where cascading rivers foamed and tumbled. Forests so thick and green and gorgeous that if one walked through them, the sun wouldn't be seen for hours.

I kept thinking, “This is no cosmic accident. This didn’t just come into being. There is an intelligence behind all this grandeur and balance. God made all of this, along with every mountain, every grizzly bear, every giant Redwood, and every killer whale, for that matter. All the planets, all the stars. Everything. Even me.”

Now, if I didn’t believe in the God revealed on the pages of the Bible, I might be in awe of all that God has made, but I don’t think I’d find much comfort in His creation. It might make me feel insignificant.

In an episode of the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, local TV news producer Lou Grant is trying to cheer up his associate producer, Mary Richards, after she’s made a big mistake. “Don’t you see?” he asks her. “Nothing we do really matters. We’re insignificant little creatures who are born and die and will simply be forgotten. Your mistake doesn’t mean anything because your whole life doesn’t mean anything. Now, doesn’t that make you feel better?” Mary burst out crying even more loudly than before.

Lou and Mary needed to learn about two jumbo themes from the Bible. Jumbo theme number one: God made everything, including you. Jumbo theme number two: You matter to God.

In fact, you matter more to God than all the mountains, galaxies, and solar systems He’s ever made or ever thought of making. Everything you do, all you say, every thought that passes through your mind, every joy and heartache you experience has eternal significance. It all matters to God because you matter to God.

The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that it wasn’t for angels that Christ died and rose. It wasn’t for angels that Christ has prepared an eternal home for all who turn from sin and follow Him. It was for human beings, for you and me.

The Old Testament book of Genesis says that while God declared His creation “good” for the first five days, it was only at the end of the sixth day, when He had made the first human beings that He declared His creation “very good.” (Or, as the Hebrew of the Old Testament has it, "Tov, tov!" "Good, good!" God declared, as though cheering Himself on for His exceptional creativity in bringing us into being!)

That’s why a believer in the God we meet in Jesus Christ can look at this vast universe, be awestruck, and feel, not insignificant or worthless, but elevated and overwhelmed by God’s amazing grace!

That’s what happens to the writer of our Bible lesson for today, Psalm 8. After considering the greatness of God and the enormity of the universe God created, he marvels: “what are human beings that you [God] are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet...O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

The universe is a big place and, for better and worse, God has put us in charge. Being in charge is what the Bible calls stewardship. It means managing what isn’t really ours or what’s ours only temporarily and on loan from God. It means bringing awe and gratitude to our management of the time, talents, treasures, and whatever portion of the earth we can positively effect because they’re all gifts from God.

People who are in awe of God’s creation and who are grateful that they matter to God strive to be good stewards. Let me tell you just a few things I think that means for you and me in our daily lives.

It means taking care of what we already have. A Lutheran congregation in Minnesota has a special service every year. They don’t bless the beasts; they bless classic cars ands trucks. Why? Their pastor, Mike Foss, explains: “I wanted to honor those who have taken...the past and preserved it instead of throwing it away...So, once a year I have the opportunity to celebrate the efforts of those who, often at considerable expense in time and money, are willing to restore significant parts of our past rather than simply throw them away.”

I can tell you that we in the Daniels family don’t regard praying for cars a stupid thing to do. We bought a Toyota Corolla about ten years ago and were surprised when just as we were ready to drive it off the lot, the salesman asked if we could have a prayer together! He prayed that God would bless our use of the car, that we would always be safe in it, and that it would provide dependable transportation for us for years to come. Our daughter, married, now owns the car and says, “That’s been a good car, Dad. And that's no surprise, because it was prayed for!”

A man once asked me to come and pray for every room of the new house into which he was moving. He wanted to make sure that God had first place in his home. Caring for what we have with the recognition that every good and perfect gift comes from God is part of good stewardship!

Good stewardship includes taking care of your body. (This is a hard one for me!) When the Bible talks about our souls, it doesn’t have some milky, ghostlike essence in mind. Soul, psuche in the original Greek, means our whole beings.

It’s interesting to note that when Jesus rose from the dead, He didn’t come back in some smoky form. He came back bodily. He could be touched. He could even fry fish over a charcoal fire at the beach as He did in John 21.

Our bodies, which will one day be resurrected, matter. (As C.S.Lewis puts it, “matter matters to God.”)

Good stewards get physical checkups every year. (Which I do.)

They also exercise regularly, eat right, and get enough sleep. (None of which I do enough.)

The Bible teaches that our bodies are God’s temples. Caring for ourselves bodily is an important way to worship and thank God for our lives and for the new lives He gives us through Christ!

Good stewardship also means using our money rightly. Money and our ability to earn it also are gifts from God that we’re called to manage in ways that honor Him.

FORTUNE magazine recently ran an article about a gathering of female executives, many of them making eight-figure incomes, who are also mothers of young children. How, these responsible women wondered one day over breakfast, could they make sure that their kids weren’t spoiled brats who viewed wealth as something to be used selfishly and irresponsibly?

They all agreed to a few simple guidelines, ones that parents interested in being good stewards could as readily apply to themselves as well as to their kids:
  • put the kids on an allowance and don’t give them a penny more than that;
  • set limits on what you’ll get for the kids when you go shopping with them;
  • make your child earn money through things like mowing lawns or baby-sitting for planned purchases; and
  • when your kid spends too much money, never bail them out.
The only thing I’d add is this: Teach your kids that the first money you spend whenever you get paid should go to the cause of God in the world. That may mean giving to the local church. (In fact, I hope that it does. The Church, for all its human imperfections is, after all, also a divine one created by Christ Himself, charged with carrying the Good News about new life for all who follow Him, into the whole world.)

But it may also mean giving to organizations like the Salvation Army, Operation Christmas Child, or the Boys and Girls Club. The Bible teaches us to bring our first fruits, not the leftovers, to God. That’s also good stewardship.

Good stewardship also means managing the Christian message, being both generous in sharing it and careful (full of care) in how we share it with the world. In the New Testament book of First Corinthians, Saint Paul describes himself and his ministry team as “stewards of God’s mysteries.”

We have a message to share with the world about a a Creator God Who became one of us, died for us, rose for us, and offers new life to all who repent and believe in Christ.

We’re called to share that message every day in every way we can.

That’s why I hope (and pray) that you and I will be intentional about inviting people to worship with us on Friend Day, Sunday, October 29.

Please, please, prayerfully consider who among your spiritually disconnected friends you’re going to invite and then go to them and act as good stewards of the mysteries of God’s amazing grace: Invite them to know your best friend, Jesus!

In his explanation of the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism: “I believe that God has created me and all that exists. He has given me and still preserves my body and soul with all their powers. He provides me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all I need from day to day. God also protects me in time of danger and guards me from every evil. All this he does out of fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, though I do not deserve it. Therefore I surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.”

Luther knew those two jumbo truths: God made everything, including you and you matter to God. He knew too that we Christians are called to be good stewards, using our time, talents, treasures, and the earth to worship and thank God. May we know that--and may we live it! AMEN

On the Bravery of the Martyred Amish Girls

"This friends is real Christianity. Christians do not retaliate. They do not seek revenge, for the Bible says that vengeance should be left in the hands of the Lord. In fact they do quite the opposite. They offer forgiveness even to their tormentors. They seek peace at the least and reconciliation at the most with those who revile them, harm them, kill them. And there is another side to this as well. Richard Gelles is an expert on violence and children. He says that psychologically the practice of forgiveness will help the Amish themselves heal far faster than others would. Forgiveness also heals the forgiver. "

(That's from an outstanding post on New Testament scholar Ben Witherington's blog. Read the whole thing.) (TY to Andy Jackson for linking me there.)