Saturday, October 28, 2006

Interesting Debate Between Greg Boyd and Jim Wallis on Christian Political Involvement

I've been critical of people like Jim Wallis and James Dobson for what I see as their penchant for subordinating the Gospel to political philosophy, whether that's their intent or not.

Check out this link.

The Drive to the National Championship...

continues today. No complacency, just a commitment to excellence; that's the Tressel way!

Go, Buckeyes!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Third Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 8:31-36

[For the first two passes at the lesson and for an explanation of what these "passes" are all about, see here and here.]

Verse-by-Verse Comments
31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;
1. As mentioned earlier, there are various ways in which the phrase, the Jews who had believed in him, might be interpreted.

Some believe that it's a polemic on the Gospel writer's part against some in the post-resurrection church of which he was a part.

Others see it as a judgment not only against those with whom Jesus had this conversation, but against those in John's church whose faith he deems inadequate.

Even if either or both of those interpretations are accurate, I see no reason not to view this as an actual historical conversation between Jesus and those of His fellow Jews who had believed in Him. Throughout the Gospel of John, we encounter people who believe in Jesus at some level. But often, they're so scandalized by Jesus' claims to be the Savior, Messiah, Lord, and God that they turn away from Him. The verses in John 8 that follow our lesson will find Jesus making among the most emphatic claims about His deity that He ever made. His point is plain: Unless we believe in Him as Savior, Messiah, Lord, and God, we really don't believe in Him.

2. continue in my word: That word continue translates the Greek term, menein. It could also be rendered as remain or abide. In fact, this is the word that Jesus used when He said:
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love... [John 15:4-9]
Faith, then is more than intellectual assent. It's about an ongoing connection to the God we meet in Christ, Who fills us with new life and forgiveness, a connection that we can break or maintain.

Jesus uses this term elsewhere to talk about how He physically infuses us with life through the Sacrament of Holy Communion in which He is present and thereby maintains the connection between Him and believers:
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. (John 6:56)
3. my disciples: The term translated disciples is mathetes in the singular form from the original New Testament Greek. It literally means students. (The term rabbi means teacher.) As used in Biblical culture, a student wasn't just someone who sat and took notes. He or she followed the rabbi, learning not only from the teacher's words, but also the teacher's life. Since God's ultimate aim for us is to be like Christ, being a disciple means attempting to live our life as though Christ was living it. This is only possible when we remain (abide, continue) in Christ.

32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
1. Probably no passage of Scripture is more misused than this one. It's not about telling the truth in everyday life, although God certainly wants us to do that. Nor is it about political freedom.

2. In fact, to get a handle on what Jesus means here, slip down to verse 36 for a virtually parallel statement. Jesus Himself and the word about Jesus--His life, death, and resurrection which brings new life to repentant sinners who trust in Him--is the truth He's talking about. Build your life on Him and the truth about Him and you will be forever free of sin and death.

3. But you will only know this truth when you believe in Jesus. I really identify with C.S. Lewis, writing in Mere Christianity, where he said that when he was an atheist (as I once was), he said nice, patronizing things about Jesus. He called Jesus a great moral teacher or some such rubbish. (So did I.) But, from the perspective of heaven such talk is, as Lewis rightly claims, "damned nonsense." (You can take that phrase quite literally in this case.)

Why? Because great moral teachers are a dime a dozen. You can receive all sorts of good moral teaching and you may even be able, by force of will, adhere to many laudable moral standards, but it won't make you any closer to God. You won't be free. You won't have life. You won't have a relationship with God. Those things only happen, Jesus says, through a faith connection with the God Who has authoritatively revealed Himself in Jesus Himself. As Jesus put it to a teacher of His felow Jews, Nicodemus, who had tried to laud Jesus as good while refusing to follow Him:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:16-18)
To build your life on anyone or anything other than Jesus is a lie, it's spiritual and eternal suicide. Jesus is the truth that will set you free!

33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
1. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt. Almost the entire history of God's people found them enslaved, often because of their refusal to follow Him and their penchant for chasing after other gods--the deities of other peoples, wealth, conquest, power.

Click on this map to see five-thousand years of Middle East history, including Israel's constant enslavement, in 90-seconds. (I don't equate modern Israel with Biblical Israel, by the way.) (Also: Thanks to Andrew Jackson for leading me to this informative map.)



34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
1. Very truly: Older translations of the Bible would have rendered Jesus's words here as, Verily. Literally, He says, "Amen, Amen!" We might say, "Truly, Truly!" Jesus always used these words when He was about to impart a centrally important truth. It was His way of saying, "Listen up! Your life depends on knowing this!"

2. everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin: When we commit sin, we declare our independence from God. But we also transfer ourselves into enslavement to the dominion of sin. In Genesis, God told Cain that sin is constantly crouching at the door. When we let it in, it takes control of us completely. God also told Cain that he had to master sin. That only happens when, connected to Jesus, we're set free to be the people God made us all to be: connected by love to God and neighbor.

35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.
1. In Christ, we're made sons and daughters of the Father. We're no longer slaves, but free heirs of the One Who made us!

36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
1. Amen!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Blessings to My GodBlogCon Colleagues!

Tomorrow brings the start of a three-day conference I had really hoped to attend, GodBlogCon, a gathering of Christian bloggers at Biola University in the Los Angeles area. I attended the conference last year and got to meet some of the finest bloggers around.

On top of that, I learned a lot from these folks and got renewed inspiration from them. It was from Tod Bolsinger that I resolved to use this blog not just for my own personal expression, but as a tool of my ministry, inviting the people of the congregation I serve as pastor of Friendship Lutheran Church into my sermon preparation with the passes at the Bible lessons that I post. (See here and here for this week's passes so far.)

Unfortunately, this year I'll be unable to attend GodBlogCon. But I'm praying God's blessings on the conference, asking God that will use the gathering to help bloggers gain renewed inspiration and a heightened ability to present Christ in loving, winsome ways on their blogs.

Here is a list of those registered for this year's conference. I'm sure the smaller number of attenders this year is attributable that the conference had to be rescheduled. Nonetheless, join me in praying for these bloggers as they gather.

It's Never Too Late to Renew Your Dreams

[So says author, speaker, and pastor, Steve Goodier in the wonderful piece below. You can subscribe to Steve's emailed inspirations, book him as a speaker, or order his e-books here.]

"Grandpa," a young girl asked, "were you in the ark with Noah?"

"Certainly not, my dear," Grandpa replied in astonishment.

"Then," the puzzled child continued, "why weren't you drowned?"

Maybe he seemed older than Noah to her, but seniors may be finally getting respect they rightfully deserve. Hugh Downs reported that when senior adults are properly motivated, their intelligence does not wane. In fact, the ability to organize thinking may increase as folks age. Many people in their 50's, 60's and even 70's can go through college with greater efficiency than at 18.

Adults over 70 years of age have contributed richly and in varied ways.

- Emmanuel Kant wrote his finest philosophical works at age 74.
- Verdi at 80 produced "Falstaff" and at 85, "Ave Maria."
- Goethe was 80 when he completed "Faust."
- Tennyson was 80 when he wrote "Crossing the Bar."
- Michelangelo completed his greatest work at 87.
- At 90, Justice Holmes was still writing brilliant American Supreme Court opinions.

And then there's George Dawson. George learned to read at age 98. (He was forced to quit school when he was a small child in order to help support his family.) "I got tired of writing my name with an 'X,'" he said. Four years later, at age 102, he wrote his autobiography, LIFE IS SO GOOD (2001, Penguin Group).

Dreams are renewable. They need not expire like an over-due library book. No matter our age, we can breathe new life into old dreams. I believe that the best age is the age you are, but something even better awaits just ahead for those with the courage to dream and to act.

Are you renewing your dreams?

(c) 2006 Steve Goodier (not Mark Daniels, who's just a Steve Goodier fan)

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 8:31-36

[See the first pass at this Biblical text and an explanation of what this is about here.]

John 8:31-36

A Few More General Comments
1. Context effects content. That's one principle for interpreting Biblical texts I harp on quite a bit. There's a reason: context really does effect content. To fully appreciate what happens in this weekend's Bible lesson, it helps to know a bit about the context.

Most especially, it helps to know that it takes place during the Festival of the Booths, or Succoth. As explained by EverythingJewish.com:
Historically, Sukkot commemorates the wanderings of the Israelites, which began with the exodus from Egypt (Passover) and continues with the giving of the Torah at Sinai (Shavuot) and ends with the wandering in the desert for the full 40 years as punishment for the sin of the golden calf.

A major agricultural festival, Sukkot is also the third of the shalosh regalim, or three pilgrimage holidays, when it was the custom of Jews everywhere to converge onto Jerusalem every Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.

Sukkot also marks the end of a long harvest, the time of year when farmers finish their work. Traditionally, this was the time for grapes to be gathered and made into raisins or wine; for olives to be picked and pressed into oil; and fruits to either ripen, or be eaten or stored.

To celebrate their hard work, the farmers and their families would go to the temple in Jerusalem to offer thanks. They built sukkot, or booths, to remember how the children of Israel built booths in the desert. The pilgrims lived in them for seven days while they, and the families they brought to Jerusalem, celebrated.

This is also why Sukkot is known as hag-ha-asif, the festival of ingathering.
2. Jesus went to the Succoth this year by Himself, having sent His disciples (students, followers) onto Jerusalem before Him. He didn't arrive until the fourth day of the festival.

3. Immediately on His arrival at the Temple, Jesus engaged in confrontation with those who conspired to kill Him. When the Temple police were sent by the religious authorities to arrest Him, they couldn't do it; they're too mesmerized by the hope and promise that seem to infect His every word.

4. At the beginning of chapter 8, Jesus is teaching in the Temple when a woman just caught in adultery is brought to Him. The crowd is intent on stoning the woman, in conformity with Old Testament law. (I've always been struck by the fact that this mob brought the woman, but let the man go.) Legalistic religion is always rife with self-righteousness, its adherents intent on being God's enforcers, as though God isn't capable of taking care of things Himself. Or, as though the adherents were sinless themselves.

Of course, the mob wants to test Jesus, to see if He really is from God. Whether He passed their test or not or just embarrassed them, I don't suppose we can say. But when Jesus saw the crowd with their stones, ready to kill the adulterous woman, He told them that the ones without sin should throw the first stone. Each one dropped the stones and walked away, leaving the woman unharmed. (I wonder if in some churches Jesus might visit today, Jesus might not have been able to save that woman's life with those words. I'm afraid that some in such a crowd might just fire away, confident of their perfect righteousness.)

The key contextual issue here is that chapter 8 begins with the threat of stoning and it ends with Jesus alluding those threatening to stone Him.
  • In the incident with the adulterous woman, He exercises God's prerogative to forgive sins.
  • In the last incident of the chapter, He's threatened with death because He explicitly claims to be God.
5. So, these two contextual elements loom large in our lesson: the Festival of Succoth and the threat of death to Jesus.

6. My late professor and mentor, Bruce Schein, paints an intriguing picture of these contexts, reminding us that just before our lesson, Jesus calls Himself "the light of the world." (As always, Schein writes about these past events in the present tense, adding to their accessibility to the modern reader.)
...a crowd has gathered in the Women's Court (also called the Treasury because of the trumpet-shaped collection boxes placed at its entrance) to listen to His inspiring message. There could be no better place for a popular preacher to gather a congregation. In this area all of God's People--male and female, Judean, Samaritan, Galilean, Greek, Nazarene, and even the lepers who came here for certification that they are healed--can hear his message. The Rabbi's words cause those about Him to reconsider the meaning of the wonderful nights they have spent in this court during the past week.

Each night of the feast, four gigantic stands are set up in each corner of the Women's Court. On the arms of the stands huge bowls filled with olive oil are placed. Thousands of wicks made from the discarded undergarments of the priests float in the bowls. These are set ablaze as the festival throng gathers each night. They give out so much light that the night of the court seems to turn to day. In fact, the light emanating from Jerusalem is so intense that it can be seen from outlying villages. This is a sign that on the final Succoth, night and darkness will disappear from the world. Only the first created light will remain.

Dancers with torches enter into the bright glow of the gigantic lamps. Accompanied by harp, pipe, trumpet, drum, and cymbal they dance on the steps leading from the Women's Court to the Nicanor Gate, the entrance to the Men's Court and the altar area. On each of the 15 steps they perform a torch dance to one of the Psalms of the Ascents. The polished bronze of the Nicanor Gate provides a flaming background for them as it reflects the torches' flickering light. The revelry continues until just before the sun rises over the Mount of Olives. Then suddenly it is stopped by three blasts of the trumpets. The worshipers make way as the Nicanor Gate is opened and the priests walk through them and proceed to the eastern entrance of the Women's Court, the Beautiful Gate. There they turn their backs on the rising sun, crying out as they face the Sanctuary:

Our fathers when they were in this place turned their backs toward the Temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, and worshiped the sun toward the east; but as for us, our eyes are turned toward the Lord. [Mishnah, Sukkah 5:4]

As the sun's rays stream over the Mount of Olives turning the white facade of the Sanctuary with its gold and silver plates into such a brilliant source of light that they must shield their eyes, they again repeat the refrain: "Our eyes are turned toward the Lord." With that wonderful confessional moment fresh in mind, those gathered about Jesus now hear Him proclaim as He stands between the Temple and the place of the sun's rising:

I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will never walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life. [John 8:12]
7. It's His claim of being the Light of the world, the full meaning of which Jesus will make explicit in John 8:52, where He claims to be the great I AM, God Himself, that scandalizes and angers those of Jesus' fellow Jews who had believed in Him and who He addresses with the words of this weekend's lesson. Soon, they'll pick up rocks and eventually, throngs will cry for His blood. claiming that they have no king but Rome's Caesar. We'd rather have human kings we have the possibility to control, rather than live in the darkness of our own self-righteousness, than worship the one true God of all creation!

This is more than enough for now. I really do hope to get to the verse-by-verse comments tomorrow.

"I'll win the Tour de France before Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination."

So says the slightly portly Charlie Cook, political prognosticator extraordinaire. He also says that John McCain has a 60 to 65% chance of being the Republican nominee in 2008.

I think he's right on both counts.

As to McCain, Republicans tend to operate on more of an "it's their turn" mentality when picking nominees. In 1980, it was Ronald Reagan's turn after he was defeated by Gerald Ford in their 1976 nomination fight. In 1996, Bob Dole was given the nod following his 1988 loss to George H.W. Bush.

In 2008, it's McCain's turn, although there will certainly be other challengers who'll want to have some say about that. But one can only wonder if the nomination that year will prove to be as valuable as it did for Dole in '96?

As to Giuliani, he is far too liberal to pass muster with a plurality of GOP primary voters, no matter how many candidates are in the field diluting the conservatives' numbers when things start in Iowa.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Thanks...

to Intellectuelle for linking to this post.

I Was Wrong

After the Detroit Tigers won Game 2 of the World Series behind the pitching of Kenny Rogers, I commented at The Moderate Voice:
Kenny Rogers is my hero. He's about ten years younger than I am. But by performing so well against men much younger than himself, he shows us what we all can do, irrespective of the encroachments of age!
Several commenters challenged me for characterizing Rogers as a hero. Ignorantly, I defended myself. But it now appears clear that Rogers used pine tar, a substance that helps pitchers get more of a grip on baseballs, particularly in cold weather. But it's a substance rightly banned from the game. Rogers should have been tossed from the game for that rules violation.

I presented my heartfelt mea culpa at TMV:
I want to retract my earlier comments about Kenny Rogers. He clearly did cheat.

I didn't catch the earlier innings of the game and when I did tune in, Fox glossed over the incident, seeming to intimate that it was a misunderstanding and not actually pinetar.

The use of such a substance gave Rogers an unfair advantage. Its use is as serious as using steroids and the prohibitions against it longer standing.

Sorry that I spoke out of ignorance earlier. Cheaters shouldn't be rewarded.
In a phrase: I was wrong.

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 8:31-36

[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 our Bible lesson is usually one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

The Bible Lesson: John 8:31-36
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Some General Comments
1. This lesson is the appointed text for Reformation Day. The actual day for this festival is October 31, commemorating the actual day in 1517, when the young monk, priest, and professor, Martin Luther posted 95 theses for debate on the Roman Catholic Church's sale of indulgences.

The theses sparked a firestorm within the Church and moved Luther and others to a position of greater certainty about how one is justified (made right) with God: not through human works, but solely through the charity of God by which God offers forgiveness of sin and everlasting life to all who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

Many Protestant churches celebrate the ongoing call to reformation in the Church and the centrality of justification by grace through faith on the Sunday closest to October 31. This year, it's October 29.

2. The day on which Luther posted the theses already was a church holiday. Hallowe'en, hallowed evening, was the night before the November 1 celebration of All Saints Day.

In much the same way that God's Old Testament people claimed high places once devoted to the worship of idols for worship of the one true God of the universe, the early Christians would reclaim the special days of other God for the worship of the Hebrews' God, Who was fully revealed in Jesus Christ. For example, the Roman holiday, Saturnalia, was taken over by the Christians, converted to a festival celebrating the human birth of the Light of the world, Jesus, as Christmas.

Pagans had commemorations that involved the dead and their supposedly wandering spirits which they celebrated at the cusp of October and November. Christians took over this celebration and made it a holy day (holiday) to remember all who died believing in the God revealed in Christ.

3. Specific to the lesson: Jesus' encounter is with some of His fellow Jews "who had believed in Him." What isn't clear--and the ambiguity may be deliberate on the part of John, the writer of the lesson--is exactly what this means:
  • Have they given up on believing in Jesus?
  • Have they believed in Him superficially?
  • Do they still believe in Him but for the wrong reasons?
In the end, I think that there's little reason to choose between these (or other) possibilities. Perhaps every permutation of meaning was evident among this crowd.

4. The overarching conflict here is that between religion versus faith.
  • Religion is about rules and traditions.
  • Faith is about relationship and freedom.
Jesus is about faith and not religion.

5. This doesn't mean that Christianity is without law. Christians, like other people recognize that the highest law in the world, entails loving God and loving neighbor. The fact that we fail to do these things indicates that we are deeply enslaved to ourselves and our desires. We need to be freed. Jesus is the Word (John 1:1-14) Who comes to set us free. I plan to speak more about what we need to be freed from and what Christ frees us to be in my message on Sunday.

Lord willing, I'll share some verse-by-verse commentary on this text tomorrow.

Monday, October 23, 2006

"Impressions of Oaxaca"

That's the title of an evocative piece by one of the very best bloggers around, Charlie Lehardy. He's in Oaxaca as part of a five-week business trip that first took him to Panama. After presenting a series of word pictures capturing all that he has been seeing, Charlie reflects:
All over the earth, the rhythms and lyrics change, but the themes of life remain the same: we labor; we eat the fruit of God's earth; we laugh and sing and weep; we relate to each other in commerce and friendship, in love and anger; we sleep; we rise again at the dawn.

And we gaze into the night sky where a billion stars burn and wonder, "What does it all mean?"
We human beings have more in common than we sometimes want to believe is so, in spite of how busily we divide ourselves, hoping in so doing, to propel ourselves higher than others, somehow grasping transcendence through condescension. It won't work!

Maybe those of us who have come to know God through Jesus Christ can learn and can teach others about our common humanity, experiencing the peace of God that truly does pass all human understanding. An ancient stargazer wrote:
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you 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,

all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,

the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8)
It's a big world and we all seem so small. But each of us is of infinite importance to the Maker of us all. I'm convinced, as I know Charlie is, that the path that leads to discerning the meaning of our seemingly tiny lives leads inevitably to the One Who made the stars...and made us.

Read Charlie's whole post. As usual, it's beautiful writing!

[See here, here, here, here, here, and here.]

"Toward a Greener Theology"

What Gets Saved? That's Tod Bolsinger's topic in this interesting and challenging post.

Me, a Liberal?

Today, Slate magazine mentioned my post on my belief--shared with Huffington Post blogger Steve Clemons--that Senator Barack Obama's consideration of a White House run is really a run at the 2008 Democratic vice presidential nomination. In doing this, Slate writer Sonia Smith referred to me as "liberal Mark Daniels."

Where Smith got the idea that I'm a liberal, I don't know. Any more than I know where one blogger a few years ago--I can't find the link right now--described me as "very right wing."

Theologically, I would describe myself as being a confessional Lutheran with a reverential attitude toward Scripture that some might say is conservative. (I would agree with them.) But I loathe the Pharisaic politics of people like Jerry Fallwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson. They don't represent my views theologically...or politically.

I'm generally opposed to the politicization of the Gospel which leads, almost inevitably, to an idolatry of ideology that subordinates Jesus Christ to a particular political agenda. This is as much a problem on the Christian Left as it is on the Right which is why, while acknowledging that Jim Wallis is a bright guy, I don't like his political ministry either.

With rare exceptions, I don't beleive it's possible to draw straight lines from Biblical faith to specific political ideas. That's why, unless I feel that the Bible leads to a clear perspective, I almost never comment on political issues. As a pastor, I don't want to risk conveying a "Thus saith the Lord" message about my personal politics. (Which is why I regret having run for political office two years ago.)

I do write about politics and about political history, two topics of absorbing interest to me since I was a little kid. (Yeah, I was a dork. Probably still am.)

So, am I a conservative, am I a liberal, am I a moderate, or am I a libertarian? My politics are of the more moderately conservative ilk, but I've never voted a straight ticket in my life.

I really don't get into that sort of thing here, though. I don't believe that God is a Republican or a Democrat. Or an American, for that matter.

One of the unfortunate characteristics of contemporary politics is its lack of nuance. Political operatives like stuffing those they deem as opponents into well-defined cubbyholes. Doing so is a lazy-eyed approach to debate that frees the labeler from actually thinking about things. In contemporary politics, there are black hats and white hats. Once you've identified a person as being one or the other from your perspective, they become forever after saints or thugs.

Politicians, radio hosts, and mainstream pundits are guilty of this political amblyopia, to be sure. Unfortunately, it appears even more prevalent among those of us in new media, often not as a way of tarring and feathering others, but as a way of foregoing thought. We have become so addicted to the speed of discourse which the Internet allows that we speak in label codes that convey stereotypes without information.

I don't accuse the Slate writer of anything sinister in calling me a liberal. She isn't sullying my reputation. I don't consider liberal to be a bad word, any more than I consider conservative, moderate, or mainstream to be bad ones. (In the interest of honest self-disclosure though, I must confess that I'm not keen on libertarianism, though some of what I've said about "gay marriage" may be interpreted as libertarian, I suppose.)

I just wonder on what slender thread of evidence a person who may not have read anything I've written ever before decided to append the adjective liberal to me?

And it makes me wonder on what slender threads of evidence I myself have inaccurately labeled people?

[This was cross-posted at RedBlueChristian.com.]

[THANKS TO: Brad Hightower for linking to this post.]

[There are interesting--and funny--comments on this piece over at RedBlueChristian.com. The link.]

Why We Call This Coming Sunday, 'Reformation Sunday'

Romans 1:16
(This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on October 30, 2005. Reformation Sunday happens this coming week, on October 29.)

He was born in November, 1483, in the German principality of Saxony. His father was a one-time coal miner who, through hard work, had risen to middle class status, the owner of several mines. His mother, who would exert so much influence over the boy was, in the custom of those times, a full-time housewife.

His name was Martin Luther. From an early age, he exhibited great intelligence and many talents. As time passed, he would become an extraordiary preacher, theologian, and musician. These pursuits were far from his father’s intentions for young Martin. Hans Luther wanted his son to become a lawyer in order to care for him and his wife in their old age.

That, in fact, was the trajectory on which Martin’s life was moving when a shattering experience intervened.

He was heading back to the university he attended, when a ferocious thunderstorm arose. A lightning bolt knocked Luther to the ground. Understandably terrified, Martin cried out to the patron saint of miners. “Saint Ann,” he said, “save me; I will become a monk.”

I once told this story to Father Seavey Joyce, who served Saint Ann's parish in the same small town where I did my seminary internship. Seavey listened and said with an impish smile, "I guess that goes to prove that even saints make mistakes." (He was kidding because, he told me once, he was sure that one day the Roman Catholic Church would name Luther one of its saints.)

But of course, it wasn't Saint Ann who made a mistake. It was Martin Luther. In fact, in his moment of terror in the thunderstorm, he made several mistakes. Mistake one: Calling for supernatural help from anyone other than the God we know in Jesus Christ. Mistake two: Making a deal in the hopes of placating what Luther thought was an angry God. God doesn’t make deals.

But Luther became part of a long tradition of people who did the right things for the wrong reasons.

In the Old Testament book of Genesis, for example, we find the true story of a young dreamer named Joseph. His father, Jacob, doted on the boy while virtually ignoring his ten other sons. Resentful, Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery and then took the coat their father had given to him and spattered it with blood. They showed it to Jacob. He concluded that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

The brothers had done the wrong thing. But it turned out that, unbeknownst to them, they played into God's plans for Joseph. Joseph was set down a difficult road that ultimately led him to become, in effect, the prime minister of Egypt, second in command after the Pharaoh. In that position, Joseph oversaw the storing of crops during seven bumper years in anticipation of seven years of famine, a famine that affected the entire Middle East.

Ultimately, Joseph was able to use the stored crops to save the lives of his very own family members and many others. Later, he was able to tell his brothers that when they sold him into slavery, "You meant it for evil. But God meant it for good so that many might be saved." Joseph's brothers had somehow done the right thing for the wrong reasons.

In the New Testament book of Matthew, we find the story of people who came to see the Christ Child. We call them "wise men." But they were really little more than astologers, people who made horoscopes and superstitiously believed that stars foretold occurrences on this planet. It's the sort of the practice that the Bible condemns completely. We're to depend on God and on nothing and nobody else. Yet, these wise men who followed the stars for the wrong reasons, at the end of their journey, came to the right conclusion: This baby was the Savior of the world.

Martin Luther’s entry into the monastery for the wrong reason turned out to be very right, indeed! I don’t think that his father ever forgave the young Luther for taking the vows of a monk and "abandoning" his family. When, several years later, Luther also was ordained a priest, his father, Hans, expressed the belief that Martin’s call might not have come from God, but from the devil.

Martin Luther, it turns out, was a deeply disturbed young man, probably neurotic. He felt himself utterly and completely guilty of sin. He couldn’t imagine that a morally perfect God could or would forgive him. At times, Luther hated God. He believed that God was playing a vicious game with the human race: Demanding moral perfection and when we were unable to attain it, gleefully sending us to hell.

Noting how disturbed Luther was, believing that a fully occupied life would crowd out his worries and fears, and recognizing how intelligent Luther was, his superiors decided that he would study to become a doctor of theology. He would teach at a new university scheduled to be started in the Saxon town of Wittenberg.

At first, a new regimen of work, which included administering fourteen monasteries, pastoring a local church, and teaching at the new university, did nothing to assuage Luther’s loathing of God and of himself.

But then, something happened to change Luther’s life and world history. (And, over time, through the Reformation Luther began, my history.) Like most seminarians and priests of his day, Luther had never studied Scripture. He did so now, as he prepared for the classes he was teaching.

In the Bible, Luther found a different God than the one often preached in the Church of his day. He saw a God of grace and love Who reaches out to His children, Who charitably understands their fallen humanity, Who forgives and empowers right living, and promises eternity to all with faith in Him. He saw a God Who hates sin while loving sinners, Who calls all to repent for their sin and believe in His Son, Jesus.

He began to see this picture of God as he studied the book of Genesis in preparation for lectures to his students at Wittenberg. He met this God again in the Psalms. And, perhaps most clearly of all, Luther saw this God in the majestic New Testament book of Romans.

A key passage for him was Romans 1:16:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
With his deepening knowledge of the Scriptures and the original Hebrew and Greek in which the Old and New Testaments had been written, Luther’s understanding of God blossomed.

Up to this point in his life, Luther, like most of the people of his time, labored under the mistaken notion that righteousness was a state of moral perfection, a status God commanded of us, although none of us could ever attain it. Such a view made God a kind of contemptuous cat toying with human mice until they died.

Now, Luther saw that righteousness is having a right relationship with God and that it can’t be secured by anything we do. He saw that while God does demand moral purity from us and that our sin earns us everlasting condemnation, God Himself took on flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ so that He could die in our place on the cross and all with faith in Jesus won't be condemned. Instead, God gives all with faith in Jesus forgiveness and everlasting life. That's what Romans means when it talks about salvation and salvation as God's gift to believers in Christ. Period.

Realizing all of this now, Luther, who studied in the tower of the monastery at Wittenberg had what was later called his “tower experience.” While studying God’s Word, Luther had an overpowering sense of the depths of God’s love for all of us--including himself. Coming to know that rigteousness is God’s gift to all who turn from sin and entrust their lives to Christ, Luther said, was like having the gates of heaven thrown open to him! The faithful person would try to respond to the love of God given through Jesus Christ, of course. But, Luther knew, we can’t earn God’s love. It’s a gift called grace.

The once-neurotically ashamed Martin Luther now became a joyful champion of the new life that God gives to all with faith in Christ. As he grew in the confidence he had in Christ and in God’s love for him, Luther grew bolder in sharing what he had learned about God from the Bible.

On October 31, 1517, he posted 95 theses--or propositions--for debate on the church door in Wittenberg. In those days, a scholar who wished to engage in discussion about important issues posted points on the doors of churches. Church doors were the Power Points or bulletin boards of that time.

Luther’s theses were prompted by a common practice in the Roman Catholic Church of his day. The Church then taught that there was a place called “purgatory,” a sort of holding room that the dead supposedly went to between death and eternity. Purgatory was supposed to be a place where people were purified for entry into heaven. To raise money, the Church often authorized the mass sale of pieces of paper known as indulgences. These indulgences allowed people to buy hundreds or thousands of years out of purgatory for loved ones or even themselves.

Luther, now certain that eternity was a free gift, was deeply offended by this practice. He would later say that if there were such a place as purgatory and the Pope, as head of the Church, had the capacity to free people from the place, he should do so out of simple compassion and not accept a penny for the service.

When Luther’s preaching against indulgences began to effect the bottom line on their sale, the Church went after him. Ultimately, he came under what was known as an “imperial ban.” That meant that both the Church and the powerful Holy Roman Empire, a confederation of principalities and nations, agreed that if any one saw Martin Luther, he was to be killed on sight. Luther was labeled a heretic, a perverter of the Christian faith.

For the balance of his life, Martin Luther remained steadfast in proclaiming the God we see in Jesus Christ, the God of grace and God of glory. Among Luther’s last words were, “We are all beggars,” an acknowledgement that none of us is better or more important than others in God's eyes and that all with faith in Christ are the recipients of God’s charitable gifts: forgiveness and new life. We cannot earn them, but thank God, He loves to give them to those humble enough to surrender to Christ! Luther died in 1546.

We celebrate this day as Reformation Sunday because on All Saints Eve, Hallowed Evening or, as we call it, Halloween, in 1517, Luther’s 95 Theses began a major reformation of the Church. That reform movement goes on to this day. The members of this congregation, are part of it.

Martin Luther had learned from God’s Word that our relationship with God and our freedom from sin and death don’t come from our works or from doing proscribed acts of ritual, religious or otherwise. These things come to us freely from a God Who, in Christ, shows us that He isn’t our enemy, but our very best friend. And having said that, you know now why this Lutheran Church is called Friendship.

[UPDATE: Dr. Tony Mitchell of From the Heart on the Left has linked to this post.]

[THANKS TO: Andrew Jackson for linking to this post.]

[THANKS TO: Robb of Love Builds Up for linking to this post.]

"Just the image of a Hungarian student demonstrator, armed...with rocks...symbolized...heroism..."

It's the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising against Communist oppression. Like the 1968 uprising in Czechoslovakia, it was deemed a failure at the time. Not according to those who lived through it. This from the Columbus Dispatch:
To those gathered for the anniversary service at the Hungarian Reformed Church on the city’s South Side — and to much of the world — military defeat in 1956 did not signify failure.

It was more beginning than end.

"Just the image of a Hungarian student demonstrator, armed only with rocks, trying to build a barricade to Soviet tanks, symbolized the heroism of these people," said David Hoffmann, a history professor at Ohio State University.

"It deeply tarnished the Soviet image, not only in Europe, but around the world. You could call it a public-relations disaster."

Thousands of Hungarians died, and nearly a quartermillion soon fled. "But it had been proved that Russian imperialism was not impenetrable," Barlay said.

The next year, in 1957, Time magazine named the "Hungarian freedom fighter" Man of the Year for 1956.
It would take nearly thirty years before the empty suit in the Kremlin crumbled from the weight of its own blood and dominions. But Hungary in '56 was an early warning sign. Empire, especially an empire built on oppression, cannot stand. Read the whole thing.

[Read here and here for two discussions of an often-overlooked element in the dissolution of the Soviet empire.]

Marty Daniels at the Pumpkin Festival

The Pumpkin Festival in Circleville, Ohio has been a big deal for as long as I can remember. It's celebrated for usually featuring the world's biggest pumpkin pies and more things made with pumpkins than I can imagine. Sadly, I've only been to the Pumpkin Festival once, sometime in the late-1970s.

But my brother, comedian Marty Daniels, went recently and filed this vlog report.

Here is Marty's web site.

Here is a little bit of information about Ted Lewis, the Circleville native who was a major musical start in the 1920s and 1930s, mentioned by Marty in the vlog post.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Genocide in Darfur...

is well and disturbingly documented in this report that appeared on '60 Minutes.' While President Bush was the first world leader to label the killing by the Khartoum government and its Janjaweed henchmen genocide and the US government is providing much relief to refugees, is there more that both our government and we can do to stop the slaughter?

This is one of the worst holocausts in world history. It has to stop!

Obama Running for VP in 2008?

That's what Steve Clemons thinks and he may be right but not because, as he asserts, Hillary Clinton has the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination locked up. (Obama has said that he's now going to consider a White House run after the midterm elections.)

Barack Obama is an extraordinary politician and a bright person who impresses everybody, it seems. David Brooks and Mark Shields both rhapsodized about Obama on The NewsHour this past Friday, each urging him to strike while his iron was hot and make a run for the presidency.

But I think that Obama realizes his need to get more national political seasoning before going for the White House and that the US Senate is not the best place to get it. Only two people have been elected to the presidency directly from the Senate in the entire history of the Republic: Warren Harding and John Kennedy.

Being a governor is a far more certain path to the presidency than being a senator. Take a look at this list I put together the other day, showing what newly-inaugurated presidents did immediately before taking the oath of office or before they became the running mates of presidents they succeeded, from 1900 to 2004 (governors noted in bold letters; vice presidents italicized):
  • 1900: William McKinley (governor of Ohio);
  • 1904: Theodore Roosevelt (McKinley's VP, he became president when McKinley was assassinated; he had been governor of New York with other political experience when nominated for the vice presidency);
  • 1908: William Howard Taft (had served in TR's cabinet and as governor of the Philippine territory);
  • 1912 and 1916: Woodrow Wilson (governor of New Jersey);
  • 1920: Warren Harding (senator from Ohio);
  • 1924: Calvin Coolidge (Harding's Veep, he was serving as governor of Massachusetts at the time he was nominated for that post);
  • 1928: Herbert Hoover (a millionaire mining engineer, Hoover turned his attention to relief work during WWI and was serving in the Cooldige cabinet when nominated for President);
  • 1932, 36, 40, & 44: Franklin Roosevelt (governor of New York);
  • 1948: Harry Truman (FDR's VP, he was a senator when nominated for that spot, previous experience as what they call a county "judge" in Missouri, but is really a commissioner, an administrative position);
  • 1952 & 56: Dwight Eisenhower (a general with extensive political experience, a political general in the best sense of that term);
  • 1960: John Kennedy (senator from Massachusetts);
  • 1964: Lyndon Johnson (one-time Senate Majority Leader who had been JFK's Veep, elevated to the presidency when Kennedy was assassinated);
  • 1968 & 72: Richard Nixon (former VP, a position he held under Eisenhower);
  • 1976: Jimmy Carter (had most recently serves as governor of Georgia, two years before his election as president);
  • 1980 & 84: Ronald Reagan (his only political office was governor of California, from which he had stepped down several years before);
  • 1988: George H. W. Bush (the first standing VP to be elected directly to the presidency since Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson's Vice President had done it);
  • 1992 & 96: Bill Clinton (governor of Arkansas);
  • 2000 & 04: George W. Bush (governor of Texas).
The best way to be a realistic contender for the presidency is to be a governor. Americans value those with significant executive experience and generally distrust the legislative process and those who become expert at it. (That isn't fair. But I think it's how most Americans think in an inarticulate, generalized way.)

I still don't that Hillary Clinton will not run for president in 2008.

And unless I overestimate his gifts as a political leader, neither will Obama. But a run at the vice presidency is entirely plausible. Given the recent higher administrative profiles given to our Vice Presidents--think particularly of George H.W. Bush and Al Gore, it's easier for Vice Presidents to jump directly into the Oval Office. (Bush the Elder, as I point out above, became the first sitting VP to be elected to the presidency since Martin Van Buren, signaling the higher esteem in which the experience of being the second person in the Executive Branch is now held. In 2000, of course, Gore missed being elected President by a hair.)

(Also see here.)

[UPDATE: Slate included this post in a roundup of blog posts there today. I appreciate that. But where did they come up with the idea that I'm a liberal?]

Suffering and Success

My friend, John Schroeder continues to write an interesting series on this topic. The linked post deals with suffering, success, and the Church itself.
Imagine a church where you spend as much time examining where you are weak as you do proclaiming what you are going to build. That's a church that will endure self-inflicted suffering. That's a church that will place itself squarely in the hands of the Almighty relying not on the wisdom of the foolish. That's a church that will succeed in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
Read the whole thing.

So, What's a Priest? (from the Adventures of Moe and Joe)

[I wrote this cornball skit. It was performed during Sunday morning worship at the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, on October 22, 2006. The thespians were Garrett Hart and Phil Daniels. The Bible passages around which it's built are First Peter 2:9-10 and Hebrews 5:1-10.]

Moe: Hey, Joe.

Joe: Hey, Moe.

Moe: What’s up?

Joe: Well, I’m pretty stoked.

Moe: Why’s that?

Joe: [proudly] I just found out that I’m a priest.

Moe: What do you mean?

Joe: I just learned in Catechism class that I’m a priest. I guess I’ll have to go out and buy one of those black shirts with tabs in the collar now. I wonder if Hollister makes them?

Moe: Earth to Joe. I’m losing you here. You’d better explain yourself.

Joe: We just found out that we’re all priests in the hood.

Moe: Do you mean that we’re all part of the priesthood?

Joe: Oh, yeah. That’s right, it’s called the priesthood of all believers.

Moe: So, what exactly does that mean?

Joe: I don’t know. Black shirts. Black pants.

Moe: So far, being a priest sounds like being a Goth. Do you think that’s what your Catechism teacher meant?

Joe: Probably not. Besides I’m not Catholic...or an Ozzy Osbourne fan.

Moe: So, what does being part of the priesthood of all believers mean?

Joe: [pauses to think, straining] You’re gonna have to take this part, Moe.

Moe: Well, what makes a priest a priest?

Joe: [pauses again] Um, back to you.

Moe: [sighs] Three things make a priest. First, they have a purpose.

Joe: What’s their purpose?

Moe: They stand up for people with God and they stand up for God with people.

Joe: Sounds like that puts them right in the middle.

Moe: It’s true and it isn’t always comfortable for them.

Joe: Okay, purpose. What’s the second thing that makes a priest a priest?

Moe: They have sympathy for others. Sometimes, they’re even willing to die for the eternal well-being of other people.

Joe: Sheesh. That sounds hard too.

Moe: It is. But God gives priests the strength to do what He asks them to do.

Joe: Okay, purpose and sympathy. What’s the third thing?

Moe: They’ve been called by God. They have a call.

Joe: You mean, God gets in touch with them on their cells?

Moe: No, Joe. It means that God has called them through His Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, the fellowship of the Church.

Joe: But wait a minute. You forgot to mention the most important thing that makes a priest a priest.

Moe: What’s that?

Joe: [smiles knowingly] They have to be Catholic.

Moe: No, Joe. It’s the priesthood of all believers, remember? That includes all Christians. Everybody who’s baptized and believes in Jesus is called to be a priest.

Joe: Sheesh. That’s a big job. How can anybody remember how to do it?

Moe: It is a big job and the only way I know to remember how to do it is to look to Jesus on the cross. That’s where He showed us that He’s the great high priest for all who follow Him.

Joe: That’s good. But I know another way to remember what it means.

Moe: How’s that?

Joe: We can repeat those three things that every priest has. [Turns to the congregation.] We all can say them together: Purpose. Sympathy. Call.

Moe: One more time: Purpose. Sympathy. Call.

Joe: See ya, Moe.

Moe: See ya, Joe.

What Makes a Priest a Priest? (Part 3: Stewards of the Mysteries of God)

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship celebrations on October 21 and 22, 2006.]

The Bible Lesson: Hebrews 5:1-10
One of my favorite passages in Scripture, First Peter 2:9-10, says of we believers in Jesus Christ: “...you are...a royal priesthood...in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Beautiful language, but what exactly does it mean for you and me to be part of “a royal priesthood”?

Before his retirement, William Harkey worked in marketing by day. But his real job, as is true of all believers, was to be a priest. In a wonderful book called How to Share Good News Without Being Obnoxious About It, written nearly twenty years ago, Harkey tells about a time when he was living in the Chicago suburbs. Two doors away was a neighbor who, he said, “was icy. I was friendly. A curt ‘Hi’ was all I could ever get out of him. One day, I noticed him in his backyard, practicing his golf swing. It was almost professional. It was beautiful.”

Harkey says that he himself had always been a terrible golfer. Here was a chance to connect with his neighbor! He strolled toward his fence and asked if the neighbor could give him a few tips on his swing. “In a matter of minutes,” Harkey says, “he was coaching me like a club pro. Within weeks, we were teeing off together. Around Christmas time [they had become such good friends, Harkey says, that]...we were sharing our Christian concepts.”

Harkey was acting as a priest. He genuinely, authentically befriended someone and that friendship led he and his friend to genuinely, authentically share their ideas of and experiences with God together. Harkey was even able to talk with his friend about Christ. Are you living out your call to be a priest in your everyday life?

Our skit, based on today’s Bible lesson, reminds us of what makes a priest a priest. A priest, first of all has a purpose. Our Bible lesson says that, “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”

Back in Old Testament times, priests at the temple in Jerusalem offered sacrifices for the people’s sins. They recognized, as Paul would put it in the New Testament, that "the wages of sin is death." Knowing that sin deserves death, the priests would offer stand-ins--sheep for those who could afford them, doves or even cereal offerings for those who were poor. These stand-ins took the punishment for the sins of people who wanted to renounce their sins and turn back to God.

Today, we don’t need such sacrifices, of course. Jesus was, as His relative John the Baptist described Him, the sacrificial “Lamb Who takes away the sin of the world.” And the book of Hebrews from which our lesson makes a big point of repeatedly reminding us, Jesus Christ gained the ability to be our high priest and advocate by killing the power of sin and death over our lives “once and for all” through His own death on a cross. [See here, here, here, here, here, and here.]

All who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ have forgiveness of sin, along with God’s presence and power in their lives today and life that lasts forever with God.

Our priesthood involves representing God to others and representing others to God. That’s why we’re involved in so many of the ministries of service and love that happen within Friendship:
  • collecting coats for the homeless
  • gathering food and toiletries for the needy
  • providing snacks for children at our local Boys and Girls Clubs
  • collecting the items for and then assembling duffel bags for children taken into foster care in our community
  • providing care packages for the elderly in our local nursing homes
  • sending Christmas shoe boxes to children in far-off countries
  • enabling World Vision to provide clean drinking water, milk cows, farming help, education, and Biblical instruction to little Sinankosi Moyo’s village in Zimbabwe
  • sending money to the victims of disasters from New Orleans to Indonesia and
  • making our building facilities available to all sorts of groups, from the Clermont County Counseling Center to cheerleading teams, among other things.
Being priests may also entail taking the time to befriend and value crabby neighbors, allowing them, through us, to experience the friendship and love of God. We do all this because we’re priests with a purpose. Our purpose is to connect God and people in the Name of Jesus.

A second thing that makes a priest a priest is sympathy. A priest, our lesson tells us, “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.”

That phrase, deal gently, translates a single word from the New Testament Greek, metriopatheo. It has the idea of laying aside our own emotions in order to feel what other people, to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. This is what Jesus does for us. It's what He calls us to do for others. And Hebrews mentions two groups of people for whom we are especially make the effort to deal gently: the ignorant, those are folks who wander haplessly into sin, and the wayward, those who deliberately sin.

The point is that priests of God are not in the condemning business.

We can’t mince words about what God calls righteousness and what God calls sin, of course. But priests know, as Paul writes in the New Testament, that it’s the kindness of God that leads to repentance. We ollow a Savior of Whom this same book of Hebrews says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus went to a cross for us because of His sympathy for us. We’re to display that same sympathy for others.

Alcohol abuse may not be our personal sin of choice. But if we’ve ever eaten too many pieces of cake or skipped taking that walk we needed in order to shake off our lethargy, we know about the impulse to abuse our bodies. We can be sympathetic.

Homosexuality may not be our sin of preference. But if we’ve ever looked at another person as though they were an object or considered using our sexuality in ways other than those honored by God, we can be sympathetic, not high and mighty.

Pastor Gerald Mann says that sometimes the mission of the Church is to clean up the rotten reputation given to God by Christians. I don't know why it is that Christians so readily fall into self-righteousness, looking down their noses on others. But it's wrong. One of the few bumper stickers I would ever consider putting on my car is the one that says, "Christians Aren't Perfect; Just Forgiven."

Christ endured the cross so that He could sit at the right hand of the Father and when our prayer requests come to heaven, He can turn to Him and say, "It's okay, Father. She's with Me. He's one of My own." Christ, our high priest, shows us sympathy.

I had totally bungled things. A member of another pastor’s congregation, a person I’d experienced as credible and levelheaded, approached me with complaints about the pastor. He said that his opinions were widely held by others.

I was just out of seminary and didn’t have any sense. (As opposed to my status today: twenty-two years out of seminary and still no sense.) I went to the pastor to tell him what this person had said, not divulging the person’s name.

Without intending it, I conveyed the idea that there was widespread disaffection among the people of that church. Yes, I was trying to be helpful. But I think that I was also feeding my ego, playing the role of Superman.

Within hours, the pastor had composed a letter asking the congregation to tell him, since there was widespread unhappiness with his ministry, if it were time for him to go. I was shocked! When he read this letter to me over the phone, I put down the receiver and ran to his office. I asked him, “Would it help you to know who was saying all of these things about you?” He said that it would and when he learned the person’s identity, he laughed and said, “He was born with a lemon in his mouth and a list of grievances as long as your arm.”

He tore up the letter. Then, he and I went to talk with his wife. You see, he had called her immediately after speaking with me and she was furious with me, sure that I was part of some cabal to run her husband out of the ministry. I apologized profusely (and genuinely) for the heartbreak I’d caused them both.

You might rightly have expected them to keep me at arm’s length forevermore. But they completely forgave me. They remain good friends. They have sympathetic spirits. They know all about what it’s like to be human and so they don’t hold grudges. Just like Jesus, our great high priest, who knows exactly what it’s like to be human and is willing to be the advocate and Savior for all who turn from sin and turn to Him.

A third thing that makes a priest a priest is call. Our lesson tells us that a priest “does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God” and points out, “Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’” You and I are called, just like Jesus was called, to use our lives to glorify God. People who dedicate themselves to this call lead useful lives, lives that point others to God for help and hope, lives through which God gives help and hope to people.

Back when I was in seminary, one of our professors read a letter he’d received from a recent graduate, just beginning his service as a pastor. I objected to one thing he wrote back then. But as the years have rolled by, I’ve realized how right he was. He said that the reason God had conferred the stole of the pastor on him was that he didn’t really want it.

At first, I thought that this was somewhat insulting to the pastoral office. But now I realize what he meant: Being a pastor isn’t an honor to be sought. You don’t try to become a pastor so that you can stand up in front of people and wow them with your erudition or be the authority figure. Being a pastor--being a Christian of any kind--is about willingly submitting to God, committing yourself to service, and telling God, “Your will be done.”

Over the past several weeks we’ve been talking about what it means to be good stewards, or managers, of all the gifts God has given to us. Good stewardship, we pointed out, begins with awe in the presence of the God Who made us and the entire universe. That leads to the management of our time, talents, treasures, and the earth with a sense of gratitude and awe toward God. It includes making God, and not our finances, the focal point of our lives. It also includes being a priest.

The motto of our congregation points us all to the priesthood that you and I share. You can see it on our sign at Appomatox and White Oak: “Joining hands with God and neighbor.”

Next week brings Friend Day. Make it your business this week to invite a spiritually-disconnected friend to be with us next Sunday morning.

And let’s all resolve to make it our aim to be priests, people:
  • who have a purpose,
  • are sympathetic to others, and
  • respond to God’s call to love our neighbors, making friends with them and allowing them to experience God’s love through us each and every day.