Saturday, November 04, 2006

Fourth Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 11:32-44

[To see what this is all about and to read the previous three passes, go here, here, and here.]

Verse-by-Verse Comments
32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
(1) Throughout this incident--the narration of which begins at John 11:1, Jesus will be upbraided or condemned. People believe that He has the capacity to work miracles. (Though they don't believe--or trust in--Him as Lord and God.) They think Him heartless--and some, powerless--because He failed to come to Bethany in time to prevent Lazarus' death. Here, even Mary, the one who in Luke's Gospel is commended by Jesus for choosing to listen to Him and His Word while she had the chance, seems to chide Jesus for His tardiness. (Check out John 11:21-22, here in v. 32, and John 11:37.)

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
(1) Raymond Brown writes of the first set of italicized words:
This translates two Greek expressions. The the aorist middle of the verb embrimasthai, which also appears in vs. 38; here the verb is used with the expression to pneumati, "in spirit," while in 38 it is used with en heauto, "in himself"--these are Semitisms for expressing the internal impact of the emotions. The basic meaning of embrismasthai seems to imply an articulate expression of anger...
He goes on to point out that the same verb is used to describe Jesus' reaction to the plight of ill and afflicted people, His anger aimed not at the people, but their afflictions. It seems apparent that something similar is happening here: Jesus is upset not only by the grief His friends, Martha and Mary, are enduring in the wake of Lazarus' death, but also their apparent hopelessness. His entire ministry was about bringing hope to the hopeless!

Brown continues to write of the second set of italicized words:
The second tarassein heauton. Tarassein...implies deep disturbance; means literally "he troubled himself"...
(2) Jesus was, of course, Himself a Jew. The word rendered Jew here would better be translated as Judean, people of Judea, what was in Old Testament times, after the splitting of God's people into Samaria to the north and Judea to the south. Judea's religious life remained centered on Jerusalem.

34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
(1) The use of the phrase come and see is ironic in this Gospel. Elsewhere, this invitation is used by Jesus or His disciples in completely different ways. In 1:39, 46, Jesus and then Philip invite people to see the way to life, through Him. The people in Bethany invite Jesus to come and see death. The only thing which life without Christ can invite us to see is death and decay. We who follow Christ have something else to share with people, life forever.

(2) What is "seen" is very important in John's gospel:
And the Word [Jesus] became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
John wrote his gospel, he says, so that those who haven't been privileged to see Jesus walk the earth will be able to believe. To Thomas, in John's Gospel, the risen Jesus speaks of the particular blessed status those of us enjoy who haven't seen Him and still believe. Our faith is a special gift from God!

35Jesus began to weep.
(1) A different verb is used of Jesus' weeping than was used in v. 31 of those in the house wailing with Mary and what's used of this group twice in v. 33. The word used in those other places--klaio--refers to ritualistic wailing. (In fact in those days, it was not unknown for there to be professional weepers for just such occasions.) The verb used of Jesus' weeping is dakruo. No doubt John wanted to draw a distinction between the nature of Jesus' reaction to Lazarus' death, born as it was not of a sense of loss so much as a sense of frustration with people who go through the motions of mourning and can't seem to hope.

(2) The custom in first-century Judea, as it continues to be in that part of the world, was for the dead to be buried immediately. Their bodies would be heavily bound in layers of cloth, each layer saturated in perfume and spices meant to combat the stench of death. (Embalming was not practiced by the Judeans.) The body was allowed to decay until, reduced to bones and powder, it would later be transferred to an ossuary.

36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
(1) Here is the third example of condemnation of Jesus for failing to go to Bethany in time to prevent Lazarus' death. Of course, as readers of John's gospel, we know that Jesus deliberately delayed going to Bethany in order to form this seventh and next-to-the-last sign of His lordship over sin and death. (I explain why I call the raising of Lazarus the penultimate--or next-to-the-last- sign here.)

38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
(1) The phrase greatly disturbed translates the same word translated the same way in v. 33 above.

(2) Brown notes:
Vertical shaft tombs were more common for private burial than horizontal cave tombs. The stone kept animals away. The burial place was outside the town because otherwise the living might contract ritual impurity from contact with the corpses of the dead.
39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
(1) We have no record of Jesus telling Martha what He says in v. 40. But Chris Haslam suggests that it's implied in His words to her John 11:23-26.

(2) After four days, Lazarus was, as we say, dead as a doornail.

41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
(1) The signs--semeia--that Jesus performed were always meant to point to His power over humanity's enemies of sin, decay, and death and His capacity to give us new life.

44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
(1) There is no doubt a figurative, as well as a literal, meaning in Jesus' order. Lazarus would have, as we've already pointed out, been bound tightly and virtually unable to move. But more than that, Jesus was ordering that Lazarus be allowed to live.

(2) I talked about the difference between resurrection and resuscitation here and here.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Thankful? Pick a Cause and Serve

One of the things I love about being part of a church family is the freedom it gives us to be the giving people we were people God made us to be...and that, deep down, we want to be.

Recently, I talked about some of the service to others in which the modestly-sized congregation of which I'm a part is involved. I listed...
  • 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 filled with toys, toiletries, and practical gifts to children in far-off countries
  • enabling World Vision to provide clean drinking water, milk cows, farming help, education, and Biblical instruction to the village of Sinankosi Moyo, the Zimbabwean girl we sponsor sending money to the victims of disasters from New Orleans to Indonesia
  • making our building facilities available to all sorts of groups, from the Clermont County Counseling Center to cheerleading teams, among others
When I shared all of this during the course of a discussion I was having recently with another blogger, someone who apparently thought that I was inhumane, he said, "Okay. You may be a good person."

NO, I'M NOT A GOOD PERSON. As Jesus once told someone trying to butter Him up by calling Him "good," a designation that Jesus deserved but the other guy didn't really mean: "No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18).

Me, I'm just a recovering sinner grateful for forgiveness and new life. I recognize that I'm just part of the human family. Freed from worry over what my fate is, I'm also freed to care for others as I want them to care for me, free to see the Jesus--the presence of God--in every other person who lives on this planet.

That's why I'm so excited about Thanksgiving Eve this year. Each year, the people of our congregation get together with two other area churches on the night before Thanksgiving.

We thank God for all His blessings.

We pray for peace and plenty for those who lack these things in their lives.

We share in the Eucharist, Holy Communion, through which we Lutherans believe the living presence of Christ enters us.

We look at God's Word and sing God's praises.

And, we make an offering
. While a portion of our usual offerings--in money, volunteer hours, and material goods--go to all sorts of important ministries all through the year, this offering goes 100% to efforts to relieve the pain and suffering so many on our planet endure.

This year, our offerings will go to the World Hunger Appeal of our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In a world of plenty, no human being should ever go hungry. The World Hunger Appeal, part of one of the most efficient and effective charitable networks in the world, not only relieves the hungry in emergency situations, but also helps those who must rely on their own crops and water supplies to get the most out of the land they farm.

Of course, we Lutherans don't have a monopoly on relieving the agonies of hunger, poverty, and disease. Below, I've given links to several organizations with outstanding reputations to which I hope, during this Thanksgiving season, everyone who reads this blog will consider giving.

For Christians, the reason for doing this will be manifest: We're grateful for the love God has given to us in Jesus Christ, grateful that God makes us His children, not because we're good, but because God is good.

Christianity is not about hanging around this planet until we die, heedless of the world's needs. One of our number, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as many have heard or read me say before, was once asked why he risked his life in the fight against apartheid--ultimately successful--in his South African homeland. This is what Tutu said:
There is nothing the government can do to me that will stop me from being involved in what I believe God wants me to do. I do not do it because I like doing it. I do it because I am under what I believe to be the influence of God's hand. I cannot help it. When I see injustice, I cannot keep quiet, for, as Jeremiah says, when I try to keep quiet, God's Word burns like a fire in my breast.
Karl Marx was completely wrong, at least as it relates to faith in Jesus Christ. He said that "religion is the opiate of the people," an anesthetic that keeps believers so focused on the hereafter that they do nothing about now. What he didn't seem to realize is that when people know that their forever is guaranteed by the One Who decimated the power of sin and death over their lives and that they live with God forever, they can invest their whole selves in caring about now--and about all the people who inhabit the planet they share with them They're not afraid that in sharing more they'll really have less!

So, I'm plunking my little stone into the cyberpond, praying for a ripple. Whether you're Christian, atheist, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, whatever, consider the following:
You and your church, family, or organization adopting a cause or an agency committed to relieving the suffering in your community or world.
  • Do it in November, the month we Americans anyway, celebrate Thanksgiving
  • Do it to express gratitude for the simple, awesome gift of life
  • If you're a Christian, do it to thank God for the gift of new and everlasting life we have through Christ
  • Allow your "adoption" to take any form you choose--volunteer hours, financial donations, material supplies
  • Be ready to love it!
In our modestly-sized congregation in June, we set a goal. In addition to the hours people volunteer in the church, we would also set a congregational goal of 500 outside-of-church volunteer hours in the community. So far, these wonderful people have turned in 407 hours!

We're not counting up the hours to "get in good with God." Getting in good with God is pure gift, offered, we believe, through Jesus Christ. No, we do it to keep service present before us as a central value and a goal. You know what they say: "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else." Our congregation has made service in Jesus' Name where we're going...and it's a wonderful thing.

Now, some of those organizations you might want to adopt:
The ONE Campaign
ELCA World Hunger Appeal
ELCA Disaster Response
Habitat for Humanity
The Boys and Girls Clubs of America
The Boys and Girls Club of Clermont County (Ohio)
World Vision
Samaritan's Purse (Operation Christmas Child...Christmas shoeboxes)
The Salvation Army
Catholic Relief Services
Lutheran World Relief

Those are just a few ideas to get you started. Pick one of them or another one of your own choice, ask a few friends to join with you in adopting that organization, and then change the world.

[More on servanthood here.]

[UPDATE: The blogger who told me, "Okay. You may be a good person," was Harry Shearer. And no, Harry, I'm still not a good person...just a forgiven one. See here and also here.]

On Haggard and Recovery in the Hospital for Hypocrites

I think that the first time I'd heard of Ted Haggard, at least that I can remember, was a few months ago when he and other leaders from conservative evangelical churches issued a statement saying that they believed global warming was for real and that it should be a concern for Christians. At the time, I saw that he was president of an organization called the National Association of Evangelicals, of which I don't think I'd ever heard, and pastor of a large Colorado congregation.

Today, a lot of us know who Ted Haggard is and about the allegations that he paid a homosexual "escort" for sex and was involved in drug use. (Also see here.)

I hope that this all proves to be untrue. But, true or not, I will be keeping Haggard, his family, and those he has led in my prayers.

And, true or not, I hope they won't cause Haggard to run from the Christian family or for the Christian family to turn its back on him.

I've often said that the Church is a hospital for hypocrites, a place of healing for recovering sinners. None of us measures up to our high ideals and we are all sinners. The Church is the best place for those addicted to sin to recover, a place where we can declare that we are "in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves," as we Lutherans often declare, and where we can hear the Savior Who stood up to a mob bent on killing a woman say to us, as He did to her, "Go now and leave your life of sin." (John 8:11)

In saying all of this, I don't mean to make light of these allegations. Sin is deadly business and repentance is more than saying, "I'm sorry." Repentance is walking away from sin and walking toward God.

Sin is obviously alluring to all of us not because it's so repulsive, but because, at least momentarily, it's pleasurable.

The acts and motivations we call sins aren't inherently bad things; they're often good things done at the wrong times, in the wrong places, or with the wrong people.

And, since we like pleasurable experiences, we can, without keeping steadfastly turned to God, entice ourselves or be enticed into appropriating those experiences in the wrong ways. (And I believe, because we're all individuals, each of us finds some sins particularly pleasurable. But the thing I've noticed is that when we let one sin to nest in our lives, others start looking good to us, too.)

Pleasure is addicting and sin is an addiction to a pleasure that's unhealthy, either for us personally, or for our relationship with God, or our relationships with others.

Getting free of any addiction is painful. At AA they call the process by which that happens detoxification. In Christianity, the movement in which AA was born and bred, we call it dying to sin. We volunteer for this experience so that the old self can die and the new self can rise and walk, now and forever, with Christ.

That isn't easy. Fortunately though, our "Higher Power," the God we know in Jesus Christ, goes through it with us. He also gives us a family, that hospital for hypocrites, the Church, to help us through each day!

I hope that Haggard and all effected by these allegations--true or false--can find solace and new power for living in the hospital for hypocrites where repentant sinners are given fresh starts.

[UPDATE: Thanks to Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice for linking to this post.]

[THANKS SO MUCH TO: Pastor Jeff at Conblogeration for linking to this post and for his kind words.]

[THANKS TO: Mike of Mike's Noise for linking to this post. Mike lists a number of resources dealing with the fallout of the Haggard situation.]

Third Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 11:32-44

[To see the first two passes at this text, go here and here.]

John 11:32-44

Contextual Comments
1. The end of John, chapter 10, found Jesus inciting belief, but also enmity, in Jerusalem. In the latter camp were people prepared to stone Him to death. He left the city, not to avoid death, but to see to it that His death happened at the appropriate, God-chosen time. All would happen according to God's plan.

2. It's within the context of the prospect of death that the events of John 11 unfold. The chapter begins with the story of Lazarus' illness and death and concludes with the religious leaders planning on killing Jesus because He had brought Lazarus back to life.

3. In John's telling of the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection--the gospel, or good news, this is the seventh sign pointing to Jesus as God-in-the-flesh, God incarnate. In ancient Jewish thinking, seven was the perfect number, the number of fulfillment and completion. (It was on the seventh day, according to the first of the Genesis creation stories, that God rested from His labors and after He had declared His creation to be very good.)

4. It's appropriate that raising a dead man to life would be the seventh sign, as it definitively points to Jesus' dominion over death.

5. The six preceding signs (and their locations) in John's book:
[Source: Following the Way: The Setting of John's Gospel by Bruce Schein]

Each of these signs has their own unique character. (And for the sake of economy, I'm resisting the temptation to write about each of them.) But even with a cursory glance, you can see how each one speaks to a different aspect of Jesus' power over all things and how each one has figurative or symbolic, as well as, literal meaning.

You can also see why this sign, raising Lazarus from the dead, is Jesus' penultimate sign and why those anxious to hold up religion and their own power rather than faith and the power of God decided at this point that they must do away with Jesus. The ultimate sign of Who Jesus is comes when He goes through the cross and is resurrected.

(Jesus' resurrection is no mere resuscitation; it finds the pioneer and perfecter of our faith performing the eighth sign. For the ancient Hebrews, eight was the day of a new creation. They thought that it was on the seventh day that humanity fell into sin. But God gives a new day, creation starts again. John uses the eight and eighth motif throughout his gospel.)

(By the way, many of the ancient baptistries that archeologists have uncovered are eight-sided and many of our modern baptismal founts are also. Baptism is the place where we are made part of God's new creation in Christ!)

6. Jesus' decision to go to Bethany only after He knew that Lazarus was dead underscores a major theme of John's gospel: All that happens to Him happens at the time of His and the Father's choosing. Later in this gospel, Jesus is seen standing silently before Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate asks Jesus if He is unaware that he--Pilate--had the power to take Jesus' life. Jesus tells Pilate that he wouldn't have this power if the Father hadn't given it to him.

7. Thomas, the doubting one, made one of the all-time misunderstood comments in the Bible when Jesus announced, just before our lesson begins, that He was heading to Lazarus' hometown of Bethany after Lazarus had died. Knowing that, by going to the dead man's hometown, Jesus would be walking away from a safe hiding place and into the clutches of those who wanted to kill Him, Thomas said, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him." (John 11:16)

People often read these as words of faith. No! They're words of sarcasm and loyal resignation. John shows a Thomas who often follows Jesus in spite of himself and his "better" judgment. It will be Thomas who doubts Jesus' resurrection. Yet, in spite of his doubts, he kept hanging out with Jesus' frightened band of followers after Jesus' resurrection and it will be on an eighth day, the first day of the second week of a new creation, that the risen Jesus will appear to Thomas. (John 20) Tradition says that Thomas carried the Good News of new life through the crucified and risen Jesus to India.

Even those who believe may sometimes doubt or struggle to allow their belief to overcome their unbelief.

Okay, I really do intend to present some verse-by-verse comments on the lesson. But that may not happen until later today or early tomorrow.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 11:32-44

[An explanation of what these passes are about and the first pass can be found here.]

John 11:32-44
A Few More General Comments
1. A theme central in last weekend's text is also dealt with here: The struggle--for followers of Christ--to remain in Christ, to keep believing in Christ. Faith is not a "one and done" thing. The call to believe in Jesus Christ is a call to trust Him through lives of "daily repentance and renewal." Martin Luther, who used the phrase I put in quotation marks in that last sentence, used to upbraid the "born again" Christians of his day, saying that they weren't "born again" enough. The sin against the Holy Spirit, which cannot be forgiven, isn't a specific act: It's the refusal to allow the Spirit to convince and convict us about our sins. We must daily reconnect with Christ, so that God can overcome anything that distorts our relationship with God, others, or our true selves.

Here, the fiercest hurdle to faith is dealt with: Death. I often tell mourners at funerals that if our faith isn't true then, it simply isn't true. A Lord Who doesn't have the power to overcome death cannot overcome ultimate cause of our death, the common human condition of sin, which brought death and decay into our world. And if a Lord can't do that, He really isn't Lord--Boss, King, Overlord--of the universe at all.

Jesus' raising of Lazarus is another sign--a semeia, the characteristic New Testament term for what we often call miracles--of His Lordship and the inbreaking of His Kingdom.

2. A perceptive commenter on the last pass at this lesson wondered "if it wouldn't be possible if it [what happened to Lazarus] really was a resurrection" rather than a resuscitation, as the Church has historically styled the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

It's a good question, one that appropriately asked if I might not be splitting hairs in order to give Jesus His place as "the first fruits from the dead."

I think that the traditional view is correct of what happened to Lazarus, though. I say that for several reasons:
  • Resurrection involves an irrevocable reversal of death; the resurrected don't die. Had the plan been for Lazarus never to die again, simply translated into heaven, I feel certain that John would have mentioned this.
  • We have no indication that Lazarus' body was like that of the resurrected Jesus, unconstrained by time and space, either.
  • Only two Biblical figures were or seemed to be translated into heaven: Enoch (probably) and Elijah (for sure). Neither one died first, though.
  • Finally, I really do think that if Lazarus was resurrected, Jesus could not be considered "the first fruits of the dead" or "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith," both important Biblical confessions about Him.
The Greek NT word translated as pioneer in the New Revised Standard Version, according to A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, can also be rendered as leader, founder, or originator. It appears to be a compound of two Greek terms, arche, which can be translated as beginning, origin, first cause, ruling power, authority. It's this word that appears in the first chapter of Genesis in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, with which Jesus and the early Church would have been familiar: "In the beginning..." (En arche). It's also the term John, the Gospel writer, uses at the outset of his prologue: "In the beginning..." (En arche). (We see arche in such words as archeology today.) The second word in this compound term translated as pioneer is ergon, meaning work, deed, action, task, occupation, undertaking. (We see this word in the English one, ergonomics, which is finding the "laws"--nomos, the Greek word that gives us the suffixes -nomy and -nomics in English, means law--that will help people do tasks, work comfortably.) The basic idea then, is that Jesus is the first worker of this new resurrected life. He has blazed that trail, the first among the resurrected and the one who opened resurrection to all who follow Him.]

I hope to present verse-by-verse comments tomorrow.

Continuing the Visual Arts Theme of the Day...

I just discovered the fabulous site of JAFABRIT, a sometimes whimsical visual artist who works in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Watch this Youtubed vlog on being an invisible woman. (Be sure to explore her blog site and see her fun and interesting work.)


I like the paintings featured in the video.

Speaking to what you address there: I think many people feel invisible. And it always goes back to that word you used: incuriosity. (I checked and it is a word, by the way.) People are often terribly incurious about things they don't understand (like being an artist) or things they don't want to understand (like how grieving or hurting people may be feeling).

Maybe part of the reason for that is that curiosity requires empathy and empathy--surely a form of love--requires work. (Love, I think, is less a feeling than it is a commitment to the well-being of another. Love, I like to say, is sometimes not what you feel but what you do in spite of how you feel.)

You can't tell that I'm a preacher, can you?

Anyway, your little meditation, camera in hand, reminded me of how important empathy is. Nobody wants to be invisible.

I like your site.

Mark Daniels]

More Images from the CIVA Gallery

Go to the CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) site to see more wonderful pieces of art and find ways to support real art by Christians.

Check Out the 'Christians in the Visual Arts' Site

This post elicited a comment, which led me to the stunningly beautiful site of a group called Christians in the Visual Arts. These images represent a sampling of the fabulous art you can see there!

While visiting, be sure to learn more about the activities of CIVA.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Early Voting a Good Experience

My wife, son, and I cast our votes for the November 7 elections today.

This year, we voters in Ohio are able to vote early. In the past, only absentee voters who could vouch for their inability to make it to the polls on election day were able to do this. But now, registered voters have the option of mailing in their ballots or showing up at the county Board of Elections offices in any of the state's 88 county seats before election day.

According to this article by Cincinnati Enquirer political reporter, Howard Wilkinson, both Democrats and Republicans like early voting, feeling that it locks voters in on their choices before any last-minute gaffes or charges can change their minds.

For us, the chance to vote early was an attractive option. It let us avoid the gauntlet of bothersome, barking campaigners who routinely station themselves in the parking lot--the barking lot?--of the megachurch where we vote. Because we live in the largest township in our county and something like five different precincts cast their votes there, it's an inviting target for what we consider to be harassing activists.

Clermont County, where we live, is suburban-rural and sets just east of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. The total population of Clermont is about 175,000. At the Board of Elections offices in Batavia, the staff told us that the voters who took advantage of early voting had been great to work with. I imagine that's because people who drive from the far corners of the county rather than going to their neighborhood polling places, are highly motivated. We voted at about 4:00 this afternoon and the staffers estimated that about 100 people had come in to vote just today. I have no idea how many people have already voted by mail, but will be interested in learning that come election day.

There was no gauntlet at the Board offices, though I wonder if some campaigns won't begin to station folks there--beyond the state-proscribed 100-foot limit--in the next few days, when larger numbers of folks are apt to vote at that site.

[This was cross-posted at]

The Battle for Turkey's Future

Ann Althouse has the story of the trial and eventual acquittal of Muazzez Ilmiye Cig, a scientist whose history of the head scarf landed her in a Turkish court, charged with "insulting the people."

Recent events in Turkey indicate that the country has a decided desire to, at the least, be acceptable to western society. No doubt part of the motivation is entry into the EU, a Turkish project for about twenty-five years now.

Several of my friends and acquaintances have visited Turkey within the past few months. One couple went there some three months ago for an international conference of medical researchers and reported that many Turks were at pains to tell them how much they loved the Americans...and their tourist dollars.

More recently, a colleague, Andrew Jackson, who has visited Turkey many times--and written several books about the country--went again and reported that there was more tension, more fear created by radical Islamic elements, than has been present before.

A real battle over whether Turkey will be a pluralistic democracy or a radical Islamic state is bubbling below the surface. Orhan Pamuk's recent acquittal, along with that of Muazzez Ilmiye Cig, indicate that progressive forces are working to tip Turkey toward the democratic vision.

My mother-in-law visited Turkey, spending a lot of time in Ephesus, last year. She has traveled all over the world over the past seven years or so. She says that there is no place more beautiful or interesting than Turkey.

[UPDATE: In response to my observations, Althouse comments that the Turks also "have the problem of bad laws on the books exacerbated by the bad procedure of allowing lawyers initiate prosecutions." This makes it even easier for those with a radical Islamist agenda to make life miserable for those who want a pluralistic democracy.]

[THANK YOU TO: The Turkish Digest for linking to this post.]

[IT MEANS A LOT TO ME THAT: Andrew Jackson, who has traveled extensively in Turkey and knows so much about it, has linked to this post!]

What is a Saint?

[My colleague, Glen VanderKloot, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois, sends out daily emailed inspirations. Today, he presents a piece on All Saints' Day. If you'd like to receive Glen's inspirations, simply send him an email at and put SUBSCRIBE on the subject line..]
Today is All Saint's Day. What makes a person a saint?

We think of people. People for whom special days, hospitals and churches are named after. We might think of more recent people – people who have made significant contributions to our world, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero of Central America.

We might think of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the young girl from Columbine High School who is reported to have declared her faith and was shot as a result. We might even include a grandmother or grandfather, aunt or uncle.

A bishop of Sweden once said…

"Saints are those who make it easier for us to believe in God."

Robert Louis Stevenson said..

"Saints are sinners who keep on going."

A saint is one who is faithful in all circumstances, one whose identity is not shaken by the daily circumstances, the ups and downs of life.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Scripture Verse
Hebrews 12:1-3

Such a large crowd of witnesses is all around us! So we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially the sin that just won't let go. And we must be determined to run the race that is ahead of us. We must keep our eyes on Jesus, who leads us and makes our faith complete…So keep your mind on Jesus, who put up with many insults from sinners. Then you won't get discouraged and give up.


Lord, thank you for the saints who have gone before us and provide examples of faith for us. Let us follow in their footsteps. Amen.
[UPDATE: Pastor Jeff of Conblogeration has linked to this post and added his own wonderful reflections on All Saints' Day.]

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 11:32-44

[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 Text: John 11:32-44
32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

General Comments
1. This is the Gospel lesson appointed for All Saints' Day, which falls on November 1. (Halloween, a contraction of the words hallowed evening, is All Saints' Eve.) Our congregation, like many others around the world, will celebrate the festival during our regular worship celebrations this weekend. Churches in the Roman Catholic tradition and in many others', will hold special All Saints' Day services tomorrow.

2. All Saints' Day is a Lesser Festival of the Church Year. The Lesser Festivals constitute one of four different classes of days on the Church calendar. Others are:
  • The Principal Festivals of the Church year, which include Easter Day, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Christmas Day, and the Epiphany.
  • Sundays and Days of Special Devotion, under which the following is included: Ash Wednesday and the days of Holy Week, the week prior to Easter.
  • Commemorations, which may celebrate the witness to Christ given through the lives of people from Bible times and since.
3. According to Philip Pfatteicher and Carlos Messerli:
At the time of the Reformation [which began in 1517] the list of saints who were commemorated on the calendar [of the Roman Catholic Church] was enormous. The Reformers drastically simplified the calendar and out of the welter of names and events of the medieval calendar retained the days of the 12 apostles, the evangelists, the Name of Jesus, the Presentation of Our Lord, the Annunciation of Our Lord, the Visitation (of Elizabeth by the Virgin Mary), the Nativity of John the Baptist, St. Michael and All Angels, the Conversion of St. Paul, and All Saints' Day...
Later generations in Lutheran and other traditions have also come to embrace several Lesser Fetsivals already celebrated by Roman Catholics. This includes Mary, Mother of Our Lord, the Confession of St. Peter, St. Barnabas (one of my personal favorites!), and Holy Cross Day.

4. Of All Saints' Day, Pfatteicher and Messerli write:
The custom of commemorating all of the martyrs of the church on a single day goes back at least to the third century. In the East, the celebration is still on the Sunday after Pentecost...When the festival was introduced in the West it was kept first on May 13, the date of the dedication of the rebuilt Roman Pantheon to St. Mary and All Martyrs. In modern practice, All Saints' Day commemorates not only all the martyrs but all people of God, living and dead, who form the mystical body of Christ...
5. The Biblical understanding of the term saint describes any person who entrusts their past, present, and future to the God Who came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. In other words, a saint is one who repents of their sin and believes in Jesus Christ as Lord, Savior, and God. Put more simply, a saint is a forgiven sinner.

The communion of saints incorporates those who believed in God before His physical incarnation in our world, as He revealed Himself to Abraham and his descendants.

6. Many churches use All Saints' Day or All Saints' Sunday to remember those from their fellowship who, believing in Jesus Christ, died in the preceding year. Often too, the occasion is used to remember all who have died in the faith. At a deeper level though, the day is set aside as a festival of the Church itself, a time to thank God that we are saved from sin and death and given an eternity with God by the grace granted to all, living and dead, who believe in Christ. From the saints who have gone before us, we can learn lessons on how to live and die as people who are faithful to Jesus Christ.

I hope to present some general comments about the Bible lesson in the next pass.

Thanks to...

Ambivablog, who in a piece that also quotes extensively from an interesting column by Peggy Noonan, has linked to this post.

Who's Running for President?

Chances are that Dunkin' Donuts has higher name recognition than California Congressman Duncan Hunter.

But, undaunted, the veteran pol has announced that he's forming an exploratory committee to look into a run for President.

Hunter is an articulate, intelligent guy. He possesses that inexplicable asset of gravitas, too.

He's going to be re-elected to his San Diego-area House seat again this coming Tuesday. But chances appear strong that he'll no longer be a committee chairperson when the new Congress convenes in January. So, why not run for president?

I wish that more serious-minded people in both parties would run for the presidency. More than that, I wish that it were possible for all such candidates to have genuine shots at being nominated and elected.

Hunter may surprise us all. But whatever the outcome of his presidential exploration, his mere presence in the early primary and caucus debates would be interesting.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Another Homage to Fall Back Day

Read this beautiful post by Amba.

Is Mormonism a Cult? Can Mitt Romney Be Elected President?

Those two questions occasion the first installment of a series of posts John Schroeder has begun over at Blogotional. He intends to tackle the question of whether Mormonism can be considered a cult and whether Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, is eliminated for consideration for the 2008 GOP nomination because of his religion.

I wrote this response to John:
One of my seminary professors, Trygve Skarsten, gave us this definition of what constitutes a cult from a Christian perspective. [I should add that this references those groups claiming to be Christian.] A cult...
  • 1. doesn't believe in salvation by grace;
  • 2. repudiates the deity of Christ; and
  • 3. repudiates the doctrine of the Trinity.
By these terms, Mormonism would be considered a cult.

But the issue of whether a person who is a Mormon should be elected the presidency or to any other public office is altogether different from how one views his or her religion.

People of all faiths must be committed to not using their public offices to give preferred treatment to the doctrine or the adherents of their faith. I see no reason why a Mormon could not serve as president or be considered as a candidate for the presidency. Many Mormons have served in other public offices, including Eisenhower's Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, who also was a luminary in his faith group.

I don't think that someone should be blocked from consideration for the White House just because they're Mormon.

More specific to Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts governor who occasions so much of your posting on this subject:

Romney appears to be gaining traction in his bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and seems to have gotten the tacit endorsement of Jeb Bush. Romney might well take the nomination.

But Romney has decided liabilities as a candidate, none of them having to do with his faith.

His father ran in 1968, you know, and at one point was considered one of the top contenders. But following his famed "brainwashed" gaffe, he was out of the field. The son seems paranoid about making the same mistake as his father. Mitt Romney appears to be scripted. When one adds to this what looks like a natve woodenness, there is an air of detached inaccessibility about him, not unlike that of John Kerry.

As he continues to campaign though, Romney may shed some of his obvious fear and become a more relaxed, likable campaigner. That would enhance his prospects.

Another thing that may hurt him is a mood is that appears to be taking hold of the American people, a mood to no longer reward political dynasties. It's one reason among many, for example, that Hillary Clinton will probably not run for the 2008 Dem nomination or have it denied to her if she does. Bush, Clinton, Gore, Taft, Kennedy, Romney: They've been important political names for anywhere from thirty to more than one-hundred years. But, even if the latest members of these dynasties are qualified to be president, the American people are presently in no mood to elect them.

The big advantage that Romney does have is in being from Massachusetts. No matter what he does in the Iowa caucuses, he'll have a fighting chance for the nomination because he will likely perform well in the New Hampshire primary. Massachusetts pols, because of their proximity to the Granite State, have always fared well in NH. Consider the list that immediately comes to mind: John Kennedy, Henry Cabot Lodge (on an unauthorized write-in campaign), Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, and John Kerry.
[THANKS TO: Andrew Jackson of for linking to this post.]

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

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Futbol with the Philosophers

My son sent this Monty Python bit my way. Funny!

Ten Days Later, This Seems Even More Appropriate


Nora Ephron Writes About Falling Back to Standard Time

She'd rather set clocks ahead one hour every month--we'd make it up sometime, somehow, she says. But then she writes:
I have to say that today is the most delicious day of the year. It's the twenty-five hour day. All right, you have to go around the house and change all the clocks, and there are so many of them - even the one on the oven somehow has to be changed. But that leaves a good 57 minutes that's just a bonus, a gift, a delicious way to make things last just a little longer, 57 minutes when you can stay in bed, or catch up on your reading, or watch that thing you Tivo'd, or walk in the park, or see the show at the Met, or go down to 23rd Street for frozen custard. You can do anything at all, you can do nothing at all...
Exactly. Although it brings darkness earlier and that's depressing, it does bring this one "delicious day" each year.

In 2007, I hear, Daylight Saving Time will start on March 11 and end on November 4. In the interest of saving energy, the federal government has made the two big time-changing days of the year sort of secular moveable feasts.

And, speaking of moveable feasts, changing Fall-Back Sunday to a different date will have implications for those of us in the Church. Since the widespread adoption of Daylight Savings Time, the last Sunday in October has been the third most-well-attended Sunday service in churches across the country, after Easter and Mother's Day. With an extra hour on Sunday mornings, it made it easier for people to make it to worship.

That was really handy for we Lutherans, who celebrate Reformation Sunday, which always falls on the last Sunday in October. People who figured they had an hour to kill could show up for worship and really add to the festiveness of the occasion.

In addition, many of us have designated this Sunday as Friend Day, an easy morning for first-time visitors to get to worship with us. I guess that we'll just have to make Friend Day another one of our moveable feasts.

Go read Ephron's post. As anybody who's seen When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, or You've Got Mail knows, she's a terrific writer! (All right, so I like chick flicks. You want to make something of it?)

I've got to go. It's a glorious, blue fall day here and I want to take a walk before the sun goes down.

God is For You

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship celebrations on October 28 and 29, 2006.]

John 8:31-36

Back in the Stone Ages, when I did my student teaching at Bishop Ready High School in Columbus, my supervising teacher was a terrific guy named Joe Palazzo. One day, after he’d observed me teach twelfth-grade Government class, Joe had a few simple pieces of advice for me. First, he said: Get off of your mountain. Come down here with the kids. That’s where you can teach and they can learn. But he also gave a second and more important piece of advice. “All effective teaching, Mark, boils down to two principles: Repetition and concreteness. Repeat it in as many different ways and as many times as you can. And then, make it real. Help them to see it."

The greatest teacher who ever lived was Jesus of Nazareth. He was often called rabbi, teacher, even by those who opposed Him and thought that His claims to be God and Savior of the world were out to lunch.

In our Bible lesson for today, we find Jesus using Joe Palazzo’s principles of teaching to get across the most important message any of us will ever receive. Jesus tells us that He is the best friend we can have and that to be truly free, we need a connection to Him. He breaks this lesson down into three parts.

Part one: Jesus twice repeats, in different ways, a straightforward Biblical principle. Its this: Stick with Me and you’ll be free. At the beginning of our lesson, He says: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Then, at the end of our lesson, He repeats this point in a different way: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

You and I might chafe under those words a bit. Jesus’ fellow Jews, people who had believed in Him, certainly reacted to His telling them that, insisting, despite a history of enslavement, that they had never been slaves to anybody. The last thing any of us wants to admit is that we aren’t free agents, doing exactly what we want to do in life. One of the phrases we repeat a lot around our house is something that little Michaela, from our congregation, said when she was just learning to talk. When someone would try to help her, she would pull away and say, “Mine a do it!”

Children aren’t the only ones who feel the need to prove that they are self-contained free agents. Adults do this, even when they’re in the clutches of addiction or sin. “I can quit any time!” says the alcoholic confronted with the truth about his destructive life style. “Good,” says someone who loves him, “quit.” “I don’t want to,” they’ll say...though the truth would actually be expressed with the words, “I can’t quit. I’m a slave to my addiction.”

In telling us, “Stick with me and you’ll be free,” Jesus was implicitly telling us what He makes explicit in Part Two: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” He says. That rings true to me.

I’ve told many of you the story about the first time I remember a swear word crossing my lips. I was in the sixth grade. It was the day of the Halloween party and I was frustrated. Everyone had come to school in the costume they were going to wear on what we called Beggar’s Night in Columbus. I was dressed as a girl, complete with dress and make-up. I guess my mom and I were the only ones who didn't get the memo that said all students should bring a change of clothes. So, there I was at recess, playing Four Square with my classmates on the playground, the only one still in my Halloween costume. In drag!

All the other kids rode me pretty hard, which was frustrating enough. But then, Steve, a tough little guy who had started smoking when we were in the fourth grade in hopes that he could stunt his growth and become a jockey, spiked the ball in my square. I was out. “I guess you really are a girl,” one of my classmates said in words that in just a few years, we would regard not only as cruel but totally unenlightened.

Frustrated that I was in a dress, upset that Steve had just knocked me out of the game, and mad about all the insults, I picked up the ball, slammed it to the pavement, and said the first curse word I ever spoke. “D__n!” I barked. “Whooo!” the kids said, “Daniels cussed!”

Here’s what I found. After I’d sworn once, misusing the gift of language and violating God’s will for human beings, it was a lot easier to do it a second time. Easier still to do it a third.

Sin creates holes in our souls and unless we’re careful, sin will flood our lives, making us its slaves, sinking us into the muck of evil, far from God.

“When I first started raking money from the company, I was conscience-struck,” one man admitted. “But after awhile, it became easier. I had all sorts of justifications for it.”

It’s easy to become the slave of sin. In fact, the Bible tells us that we have an inborn inclination to sin. That’s why Jesus’ promise, “Stick with me and you’ll be free,” is really good news!

So, how do we get free? Well, we don’t. Only God can free us. That leads to Part Three of Jesus’ lesson: The Son has the run of God’s kingdom. Stick with the Son and He will set you free!

When I lived in northwestern Ohio, I got to know a local judge--a Democrat, by the way--who took both his faith and his work seriously. I saw him time and again wrestle with doing what was right and fair.

Another man I knew was charged with a crime and brought before that judge. The man was clearly guilty. But I knew how remorseful he was and I intervened, asking my judge friend to go easy on him, not imposing prison time.

The judge listened to me and said, “I understand all that, Mark. I know how much he regrets his actions. But the law is the law.” “Yes, it is,” I told him, “and I know that you have no choice. I was just hoping you could think of another way to handle things. But whatever you do, I’ll respect your sentence.”

Jesus looks at us and our failure to love God and love neighbor and knows, just like that judge, that the law is the law. All sin is the failure to love God and love neighbor. And, the Bible says unequivocally that "the wages of sin"--the appropriate payment for sin--"is death."

But after finding us guilty and pronouncing our death sentence over us, Jesus does something extraordinary.

He takes our punishment.

That’s what He did when He voluntarily went to the cross, though He had no sin. He took the punishment that you and I deserve. (Well, at least the punishment that I know that I deserve, anyway. You have to decide for yourself whether you've ever failed to love God or love others.)

All who remain with Jesus, everyone who sticks with Him, is set free from sin and death and have a life with God that never ends.
  • On a cross, Jesus made God’s love so concrete you can’t doubt how real it is.
  • And from an empty tomb, He made clear His power and His desire to give us life that lasts forever.
These are the greatest object lessons in human history!

Today, we have two celebrations at Friendship. One is of the Reformation, about which you can read in the handouts you found distributed throughout the sanctuary today. [The text of the handout is here.] The Reformation began when a young monk and priest, Martin Luther, dogged by a sense of his own sin and the fear that an angry God would never forgive him, discovered the true face of God is seen in the Good News of Jesus. “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.”

We also celebrate Friend Day. For us, this means a lot more than the fact that we are your friends. Back during my senior year of seminary, I was assigned to the Michigan District of the old American Lutheran Church. The bishop was a wonderful guy named Reg Holle and he came to the seminary to meet the graduating seniors who had been assigned to his district through what we used to call "the draft." I already had gotten to know Bishop Holle fairly well when I was on my internship the year before.

"Mark," he said. "I think I have a pretty fair fix on your theology. But I want to ask you something. What's the most important book you read over the past four years?"

I didn't hesitate. It was a short book by theologian Joachim Jeremias called, The Central Message of the New Testament. It's the central message we declare in the Church:
That's it. God is for you. That's the message of the Bible. It's the message of the Reformation. God is your best friend. God is for you.

We’re grateful that some of our friends could be with us today. We wanted all of you to be reminded that God isn’t an angry judge.

He’s the Lord Who loves you and is reaching out to you again today through our fellowship to tell you how important you are to Him and that He wants to spend an eternity repeating to you over and over again in a million ways and showing you in ways you can see, understand, and experience that you are the apple of God’s eye!