Saturday, March 24, 2007

I Am Such a Dork!

I was unable to watch any of today's Ohio State-Memphis Elite Eight tournament game. But on my way home from our Saturday worship, I heard the final minutes, which my beloved Buckeyes won 92 to 76, I heard OSU's play-by-play announcer Paul Kiels say, "Watch out, Atlanta. The Buckeyes are on their way!"

To prove what a dork I am, those words brought tears to my eyes.

I was born and raised in Columbus. During my growing-up years, contrary to form, Ohio State basketball was more important to me than Ohio State football. I loved Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Jim Bowman, and all the other great players from the early-60s who vied for national championships and won one back then. I've had the fever ever since.

OSU basketball has always been a bond between my father and me, too. In fact, just a few moments ago, the first person I called to celebrate Ohio State's entry into the Final Four was dad.

Readers here know how strong my ties to The Ohio State University are. I talk about the university all the time!

Ohio State was the only college to which I applied. It was unthinkable to me to attend any other institution. And I loved my time there! One of my early instructors, Lance Schreffler, teaching the port-of-entry class offered to all incoming freshman, UVC100, urged us to "do the university," finding ways to use the extraordinary resources of the world's largest campus--today there are more than 51,800-students on the Columbus site--to grow intellectually, socially, and in other ways. My grades were so-so. But my hours in the William Oxley Thompson stacks, involvement with the Off-Campus Students' Association, and lengthy conversations with faculty members who gave so generously of their time--people like Stan Swart, Jim Kweder, and Don Van Meter, among others--gave me a first-class education! (Stan and his wife, Jan, attended my wedding and reception.)

My wife also graduated from OSU and our son was born there. Most of my closest friends graduated from State, too.

When our son, Philip, now twenty-five, was growing up, I took a week of vacation in order to take him to OSU Basketball Camp every year. We relished our time on campus and time spent in my favorite city on the planet, Columbus.

I'm so happy to be involved these days in my county OSU Alumni Association, a group of people who not only want football tickets, but also want to serve our community and to provide area young people with the same benefit we enjoy, an Ohio State education!

All of these things probably combined to create my dorky--and I must add in my defense, momentary--response to the announcement that the Buckeyes will be going to the Final Four, the first time since 1999.

Kentucky, Kansas, and UCLA fans, among others, may regard it as an entitlement for their teams to make it into the Final Four. But as an OSU fan, in spite of having had many fine teams to cheer in the past four-plus decades, I can't see things that way. I see it as a special privilege...and a special privilege too, to have such a fine team and a fine coach to represent me and the rest of Buckeye Nation!

Go, Buckeyes!

Prayer for Habitat for Humanity Wall-Raising

Today, Habitat volunteers, including several from the church I serve as pastor, participated in a special ceremony preceding the wall-raising for a new Habitat for Humanity. Our congregation, along with All Saints Lutheran Church in Mount Carmel and Saint Mark Lutheran Church in Milford, secured the funding from Thrivent Financial Services for Lutherans, constituting 65% of the costs. Volunteers from churches throughout the county are involved in additional fundraising and of course, construction of the home.

Ours is a relatively small congregation; but our experience demonstrates that God can do great things even with a small group of people. It's exciting!

Here's the prayer I did for today's ceremony:
Today, we remember that Your Word tells us, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builder builds in vain.”

This seems appropriate for us today in several ways.

First: Because we know that whether as it relates to funding, drafting, or construction, we can only do those things for which You have equipped us with the resources that You have given to us.

It also seems appropriate because we know that no couple can truly be a couple, no family can be a family, and no home is really home without Your empowerment.

As Habitat volunteers put up the walls on the Higginses new home, we pray for the safety of all who participate in the construction process. We pray too for Your wisdom and Your help so that everything gets accomplished in a timely way.

But more than that, we pray that You will help everyone involved to build their lives on the strong foundation of Your love and goodness, lavished on us all so freely and so tenaciously in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Bless the work of all who labor here and grant that we will treat this work for what it is: An opportunity to demonstrate to all the world the greatness of our awesome God of love.

May You alone be glorified!

In Jesus’ Name we pray.


Friday, March 23, 2007

There in Good Times and Bad

Tomorrow morning, I'll be offering the prayer for a special ceremony. Our congregation will be working with other area churches in the erection of the walls for a new Habitat for Humanity home. It's one of those fun experiences you enjoy as a pastor, watching God's people provide a new home for a family in need of one.

But early this morning, my wife received word that a former boss of hers, the principal of one of our area elementary schools, tragically took her own life. This afternoon, I was asked to lead a community memorial service that will happen at one of our local high schools. This is one of those experiences you dread as a pastor.

And yet, in all sorts of experiences I've learned that the God Who through Jesus Christ has experienced the best and the worst of life, is truly present. Jesus promises to be with us always. The good and the bad times often present me with circumstances I have no idea how to handle. Fortunately, Jesus Christ does. I lean on Him...and He has never failed to help.

Old Habits Die Hard

Here. I'm praying for you, friend Richard.

I'd Have Been Frightened by a Lower Score!

You know the Bible 100%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I'm Praying for Elizabeth and John Edwards...and Asking You for Prayers

I've laughed at John Edwards' primping, defended his capacity to empathize with the poor, and decried Ann Coulter's assault on him. But who could help but be impressed with the Edwardses today as they talked about the recurrence of Elizabeth Edwards' cancer? And who could resist the thought, irrespective of one's politics, that if Elizabeth thinks this highly of John Edwards, maybe all of us should consider his substance as well?

We sometimes forget that these public figures are real human beings. The reappearance of cancer in this vital, intelligent, and funny woman's life reminds us all of our common humanity.

I'm praying for the Edwardses!

And speaking of praying, could I ask readers of this blog to add a young man named Ian to your prayers? He's a seventeen year old member of our congregation who is recovering from a major mishap, sustained while he was trying to earn extra credit for an assignment at school. Please ask God to give him complete healing. Thanks!

Third Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 12:1-8

[To see the first two passes at this lesson, go here and here. The first link explains what these passes are about.]

[Verse-by-Verse Comments, continued]
4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
(1) John always mentions that Judas will betray Jesus. If Mary of Bethany exemplifies authentic discipleship, Judas is its antitype.

(2) Of course, the Scriptures indicate that followers of Christ should make giving to the poor a priority, as it was in Old Testament thought as well. But we see how far Judas is from authentic discipleship in that he will use religious tradition and rhetoric to condemn an act of true devotion to Christ.

(3) A denarius was the usual pay for a laborer's day of work. The perfume used by Mary would thus have cost a year's pay. This is an extravagant act of devotion. (Denarii is the plural form of denarius.)

(4) Brian Stoffregen points out that the 300 denarii "wasted" by Mary is ten times what Judas would take to betray Jesus. All week long, I've been thinking of that old AC/DC song to describe Judas' act: "Dirty deeds done dirt cheap."

6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
(1) The Greek word translated here as thief is kleptes, from which we get the word kleptomaniac. It's also the same word used by Jesus to describe the thief who threatens the flock in John 10:1, 8, 10. In both cases--that of the thief and of Judas--the aim is to destroy the life, hope, and devotion of the followers of the Good Shepherd. Of course, Judas' act is, in its way, vastly more evil. He is the supposedly pious, but faithless person on the inside tearing down the faith and the unity of the church by insisting that things should be done in a proscribed way.

7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
(1) Jesus does not mean for the Church to prefer extravagance on things like buildings over against doing for the poor. We should always give the poor priority, along with those with no knowledge of Jesus Christ. But Jesus is commending Mary for taking advantage of honoring Him while she could. Do we take advantage of the fleeting opportunities we have to honor Christ when we can?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 12:1-8

[The first pass, containing an explanation of what these passes are about, can be found here.]

Verse-by-Verse Comments
1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.
(1) We are within one week of the final of three Passovers narrated by John in his gospel. As readers, we know that this will be the Passover week when Jesus will be executed on a cross. Even the disciples themselves, mindful of the mounting opposition to Jesus, would have been aware of the danger that surrounded Jesus, especially if He went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, which as a practicing Jew He wanted to do. Death looms over this scene.

(2) The Passover, of course, is the Jewish holiday which remembers Israel's deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Just before their departure, the angel of death was sent to Egypt. It passed over the homes of the Jewish (Hebrew) slaves who put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. Otherwise, the angel brought death to the firstborn in every Egyptian household. This culminating sign from God--there had been ten--convinced the oppressive Pharaoh to accede to the demands of the leader of the Israelites, Moses. (For more information on Passover, go here and here.)

It was during the week of Passover that God chose the sacrifice of the perfect Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world to take place. By the power of His blood to atone for our sin, we pass over from death to life.

(3) Given the unique timeline of John as it relates to Jesus' crucifixion, this gathering would have taken place on Saturday night, after the conclusion of the Sabbath. (The Sabbath runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.) This would have allowed Martha to serve, as we will soon learn she does.

(4) Bethany, of course, is the hometown of the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was here that in John 11, Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, though he had been dead for four days. It was because of that act that the conspiracy to kill Jesus was hatched.

Bethany is one of the touchstone locales of the Gospels. Ed Markquart points out that it "was two miles from Jerusalem and a stone’s throw to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane." (For more on Bethany, see here.)

2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
(1) The word translated from the Greek as dinner here, deipnon, is only used elsewhere in the Gospels to describe the Last Supper. John does tell about the Last Supper--without the institution of Holy Communion--this dinner has a lot in common with the Last Supper.

(2) Does There refer to Bethany or to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus? I've always assumed that it meant the latter. But several commentators point out that if this were the case, there would have been no reason to mention Lazarus' presence at the meal.

Still, the fact that Martha, in typical Martha fashion, is the one who serves the dinner, would seem to indicate where it took place.

It also shows us that, in spite of the extravagant gesture about to be made by Mary, the three siblings were far from wealthy.

(3) The mention of Lazarus might also underscore the brewing plot against Jesus, precipitated by His raising Lazarus from the dead.

3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
(1) This ointment is a myrrh, familiar to us from the Christmas story, where it also foreshadows Jesus' death. Markquart, citing Raymond Brown's commentary tells us that:
It was used in “incense, cosmetics, perfume, medicines and in burial preparations.”
Of nard, Brown writes:
[It is] fragrant oil from the root of a nard plant which grows in the mountains of northern India.
Chances are that Mary had been saving this ointment for a long time. I wonder why she hadn't used it to anoint Lazarus' body which?

(2) Why did Mary do this? Some suggest that she is anointing Jesus as King before what John understands as His enthronement, His death and resurrection.

That may very well be at play here. But I think that something else is going on. Generally speaking, people were expected to wash their own feet. But if it were ever done for them , it would have been the work of a servant. In the coming chapter of John's gospel, in the upper room, Jesus will wash the feet of His disciples, an action for which John will use the same Greek verb translated as wiped here. Initially horrified at His act of submissiveness and servanthood, the disciples will be told by Jesus that such actions are the signs of Christian discipleship. Mary demonstrates that she "gets it," understanding what it means to follow Christ.

(3) The feet of the dead were also anointed.

[More verse-by-verse comments tomorrow, I hope.]

Tiny Homes, Texas-Style

That's the new series of photo essays Richard Lawrence Cohen has started on his blog. I love the whole idea! Maybe it will motivate me to downsize sooner than later. That would be a good thing.

Checked Out of the Library Today...

The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America. I've long admired Ray Suarez and so I'm looking forward to reading this book. In addition to being a gifted reporter, he's also a committed Christian.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Happy Feet

with a happy story. Belated happy anniversary, Jafabrit!

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 12:1-8

[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 12:1-8
1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

General Comments
1. Most commentators point out that this passage is the third of three different versions of what is apparently the same incident. The others are in Mark 14:3-9 (essentially duplicated in Matthew 26:1-13) and in Luke 7:36-49. As in this lesson, the anointing of Jesus is associated with His burial. Luke makes no such link, instead focusing on the woman's devotion to Jesus and His scandalous proclamation of forgiveness. In the Lucan story, the woman is a notorious sinner.

2. The immediate context of the passage is framed first by the end of chapter 11 in which the "chief priests and Pharisess" have decided to find a way to arrest Jesus during the upcoming Passover. This decision is reached in John 11:53, because of Jesus bringing His friend Lazarus back from the dead. This is too definitive a sign, in this Gospel of miraculous signs, of Jesus' dominion over life and death for them to allow. (This has always struck me as bizarrely funny. If the raising of Lazarus confirmed who Jesus was, why did the religious leadership think that they could successfully kill Him off? It just shows how strangely we think when we become consumed with our own power and priorities.)

3. After our passage, we come to the conspiracy to also kill Lazarus, evidence of Jesus' Lordship, and the movement to the cross with Palm Sunday. (The latter passage ends in John 12:19, with the Pharisees' acknowledgement of the futility of standing against Jesus. But they press to kill Him anyway.)

4. We are moving toward the crucifixion at a time appointed by God, irrespective of the machinations of Jesus' enemies. This becomes clearer as we move through John's account of Jesus' execution. Everything about our lesson foreshadows what is to come and in some ways, this is John's version of the Last Supper, although He will talk about that event in ways that vary from the narratives in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

[I hope to present verse-by-verse comments on the passage tomorrow.]

Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#8: Disappointed with the Church?)

[I'm writing a series of columns for the Community Press newspapers dealing with common reasons people give for not being part of the church. This is the eighth such letter.]

Dear Friend:
I've been talking about common reasons people offer for not being part of the church. Today, I want to deal with a reason often given by those who leave churches and don't come back. "I was disappointed by the church," they say.

Whether their disappointment in a previous congregation stems from unethical practices, feelings of being ignored or marginalized, or from being hurt by someone in congregational leadership, I feel badly when people are disappointed. I listen to them sympathetically. No one wants to be hurt, especially by the church. All churches should be fellowships of safety and welcome.

Having been disappointed by the church myself, I try to remind these hurting people of two things: (1) No church is perfect. Because, as I've pointed out before, the church is a fellowship of recovering sinners, there will be times when we disappoint one another. (2) Not all churches are the same. For every congregation in which the penchant for hurting others is endemic, you can find dozens whose members strive to live in Christian attitudes of love for God and neighbor.

But it should also be said that some people become disappointed with a church not because of a church's sins, but because of their own. They want the church to bend to their wills on matters of personal preference.

For example, I know of a church that lost several member families in a dispute over the color of new carpeting in the sanctuary. They wanted red and the building committee voted for salmon. "I was very hurt," said one of the departing members, which was really her way of saying, "I was ticked off that we didn't get our way!"

In recent years, homosexuality and other sexual expressions outside of marriage have become more accepted in our culture. I'm frankly glad that longstanding forms of homophobia are dying. Any time we think of people in dehumanizing terms, God isn't glorified.

But with this trend toward acceptance of more and diverse sexual expression, many profess disappointment that most Christian churches continue to say that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God's will. Most churches welcome all people to wrestle with their sin and hear the Good News of forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. That includes people who profess an orientation to homosexuality.

But churches aren't free to change God's mind on this subject. God has said that sexual intimacy is to happen within the bounds of heterosexual marriage. The Church--my own "liberal" Evangelical Lutheran Church in America included--has refused to alter what God has revealed in the Bible.

Jesus says that sin isn't just about what we do or say, but also about what we think. And the Bible tells us that all have sinned. From this, we can extrapolate that no one is guiltless in sexual matters. But if your disappointment with a church stems from its unwillingness to label right what God has called wrong, chances are you'll be disappointed for a long time.

Whatever the source of your disappointment with a church of which you may have been a part in the past, I hope that you won't let it keep you from finding a church home. There's no such thing as the perfect church. But when you find a church disappointing you, I hope you'll ask yourself this question: "Am I disappointed because God's will has been violated or is it because my will has been denied?"

And, even if you find the church guilty, ask yet another question of yourself: "Should I leave this church or can I stay, keep loving these imperfect people, and pray that they will keep loving me in spite of my own imperfections?"


[To see all eight letters thus far written, go here. There will be more installments in this series.]

Monday, March 19, 2007

'Tiny Houses' Take Off in Japan

Fed by younger people disgusted with extended commutes to and from suburban neighborhoods and with expensive housing, the tiny houses movement I wrote about here, seems to have a significantly larger counterpart in Japan. (TY: Andrew Sullivan)

In Memoriam: March 19, 2007

Bill Puts It on Spin Cycle

Former President Bill Clinton will speak on health issues to a spinning exercise class in Manhattan on Thursday night. It's a fundraiser for his wife's presidential campaign and each participant will pay $2300 for an evening that will include Clinton's presentation, a forty-five minute workout, and "cocktails and appetizers."

It's certainly creative as campaign fundraising schemes go. And it's all part of the Hillary Clinton campaign's aim of raising between $20 and $30-million in the first three months of this year!

Not only have campaigns gotten too long, there's entirely too much money thrown around in the whole process. The Clintons probably raise so much money, in fact, that they're be less susceptible to the pressures for favors brought to bear by their contributors...though perhaps more so to those who run and sponsor their massive fundraising events. But, generally speaking, big givers, whether to Republican or Democratic candidates, aren't donating to candidates' coffers because of deeply-held principles. They're buying access.

But who's going to give access to all the millions of Americans who can't afford to ante up as candidates for both parties' nominations rev up their respective fundraising machines?

Interestingly, most politicians I know hate the campaign fundraising rat race. "I think of all the charities that could be helped with all the dollars I have to raise just to stay competitive and it makes me sick," one told me several years ago.

What's the cure for this wretched excess? I don't know. But I'm sure that the current campaign influence-peddling (pedaling?) system won't improve until all of us are sufficiently sickened by it!

[This has been cross-posted at]

'Home, Sweet Home'

An old hymn I learned in my first parish says, "I am but a stranger here, heaven is my home."

Read Charlie Lehardy's wonderful thoughts on home.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

'Stranger Than Fiction'

The Narrator-as-God motif is apparently not uncommon in literature. Neither evidently is the Author-as-Real-Life-Character-with-Her or His-Creations. At least literary types have advised me that this is so.

But since most of my reading is of the non-fiction variety, my exposure to these narrative devices is pretty limited. In fact, I've encountered it only once, back in the mid-1970s, during a fit of post-college "I'm Going to Read Fiction" resolve. I started with Hermann Hesse and moved onto Kurt Vonnegut, both of whose work I enjoyed. But it was Vonnegut's then-newest novel, Breakfast of Champions, his fiftieth birthday present to himself, that intrigued me most.

In its climactic scene, Vonnegut himself appears near the scene of an automobile accident suffered by Kilgore Trout. Trout was a creation of Vonnegut's, a pornographer who had played a part in one of his previous books. Dazed, confused, injured, Trout wonders who this figure in the night is. I created you, Vonnegut tells him. He goes on to say that he's going to transform Kilgore Trout from a sleazy porn writer into a literary giant who produces works of enduring importance. All will be changed.

There's poignance in The Breakfast of Champions as its author with God-like power changes the lives of his fictional creations, but can't change his own life in the way he most wants. He can't fulfill his fondest dream. He can't be young again.

Poignance aside, the device employed by Vonnegut of entering his story and interacting with his creation always intrigued me.

Stranger Than Fiction, the film starring Will Ferrell and a fantastic cast takes the device further. Ferrell's character, Harold Crick, it turns out, also appears fully formed in the imagination of novelist Karen Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson.

In a way, this is far more complicated than Vonnegut's trick in Breakfast of Champions. Here, Crick, though imagined by a novelist, is also a real person. He becomes aware of the voice of a narrator, Eiffel, who is telling the story of his everyday life. That's startling enough.

But then, waiting at the bus stop on his way home from work, Harold hears his death foreshadowed. Naturally enough, he tries at first to find a way to change his fate and then, to live his life fruitfully and well while he can.

Along the way, Ferrell's Crick is helped by a fantastic cast of characters, most notably a professor of literature, played by Dustin Hoffman, and a baker audited by Ferrell's IRS agent, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Emma Thompson, as always, is fantastic, this time as an author struggling with writer's block, then churning out a classic only to change it dramatically in the end. Queen Latifah is effective in her role, although there isn't much substance to her role.

Ferrell gives a fine performance in a part that some might have played like Chance the Gardener in Being There. Harold, in fact, may have been a bit like Chance as this movie starts. For all we know, Harold may have appeared only as an adult, a creature without a past, a cardboard cutout without substance. But as the story moves along, the narrator and Ferrell himself make him more real, more compelling. I found myself desperately wanting this character not to die.

I won't give away the ending at this point. But I will say that this film raises a lot of questions.

First among them is why we don't see more films like this: thoughtful, not heavy-handed, with interesting quirky characters.

This was my first Will Ferrell movie. I liked it. You might like it too.

[UPDATE: Spoiler Alert...Spoiler Alert...Spoiler Alert...Spoiler Alert...Spoiler Alert

One of the most interesting aspects of Stranger Than Fiction, from a Christian perspective, comes in its denoument. Harold finds author Karen Eiffel. She gives him the entire manuscript to read. Included are Eiffel's outline of its last pages, which call for Harold's death.

Desperate, Harold takes the unfinished book to Professor Hilbert (Hoffman). He wants the professor to find a way the book can be changed so that his life will be spared.

Hilbert reads the manuscript and meets Harold the next morning. He informs Harold that this is the climactic masterpiece of Eiffel's literary career. The fictional rendering of Harold's death is essential to the greatness of the work.

In essence, Hilbert, who we learn is also a lifeguard at a local pool, someone who presumably has a preference for saving lives, tells Harold that he must accept his death sentence.

Eiffel, who has perfectly recounted the events of Harold's life to this point, must now be allowed to administer Harold's death sentence by completing her narrative. There is no alternative.

Like most people given a death sentence, whether by a jury or an oncologist, Harold tries to bargain with his fate. He weeps as he tells Hilbert he'd hoped, especially with so many wonderful things now happening in his life, that his death could be avoided. It's a bit like Jesus' Garden of Gethsemane experience in which the Savior, fully aware of what awaited Him the next day, prays that the cup of death might pass Him by.

Christ, of course, ultimately accepted the Father's will that He die in place of fallen humanity so that all who believe in Him may live forever.

After reading Eiffel's manuscript himself, Harold returns it to the author and pronounces that she must finish the novel. He's accepted his death, presumably because of the reason for it and its consequences.

Harold wakes up the next morning, knowing that in a short while, he will stand in front of a moving bus to save the life of a boy who will ride his bicycle into harm's way. Harold exchanges his life for that of another, certainly reminiscent of what Christ did for the whole human race.

This sort of self-giving love is compelling to us all. This is why Jesus is such an attractive figure, even for those who profess no faith in Him.

Of course, as a Christian, I believe that Jesus, unlike the fictional Harold Crick, was sinless and that in His death, He accepted our rightful punishment for our sin. But it seems to me that in most people we deem heroic can be seen the faint echoes of the ultimate hero, Who died for the sins of the world. Jesus is the One of Whom John the Baptizer exclaimed: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)

For the Christian adult, Stranger Than Fiction isn't an altogether bad film to see during Lent.]

The Lady in the Park

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship celebrations on March 17 and 18, 2007.]

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
A Baptist congregation in Sidney, Australia became embroiled in controversy a few weeks ago. All because of a sign placed in its yard. Even the Prime Minister of Australia weighed in, condemning the church, saying, "I understand the Christian motivation of But I hope they will understand that a lot of Australians, including many Australian Christians, will think that the prayer priority of the church on this occasion could have been elsewhere."

What was that congregation's offensive signboard message? "Jesus loves Osama."

When I asked our Catechism students on Saturday if that were true, if Jesus loves Osama, one of them had a great answer. "Yes," he said. "But I'm sure that He's not really happy with him right now."

The fact is that even hell will be filled with people Jesus loves. The question isn't whether Jesus loves us. Jesus loves all the sinners of the world. That means every one of us. The question is whether we're willing to go home to Jesus or not.

Jesus talks about that in today's Bible lesson, the bulk of which is His story of the Prodigal Son, a tale the writer Charles Dickens called the greatest short story ever told. Jesus, unlike we modern-day preachers, never talked to people with a prepared manuscript or an outline. Jesus often used stories. One of my old mentors, Dr. Richard Jensen, insists that whenever we moderns preach on the story in today's lesson, we should use a story. A few years ago, Jensen, in fact, wrote a story sermon for this passage. Another pastor, Ed Markquart, revised it a bit. I've revised it a little more myself and want to share it with you now. So, here it is: The Lonely Lady of Blairstown.
George Miller and his wife moved to Blairstown in the 1950’s. George was transferred there by his company and although moving was a pain, George was glad to do it. Not only was he making more money, but Blairstown itself was a nice place.

In the center of Blairstown was a park, well-groomed with lots of flowers and trees. George walked through the park every day on his way to and from work. He even walked through it to and from lunch every day. On his daily walks, he noticed everything about the place, including an elderly woman who always seemed to be there.

At first, George didn’t pay much attention to this lonely figure. ”It’s probably just a coincidence that she seems to always be around when I'm here,” he told himself. Yet as the months rolled on, she really was always there. It started to spook George. He asked himself: “Who is she? What’s she doing in this park all the time?”

Though she was ordinary in most ways, there was longing, lonely gaze in her eyes, as if she were looking or waiting for someone. George was troubled by her, and finally asked Harold Clark, a native of Blairstown, “Who is that woman?”

“Oh, you mean the lonely lady of Blairstown Park,” Harold said “Her name is Grace Simon. She’s spent a lot of time in that park recently. She’s a lonely old soul. Her husband, Tom, died a long time ago when their three kids were still little. Now, Shirley, their oldest, runs the furniture store and Steve, the middle one, runs the funeral home, both places on Main Street. When Tom died, he left the two businesses to Grace and, years later, she gave one business to each kid.

“There was a third child. Frank was his name name. Grace learned a few years back that Frank died in an automobile accident out west. Anyway, having only two children instead of three, the businesses could be neatly divided between Shirley and Steve. Grace was a huge help to them. Without Grace, they couldn't had made a go of it. But eventually, they got to the point that they didn’t want her around any more. They became engulfed in a family feud.

“The feud started one day when Grace got a letter from Denver. At first, she wouldn’t tell anybody what was in it. But people could see that it had her worked up. She asked Steve and Shirley for some money. She had to get a train ticket to go to Denver immediately. They thought their Mom had gone off her rocker. She pleaded, ‘Steve and Shirley, I have to have a ticket! I’ve got to go to Denver!’ But she wouldn’t tell anybody why. The kids finally broke down and they got her a train ticket to Denver. Grace headed west.

“It turns out, though none of us knew it when Grace made her visit, that Frank wasn’t dead at all. He was in jail on several counts of armed robbery. He’d been too ashamed to tell his mother of his conviction. So, he had one of his buddies write a letter to his mother saying that he had been killed when his car crashed through a bridge and plunged into the river. He even had him send a clipping from a Colorado newspaper that seemed to verify the story. Anyhow, years later, Frank decided to tell his mother the truth.

"I don’t know why he did it. He should have left things the way they were. It would have been better for Grace and the family to think Frank was dead. Everybody here loved Grace and we all were pretty angry with Frank for telling his mother that he was still alive. Think about it: First he runs away from home, then breaks Grace’s heart with news that he’s dead, and then comes back into her life, a convicted felon! He put his mother through a wringer and it made all of us all upset!

“It was quite a scene in prison when Grace and Frank met. The guards took Grace down a long hallway, into a waiting room with lots of other people. Then a guard took Grace into a small room. He told her to wait. She sat for what felt like an eternity. Then she heard footsteps coming down the hallway. Her heart seemed to pound in time with the approaching steps. The door opened and Grace’s eyes locked with those of Frank.

“Grace moved first; she always does. She walked over to Frank and wrapped her arms around him. She held him and began to cry. She kept on saying, ‘We thought you were dead’ She said it over and over again. At first, Frank stood stiff and lifeless in his mother’s embrace. But then, melted by Grace, he grabbed his mother and held her. He too began to cry.

”Grace visited Frank several times during the two weeks that she was in Denver. After that, she went out there every year for some years. Not long ago, Grace learned that Frank was supposed to be ready for parole any day. When Grace learned that, she told Frank that once he got out of prison, he should come home. ‘I’ve got plenty of room in the house!” she told him. “Frank, you can even be a partner in the family businesses!’

“Well, when Grace got back to Blairstown, she was all excited. She was telling anyone who would listen, ‘Frank’s alive. My boy’s alive! All that business about an accident was wrong. He’s alive!’ She told all of us. Not a word about Frank being a felon. Just, ‘He’s alive!’ over and over again.

“To tell the truth, she was about the only one in Blairstown excited because we’d never had a hometown boy stay in prison for thirty years for armed robbery. People around here weren’t too keen on the whole idea of seeing him. Frank might have been alive, but Frank was a good-for-nothing crook. I mean, what were we supposed to say to Grace, ‘Gee - I’m glad your son’s alive and in prison’? We didn’t say anything. We were just embarrassed.

“Shirley and Steve, Grace’s other kids, weren’t quiet at all, though. When Grace told them that Frank wanted to come home, to disgrace them all, and their momma – and that when she’d said that he could be a part of the family businesses – THAT was the last straw. Shirley and Steve were dumbfounded. A crook in their family businesses? In Blairstown? It just couldn’t happen! Shirley and Steve were right about that. The whole town agreed that Frank would ruin things.

“But Grace didn’t look at it that way. Frank was her son too. She argued that he had a right to be back in the family. That’s what started the family feud. Shirley and Steve had a lawyer draw up papers to rule Frank out of the business altogether. When Grace protested, they told her that it was none of her business. It was only their business and they could do what they wanted. They also told her to never to come into their businesses or to pester them about Frank again.

“I thought that was really unkind. After all, Grace had given them the businesses in the first place. She’d worked hard to help them when they got their starts. Worse than that though, is that they don’t even invite Grace over to their homes anymore. They don’t want to hear her talk about Frank. She doesn’t even get to see her grandchildren unless they sneak over to the park to see her.

“Anyway, George, that’s why Grace Simon wanders alone in Blairstown Park. The Lonely Lady of Blairstown Park, that’s what everybody calls her. She’s out there right now, watching and waiting. Of course, she’s waiting for Frank to come home. And rumor has it that he’s out of prison and coming home any day. So she’s watching that highway coming into town, watching for her boy to come back home. But, if you look at her, you can see that she’s also got her eyes on Main Street an awful lot of the time, Main Street, where her two kids run the family businesses. She’s watching for some sign of love, some softening of the heart, some sign of welcome from Steve and Shirley.”

George interrupted Harold’s story. “You’d think that she wouldn’t want anything to do with those kids,” George said. “What do you suppose Grace would do if those kids, Steve and Shirley, did have some change of heart?” he asked. Harold thought for a moment and said, “I think that Grace would do just like she did with Frank. She’d welcome them with open arms. And if they ever come to their senses, she’s going to run and throw her arms around them and give them a great big love. You know, that’s just the way she is. That’s just the way Grace is.”
And that’s the way God’s grace, given in Christ is, too. No matter how far you wander, our God of grace wants to welcome you home!