Friday, June 01, 2007

"I Don't Like Spam!"

According to Wikipedia, the earliest point at which the term spam was used of unwanted email was sometime in the 1980s. Inspired by the Spam song as presented on the old Monty Python TV show, the term is a perfect designation for unwanted correspondence, especially one mass-blasted to its unsuspecting victims.

Of course, this phenomenon didn't begin with the Internet. If you're like me, each delivery day your snail mailbox is crammed with "junk mail," third class advertising. We didn't (and don't) call junk mail spam. (At least, I haven't heard anyone use the term for junk mail yet.) But it's spam, nonetheless.

All of which makes the latest usage of the term I've seen so interesting. One of the books I'm reading right now is Walter Isaacson's new biography of Albert Einstein. Isaacson speaks of the young Einstein's efforts to find a job just after completing his undergraduate work at the Zurich Polytechnic. He also mentions that shortly after graduating, Einstein published a paper which he later dismissed as inconsequential. But it was handy for the applicant to be published. Writes Isaacson:
...[Einstein] now had a printed article to attach to the job-seeking letters with which he was beginning to spam professors all over Europe. [italics added by me]
Now what so interests me about this is that Isaacson writes substantial books, weighty with research. (Yet accessible to general readership, of which I am definitely a member...I don't get physics at all!) In other words, Isaacson writes things that he hopes will do more than just sell today. He wants future audiences to read his studies of people like Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and Einstein. Isaacson must feel very confident not only that the term spam as unwanted correspondence will be around a long time, but that will also be applied to more than emails and other unwanted electronic intrusions.

He may be right to use the term in an ex post facto way to describe the pesty job seeking of an early-twentieth century college graduate. But it's always interesting to watch a word evolve.

And I can't help but wonder, will some future writer describe the Declaration of Independence and preceding petitions from the colonies that formed the United States as spam?

They were certainly unwanted and unsolicited by their recipients, Parliament and King George. Who knows? Some future film by that devotee [NOT] to historical accuracy, Oliver Stone, might show George III looking at the document penned by Thomas Jefferson and make his own declaration: I DON'T LIKE SPAM!

You never can tell how a word will evolve.

[THANKS TO: Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice for linking to this post.]

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Focusing on 'Joyful Relationships'

On Four Sundays in June and July, my sermons during worship at Friendship Lutheran Church will deal with the topic of relationships.

This coming Sunday's message is about what it takes to have and be a friend. Two Biblical texts will be especially important, both from the New Testament:
  • "My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:1-2)
  • "Jesus said to his disciples, 'Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, "I repent,"’ you must forgive.” (Luke 17:1-4)
A few basic principles on friendships, particularly Christian friendships, can be adduced from these short passages:
1. The love of a friend is loyal.
2. The love of a friend is tough. It doesn't shy away from confrontation.
3. The love of a friend forgives.
Speaking for myself, the life style entailed in these simple principles is impossible to maintain...without the help of God! As Paul puts it elsewhere in the New Testament, I need "Christ in me."

I suppose that the sinful Mark too enjoys the feeling of superiority that comes when I see someone else stumble, particularly in an area in which I myself have stumbled and subsequently recovered. In these moments of self-righteousness, it's important for me to remember that while, by the grace of God, I'm a saint, I'm also a sinner, constantly beset by the same temptations that afflict the rest of the human race. This should make me feel, not smug and self-righteous, but compassionate. Forgive me, Lord, for forgetting that I'm a sinner saved by Your grace and teach me what it is to be a true friend!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day: Choked Up with Gratitude

It happened again yesterday, as my wife and I traveled to Columbus to celebrate the high school graduation of our nephew, Jameson. As has been the custom for most of our married life, my wife was behind the wheel and I read to her. Our selections are usually histories or biographies.

Not always. When our kids were young, I read all seven volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia during a family trip to and from Walt Disney World. And one year, I read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

I remember that when reading the seventh of the Narnian books, The Last Battle, the most sublime writing I have ever read, I had to stop more than once. I was overcome with emotion by the beauty of Lewis' description of the "new Narnia," a fictional representation of the "new heaven and the new earth" all believers in Jesus Christ will one day experience.

And there were times when I read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever that I had to stop: first, from laughing so hard at the antics of the Herdmann kids and then, from getting misty over their understanding of what Christmas is really about.

Through the years, there have been books that have often caused me to choke up and stop to regain my composure. They're the onese that describe or allude to the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, when the largest amphibious force in history began the liberation of Europe from the tyranny of Nazism. It happened to me the first time when I read Stephen Ambrose's biography of Dwight Eisehnower and later, while reading Ambrose's book Citizen Soldier.

Every time I think of those young soldiers and paratroopers assaulting the beaches of Normandy, facing almost certain death--similar in some ways to the Union soldiers depicted in the Civil War epic, Glory--I get weepy. Gratitude wells up inside of me and I have to compose myself.

As I say, it happened again yesterday. During our recent road trips, I've been reading Andrea Mitchell's fine memoir, Talking Back. Yesterday, I came to Mitchell's narrative of Ronald Reagan's moving tribute to those who lost their lives on D-Day, June 6, 1944. It was, writes Mitchell, one of the few times in her journalistic career when she had allowed herself to take off the necessary lens of reportorial observer in order to feel the event she was covering. I wasn't expecting to be so moved by what she wrote:
The summer of 1984 marked the fortieth anniversary of the Normandy invasion and my first trip to cover the commemoration of D-Day. With American and Allied veterans gathered on a promontory over Omaha Beach, Ronald Reagan delivered one of the most poetic and powerful speeches of his presidency, written by his elegiac speechwriter, Peggy Noonan. As Reagan described the daunting feat of the Army Rangers who had climbed the cliffs in a hail of gunfire, he gazed at the aging veterans assembled in front of him and said, "These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc." The words were largely Peggy's, but in Reagan's unique way, he gave them life. In that one speech re-created the past, celebrated the present, and memorialized the achievements of the D-Day veterans for all future time.
It hit me again as I read that passage. I had to stop. "That gets me every time," I told my wife.

Whatever your feelings about the current war in Iraq or any of the wars our nation has fought since World War II, the necessity of which almost nobody I've known has ever questioned, every military person in our country's conflicts has done so from a sense of duty to us. This Memorial Day, be thankful for such people.

[You might also want to read this.]

What's Memorial Day About Again?

Some thoughts I presented on that subject last year here.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

How to Fill the Church Every Week!

[This message was shared during worship celebrations with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio (near Cincinnati), on May 26 and 27, 2007. If you live in or are visiting the Cincinnati area, you're invited to worship with us any time.]

Acts 2:1-21
A few years ago, somewhere in the Upper Midwest, a disturbed man heard a Pentecost sermon about the need for the Church to be on fire for Jesus Christ. He decided that a fire was just what his church needed to attract people to Christ. So, he torched the church building, burning it to the ground. After the firefighters had come to battle the flames and much of the town showed up to watch the unfolding disaster, somebody from the congregation commented, “This is the best attendance we’ve had in years!”

On this Pentecost Sunday, I want to tell you that the best way for a church to attract people to Christ is for the whole church to be on fire. But that definitely doesn't entail barbecuing church buildings! It means something altogether different.

We see something of what it means in the life and words of a man named Charles Spurgeon. The simple sermons of this nineteenth century English preacher attracted thousands of people to his church. People wondered why. What was his gimmick or his secret? Spurgeon’s answer to such questions was as simple as his preaching: “God sets me on fire and people come to watch me burn.”

Last week, one leader of our congregation commented, “There’s no reason why every seat in our sanctuary shouldn’t be filled every week.” Now, we don’t live in nineteenth century England. In this age of...
the Internet,
video games,
DVDs,
outdoor shopping malls,
Interstate highways,
$89 round trip airline specials for your favorite getaway destination, and
three-day weekends...
people’s interest in seeing and hearing a simple preacher burn for God may be minimal.

We have so many distractions, in fact, that it's easy to lose sight of what's of fundamental importance in life. We forget God and we allow all our modern conveniences--what I call the crutches of our denial--to delude us into thinking we don't need God!

I was reminded of this a number of years ago when my first bishop, Reg Holle, told a group of us about his experience preaching and ministering on a trip he took to Namibia, in southwestern Africa. He arrived early one Sunday morning for worship with a Lutheran congregation in a remote Namibian village. "Bishop Holle," one of the church members told him, "when you preach today, don't give an American sermon!" Bishop Holle wondered what the man meant by "an American sermon." The member explained that some months before, another American preacher had come to their church and only preached for twenty minutes. They expected no less than an hour-and-a-half of preaching of God's Word when they gathered!

Bishop Holle was stunned by the dedication to Christ and the Church he observed in these Namibian Lutherans. Many of them walked by foot some two hours over dusty roads in order to arrive for a worship celebration that often lasted four-hours. They filled the simple building where they worshiped with their bodies and their praises of God! Afterward, they walked the two hours back to their homes. We're so distracted that, God forbid, on Super Bowl Sunday, no preacher dares to eat into people viewing the hours and hours of coverage given to that game on TV!

Where are our priorities?

Where is the fire of the Holy Spirit?

It sometimes seems that our lives here in America are too full to let God in for more than an hour a week, that we're too busy to be on fire for the Holy Spirit.

But I believe that that Friendship leader was right. Every seat in this sanctuary should be filled with people every week...even on Memorial Day weekend.

How can that happen?

Our Bible lesson for today, recounting the events of the first Christian Pentecost, when the Church was born, may help to answer that question.

But first, a little background. Even before the events in our lesson happened, Pentecost was an important holiday on the Jewish calendar. It was a harvest festival that fell fifty days after the Sabbath that came during the Passover. As with other Jewish festivals, pious Jews from all over the Mediterranean basin tried to get to Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration. Many were in Jerusalem on this particular Pentecost. It came fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead and ten days after He ascended to heaven. In the events of that first Pentecost Sunday, I find many principles showing us how every seat in this sanctuary can be filled every time we gather for worship. But today, I want to talk about just one. One single principle that can change our lives, giving us purpose. One single principle that can transform Friendship Church.

It’s this: We let the Holy Spirit set our whole congregation on fire for Christ.

We let the Holy Spirit fashion our willingness to trust God into living faith.

We put ourselves at God’s disposal and let His Spirit work in and through us.

The first followers of Jesus were a lot like you and me, except that they were a lot poorer than us. But, like us, they were ordinary people. Most weren’t from the highest rungs of society. They weren't people of great influence.

On top of that, they were afraid. They’d taken the risk of following Jesus only to see Him brutally beaten and executed. Both the religious authorities and the government had opposed Jesus and promised to make life unpleasant for anyone who spoke a good word for Him.

And yet, just before He ascended to heaven, the risen Jesus told these fearful people to wait for the coming of His Holy Spirit. The Spirit, Jesus told them, would make it possible for them to tell people that if they turn from sin and trust in Jesus, they will be given new lives with God forever.

The crazy thing is that these first Jesus-Followers believed Him. They gathered together and waited for the Holy Spirit to come to them. The Spirit, our Bible lesson tells us, showed up like tongues of fire filling each believer. Their speech was inspired by the Spirit. And all of them hit the Jerusalem streets to tell people the message of new life through Jesus Christ!

This same miracle can happen in and through us, too. We can share Christ's love boldly and humbly if we will dare to want to do it!

I have seen this happen in believers in Christ in my own lifetime. I've seen people set on fire by the Holy Spirit share their faith with others! A few examples...

Years ago, I taught the Witnesses for Christ class on intentional witnessing, created by Pastor Ed Markquart, to groups of folks from all three of our area Lutheran congregations --Friendship, All Saints, and Resurrection. As I told those who recently took the class here at Friendship, I told those groups that not only has Jesus commanded all of us to be His witnesses, the Holy Spirit has also given us the power to be His witnesses. We simply need to be willing to witness.

Not everybody believed me when I said that. One man in the class--we’ll call him John--was a quiet person. “I never want to witness,” John told me at the outset of the class. “But for some reason, I felt like I should be here.” Back then, when I taught the course, I did the full ten weeks of material. Along about the seventh week, John showed up and with a tentative smile on his face, said, “I think I witnessed this past week.” He told me about a conversation he’d had with a coworker. Listening to her problems empathetically, he shared the comfort, hope, and peace he got from relying on Christ. After years of thinking he could never be a witness for Christ, he realized that, like the first Christians on the first Pentecost, he simply needed to let the Spirit set him on fire.

Another true story...

A friend of my family when I was growing up--we’ll call him Bob--came to faith in Jesus Christ when he was in his late-40s. This was a great surprise to us. Even though Bob didn’t feel he could do it, he volunteered to be part of a group of people who went into their neighborhood and invited people to worship. One man Bob visited proved to be especially receptive to learning more about Christ and the Church. Bob couldn’t believe it when he found himself witnessing, telling this elderly man, who had never had any connection to Christ or the Church, about how Jesus could change his life. Long story short, the man Bob visited became a follower of Christ. Several years later, Bob died suddenly. I’ll never forget the moment at the end of the funeral when the man to whom Bob witnessed approached Bob’s casket. Even in his posture, you could see the many emotions felt by that man. Among them, grief, of course. But also, gratitude. He was grateful that Bob had shared the Good News of Christ with him!

One other true story--one some of you have heard before--has to do with someone whose name I can use, that of my son, Philip. When Phil was in the first grade, we were living at our former parish and about to have a Friend Day in the fall. We were encouraging our members to invite their non-churchgoing friends to worship with us. Philip asked me if it would be okay if he invited someone from his school, a boy who didn’t go to church. He did that. At first, only the boy and his little sister came to worship and Sunday School. Later, his mom came with them. That was pretty much where things stood when we moved here to start Friendship. But sometime later, we learned that because his whole family was going to church, the dad thought it might be a good idea if he did, too. Being Roman Catholic by background, he asked his wife and kids if it were okay if they started going to the local Catholic church. The wife and kids were thrilled to say yes. A few months later, the wife, the son, and the daughter, who had never previously had any connection to Christ and the Church, were baptized!

On that first Pentecost Sunday, after Christians shared the Good News of Jesus and Peter preached a simple message, three-thousand people begged to be baptized. The power of the Holy Spirit set those first Christians on fire!

For two-thousand years now, the Holy Spirit has been using ordinary believers like John, Bob, and Philip, on fire for Christ, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Even today, the flame of belief in Christ is spreading like a wildfire. On any Sunday, around the world tens of thousands of people are being baptized. And on any Sunday around the world tens of hundreds of new congregations are being started...and we need more of them!

The Bible teaches that every believer in Jesus Christ has the Holy Spirit as their companion. That means that every one of us can share Christ...
  • You don’t have to be a preacher.
  • You don’t have to be an adult.
  • You don’t have to know all the answers or have the Bible memorized.
  • You don’t even have to go through the Witnesses for Christ training, although it will give you good tools for sharing your faith if you do take it the next time the class is offered.
All you need is to be on fire for Christ! And for that to happen, all you need is to be willing to let God use you and direct you in the way of His choosing.

The bottom line: Friendship, like every other church in the world, has the power to grow so that every time we gather for worship, every seat is filled. Every time we gather for worship, every seat should be filled. That will happen when we let God set our lives on fire for Christ and let the world around us see the light of Christ burning in us!

[THANKS TO: Eric Jones, filling in for Andrew Jackson at Smart Christian, for linking to this post.]