Friday, June 08, 2007

Gotcha Journalism Serves No Useful Purpose

Alex Rodriguez is an undeniably talented baseball player and the best-paid one in the game.

He's also widely disliked, not just by many fans, but also by other players.

Their hostility toward A-Rod deepened recently when he violated an unwritten rule of the baseball fraternity. Rodriguez made an opposing player think that player's teammate was catching a flyball as Rodriguez ran the base path. His decoy wasn't even defended by other members of the Yankees.

I bring all this up because Rodriguez's continuing unpopularity, even in New York in a year when he finally seems to be performing closer to his massive potential, seems to be behind an example of a kind of journalism that I think is simply despicable.

On May 30, The New York Post featured an article, complete with photographs, about the married Yankee third baseman spending a night on the town with another woman, hitting a strip club. "A-ROD'S A YANKEE DOODLE RANDY: HITS A STRIP JOINT WITH TORONTO BABE," the headlines screamed.

Since then, the tabs have been having a field day, if you'll forgive the pun, with Rodriguez's off-field exploits.

God knows I don't favor rescinding the Sixth Commandment, "You shall not commit adultery."

But what compelling public interest is served by The Post or any other publication giving evidence purportedly demonstrating that Rodriguez has been unfaithful to his spouse?

None that I can see.

What The Post has done to Rodriguez (and his wife) is really no different from what a prominent pornographer proposes to do to high level US politicians. As The Washington Post reported a few days ago:
Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt offered $1 million Sunday to anyone who could provide proof of an illicit sexual encounter with a high-ranking government official.
Granted, high-level government officials could compromise sensitive national security information by adulterous relationships.

Granted too, that officials displaying a longterm pattern of an inability to keep their marriage vows might reasonably be suspected of a similar inability to fulfill their oaths of office. Voters deserve to know that their public officials can be counted on. Or that their officials don't habitually engage in potentially compromising behavior.

But Flynt, like The Post in the case of Rodriguez, proposes to do nothing other than embarrass and humiliate people who, like the rest of the human race, are imperfect and may have, at some time in their lives, sinned or made mistakes. (Duh! Ya think?)

Winston Churchill was one of the most important political figures of the last century. His leadership and inspirational rhetoric were indispensable for both his own United Kingdom and our United States as the world faced seemingly certain imprisonment at the hands of the Axis Powers. Not known at the time was that, as a young man, Churchill was once unfaithful to his beloved wife, Clementine. Churchill always regretted what he had done and adored his wife. Had some "enterprising" tabloid "journalist" or a blogger with a camera phone found and published evidence of that single indiscretion, Churchill's political career would have likely ended and the world would have been denied his leadership.

Alex Rodriguez isn't a high government official, of course. That only makes The Post's coverage of his alleged Toronto womanizing even more despicable. His night on the town may display massively poor judgment. It may evidence adultery. But he isn't making decisions about whether or not to go to war, how to combat world poverty, or what should be done about immigration policy. His night out doesn't threaten to cloud or compromise what happens when it comes to world peace.

But neither would a past illicit affair on the part of such an official, as Flynt wants to expose. (I wouldn't be so upset with Flynt except that this past week, with Chris Matthews taking a day away from his anchor chair, MSNBC's Hardball gave Larry a long time to talk on what should be a legitimate news show. That's like a sober uncle giving a junkie a few thousand bucks to engage his habit!)

As the overwrought and obsessive coverage of Paris Hilton's re-incarceration today demonstrates, fluff is taking up an ever-growing proportion of what once passed for journalism. If Hilton's case results in people feeling that when justice gets miscarried--as it surely was when the Los Angeles county sheriff decided unilaterally to release here--it can be righted, as it certainly was when she went back to jail--the coverage will turn out to be a good thing.

But I can see no good in the game of gotcha journalism recently played by The New York Post or by the paper's soulmate, Larry Flynt.

Can you?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Call of Christian Believers: Fill 'Em Up When Their Tanks Are Empty


On her ShoutLife blog, singer-songwriter Hoi recounts how, during a trip on California's coastal highways, her car's gas tank plummeted toward E . As a friend prayed confidently that they wouldn't be stranded in the middle of nowhere, Hoi said she sensed a voice trying to convince her that all was hopeless.

It made me think.

Life is a road trip and the devil pounces on us whenever our tanks are low. (See Martin Luther's explanation of "Save us from the time of trial" in the Lord's Prayer, here. Hopelessness can be a sin. It can also be a thorn sent by Satan to rob us of life and joy.)

But, thankfully, God is bigger than the devil or our fears.

And therein lies the ministries of Christians.

There are people in our world who are running on empty all the time. They have empty bellies, empty hearts, empty spirits, empty pockets, empty emotions. They need Christ and the love of Christ shared with them in practical ways. The call of all Christians is to fill others with the mercies and the love of Christ, encouraging them with the hope that can only come from a risen Savior!

Paul writes:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
I think that God sometimes allows believers to have empty feelings so that we can empathize with those who have little...and be spurred and empowered by the Holy Spirit to fill others up.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Pray for Joe Gandelman and His Family

The father of Joe Gandelman, editor-in-chief at The Moderate Voice, recently died. Pray God's comfort and peace for Joe and his family as they mourn.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What Do Florence Nightingale and Paris Hilton Have in Common?

Charlie Lehardy is writing about them. (And a lot more!) See here and here.

Wearing Faith on One's Sleeve

Last night, Hillary Clinton gave a laudable answer to CNN correspondent Soledad O'Brien's question on whether Clinton's Christian faith had helped her weather the very public storm occasioned by her husband's various infidelities. "I'm not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith," Clinton said.

She also commented that she came from a tradition that didn't feel comfortable with wearing its faith on its sleeve. That passing comment by the candidate evoked a round of applause, which in itself made me feel less than comfortable.

Here's why.

Christian faith is an inherently public thing. "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others," Jesus says in Matthew 10:32-33, "I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven."

Jesus calls His followers to "make disciples" by sharing the Good News of forgiveness of sin, a reconciled relationship with God and others, and a new and everlasting life to be had by all who believe in Christ. This is what Christians call the Great Commission.

Christians, even those who are reticent or shy, believe that to hide our faith in Christ is like refusing to help someone who's drowning. Life, the Bible teaches us, comes to all with faith in Christ and once one has appropriated the new life that comes through faith, Christians want to go public and help others know Christ.

To not be public about our faith then, is something which Christians believe is wrong. Jesus teaches: "No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light" (Luke 8:16).

Nonetheless, I think I understand why the audience who heard Clinton say that she came from a tradition uncomfortable with public discussion of faith applauded.

I believe it's because for twenty-eight years now, spokespersons for the so-called Religious Right have hijacked the good name of "Christian," advancing their own particular political philosophy and claiming that all good Christians agree with them.

Well, I'm a fairly conservative evangelical--albeit a Lutheran--Christian. I believe that the Bible is the definitive Word of God. I believe that there is salvation in Jesus' Name alone.

But I don't believe that there is a clear Christian political agenda. As I've said before, it's impossible to draw a straight line between the Bible and a particular political philosophy.

For example, there are Christian people who agree that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin but don't agree on whether the states should institute some sort of civil union or even gay marriage laws.

There are Christian people who agree that abortion is a great evil. But not all of them want to make it criminal for a woman who's been raped or whose life is in danger to seek an abortion.

There are Christians who believe that Genesis is true, but don't think that the Bible is or ever claims to be a book of science.

Above all, there are Christians who pray, worship, read God's Word, and seek God's guidance and don't agree politically with James Dobson or Pat Robertson. (Or with the liberal Christian pastor, Jim Wallis, either.)

I believe that Christians should go public with our faith in Jesus Christ. And I hope and pray that Jesus Christ guides me in all my decision-making, including in how I vote.

But, except when it is incontrovertibly clear which candidate God might prefer or what legislation God likes, Christians who speak out on public issues should be quick to say, "This is only what I think. God may not agree."

Political idelogues who claim to speak on behalf of God or Christian faith are making it difficult for those of us in the Church who are trying to do the real work Christ gave all Christians to do. Jesus described our task very simply:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).
[Go here to find the eight installments of my series, How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election.]

Am I Being Too Sensitive? (Column Version)

[This is the column version of this post. I write a column for a local editions of a suburban Cincinnati newspaper chain.]

I hadn't really listened to ESPN radio personality Colin Cowherd since January, 2006. That was when he cracked that Peace Corps volunteers are losers and declared that life isn't about serving others, but pleasing oneself. It hit me wrong on so many levels.

But I listened to Cowherd one recent Mondy. I was driving from Good Samaritan Hospital, where a friend had just undergone surgery. I flipped on my car radio. Unable to find anything to listen to, I scanned through the stations until I came to the faint signal of the ESPN affiliate in Hamilton. Cowherd was on.

I listened for maybe half a minute. That was all I could take.

This is what got to me. Cowherd talked about his kids. Apparently, he spent more time than usual with them over the preceding weekend and the munchkins exhausted him. A few seconds into a rant about the experience, he said something like, "I love kids and stuff. But sometimes the best thing to do is duct tape them and stick them in a closet."

Maybe at one time I would have laughed at that statement. I mean, nobody really would duct tape a kid and stick him in a closet, right? And, in fairness to Cowherd, his crack isn't much different from one attributed to Mark Twain with regard to teenagers. You know the one: "When a child hits the age of fourteen, he should be put in a barrel with a hole in it. At eighteen, the hole should be closed."

These are the sorts of exagerrated remarks that frustrated--but loving--parents have made for centuries.

But, last year, in a well-kempt middle class home one-quarter of a mile from where I live, David and Lisa Carroll, with the apparent help of Amy Baker, wrapped three year old Marcus Feisel in duct tape, threw him in a closet, and left him there to die while they went to a family reunion in Kentucky.

All of us in the Tri-State have been dealing with the tragedy ever since, of course. The Carrolls are in prison. As I write this, Amy Baker awaits extradition to Kentucky on charges of tampering with evidence related to the case. Also as I write this, the state is attempting to revoke the license of the agency which placed Marcus in the Carrolls’ home.

Some have used the tragedy as incentive for doing something positive. For example, our congregation has gotten involved with CASA for Clermont Kids!, an organization that advocates for and serves foster children. Our youth pack duffel bags with items donated by our church members. The bags are then given to children taken into foster care.

I didn't laugh at Cowherd's comment. Both literally and figuratively, it hit too close to my Clermont County home.

After I turned off the radio, I wondered, "Was I being too sensitive?"

Maybe. But I don't think that the image of duct taping a child and throwing him into a closet will ever be funny to me.

[Mark Daniels is pastor of Friendship Lutheran Church.]

Am I Being Too Sensitive?

I haven't really listened to ESPN radio personality Colin Cowherd since January, 2006. That was when he cracked that Peace Corps volunteers are losers and declared that life isn't about serving others, but pleasing oneself. It hit me wrong because of all the Peace Corps volunteers I've known through the years. They've been competent, caring people. I thought particularly of a late member of Friendship, the congregation I serve as pastor. Karen was bright, funny, tough, successful, and loving. She was no loser.

So, it'd been a year-and-a-half since I listened to Cowherd. But yesterday, I was returning from Good Samaritan Hospital, where a friend had just undergone surgery. Driving home, I flipped on the radio, and couldn't find anything to which I wanted to listen. I scanned through the stations and came to the faint signal of the ESPN affiliate in Hamilton. Cowherd was on.

I listened for maybe half a minute. That was all I could take.

It could just be me. Cowherd's humor may have been harmless and funny. But I couldn't laugh. So I quickly punched the radio off.

This is what got to me. Cowherd was talking about his kids. Apparently, he spent more time than usual with them over the weekend and the munchkins exhausted him. A few seconds into a rant about the experience, he said something like, "I love kids and stuff. But sometimes the best thing to do is duct tape them and stick them in a closet."

Maybe a year or so ago I would have laughed at that statement. I mean, nobody really would duct tape a kid and stick him in a closet, right? And, in fairness to Cowherd, his crack isn't much different from one attributed to Mark Twain with regard to teenagers. You know the one: "When a child hits the age of fourteen, he should be put in a barrel with a hole in it. At eighteen, the hole should be closed."

These are the sorts of exagerrated remarks that frustrated--but loving--parents have made for centuries.

But you see, last year, in a well-kempt middle class home one-quarter of a mile from where I live, two foster parents, with the assistance of their jointly-experienced live-in lover, wrapped a little boy in duct tape, threw him in a closet, and left him there to die while they went to a family reunion in Kentucky.

Here in the Tri-State area of southwestern Ohio, northern Kentucky, and Indiana, and particularly, here in Clermont County, we've been dealing with the aftermath of Marcus Feisel's death ever since.

The two parents, on the strength of testimony provided by their lover, are now in prison.

The lover, herself the mother of three children, is awaiting extradition to Kentucky on charges of tampering with evidence. Hearings are ongoing to decide what will happen to her kids.

Just yesterday, a hearing began on the state's determination to revoke the license of the Butler County agency that negligently placed Marcus in the hands of the Clermont County couple who killed him.

(By the way, after returning from that reunion and finding Marcus dead in the closet where they'd left him, the foster parents and the lover hatched a plan to burn Marcus' body and make it appear that the boy went missing during a visit to the very park where my wife and I walked last night.)

Because of Marcus' death, our congregation has gotten involved with CASA for Clermont Kids!, an organization that advocates for and serves foster children. Our youth have packed duffel bags with items donated by our church members, which are then given to children taken into foster care. It seems like a good and important thing for us to do in light of the tragedy that so recently happened in our midst.

I didn't laugh at Cowherd's comment. I remember the Sunday I fought off tears as I talked about the tragedy during my sermon.

I turned off the radio and wondered, "Was I being too sensitive?"

Maybe. But I don't think that the image of duct taping a child and throwing him into a closet will ever be funny to me.

[THANKS TO: The Big Lead for linking to this post.]

[THANKS TO: One of my favorite bloggers, Matt Brown, of Good Brownie, for linking to this post.]

Monday, June 04, 2007

Prayer Updates

Yesterday, I asked for prayers for Vic and for the father of my blogging friend, John Schroeder.

Vic underwent surgery this morning and the surgeon reports that it went exceedingly well. Three, not just one, chip from the spine had lodged in the sciatic nerve. Vic should feel great relief from the severe pain from which he's been suffering.

John Schroeder's father passed away. John was with his dad at the time and was able to hold his hand when the end came. Please pray that God will comfort John, his sister, his mother, his wife, and their family. John's father was a believer in Jesus Christ; so, one day, there will be a blessed reunion of father and son.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Great God Debate

On Tuesday, June 5, my buddy Hugh Hewitt will be hosting a debate between philosopher John Mark Reynolds and journalist Christopher Hitchens on the existence of God and the impact of religious belief on daily life. It will be on Hugh's national radio program, airing from 6:00 to 9:00PM, Eastern time.

Hugh has asked me and other "Godbloggers" to suggest propositions for this debate. So, here are a few he might want to consider:

1. The research compiled and presented by physician and medical researcher Larry Dossey, Jr. has demonstrated a strong connection between prayer and higher success rates for medical treatments. Proposition: Prayer is a legitimate tool of medical treatment.

2. Recent works by several historians have documented the positive impact Christian faith has had on the development of Western ethics and socieities. Proposition: In spite of horrible things done "in the Name of Christ," Christianity has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on its adherents and on the societies it has touched.

3. Proposition: It requires greater blind faith to believe that the universe has just happened into existence than to believe that an intelligent being created it.

4. Proposition: Jesus Christ is God-in-the-flesh and God's ultimate self-disclosure.

5. Proposition: Grace is the unique concept which indicates that Judea-Christian teaching about God is either true or false.

I may have more. But those seem like good ones with which to start.

Prayers Are Needed

(1) Blogging friend, John Schroeder, and his family face a difficult decision about his father. His Dad and Mom were recently involved in a car crash. John's mother, in the early stages of dimentia, is well enough to be back home in Indiana. But his father is hospitalized in Mississippi, where the accident occurred.

Initially and even just days ago, there were high hopes for John's father. But now, doctors are advising that the family may have to remove him from life support.

Please pray for this family as they go through the decision-making promise. Ask God to give them peace.

John knows that his father will follow Christ into eternity. But that doesn't make any of this easier.

(2) Please also pray for Vic. He's the husband and father of members of our congregation and a wonderful man. He has a bone that has chipped away from his spine and is agitating his sciatic nerve. He's scheduled for surgery tomorrow morning. We're praying for complete healing and a reversal of the nerve damage Vic has already sustained. Your prayers with us would be appreciated.

How to Have and Be a Friend (Joyful Relationships, Part 1)

[This message was shared during the worship celebration of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, on June 3, 2007. If you live in or are visiting the Cincinnati area, you're always welcome to worship with us on Sunday mornings at 10:00AM. It's the first of a four-part series on Joyful Relationships.]

Galatians 6:1-2
Luke 17:1-4

Church historian Martin Marty once broke away from his usual pursuits to write a handy little book called Friendship. He begins it with this simple sentence:
We have friends, or are friends, in order that we do not get killed.
Anthropologists and psychologists would agree with Marty. They say that human beings formed communities early in our history in order to fend off attacking predators or other human beings.

But there’s a deeper, spiritual reason to agree that we form friendships in order to avoid being killed. The Bible shows us that we were made for friendships with God and other people. Without vibrant friendships and other relationships with God and others, we die, literally and figuratively.

When humanity fell into sin in the Garden of Eden, it represented a distancing from their relationship with God on the part of Adam and Eve. They separated themselves from the very Source of life! And the second result of that first sin was a breach in the relationship of Adam and Eve, each blaming the other for their sin. God's sole object from that moment to this has been to repair and restore our broken connections to God, to one another, and to our true, joyful, God-selves.

It's because relationship is central to God that the Ten Commandments are divisible into two tables, the first three dealing with our relationship with God and the second, our relationships with one another. And it's because relationship is central to God that Jesus says that the greatest commandment has two parts: to love God with our whole beings and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Through our friendships with God and others, we are to have and give life to one another.

According to the Bible, there are lots of ways to die that don’t involve the physical end of this life. Jesus says that whenever we speak ill of others or curse them or ignore them, we inflict death on them and we violate the Fifth Commandment: “You shall not kill.” Having and being a friend is truly a life-giving thing. And no one is as alive as the person whose life is enriched by close friendships!

But having or being a friend isn’t an automatic thing. Friendship is a gift, but for the gift to keep giving, friendship must be nurtured.

So, how can you and I have and be friends?

First: We love our friends with the tough love of Christ. Christ kept loving His disciples, even when they misunderstood Him, even when they betrayed Him. He didn’t always approve of the things they said or did, but he never stopped loving them.

He has the same attitude toward you and me today. He loves us with the same tough-minded, tender-hearted commitment with which He loved His first followers.

Just before Jesus went His cross, He said that the greatest act of love comes when a person lays down their life for a friend. Then He said, "You are My friends!" Think of it: In spite of our sins and faults, God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, calls us His friends!

In our relationships, we must realize that sometimes we will be hurt and disappointed by our friends. And sometimes we’ll hurt and disappoint them.

These things are true even when our friends and we are Christians. As Christians, we are saints and sinners, after all. We’re forgiven sinners recovering from our addiction to self-centeredness, still tempted to want to be little gods ourselves. And though forgiven and granted everlasting life for our faith in Jesus Christ, we’re still subject to the temptation to self-centeredness for as long as we live on this side of the grave.

But to have friends, our love must be tough. Paul writes in our lesson from Galatians: “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...”

If your friend has gotten into a drunken stupor, you don’t hand him the keys just because he’s your friend or he grows belligerent. Because you care about him, you confront him. Friends sometimes have it out! And if you see your friend engage in behaviors that are clearly self-destructive or are harmful to others, whatever they may be, love commands you to confront.

Confront, but not condemn! Martin Luther retold the story of an early church saint who was told about a friend who had fallen into adultery. Instead of condemning, the saint said, “He fell yesterday; I may fall today.”

Jesus Christ has shown compassion for sinners. He confronted those who knowingly sinned and He was quick to forgive and restore the repentant. His combination of straight-shooting toughness and gracious, forgiving love is what He wants us to display in our relationships. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about when he tells us in our lesson from Luke, that if someone sins against us seven times in one day and they repent, we are to forgive.

Now, if you fear that you’re not tough enough to forgive like that, I have a simple confession to make. I’m not tough enough to forgive like that either. That’s why I go to Christ in prayer each day. In Him, I find the strength to love others as He loves me. I ask Christ to love the other person through me in ways that I can’t.

A second Biblical principle for having friends is expressed by Paul, writing in our lesson from Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens,” he writes, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Bear one another’s burdens! You’ve heard me tell the story before of something said to me by a woman whose husband just died. I was visiting with her and her family. Our visit was punctuated by frequent knocks at the door. Each visitor brought more and more food. Between her tears, the widow dabbed her eyes and told me, “There’s a lot of love in that refrigerator!” People were doing what they could to help her with her burden!

And they were doing it in a way that fulfilled the law of Christ that Paul talks about. The only new commandment Jesus ever gave came when He told Christians to love one another. Let love be the cement that holds the church together, Jesus was saying. We clearly see that sort of love when we bear one another’s burdens.

A third principle for friendship is this: If you want to have strong friendships, follow Christ and be part of His Church. I was at a convention of the church district to which I’d just been assigned as a graduating seminarian twenty-three years ago. Weeks before, I’d interviewed to be the associate pastor of a thriving congregation. The interview had gone well and my wife and I awaited word on whether the congregation and the senior pastor wanted me there or not. I knew that the senior pastor would be at the convention. But every time I saw him, he seemed to walk the other way, as if he were avoiding me. I wondered if it was all my imagination. But then, immediately following a worship celebration during the convention, this pastor approached me.

“I’ve been avoiding you, Mark, and I’m so sorry," he began. "I couldn’t even bring myself to receive Holy Communion just now because I realized how much I’d wronged you. You see, we decided to call another candidate to the position, someone who worked at our church before. I was avoiding you because I couldn’t think of a good reason for turning you down. Can you forgive me?”

Well, of course I could forgive him! And truth be told, things worked out for the better since I ended up at a wonderful parish I was privileged to serve for six years before coming here to start Friendship seventeen years ago. That pastor, by the way, became a bishop and by all accounts, a terrific one! I could have guessed that he would be from our encounter that night so many years ago.

In the fellowship of the Church, we remind each other that we are all sinners in need of God’s free gift of new life that comes to all who repent--that is, who turn from sin--and entrust their lives to Jesus Christ. The New Testament word for grace is charitas, which is the root of our word, charity. God’s grace, His charity for sinners in need of forgiveness, is amazing, as we often sing. Through the Church, Jesus Christ teaches us that He can forgive us all our sins. We need to forgive others as we’ve been forgiven. When we do that, we clear away the debris that makes friendships hard. We can have and be friends.

Three principles for having friends:
  • Love people with the tough love of Christ;
  • bear each other’s burdens; and
  • find the power to love and forgive others by maintaining a relationship with Christ and His Church.
Next week, a message for the young people as they consider potential marriage partners: How Will I Know?