Friday, August 10, 2007

Brief Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons

[During worship celebrations of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, we're coming to the middle of a three-part series called Christians and Work. My message for this installment of the series will be built around two passages of the Bible: Psalm 139:13-18 and Titus 3:9-11. To help folks prepare for worship and hopefully, be helpful to other readers of Better Living, here are a few comments on the two passages. By the way, if you live in or are visiting the Cincinnati area, feel free to worship with us. Sunday worship starts at 10:00AM]

Psalm 139:13-18
13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

A Few Comments...
1. The Psalms are often referred to as the Old Testament hymn book. This book contains 150 songs, most of them obviously designed for use in worship. One of the things that stands out about the psalms is their remarkable honesty. Whether for individuals or groups of people, they give voice to the entire spectrum of human experience, from great joy to grief. Included too are pslams that express anger with God and mystification in the face of tragedy.

The psalms thus encourage the sort of honesty that goes into good relationships. Honesty about our feelings with God are especially important. That fact plays an important part in this psalm.

2. Most of the psalms, like this one, is attributed to David who, in addition to being an accomplished soldier and shepherd, was evidently no mean musician.

3. Because the psalms do run through the gamut of human experience and especially, human experience with God, different types or genres of psalms can be identified. Biblical scholar Claus Westermann names several:
Community Psalm of Lament
Community Psalm of Narrative Praise
Individual Psalm of Lament
Individual Psalm of Narrative Praise
Psalm of Descriptive Praise or Hymn
Creation Psalms
Liturgical Psalms
Royal Psalms [dealing with the place of kings in God's rule]
Enthronement Psalms [used when Israel's new kings were installed]
Wisdom Psalms
Psalm 119 [its own category]
Other Biblical scholars identify categories differently from Westermann. But his list gives a good feel for the range of topics addressed by the psalms.

4. Psalm 139 (see the whole thing here) is, in Westermann's reckoning, a "Psalm of Descriptive Praise or Hymn." Others in this category include Psalms 8, 29, 33, 100, 111, 145-150, and more. Portions of other psalms share the characteristics of psalms in these categories as well. According to Westermann:
The psalm of descriptive praise or hymn (Hebrew: tehillah) is a uniquely liturgical song, the song of a congregation gathered for worship...Psalms of this sort, hymns, were often accompanied by instrumental music of various types...In fact songs of praise which celebrate God are one of the most important sources of music the world over...
5. One of the most beautiful aspects of this psalm is how the speaker sees himself/herself connected to the great God of the universe who sees and understands everything about us.

Titus 3:9-11
9But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 10After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, 11since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.

A few comments...
1. While some modern scholars dispute whether the first-century evangelist and preacher Paul wrote this letter. But it has traditionally been attributed to him. The text, of course, claims to be from Paul, although in fairness to those who claim he isn't the author, it was thought perfectly legitimate for those who were taught by a great rabbi or who were trained in his school of thought to write in the teacher's name.

2. Titus, a Gentile Christian who worked with Paul, is mentioned in Galatians 2:1-3. (Paul's authorship of Galatians is undisputed.) Titus was overseeing church on the island of Crete. Like the other "pastoral epistles," which include First and Second Timothy and this book, Paul is giving advice, admonishment, and tips to young pastors.

3. Our lesson comes near the end of the letter. Here, Paul is giving advice to Titus on how to handle things when people wander into spiritual errors. But the words have implications for how we handle disputes in other contexts.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

From the Mike Huckabee Campaign

As you know, I don't do endorsements around here. I don't think that God favors one party over another and as a Pastor, I don't want to contribute to notions that He does.

But I note with interest that as the 2008 presidential race unfolds, Governor Mike Huckabee is making extensive use of the Internet. Frequent, personable emails arrive in my email inbox regularly.

I just received one such email from the Huckabee campaign, linking to a number of recent Huckabee appearances on the web:
1. Newt Gingrich thinks that Governor Huckabee will catch on.

2. Don McDowell from the popular Iowa blog Cyclone Conservatives had this to say about Governor Huckabee.

3. Governor Huckabee was interviewed by MSNBC yesterday. You can find the video here.

4. The Weekly Standard has a great article this week titled "The Other Man from Hope."

5. Ed Morrissey from the popular conservative blog Captains Quarters has great post about Governor Huckabee and a recent interview he conducted with the Governor.

6. Mike Allen from the Politico has great coverage of the Sunday debate in an article titled "They Like Mike."

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Kev McNerney of The Musings of Kev, someone who, like me, loves the game of baseball, greeted Barry Bonds' record-smashing 756th. career homerun with something less than enthusiasm. "Meh," says Kevin.

I responded to his interesting post:
While someone of Barry Bonds' baseball lineage might be expected to have a deeper respect for the game than to artificially pump up his body and steal the home run record from Hank Aaron, I blame the powers in Major League Baseball more than I do Bonds.

For too many years, MLB had an ambiguous policy regarding steroid use and then enforced it in a shamefully weak manner. It gave players signed primarily for their capacity to hit baseballs out of ballparks an unspoken incentive to use steroids. It cheapened the game's record books and, in its way, defamed players like Aaron.

Hopefully, the new steroid policy will be as bold and emphatic a line in the sand as MLB's laudable and appropriate policies on gambling.

Hopefully too, no one will take Bonds' "record" too seriously. No matter what Barry Bonds said last night, it is tainted and would be even if his inflated skull--something that can't be achieved through workout and diet regimens--didn't serve as Exhibit A that he used steroids.

For people who love the game, there was little to celebrate last night. But again, I blame MLB more than I do Bonds for the sorrow and shame that came to the National Pastime in San Francisco last evening.

"How do we Christian leaders respond to the huge age wave? Close our eyes? Panic?"

The always thoughtful Gary Sweeten has some important things for everyone, especially Christian leaders, to ponder about the greying of America.

Gary's bottom line:
[W]e need to join with others to creatively look at options and alternatives to a boring retirement or an exhausting new career.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

"Prayer is all that is left to us now"

Bruce Armstrong has a complete round-up of the latest information on the South Korean Christians being held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Please pray!

By the Way, Why Are We So Hard on the Famous?

Here's an oldie.

The Dems Debated...Again

The 2008 Democratic presidential aspirants met in debate for what seems like the fifty-seventh time tonight. (And this is just 2007!)

The event, held at Chicago's Soldier Field, was co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO.

If you didn't see it, here's my take on it.

As has been the case with every previous Dem gathering of this long campaign season, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware overall demonstrated a superior knowledge of the issues and a capacity to communicate.

Biden also demonstrated his old "foot in mouth" tendency when, in response to the widow of a West Virginian miner, after expressing condolences and giving a perfunctory response to her question about improving mining safety, quickly launched into discussion of a previous foreign policy question. In doing so, Biden came across as insensitive.

Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut bruised Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, taking Mr. Obama to task for his apparent willingness to disregard Pakistan's sovereignty in going after al-Qaeda. Acknowledging that Pakistan's President Musharraf is "no Thomas Jefferson," Dodd nonetheless painted Obama as reckless. Senator Hillary Clinton of New York agreed with Dodd.

Speaking of Clinton, she turned in another safe performance, one that won't hurt her ever-growing support among Democrats nationwide.

As usual, Obama seemed stiff and ill at ease in the debate format. His lack of seasoning in international affairs was once more apparent. To me, it's a tragedy that Obama didn't resist the siren call of a 2008 bid for the presidency. In the unforgiving atmosphere of post-1972 presidential politics, when you only get one real shot at the White House, it's unlikely that a guy who could have one day made a credible bid for the presidency will get a second chance.

Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio seemed to really win the Labor crowd over, especially with his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which he said that he would rescind, and the World Trade Organization.

Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson seemed almost to fade from view tonight. This is especially surprising when it comes to Edwards, the presumed favorite among Union households. Biden went after Edwards, who had presented himself as the only Dem with superior credentials from Labor's viewpoint, with a withering attack and a ringing defense of his own Union street cred.

There was a lot of pandering in this event. For all the standard issue inveighing against special interests that come from candidates of both parties, they all still play up to interest groups and the members of such groups encourage the candidates in doing so.

None of what I've said has anything to do with who I will or won't vote for. I don't do endorsements.

"I hope she can find what will satisfy her soul"

That's Pastor Jeff, in a thoughtful piece on Britney Spears, which might as readily have been written of Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton, and a host of showbiz types who've scaled Celebrity Heights only to melt down.

Also, delving into the Better Living time capsule, you might be interested in this column on the effects of fame on the famous, a piece triggered by Michael Jackson's appearance in his pajamas in a California court room.


That's the topic of this interesting response to something I wrote, from John Schroeder.

I think that John's right and in his discussion of "Christian" discomfort with non-conformity (and attempts to squelch it), shows us that much of what today passes for "Christian" political activism is actually a subtle form of atheism, a lack of confidence that the God-appointed means of grace--things like the Bible, worship, verbalizing our faith, and serving others in Jesus' Name--are insufficient for introducing and encouraging faith in Jesus Christ.

Prayers Needed

See here.

Resentment and Forgiveness

From my friend, Pastor Glen VanderKloot of Faith Lutheran Church, Springfield, Illinois, these thoughts:
Strength of character means the ability to overcome resentment against others, to hide hurt feelings, and to forgive quickly.

Proverbs 27:3 (New Living Translation)

A stone is heavy and sand is weighty,
but the resentment caused by a fool is even heavier.

Lord, strengthen my character so that I can interact with people more like you do. Amen

Monday, August 06, 2007

"I was writing songs that nobody cared about"

"When I recorded them, then they cared about 'em. They bought 'em. That's how you become an independent producer."

The speaker is composer/producer/singer Lee Hazlewood, dead at 78.

His words and career should give hope to anyone who has known the frustration of awaiting approval from life's gatekeepers. Hazleword recorded and self-published songs no reputable publisher wanted to publish.

A lot of bloggers today are doing something similar. They're hazlewooding, forgetting the gatekeepers and putting their words, pictures, thoughts, and, in some instances, music, out there.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Before the Lights Go Out

The Financial Times reports:
Much of America’s ageing infrastructure needs replacing. One vital industry in need of sprucing up is electricity. Cambridge Energy Research Associates reckons the sector needs $900bn of investment over the next 15 years – in effect, more than replacing the net $750bn worth of plant already in place. The only thing worse than having to spend that amount would be not spending it. Overall, spare generation capacity could drop below 15 per cent of peak demand – the minimum usually required to avoid blackouts – by 2009. Two-year electricity futures have risen by two-thirds since 2004.

Why We Work (Christians and Work, Part 1)

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, during the Sunday morning worship celebration on August 5, 2007. If you live in or are visiting in the Cincinnati area in the near future, you're welcome to join us for worship.]

Genesis 2:4b-9, 15
Second Thessalonians 3:6-10

Our son Philip was nine years old when we attended my Dad’s retirement party some sixteen years ago. On the way home, he asked me, “Dad, why do we work?”

There are days when we probably all ask that question. I'm convinced that knowing the answer to it can make a difference in our lives.

Some of you have heard me tell the story of two men cutting stone in the middle of a busy city. A passerby asked one man, “What are you doing?” Disgustedly, the worker said, “Look for yourself; I’m cutting stone.” Well, the passerby could see that much! So, he approached the second worker and asked the same question: “What are you doing?” This worker got a gleam in his eye: “I’m helping to build a cathedral!”

The two men were doing the exact same work. But the first one saw it only as his job. Something to be done with. A task disconnected from the world or any life purpose.

To the second man, cutting stones was a thing of dignity and fulfillment. Part of a greater, common cause.

Polling data consistently indicates that when it comes to their jobs, most people feel more like the first worker than the second. Speaking personally, as a second-career pastor, I can say that I’ve had lots of jobs I didn’t much care for. Most of them made me feel like the first stonecutter. I couldn’t see the point. They were drudgery.

But I’ve also been blessed with other work in my life, mainly that of husband, father, pastor, and community volunteer. In each of these jobs, of course, there are mundane tasks to be done. (As someone once said, "The grass may be greener on the other side, but it still needs to be mowed.")

Yet in these jobs, I feel that God allows me to play my part in building something wonderful in those whose lives I touch.

Not everybody would derive the same kind of fulfillment from my work that I do. “How can you stand dealing with people’s hurts and hospitalizations?” people ask me. To them, the work of a pastor would be draining. For me, it’s energizing.

God has wired each of us differently. And, I’m convinced that one of the most important searches that you and I can undertake in our lives is finding the vocations that make us feel like the second stonecutter.

So, I’ve come to believe that one of the reasons why we work is that God planned things that way. God gives us work to do--as employees, family members, and citizens of our communities.

In our first lesson, part of the Bible’s second account of creation in the book of Genesis, we’re told that God created the first human being and then planted a lush green garden for the man to enjoy. The Bible tells us, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”

God never meant for the man to sit around and watch the garden grow! God’s intention was always for him--and for all of us--to work. God wants us to all be part of something bigger. God gives each of us our own stones to cut so that we can care for, build, and renew the world He gives us.

This brings us to a second reason why we work. It's this: When we work, we most reflect the presence of the image of God within us. The Bible tells us that we human beings were created in the image of God. There are many implications to that statement, but one of them becomes clear when you scan the opening verses of the Bible as it talks about God. You’ll find phrases like, “God created...God separated...God named...God made.”

You see, God works. God creates. God builds.

And one look at the beautiful world in which you and I live demonstrates that God cuts no corners. There’s something intrinsic to being children of God that impels us to work.

This is something that a young artisan in Florence knew five centuries ago. One day, the Duke of Florence came upon this man and watched, as, with great care, he fit a box together. “What will the box be used for?” the duke asked. “Flowers will be put in it, sir” the artisan replied. “Then it will be filled with dirt. Why take such pains to make each joint and surface perfect?” The young man said simply, “I love perfect things!” The duke could hardly contain his contempt. “”It’s wasted effort,” he said. “No one will see its perfection.” Without a trace of arrogance, the young man said, “I will, sir. Do you think that when He was a carpenter in Nazareth that our Lord Jesus made anything less well than He could?” That duke thought that the young artisan was arrogant. But Michelangelo Buonarroti’s relentless commitment to do work worthy of the God Who made him and all of us is something we appreciate to this day!

So, we work because God has made us for it. And when we work, we reflect God’s image in us. But there’s a third reason that we work. Pastor Steve Goodier tells the true story of an elderly man considered by his townspeople to be both wise and thrifty. “When he died,” Goodier says, “everyone expected the authorities to find money stashed everywhere in his home. [But a]ll they found were a few gallon cans filled with coins. It turned out that he had used most of his money to help put needy young students through college. And the coins filled his pockets as he
walked down the streets of the business districts looking for parking meters that had expired. When he found one, he would drop in a coin. One of his neighbors commented, ‘That explains why he looked so happy and contented!’”

Here was a man who worked in his own special way even after he retired. He knew that another reason we work is to experience the joy that goes with serving others, that goes with being someone others can depend on.

The first-century preacher Paul know about this, too. In our second lesson, he chastises the members of the church in the Greek city of Thessalonica. He recalls that while he was with them, teaching them about Christ, he kept at his trade as a tentmaker. Paul felt that by working, he was keeping his end of the bargain as a member of the Christian community. In his work, he let others depend on him, just as each of us is called to do as part of our families, our communities, and our church. I like the homely way in which King Solomon reminds us of how each of us depends on one another in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: “If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks.” We work because God has constructed the world in such a way that we all need each other to do our jobs well. Others are depending on us.

Now there’s a fourth reason for working which, I think, may only make sense to those who are followers of Christ.

In his fine book, Christians in the Marketplace, Pastor Bill Hybels tells the story of a young man his father hired to work in his wholesale produce business one summer. He was a student at West Point and rumor had it, a Christian. As Hybels tells it, many of his dad’s other employees were “rough...hard-drinking, hard-fighting, women-chasing men” who “relished the opportunity to make sport of a nice, clean-cut, all-American...” kid. They wanted to make this young man’s summer miserable.

But they didn’t. Instead, “David, the all-American boy, turned the company upside down.” On his very first day, he befriended some vagrants out behind the company warehouse. He gave them his lunch. Soon, he was doing Bible studies for them. Before the end of the summer, in his quiet, loving way, David had become a valued friend and counselor to some of the most hardened employees of the Hybels company.

I like what Hybels says after recounting this incident. “The shame of the marketplace is that so often it centers on nothing but business. There aren’t enough Davids in the workforce.”

Our daily work isn’t just about keeping the house clean, meeting deadlines, making money, or keeping the boss off our backs, although those can all be worthy goals. And no one should ever use their faith in Christ as an excuse for shirking their duties. (We all have known Christians at work about whom it could be said, "They're so heavenly-minded that they're no earthly good!")

But for the Christian, the key questions as we do our work boil down to a few:
Am I giving God glory?
Am I giving 100% every day?
Am I showing consideration--(another way of asking, Am I giving love) to my employer, my coworkers, my customers, or others I serve?

Many are the days when, I’m ashamed to say, I honestly have to say, “No” to questions like those...
“No, I haven’t been a good husband. I’ve been surly and selfish.”
“No, I haven’t been a good father. I’ve been impatient.”
“No, I haven’t been a good pastor. That sermon could have been much better.”
It’s then that I turn to God in repentance and ask for the power to recommit myself to giving Him all the glory in all that I do.

Why do we work?
  • Because God wants us to work; it’s part of being human.
  • Because when we work, the presence of God’s image in us is visible.
  • Because when we work, we experience the joy of serving others.
  • And because when we work, we glorify God.
In another one of his New Testament letters, the apostle Paul encouraged a group of first-century slaves who were Christians to work for others with all their hearts, “as though you were working for the Lord and not for others...For Christ is the real Master you serve.”*

We Christians work because when all is said and done, we really work for the One Who loves and works for us every moment of every day.

We work because Jesus Christ, the One Who went to the cross and rose from the tomb for us, loves us and nothing is so important to the Christian than to give back to the God Who gives us everything.

[*In his intriguing book, The Victory of Reason, which shows how the Christian tradition in the West fostered the development of rationality, science, and commerce, Baylor University professor Rodney Stark speaks of how central Christianity was to the virtual eradication of slavery in the tenth century. It played a similar role when slavery reappeared in Britain and the United States.

It did so even though slavery existed in Biblical times and was referred to in the Bible, Stark says, because only Christianity, among the world religions, insists on an almighty personal God with a future orientation.

Theology in the Christian tradition became not a matter of interpreting static laws, but of understanding a supremely loving Deity Who has a personality. Conjecture regarding varying pathways is possible in Christian theology in ways it isn't in various religious systems.

With its focus on the future, Christianity allows for a future that can change, that's neither a mere recitation of ancient cycles or a grim march toward inevitable deterioration.

Christians therefore believe that there are new truths to be discovered in God's Word which, because it's inspired by God, its original authors may not even have considered. In the same way that husbands and wives learn new things about one another as their relationships progress, Christ's Bride, the Church, may come to new understandings of God as the Spirit reveals more about God's Word. This is exactly what happened when the Church came to see that the institution of slavery, which the first Christians took for granted, must be abolished.

So, when Paul writes to slaves about their conduct with their masters, he isn't, as some claim, justifying slavery. He's giving instructions for faithful and shrewd living. Paul may not have been enlivened to all the implications of the Gospel which he rightly described as true freedom.

Who knows what new truths about Himself and His Word God may show to His Church in the future?]