Saturday, February 09, 2008

Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lesson (February 10, 2008)

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

[General Comments, continued]
14. Romans 5:12-19: Here, I present the brief comments of Chris Haslam, an Anglican priest from Montreal:
Paul has said that Christians, reconciled to God, will be saved, sharing in the risen life of Christ. Two notions are important here:
  • the punishment for Adam’s sin was to die both physically and spiritually (“death came through sin”); and
  • we both sin ourselves and share in his sin (“spread to all”).
Paul contrasts Adam and Christ, both inaugurators of eras. Adam foreshadowed Christ as head of humanity (“type”, v. 14, precursor). Adam disobeyed God’s direct command (“the transgression”, v. 14, “the trespass”, v. 15). The “free gift”, i.e. Christ, is unlike Adam’s sin:
  • “many died” before Christ’s coming but even more so are “many” (indeed all) saved through Christ;
  • Adam was condemned to separation from God but Christ brings union with God (vv. 16, 18);
  • Adam’s sin allowed “death” (v. 17) to rule through the Devil (“that one”) but we let good rule our hearts (“dominion in life”); and
  • Adam’s action led to the sin of many but Christ’s will lead many to godliness (v. 19), to “eternal life” (v. 21).
(Vv. 13-14b are an aside: before God gave Moses the Law, humans were not held accountable for their sins; even so they died.)
Verse-by-Verse Comments, Matthew 4:1-11:
1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
(1) It's interesting that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In his explanation of the Sixth Petition of the Lord's Prayer, Martin Luther writes in his famous Small Catechism, "God, indeed, tempts no one..." Was Luther wrong?

Notice what Matthew writes here, though. He says that "that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." Is it splitting hairs here to say that God the Spirit didn't tempt Jesus, but pushed Jesus where the devil could do the tempting?

Maybe. But I think that this is a more complicated subject than our desire for facile answers will allow.

The New Testament Greek terms peirazo and ekpeirazo can be translated as either tempt or test. Sometimes we read of God testing people. At other times we read of people being tempted.

I think it's safe to say that if God lures us to sin, then God is a monster and not the "lover of our souls" we see in Jesus Christ.

But I do think it's possible for God to use an event to test us while the devil, the world, or our sinful selves will use the same event to tempt us away from God. God allows certain tests to come our way, tests that may tempt us to walk away from God. God does this to strengthen our faith by increasing our dependence on Him.

God the Spirit apparently believed that, to fortify Jesus for what lay ahead, Jesus needed the test of being tempted by the devil. I don't believe that this is the sort of thing that God does with spiritual lightweights, like me, by the way. In fact, it's been my observation that the closer we get to God, the more our spiritual torments and often, it seems, the likelier our physical suffering. Discipleship isn't for sissies. But it is for those who want to live with God forever.

2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
(1) Talk about understatement. I'd be hungry too, after forty days without food. By the way, some scholars teach that "forty days" may have been a Biblical way of saying, "a long time," like more contemporary phrases such as "a month of Sundays."(I know, it's not that contemporary.)

(2) This makes me think of the Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday. Jesus assumed that believers would, at tmes when they wanted to clear away the obstructions that get in the way of their relationship with God, would fast. He says there, "Whenever you fast..."

One can fast in many ways. We might want to stop watching TV at night, or spend less time on the computer. The possibilities are endless. But the purpose of fasting isn't to gain bragging rights as a super-Christian. It is, rather, like tuning out the static and allowing ourselves to hear God loud and clear.

3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
(1) Notice that the tempter's temptation isn't inherently bad. Food when you're hungry is a good thing. God made food. God made our bellies. The craftiness of the tempter is that he strives to lure us to take good things and use them in wrong ways. Jesus refuses to be beholden to the tempter even for a few scraps of bread. He will, instead, be totally dependent on God the Father.

(2) One of the ways in which we commonly put God to the test is to challenge Him with prayers like, "If you're really there, then do this..."

God has already done everything He needs to do to warrant our trust.

4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
(1) There's no way we can face down the temptations presented by the devil, the world, or our sinful selves is to be steeped in the Word of God, the Bible, which reveals God's will for us all. Jesus called on that Word here.

5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
(1) The devil knows the Bible too. For the Christian, knowing the Bible isn't necessarily about memorizing Scripture passages, it's allowing the Word of God to inform our understanding of the God behind it. The Bible reveals God's character.

(2) This is the second time that the devil has said, "If you are the Son of God..." The devil is suggesting that this throwing Himself off of the top of the temple would be a memorable way for Jesus to prove Himself. And Jesus does want us to know that He is the Son of God. But, though capable of the miraculous, He never performed signs at the command of the skeptical or hostile. That's probably because for those who are hostile or indifferent to Jesus, no sign would ever be sufficient to win them over. And besides, if God takes orders from us, who really is God? Unless we see the miracles as signs pointing to Jesus as the Son of God, they're merely parlor tricks.

7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
(1) "Stupid is stupid," Jesus tells the devil. "God will protect His children for all eternity. But they can't expect to be protected when they take unnecessary risks."

(2) Notice that Jesus once more resorts to Scripture.

8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
(1) The term "high mountain" is also used of the setting of Jesus' transfiguration in Matthew's Gospel. Brian Stoffregen suggests that this may be no coincidence. When you think of it, the high mountain on which Jesus' transfiguration must have also been a setting of deep temptation. It would have been tempting for Jesus to remain on the mountaintop in His glory. It certainly tempted Peter, who wanted to erect those monuments to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But the voice from heaven and Jesus Himself directed Peter, James, and John, back down the mountain.

(2) Jesus clearly wants the kingdoms of the world. But He won't take them on the cheap. Without His death and resurrection, those kingdoms would always remain under evil's sway, far from God.

10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
(1) In the final analysis, every sin we commit is a violation of the First Commandment, "You shall have no other gods." To worship God is to put God first in our lives.

11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Obama, National Security, and Presidential Vision

This article in the German publication Die Welt (The World), and cited in an interesting post by Robin Koerner, says that Europeans are getting a hazy picture of Barack Obama's views on foreign policy and national security issues.

I think that it also precisely identifies Obama's area of greatest vulnerability with US voters once the fall campaign begins. (Should Obama be the Democratic nominee for president, which appears likely.)

But in fairness to him, with rare exceptions, few new presidents come to the White House with significant diplomatic or national security experience or with strategic visions born of such experience. George W. Bush certainly had no such vision. His father, who had served brief stints as US envoy to China, US ambassador to the United Nations, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency had something of a foreign policy vision, inherited from every post-World War Two president, from Truman to Reagan. But even the elder Bush was shy on "the vision thing," as he called it.

The last US president to possess a combination of experience and strategic vision in the realms of foreign policy and national security, and both were abundantly present in him, was Dwight Eisenhower. His possession of these assets paid off hugely as, at the height of the Cold War, Eisenhower expertly extricated the US from the Korean War (within six months of his taking the oath of office) and kept the nation at peace through the balance of his term. Eisenhower did this largely without grand pronouncements. Too often his successors in the Oval Office have thought that speeches equaled policy. As an old national security pro, Ike knew better.

Before Eisenhower, whose first term began in January, 1953, the last president to have anything like a strategic vision was Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909). In spite of his bombast and a militarism which resulted in violating other nations' sovereignty to, as TR himself bragged, "take" Panama, his basic approach to foreign affairs was similar to the one Ike consistently pursued and Roosevelt himself memorably summarized: Speak softly and carry a big stick.

This approach is what later generations would call "foreign policy realism," an approach that asked three basic questions:
  • What is in the best interest of the United States?
  • What is likeliest to contribute to the peace and stability of the world?
  • What is within the scope of present capability?
Jimmy Carter's approach to foreign policy added a fourth question: What is consonant with US belief in human rights? But I would argue that this is not a stunning addition, since what is in the long-term best interests of the country and that which contributes to peace and stability is consonant with a concern for human rights. This is the argument of military people and former military people--like John McCain--when it comes to the use of torture as an interrogation method with hostile detainees. They argue that to run roughshod over the human rights of others invites such treatment for our military personnel. Here, as in other areas, the proponents of foreign policy realism argue, realism and US idealism dovetail.

Nonetheless the tradition of foreign policy realism, also pursued to a great extent by Franklin Roosevelt, sets in stark contrast to the naive strategic vision of Woodrow Wilson and his foreign policy successors. Wilson, like Lyndon Johnson after him, early expressed the hope that his tenure would be concerned mostly with domestic issues. Those are what most consumed him and were what he felt best equipped to handle.

The crisis in Mexico, early in his tertm, demonstrated how out of his depth Wilson was when it came to foreign policy and national security issues. His decision to deploy US troops in Mexico was unnecessary and ill-advised, shrouded though it was in talk about democracy, human rights, and national honor. Wilson made up his strategic vision as he went along and began a tradition of what I call impositionalism pursued by Harry Truman in Korea, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, and numerous tinier military actions undertaken by Johnson and Clinton.

Interestingly, George W. Bush, who had apparently thought little about foreign policy and national security issues before becoming president, has espoused and pursued a foreign policy that is more like Wilson than his father's or Eisenhower's.

Each new occupant in the White House begins, to some extent, in a reactive mode, seeking to be the antidote for the perceived deficiencies of his predecessor. If Barack Obama proves to be the Democratic nominee and the president, his approach to national security will have to involve more than being the Un-Bush. Whether it will be is, at this point, anybody's guess.

[For more on the major traditions in US foreign policy thinking, seen from the standpoint of a preacher eating burritos with his son, see here.]

[UPDATE: I agree with one of the commenters on The Moderate Voice version of this post that it's difficult for potential presidents to gain much in the way of substantive foreign policy experience. But I do think that candidates should evidence having thought about foreign policy and to enunciate a broad strategic vision. So far as I know, John McCain is the only one of the four remaining serious candidates to have done that to any significant degree.]

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (February 10, 2008)

[This may be the only "pass" at the Bible lessons for this week. If so, I apologize in advance. These passes are designed to help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I am pastor, and me to prepare for worship on Sunday mornings. Because we Lutherans use a version of the Revised Common Lectionary, I also hope that these looks at the Bible lessons will help other Christians to get ready for worship when these lessons will be the focus for most of the Christians in the world.]

The Bible Lessons:
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

The Prayer of the Day:
Lord God, our strength, the struggle between good and evil rages within and around us, and the devil and all the forces that defy you tempt us with empty promises. Keep us steadfast in your word, and when we fall, raise us again and restore us through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

Some General Comments:
1. The season of the Church Year called Lent began this past week with Ash Wednesday.

2. The forty days of Lent do not include the Sundays. That's because Sundays are always "little Easters," times when we always celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. That's why this will be the First Sunday in Lent. Sundays in Lent then, are outposts of resurrection celebration within a period in which we remember Christ's call to repentance and His death for our sin. Nonetheless, the Lenten movement toward Christ's cross (and resurrection) are marked even on the Sundays of this season.

3. The Gospel lessons for the First Sunday in Lent always revolve around Jesus' being tempted in the wilderness by the devil. (In this year's Gospel lesson, taken from Matthew's Gospel, the tempting power is referred to as the tempter, the devil, and Satan. More on the meanings of those three terms later, I hope.)

4. The other appointed lessons deal with temptation, sin, fall, deliverance, and redemption, hugely important themes. each text worthy of their own full exploration. That won't be possible here.

5. Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7: This lesson recounting the temptation of the first man and woman presents an interesting counterpoint to the Gospel account of Jesus' temptation.

For example, this temptation happens in the comfort of a lush garden in which easy provision is available for the first couple's every need. Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the barren wilderness. (The word eremos in the original Greek of the Matthew text can be translated as wilderness or desert.)

In addition, neither Eve nor Adam evidence any struggle against the temptations of the serpent. Jesus' entire encounter with the devil involves struggle.

In both cases, the temptations involve ignoring the intentions of God the Father.

There are more parallels and contrasts. But those will be addressed later.

6. 2:15: In this verse we see that work was never meant to be seen as a punishment. Only after the fall into sin would futility become part of the human experience of work. But work, in itself, is a good thing. Our capacity to work is part of what demonstrates that we have been made in the image of God, Who worked to create our universe.

7. 3:1: The serpent isn't specifically identified as the devil, although Jesus makes that connection in John 8:44.

Part of the craftiness of the devil, an attribute attributed to him here, is that he doesn't make the mistake of overtly attacking God. He attacks by indirection, asking questions until the time is ripe for making assertions.

(By the way, Jesus also uses indirection to woo people into God's kingdom. His parables are gentle ways of moving beyond our resistance to God's grace and love, engaging us in stories that make us feel what the kingdom of God is like, rather than forcing us on the defensive with religious propositions. That Jesus should employ such methods shouldn't surprise us. After all, in calling His followers to share His call to repentance and new life, He said that they should be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.)

8. Vv. 2-3: The woman accurately reflects God's will. There is no ambiguity about God's will.

9. The perennial question about this tree is, if God was anxious for humans to live in fellowship with Him, why was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden?

Let's do something scientists call a "thought experiment" for a moment. Imagine that you are God. Imagine that as God, you are brimming over with love, so much love in fact that you feel the desire to create living beings to love. But you decide that one being in particular will be sentient, aware of themselves as living creatures and--this is the really important point--capable of loving back.

The only way this ability to return your love will have any meaning is that if your special creatures have the ability not to love you back. Love that is instinctive is, in effect, coerced or forced. But if your creature is free not to love you, their choice to return your love and to live in a fellowship of love with you will be marked with the joy that comes with love that is voluntary.

God allowed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to sprout in the perfect garden wasn't to tempt Adam and Eve to sin, but to make it possible for them to respond to God's love freely and authentically.

9. Vv. 4-5: The truth told in a deceitful way is still a lie. The man and woman didn't die immediately and by eating the fruit, they did see good and evil, as opposed to having only seen good previously. But, of course, being able to see good and evil without the discernment of God is to fall prey to evil's power. The serpent left that part out.

10. V. 6: What tempted the woman was good. The fruit was good. We're never tempted by bad or unattractive things. Sin happens when we take what's good at the wrong time, in the wrong way, for the wrong reason, or in the wrong amount.

11. To merely be tempted isn't a sin. Caving into temptation, even within our minds, is when sin happens.

12. Psalm 32: The first seven verses are addressed to God. Verses 8-11 are addressed to other people. The narrator is one who has sinned, confessed, and experienced God's forgiveness.

13. Sometimes, a good way to try to understand a passage of Scripture is to put it into our own words. Here's a paraphrase of Psalm 32 I wrote earlier today:
My life was hard when my sin went unconfessed, Lord. But when I owned up to my wrongs, You forgave me.

When times are hard, help us find refuge in You. Give us shelter even when times are tough!

I know that even when the flood waters rise, we God-followers won't be swept away. All around me are the glad shouts of people rescued from all that would take us from You and the life You give!

[Looking to our neighbors...]

Having experienced God's charity and care, I will turn to you, my friends, and point out the way of God to you. Don't be stubborn in your egotism, thinking you can get by on your own! Place yourself under God's control.

In the end, things don't go well for those who remain rebels against God. But the endless love of God envelops those who throw the whole weight of their lives--the good, the bad, the ugly, the frightening, the past, present and future--on God's shoulders.

Laugh and fill up with joy, you who trust in God! Give a shout out, all made right with God by the power of His forgiving grace!
This is an exercise you might want to try.

[More tomorrow, I hope.]

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Thanks...

to the following blogging colleagues for recently linking to various posts on this site:
Holy Coast
Blogotional
Pseudopolymath

I don't always agree with these guys. But I respect and admire them immensely!

God Says, "Take it Easy"

Most days, I use Our Daily Bread, the booklet of daily reading produced by Radio Bible Class, for my devotions. (Lately, I've added a book of daily readings built around Scripture, Faith Alone, composed of writing by Martin Luther, as well.) Among the many things I enjoy about Our Daily Bread is that with each daily reading, four Biblical chapters are listed. (If you use the online edition, the chapters are linked, although they're from The New International Version, a fine translation, but not my favorite.) Reading four chapters of the Bible each day will get you through the entire Bible in one year's time.

Among today's suggested Bible readings are Exodus 31-33. At the end of chapter 31, God gives instructions for Moses to convey to His people regarding the Sabbath. Exodus 31:12-17 says:
The Lord said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”
Reading this was both comforting and discomforting for me.

It's comforting to think that God wants us to rest, wants us to spend time with Him, wants us to use one day a week to recharge our batteries and remind ourselves of God's love and will for us.

But I felt some discomfort as well. You see, this may be the commandment I keep least well. The problem was major in my former parish.

The founder of that congregation, I never had an office or a secretary. Unless I was meeting someone or visiting them, I worked in my home, where work and family duties intermingled twenty-four hours a day. I would decide to work on the succeeding Sunday's bulletin at odd times, any time, for example. The same was true of my sermons. No pastor can really have Sunday as her or his Sabbath, I knew. But when colleagues asked me, "What's your day off?," I couldn't really say.

My new parish is larger than my last (although smaller than my first one, where I served for six years). Since arriving three months ago, I've had three funerals. By comparison, there were four deaths in my previous parish during my entire seventeen years there. We've also had a number of people hospitalized and we have a number of shut-ins.

I'm enjoying life at Saint Matthew immensely and the people are a real joy! But I realized my first week--even before my first week--here, that if I didn't take a Sabbath, a day off in which I spent extra time with God, relaxed, and did things that I can't do the rest of the week, I would be no good to God, my wife, the congregation, or myself.

It hasn't been easy to re-introduce myself to this Sabbath discipline. I've discovered that more than the unique attributes of my former parish lay behind my difficulty with keeping the Sabbath. While watching an episode of Law and Order: SVU with my wife tonight, I felt like I should be doing something. Old, powerful impulses are at play here. During a commercial break, I muted the TV and told Ann about the feeling that I should be working. "When I was a little boy," I told her, "I always wanted a job that would keep me working all the time." She laughed and observed, "You got your wish."

Yes, and I do love it. I love my work and I love being busy. These are blessings from God.

But it's possible for us to receive the blessings of God in less than blessed ways. When work becomes the manner by which we measure our own value, it's a perversion of its blessings. Or when work becomes an ego trip, a means by which you tell yourself how essential you are God isn't glorified. (Worship is happening. But it's at the altar of ME.)

All Christians can see ministry, a service to God and neighbor, in their daily work. But as such, it's not an end in itself. Instead, it's a means by which we express thanks to God for loving us and saving us from sin and death long before we do a scrap of work. One of my favorite passages in the New Testament says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Good works--useful, productive, even laborious ministries--are to be the way of life for all followers of Christ. But we cannot work faithfully or productively without time away from our usual work.

Today, after I read devotions and Scripture and prayed, I ate breakfast. I showered and took care of some household business. I checked the oil in my van. I took a longer walk than usual. I came back and wrote a blog post. I went grocery shopping with my wife and chatted with folks at Kroger. I spoke with my daughter on the phone. Then, I read from a couple of books and watched TV. I took a nap.

I got recharged. I got reconnected to God. That's what Sabbaths do. Thank God for them.

Why Mitt Didn't Hit

Mitt Romney is out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Romney looked like a president. He had seemingly demonstrated his electability by becoming a Republican governor in the most reliably liberal Democratic state, Massachusetts. So, what went wrong?

Romney and his brain trust made a series of strategic errors that destroyed his viability as a presidential candidate, at least in 2008.

Strategic Error #1: The Incredible Conservative Shift. Intent on running for president and too unpopular to win a second term as governor in Massachusetts, Romney began "re-positioning" himself on issues like abortion and gay marriage. The idea was to make himself not just pleasing or unobjectionable to social conservatives, but, following a series of Damascus Road experiences, to be one of them. Some bought the ruse. (It may not, in fact, have been a ruse. Romney's earlier positions on these issues, along with his disavowal of being a Reagan Republican, may have been part of a ruse to establish his electability in Massachusetts. We'll probably never know. Romney himself may not know.) But in the end, too many voters were wary of yet another Massachusetts pol who could, fairly or not, be credibly described as a flip flopper.

To deal with any shifts, real or espoused, on any of the social conservative agenda, Romney would have done better to have announced his changed positions and worked on their behalf for several years. The shift was too facile, too convenient for a presidential bid this year.

Strategic Error #2: Mitt, the Baptist Mormon. Romney and Company totally mishandled his religious affiliation. In 2005, Romney supporter Hugh Hewitt asked readers of his blog, particularly those of us he calls "Godbloggers," whether a Mormon candidate for president would be summarily dismissed by Christians. I believe that I was the first blogger to respond to Hewitt's query. I remain convinced that, while some Christians would refuse to vote for a Mormon for president, for the vast majority of Christians--and Americans--that would not be the case.

The key for candidates for president, I believe, is not to disavow their faith, but, as John Kennedy did when dealing with questions about his Catholicism, to promise that he or she will not give preferential treatment either in policy or personnel to their faith.

Romney seemed to say that in the first part of his now-infamous 'Faith in America' speech.

But then, as appears to be his wont, he strove to split the difference. He spoke of America as a religious country, made a confession of faith about Christ that appears to be at odds with his Mormon religion, and seemed to make theism a qualification for public office.

Romney and his campaign were paranoid about his religion. The official campaign biography of Romney, written by Hewitt, who I consider a friend, was titled, A Mormon in the White House?

The book demonstrated the profound ambivalence and uncertainty with which Romney and his handlers viewed his faith. Their response, as well as their paranoia, demonstrates how anxious they were to rebuild the Reagan coalition, building primarily on the Religious Right.

But they misread the political moment. George W. Bush has destroyed the old Republican coalition. The war in Iraq has put neoconservatism, with its Wilsonian Democratic national security stance, in question. The overspending of the past eight years has put Republican avowals of fiscal responsibility in question. Conservatism and Republican politics are ripe for re-definition.

This presidential election year was not the year to pay homage to a dead past, but the year for bold new initiatives that would have recast the Republican Party in the same way Ronald Reagan did for Republicans in 1980 and Franklin Roosevelt did for Democrats in 1932. (Instead, with the probable nomination Barack Obama, the Democrats, almost despite themselves, seem poised to become the party of new, generationally-ascendant, big ideas in 2008.) Republicans need this year, to paint outside the box. Rudy Giuliani knew this, but he was not the candidate and didn't commend the policies that would bring the "change" everybody, irrespective of their politics, seems to hanker for this year.

In trying to appeal to a socially conservative constituency which is itself, beginning to wonder whether issues like abortion and homosexuality can be effectively addressed at the federal level or in politics at all and whether other issues like war and peace and the economy might not be more pressing at the moment, Romney was eight years late. Like old generals who get outfoxed as they try to fight the last war, politicians lose when trying to win the last open election. Someone needed to tell Mitt that he wasn't trying to win the 2000 GOP nomination.

In fudging and fuzzing questions of religion and politics, Romney made himself and his candidacy fuzzy and less than credible.

Strategic Error #3: I'm Bush, too. Romney spent the entire campaign as an apologist for George W. Bush. When, for example, Mike Huckabee put a mild slap on the President for arrogance in his foreign policy, Romney affected righteous indignation, demanding an apology. But even many of Mr. Bush's supporters have been chagrined by the appearance of arrogance in his foreign policy.

Romney defended Bush in other ways. He didn't need to do that. Yes, the Republican base supports George Bush, to an extent. But, whether as a candidate in the GOP primaries or in the general election, the best Republican strategy in 2008 is to to admit mistakes and differences of opinion and move on.

When, in the pre-California debate at the Reagan Library, Romney was asked the Reaganesque question, "Is America better off today than it was eight years ago?," Romney tried to shift the focus to his time as governor in Massachusetts. There was nothing wrong with that. He needn't answer for George Bush's presidency. But, when pressed, Romney defended the President, claiming that the deficit spending and other very un-conservative policies of the President, weren't George Bush's fault. It was, he said, the fault of "Washington." But it wasn't some nebulous "Washington" that voted for pork barrel spending; it was Republican members of Congress. It wasn't "Washington" that signed George W. Bush's name to virtually every single spending plan to hit his desk. Romney would have done himself a huge favor if he'd said those things. It would have made his assaults on John McCain as a "Washington insider" a lot more credible.

It's stunning, when you consider it, that Mitt Romney's campaign went as far as it did. It says something about the power of money and the impact of a network of talking heads pushing a set of ideas at variance with the facts. But in the end, Romney's errors caught up with him. Maybe 2008 really is the year of change.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Being Christian, Not Just Looking Christian

[This sermon was shared at Ash Wednesday worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier this evening.]

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
True story: Years ago, the B-List movie star Fernando Lamas was guest hosting a TV talk show. He introduced his first guest for the evening, another actor and asked, “How are you doing?” “Not so well,” the guest said. “You see, I’ve been very sick. It’s been a tough road.”

The B-List star’s response was a classic, one that comedian Billy Crystal turned into a Saturday Night Live routine. “Yes,” he said. “But you look marvelous and that’s the main thing.”

For many of us today, looking good is the main thing. Many women, in a desire to “look good,” spend thousands of dollars on cosmetics and facelifts. Many men, wanting to appear successful, will overextend themselves financially just to have the biggest houses, the newest cars, and luxury box seats at the football game. Many teens feel that they simply must have the latest stuff from Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch, or they’ll lose face among their peers.

Does any of this strike you as a bit ridiculous?

We seem to have elevated shallowness to a place of high value in our society. Just consider all the time we spend listening to stories about Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears, their brushes with the law and time in the slammer. It’s appalling!

Lest we get too far up on our high horses, though, Jesus reminds us tonight that we Christians can be shallow, too. We can become obsessed with “looking good” as Christians, appearing holy, or devoted, or repentant, or faithful. We can be so hung up on looking like Christians that we fail to actually be Christians.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus addresses the overarching issue of Christian piety. One dictionary defines piety as, “reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations.” Piety is good. Genuine piety happens when imperfect human beings, like you and me, strive to follow Jesus Christ in our daily lives. But Jesus warns us: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

The rewards which every believer in Jesus Christ wants, the gifts that we can not earn but only receive when we renounce our sin and trust in Jesus, are having God in our lives today and living with God for eternity. Jesus tells us that we risk losing these rewards when, instead of living our lives to express gratitude and love for an audience of one, God Himself, we decide to make looking good in the eyes of others our greatest goal. Or at least one of our goals.

There may be more of this happening among we Christians than we realize, this big desire to appear Christian more than to be Christian. Last year, I met a man whose ministry worked with men from all across the country. He does retreats on sexual purity and pornography. He said that at these gatherings of Christian men, he always conducts an anonymous paper survey. Over the years, anywhere between 20 to 50% of all these men describe themselves as having a problem with pornography that impacts their marriages or other relationships.
Whether those percentages hold up for all Christian men isn’t important. What is important is that it’s possible for Christians to experience a disconnect between the faith we confess and the lives we lead.

We may look good and have the accolades of our fellow Christians, even as we privately wallow in sins from which we can’t seem to extricate ourselves, sins for which we can’t even muster the strength to repent.

Lent is a time of spiritual renewal. Admittedly, it’s a season of the Church Year invented not by God, but by we Christians. Nonetheless, I think that Lent can be helpful to us. It’s a time when we remind one another to lay aside those sins and habits that keep us from having a joyful, fulfilling relationship with God and to instead live our lives for Jesus Christ alone.

That’s why at Lent, on Ash Wednesday, we always begin with this Gospel lesson, words of Jesus taken from His Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. In each issue Jesus addresses in this lesson, He’s giving the same message: If your focus is on looking like a good person to others, you risk losing your relationship with God, your eternal life.

Instead, we’re to be transparent before God, admitting our sins and enlisting His power to help us overcome them.

Jesus says, “When you give alms--that is, charity to the poor, don’t call attention to yourself. Give without taking credit for it.

"When you pray, mostly do it in private; and when you pray in public, talk to God, not other people.

"Whenever you fast--giving up food or drink--don’t go around with a hangdog face so that everybody can see what a pious Christian you are; instead, clean yourself up and let the joy of God radiate from you.

"And don’t be stingy with your money. The stingy who stack up lots of cash only make themselves susceptible to thievery. Instead, be generous. Invest in people. Invest in what Christ calls all Christians to do, the work of God in the world: loving God and loving neighbor.”

Every year, I hear from people about the things they’re giving up for Lent, things like coffee, candy, cake, cigarettes, movies, text messaging, one night a week of no TV. Those things are fine, of course. But the thought often crosses my mind that if these things are worth giving up or cutting down on for the forty days of Lent, maybe they’re also worth giving up or cutting down on all through the year.

Back in my seminary days, I worked at Ross Laboratories in Columbus. Just before Lent, some of the women in the area where I worked decided that they would give up "cussing" for Lent. They set up a jar in the office and every time one of them swore, they put a nickel into it. That jar got pretty heavy before Easter rolled around! But, for the life of me, I can't figure out what good their little "Lenten discipline" did them. They just kept swearing like stevedores.

Unless our Lenten disciplines--the stuff we give up or the habits we add on--help us to glorify God and to grow closer to Christ, they risk being meaningless.

Several years ago, friends of mine decided to help fix food for the people at a homeless shelter. It became a way that their family grew closer to Christ and loved their neighbor.

And I once knew a man who had a coworker going through a tough time and made it his habit to anonymously send the coworker ten and twenty dollars every week or so. He felt so good doing this, that he continued his "discipline" after Lent was over.

None of these people were broadcasting that information to me about their Lenten disciplines. I just happened to learn of their Christian acts in the course of talking with them about other things. But it seems to me that it’s these habits of discipleship that are the kinds of things that we should be doing in Lent and all through the year.

They’re done not to impress others. But they become ways for us to tell God...

* Thank You for Jesus and His cross.
* Thank You for loving me, as we sang a short time ago, just as I am.
* Thank You for saving me from sin and death and eternal separation from You.

During this Lenten season, I invite you to militate against our common sinful impulse to look good to other people and to instead turn your focus onto Jesus Christ and His purpose for your life.

I want to urge you to embrace a new spiritual discipline, one that you’ll do not just during Lent, but all your life. It’s the discipline that the risen Jesus described to His first followers, on a Judean hillside, just before He ascended into heaven. It too, is described in Matthew’s Gospel. (I wish that I could have been there.) Here’s what Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...”

Jesus was telling His disciples, including us: Be intent not on looking like a Christian, but on being Christian enough...

* to share Christ with others,
* invite them to know the Savior, and
* ask them to worship with you.

A person who was on that hillside with Jesus, the apostle Peter, says that when we take it on ourselves to invite others to follow Jesus, Who saves sinners like us, we are fulfilling our highest purpose. In the first of two Biblical books Peter wrote, he says to us: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Inviting our neighbors and friends to leave the darkness of life without Christ and the Church is a great spiritual discipline for all of us to embrace this Lenten season. In fact, I think that it’s the perfect Lenten discipline. That’s because when we’re witnesses for Jesus, we take the focus off of ourselves and our selfish obsessions. Instead, our focus is simply to introduce our friends to our very best Friend, Jesus, our God and Savior.

People who live as witnesses for Jesus Christ may not “look good” in the eyes of the world. But in the eyes of God, being a witness for Christ is the very best way for us to tell God we love Him and the best way for us to love our neighbor!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election

That's the name of a series of posts I wrote last year. Their purpose wasn't to push a particular agenda. I don't believe that there is one political agenda. To try to distill God or God's will to a set of political proscriptions is a bit like trying to cram the universe onto an iPod. But I do believe that as Christians, there are certain prisms through which we're called to look at our lives in the world, including the political world.

Here are links to all the installments of that series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Should Romney Withdraw?

Conventinal wisdom says that Mike Huckabee (pictured at the left) has hurt Mitt Romney's presidential bid. The notion is that Huck denies Romney the votes of true conservatives.

But tonight, MSNBC polling shows that among evangelical Protestants, a core constituent group among Republicans, the vote was roughly evenly split among Romney, Huckabee, and John McCain, each polling about 30%.

One clear conclusion of these results is that evangelicals, though conservative, cannot be regarded as a monlith.

And, more broadly, that means that it has been highly presumptuous for the Romney people to say that, were it not for Mike Huckabee's bothersome candidacy, he would be the natural recipient of the votes of true conservatives.

The Huckabee campaign could, with credibility, argue that it is Romney who should make way for the former Arkansas governor. Unlike Romney, Huckabee has always been pro-life and always favored to a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman for life. Romney's bona fides as a conservative are clearly questionable, at best.

But, in spite of his suggestion that the Constitution be amended to conform to the Bible, Huckabee's votes in the Bible Belt, where frontrunner John McCain has not been as strong--except in South Carolina, estabishes him as the frontrunner to be John McCain's vice presidential running mate.

After Super Tuesday, what I argued here, that the likeliest Republican ticket would be either McCain-Huckabee or Huckabee-McCain, seems even likelier.

What is clear is that, unless Romney pulls off a miracle in California tonight, Republicans who don't like McCain will at least privately argue that the former Massachusetts governor should withdraw to make way for a conservative, Mike Huckabee.

[UPDATE: Thanks to The New York Times for linking to the Moderate Voice version of this post.]

Ash Wednesday, Beginning Lent, is Tomorrow

Tomorrow, Christians all over the world will be celebrating Ash Wednesday. It begins a forty-day season of spiritual renewal and preparation that precedes Easter Sunday. The season is called Lent.

Actually, there are more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. But the Sundays that fall during Lent are never counted as part of that somber season. For Christians, Sundays are always "little Easters," days when the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is celebrated.

Lent emphasizes other aspects of Christian belief, which is why many churches, including Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, along with other area churches, hold special Lenten services on Wednesday nights during this period.

The word Lent is from Middle English and means spring, the season of the year with which Lent somewhat corresponds.

According to Philip H. Pfatteicher and Carlos R. Messerli, writing in a book called Manual on the Liturgy, "Lent [as a season of the Church Year] derives from the [period of] preparation of [adult] candidates for Baptism [in the Church's early history]. By the middle of the fourth century at Jerusalem, candidates for Baptism fasted for 40 days, and during this period...[instructional] lectures...were delivered to them."

Of course, forty is an important number in the Bible. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. The Old Testament book of Exodus says that God's people wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The rains that produced the great flood recorded in the book of Genesis lasted forty days and forty nights. So, it was natural that Lent would become a forty-day period.

Pfatteicher and Messerli say that after Christian faith was legalized in the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., "the period of preparation for Baptism became a general period of preparation of all Christians for Easter." That continues to this day.

Ash Wednesday itself, say Pfatteicher and Messerli, features a mood of "penitence and reflection on the quality of our faith and life." The goal is to call believers to remember their mortality, dependence on God, and need to seek God's help in disciplining themselves to surrender every part of their lives to Jesus Christ.

At our congregation tomorrow evening, we'll begin our time of worship together with the singing of Just As I am, Without One Plea, followed by corporate confession, the reading of Bible lessons, and then, the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the repentant. Each person will receive this sign with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Ashes, in a Jewish and Christian context, suggest three things:
  • judgment and God’s condemnation of sin;
  • our total dependence upon God for life; and
  • repentance, joyful turning back to God.
As the cross of Christ is marked on our foreheads with ashes from the burned palm fronds used last Palm Sunday, we’re reminded of the words of the burial service: “Earth to earth and dust to dust.” (These are based on God's words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19.) Ashes remind us of our mortality and of our need for God.

Ashes are also a symbol of cleansing and renewal. This makes sense when you think about it. When I was a boy and would lodge splinters into my hands, I'd go to my dad. Dad inspected things and soon, got a needle from my mom's sewing kit, and pulled out his lighter. He turned the tip of the needle over and over again in the flame of the lighter for maybe thirty seconds and after that, wave the needle through the air to cool it off. Then, he used it to pick the splinter out of my hand. Of course, the reason that Dad ran the needle through the flame was to kill off any bacteria that might cause infection.

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for fire is pur, from which we get such English words as purge, pure, and purify, among others. When we open ourselves to letting Jesus Christ be in charge of our lives, He begins to purge us of all the old, destructive habits that previously blocked God's presence from our lives and He creates a place of purity where He can live with us and transform our lives. The old life is burnt away and a new life begins.

Just as baptismal water suggests death and brand new life with God...so do the ashes of Ash Wednesday.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Does Eli Deserve a Hybrid?

I watched a lot of today's Super Bowl matchup between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots. Like anyone who saw this game, I was impressed by the 80-yard-plus winning drive led by Giant quarterback Eli Manning in its final minutes.

But as I watched the post-game presentation of the Lombardi Trophy to the Giants, I was more than a bit put-off.

Fox analyst and former NFL great Terry Bradshaw interviewed Manning and announced that the Giant QB had won the Super Bowl MVP award. Then, as he handed the keys to a new hybrid vehicle to Manning, Bradshaw told him take it for a ride because "you deserve it."

Now, at one level, that was just something to say, polite and laudatory words. But I flinched when I heard them.

Eli Manning is a fine quarterback and he did a great job. But, as I recollect, he is paid handsomely for his work and he also picked up a little more change during this post-season. He did his job competently and well, even as people maligned him and second-guessed him this season.

But does he deserve a hybrid? Or any of the added baubles that he and other superior-performing athletes get?

I know. It's all about the marketplace. The NFL attracts lots of fans who buy tickets and the league creates a product for which TV networks pay tons to broadcast. Supply and demand; the bigger the demand, the more the revenue. And the more hybrids. I get it.

And I don't fault Manning for cashing his paychecks. If I were talented in a way that was broadly valued by our society and economy, I wouldn't say, "Aw, you don't have to pay me the millions you had in mind to write on that check."

But that verb Bradshaw used, deserve, really bugged me.

This past week, I was the guest of a young man at workshop site. Stefan is differently abled. Several weeks ago, as I was visiting his family and him, he asked if I would come to the county facility where he and about thirty other differently-abled people do contract work for Smead. They package tabs for notebooks. The work they do may not be as difficult as reading a defense, but it's productive work done by people who many may be inclined to ignore or dismiss.

And the people at the facility where they work--from nurses to clerical workers, from drivers to cooks--what do they deserve for competently and compassionately creating an atmosphere in which others can thrive?

And how about the teachers who make sure our kids know how to read? Or the nurses who work long shifts in intensive care units?

I truly believe that the value of one's work or the fulfillment it brings cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Many people who voluntarily take up demanding work do it despite low pay...or at least pay that's substantially lower than what they could get in the NFL. They do it because they feel that's what they want to do or were made to do or will be most fulfilled in doing.

But sometimes I wish that we as a society would pay them what they deserve.

[The picture above is from Yahoo News.]

Seeing Politics (and Life) in Perspective

See here.

Transfiguration: What Was the Point?

[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 17:1-9
In Tucson, Arizona, they have laws limiting the brightness of street lights at night. These regulations exist to avoid interfering with what astronomers call “good seeing” at a nearby telescope.

Maybe that was why Jesus took Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain, as we’re told about in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus may have wanted to give these three key followers, the ones He had chosen to be the leaders of His leadership group, “good seeing,” a clear vision of Who He is. The account of what happened that day also shows us Who Jesus can be for every one of us.

What Peter, James, and John saw was spectacular! While standing on top of that mountain, Jesus was “transfigured...and His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

Then, two Old Testament figures showed up. One was Moses, the one to whom God gave the Ten Commandments and who was Israel’s leader out of Egypt, through the wilderness, about 1500 years before the birth of Jesus. The other was Elijah, a prophet whose ministry began about 870 years before Jesus was born and came to an end when God sent a chariot to taxi him to heaven. The two of them represent the two great strains of Old Testament tradition, the law and the prophets.

You can imagine that Peter and the others were impressed by the amazing sight of the transfigured Jesus, along with these important Old Testament people!

Peter was so impressed, in fact, that he spoke up, foot firmly in mouth as almost always was the case with him, and said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” That word translated as dwellings could mean everything from huts to temples. I think it’s safe to bet that Peter was thinking in grander terms at that moment. He wanted to build three religious shrines.

It didn’t take long for his suggestion to be vetoed. A bright cloud came down from heaven and from it, the voice of God the Father said, “This is My Son, the Beloved; with Him I am well pleased; listen to Him!”

This command to listen to Jesus would have hit Peter with a jab! Just six days before, Peter had confessed his belief that Jesus was the Son, or the very reflection, of God, on earth to be our Savior and King. Jesus applauded Peter's answer. But then He told Peter and the others that He was to be crucified in Jerusalem and rise again on the third day after His death.

The very mention of such a possibility had been repulsive to Peter. "This will never happen to You, Lord," Peter tried to tell Jesus. But Jesus, angered by this well-intentioned attempt to thwart Him in His mission of dying and rising for us, turned to Peter and said, "Get behind Me, Satan." "Listen," Jesus was telling Peter, "to what I'm saying; not what you want Me to say!"

Now, on the mount of Transfiguration, Peter clammed up and, along with the other two disciples, fell to the ground, terrified. Jesus went to them and He touched them and He told them, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” As the three lifted themselves off the ground and tentatively looked, they discovered that, Moses, Elijah, the cloud, and the dazzling brightness were gone. Only Jesus remained.

So, what was the point of Jesus’ transfiguration? There were many points, I suppose. But I want to zero in on just a few this morning.

Point number one clearly was that Jesus is God the Son, God in the flesh, come to earth with the full approval of God the Father.

Point number two is seen in God’s implicit rejection of Peter’s proposal to build three shrines. Three years ago, Ann’s mom took her on a trip to the Mediterranean. Among their stops were Rome and the Vatican. I was interested in Ann’s impressions of this place with its grand basilica and priceless works of Christian art. I shouldn’t have been surprised by her reaction, but I was. Like virtually every person I have ever known to go there, Ann said that she had been totally turned off by all the money spent on a religious shrine and wondered whether God is really glorified by it all.

Be that as it may, we know that God isn’t necessarily glorified by buildings, icons, symbols, rituals, or holy words. The Bible says that we, followers of Jesus, are the temples of God. In other places, it says that we’re to be living stones built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. Too often, our religious stuff may be nothing more than monuments to our own egos and supposed piety. But the God we know through Jesus Christ doesn’t build His kingdom with brick and mortar. He builds it in the lives of those who turn from sin and follow Jesus. That, I’m sure, is one reason that God cut Peter off when he offered to start a construction project.

A third point that I think we’re to take from the Transfiguration may be the most important one. It can be seen in that simple, moving moment when Jesus approached the frightened disciples, touched them, and told them to get up and not be afraid. The God we meet in Jesus Christ wants to touch us with His love, to bring us God’s forgiveness, and to banish fear from our lives.

A Physics professor from a prestigious university called on a pastor. As the pastor tells it, the professor “was a very intelligent man…haunted by irrational fears and worries that were interfering with his work and making his life miserable.” The physicist’s fears, as often is true of our irrational fears, were born of shame he felt over past sins. He had repented many times and had certainly been forgiven by God. But God’s grace seemed too good to be true. He had blocked forgiveness—and God Himself—from his life and so, allowed fear the final say in his day to day living.

After some discussion, the pastor suggested that “every night…[before] going to bed, [the professor] place a chair beside his bed and tell himself that Jesus was sitting in that chair all night, watching over him and lifting the burden from his shoulders.”

The professor was skeptical. “That sort of fantasy is for children,” he said. The pastor reminded him that the Bible tells us to come to Christ like little children. Maybe that was because children found it easier to trust God than most adults do. “All you need is a grain of faith—one about the size of mustard seed will do,” the pastor said.

Reluctantly, the physicist agreed to try the pastor’s prescription. After two weeks, he called the church office. “I was about ready to give up on that idea of yours. But two nights ago…suddenly I knew…that the Lord actually was there beside me. I’m sure of it. And I believe the grip that guilt and fear and worry and all that depressing stuff had on me is broken. For the first time in years, I actually feel free.” The man was free of his fears because he allowed Christ to come into his life and touch him where he lived.

When we let Christ reach out to us where we live each day, everything changes. A pastor was driving along a country road, came to a corner, and saw an elderly woman walking along with a heavy load in her arms. He stopped beside her, rolled down his window, explained that he was the pastor of a neighboring church, and offered the woman a ride. She recognized him and said that she would love a ride. She climbed into the front seat and closed the door. As they pulled away, the pastor asked her, “Why don’t you put that load in the back seat?” “Oh, it’s kind enough of you to give me a ride. I can still carry this, though,” she said. They rode in silence for a time and then the pastor said, “Thank you for giving me an inspiration for my next Sunday message.” “How did I do that?” the woman wondered. “Well, I think our relationship with God is a lot like you and that heavy package you’re still holding in your arms. We trust God to get us through life, but not to help carry the burdens.”

The God Who came to this world and touched the frightened disciples on the mountain, Who went to a cross and rose from a grave, wants to come to you this morning and each day of your life. He wants to help you carry your burdens. He wants to be your chief counselor, the One you turn to even when the whole world seems to have turned away.

This week, why not make this your prayer at the beginning of each day?: “Lord Jesus, all day long, help me to see You and Your greatness. And please, Lord, when I’m afraid, touch Me, with Your compassionate Love.”

And then, like the disciples becalmed by Jesus on the mountain, face your day with confidence and a hope that nothing can destroy!