Saturday, July 05, 2008

"Does faith still make sense in an age of rockets to Mars and atom smashers?"

Charlie Lehardy learns that, "In America, the answer seems to be a resounding Yes!"

Read the whole thing.

Patriotism, Flag Lapel Pins, and Barack Obama

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer gleefully notes that Barack Obama is sporting a US flag lapel pin these days, just in time to appeal to more conservative voters in the general election.

A Facebook friend, Amy Goldman, an embittered Hillary Clinton supporter who now is supporting John McCain, pointed earlier today to Krauthammer's column on the subject and said simply, "the faces of obama. NO DEAL," presumably meaning that Obama's seeming lapel pin "hypocrisy" is one more reason she will not be reconciled to his nomination for the presidency.

Frankly, both Obama and his assailants crack me up on this "issue." There are several reasons for my chuckling.

First of all, wearing a pin is no proof of patriotism. It's the easiest thing in the world to don a patriotic lapel pin, irrespective of one's true sentiments. (Although I must confess that every time I've owned and put on flag lapel pins, they've fallen off within hours, a problem I've not encountered with pins of any other type.) Inauthentic or showy patriotism often is the last refuge of political scoundrels.

Secondly, because a flag lapel pin really is no proof of one's patriotism, Obama shouldn't be so defensive about the matter. Now, he looks ridiculous whenever he puts a flag pin in his lapel, tacitly agreeing with the purveyors of photo op patriotism, pandering to them.

I wonder though how many folks who are exercised about this issue though, wear flag pins every time they're in public? I doubt it.

When I pointed this out to Amy Goldman, she didn't agree, saying that, as a presidential candidate, Obama should be held to a higher standard for patriotism than others.

But I don't think that we should have separate standards for presidents or would-be presidents from what we expect of other citizens. Are flag lapel pins now required of all citizens, a la loyalty oaths from the McCarthy era?

We ought to have other measures of the sort of patriotism that commends people for public office, including the presidency. The criteria might include:
1. Evidencing taking the time to be informed about public policy issues.
2. Voting regularly in those candidate and issue races in which they've become informed and being honest enough to refrain from voting in those races in which they feel they're insufficiently informed.
3. Regularly engaging in service to neighbors and community and when possible, to the country.
4. Displaying an openness to hearing others out, even when their views differ from their own.
5. Displaying a maturing awareness of the country's history and principles.
6. Believing in the Constitution.
7. If a veteran, having a record of honorable service.
If these attributes of citizenship are absent, no flag lapel pin will compensate for their lack. If they're present, no flag lapel pin will make the wearer any worthier for office.

So far as I can remember, none of the country's greatest presidents wore US flag lapel pins. Not Washington, Lincoln, either Roosevelt, or Eisenhower.

Is Obama a patriot? I don't know. But a piece of metal or plastic on his suit coat won't answer that question either.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

God: Our Friend, Not Our Buddy

"People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time."

The words come from the first installment written by C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. They recount the moment when the four children from our world encounter Aslan, the central figure of Lewis' tales. Aslan, Lewis would say, was the result of his imagining what Christ would be like were he to enter a world as a lion.

When the four children meet Aslan, they experience both incredible fear and a sense of loving grace.

Lewis is right that such a mixture of feelings is foreign to many in this world.

I knew a woman who was in the habit of telling me that she hated it that in our Small Catechism, we Lutherans constantly said believers are "fear and love God." "We shouldn't be afraid of God," she would tell me in syrupy tones.

There is a sense in which that woman is right, of course. The central message of the New Testament--and of the entire Bible, for that matter--is that God, the creator of the human race, is for the human race and for us as individual people. In Christ, God is shown to be our friend who dies and rises for us and gives new life to all who will follow.

But God has the power to give us life and take it away and is perfect in righteousness and holiness in ways that should leave sensible people quaking. God is, as the twentieth-century Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich put it, "wholly other," our friend but not our buddy.

The woman who ignorantly railed against fear in God would be the first to fall all over herself in deference to presidents, kings, business magnates, sports heroes, and celebrities, never dreaming to presume being their buddy. Yet she wanted to withhold sensible deference from God.

I doubt that her thoughtlessness is unique. Some people have so bought into democratic ideals and an attenuated Freudianism that makes all people victims that they become insensible to the complete otherness of God.

All we human beings may stand as equals, sinners in need of redemption, human beings counted worthy of Christ's death and resurrection. But all of that makes God even more worthy of our honor, praise...and fear, not less.

I wonder if that woman paid any attention to the introduction and first petition of the Lord's Prayer that she said in worship each Sunday, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name..." These words, taught by Jesus himself, commend a sense that God is both "good and terrible."

Whenever inclined to see our loving God as a buddy rather than a friend, as someone we shouldn't fear, we would do well to look at Psalm 96:8-10:
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name...

Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.

Say among the nations, “The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.”

Happy 4th. of July!

I hope you enjoy some of the following blasts from the past to mark the Fourth of July:

What is the American Dream?

Our Best Presidents?
The Rest of the List

Some Thoughts on George Washington
On Alexander Hamilton

Habits of the Heart:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

The Promise and the Perils of Democracy:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Interpreting Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

'If You See Her, Say Hello' by Bob Dylan

My favorite all-time Bob Dylan LP is 'Blood on the Tracks,' written and recorded following the breakup of his marriage, released in 1975. It features one poignant and honest song after another, even the uptempo rockers.

But my favorite track is this one. I don't like the live versions of this song Dylan has played in recent concerts. It's just not an uptempo piece.

Gods of Men

The video is pure-80s with a healthy dose of Uncle Randy humor, but check out Randy Stonehill's 'Gods of Men' (1985). Good stuff!

When Tim Skipper's dad, Kent, saw this video and watched the silly "choreography" of the female back-up singers, he said with unenthusiastic flatness, "Shake it, baby."

Every word of this song rings true, though!

On Their Way from Amazon...

Liverpool 8 and Photograph: The Very Best, both from Ringo Starr. I'm stoked!

Check out the video for the title track of Liverpool 8, which Ringo co-wrote for former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, here.

Download Music Free...House of Heroes

The lead singer of House of Heroes is Tim Skipper, son of high school classmates of my wife and mine. Tim was born just days after our son Philip and in fact, somewhere around here, we have pics of the two of them when they were just little guys, taken when the Skippers came to visit us in northwestern Ohio. Anyway, a lot of time has passed since the boys frolicked in the baby pool with another classmate's son, Andy Ottney, while the grown-ups listened to Santana and Randy Stonehill. Download three free songs from House of Heroes.

Here's the House of Heroes site on MySpace.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Keep Following, Even When the Neighbors Aren't Saying, "Hello"

[This is an adaptation of my monthly article for the July, 2008 newsletter of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Has anything like this happened to you?

Sunday morning worship went well on June 29. I preached on the Gospel lesson, Matthew 10:40-42, and challenged the congregation and myself to see Jesus in the people around us and to extend Christian hospitality to them, including strangers.

To tell you the truth, I was stoked to meet my own challenge by intentionally greeting everyone with whom I came in contact.

After youth group ended that night, my wife Ann and I took a walk. Logan is a friendly place and people are usually generous with their hellos. Often, the walks that Ann, our son Phil, and I take around town get “interrupted,” when casual greetings turn into long conversations with friendly strangers.

But not this night. Instead, in spite of my new inspiration, almost every person to whom I said, “Hi,” or “Good evening,” or “How ya doin’?” met me with a vacant stare and silence.

The guy in front of his house just looked at me when I said hello. So did the teen heading for his car, the kid who passed us on his bike, and the woman walking her dog.

The next morning, as I thought about it, I couldn’t help smiling. Here’s why:

I have found that the very minute you understand God’s will for some aspect of your life and you try to follow God’s will, the devil, the world, and our sinful selves will get in your way.

The devil especially likes discouraging us from living life God’s way. He loves to snuff out the God-pleasing habits we’ve decided to adopt at the very moments we make our decisions.

The habits we’ve decided to take on could be anything from worshiping every Sunday to attending an evening Bible study, from giving more to the local food bank to spending time reading the Bible and praying each day. Or, it could be, as it was in my case, to be more deliberate in extending the hospitality of God to others.

The devil just loves to prevent us from keeping our “holy resolves.” When we Christians get discouraged about the daily business of being Christians, it makes the devil’s work easy.

The Bible isn’t exaggerating when it says, “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

The Bible states simply, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil…” (Ephesians 6:12).

The minute you decide to do things God’s way is the minute that the devil will try to keep you from fulfilling your resolve. Take his obstructions as proof that you’re doing the right thing.

Don’t let the devil get his way. Pray simply, “Lord Jesus, Your will be done” and keep following Christ…even when the neighbors aren’t saying, “Hello.”

Liberated from Navel Gazing

This morning I read this about Christ's death on the cross and resurrection:
And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. (2 Corinthians 5:15)
A thought that strikes me when reading that passage is that one of the reasons Christ died on the cross is to set us free from slavery to self, from the tyranny of always thinking about me. We no longer live just for ourselves. We live for the one who died and rose for us. Through Christ, we live too for all those other people for whom Christ died.

For years, I've known an elderly man who visits and prays with the sick from his church. He's not a pastor, just a a Christian set free from slavery to selfish priorities.

The happiest people I know are those who have been liberated from navel gazing. They're free to be human, free to connect with God and others.

I pray that someday, I'll be one of those kinds of people. If I do, it won't come through my steely resolve, but through the power for living that comes from Christ.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Welcoming Others in the Name of Christ

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

Matthew 10:40-42
It was uncommonly warm that October day in 1990. My family and I had arrived in the Cincinnati-area neighborhood that would be our home for seventeen years less than two months before.

We had gone there to start a new congregation and as part of the start-up process, I was going door-to-door, eliciting interest in this adventure of faith.

On this particular day, I was knocking on doors, ringing doorbells, and running from German Shepherds when I came up the driveway of a woman who was weeding her flower bed. I introduced myself and we chatted for awhile.

“It’s awfully hot out here today,” she observed. “Would you like a drink of water?” I responded enthusiastically: “That would be great!”

Years later, that woman, by then a longtime member of the congregation I’d been called to start, told me that as she prepared the glass of ice water for me, she remembered words of Jesus that are in our Gospel lesson for this morning: “ even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple--truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

That woman believed that by welcoming me in Jesus’ Name, she was welcoming Jesus Himself. As His words in today’s Gospel lesson indicate, Jesus agrees with her.

Hospitality--for all people--is at the core of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. It begins with God’s welcome of us. We know that we’re like the prodigal son in Jesus’ famous story. We’ve tried to make our way in the world and even when we’ve achieved success, we’ve experienced an emptiness that can only be filled by the God we know in Jesus. Like the father in that same story, God has welcomed us back.

This theme of hospitality is then, Jesus says, to be replicated in our own lives as we welcome others. The New Testament book of Hebrews, tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

That passage remembers an incident from the Old Testament when Abraham, the father of all with faith in God, had pitched his tent amid some oak trees and received strange visitors. It turned out that the three men were God and two of His angelic servants. (Saint Augustine, the bishop of the north African city of Hippo, believed that the three visitors were God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But that's another story.)

The point is that our every encounter with others might well represent divinely-orchestrated appointments.

Why? Because it’s God’s passionate desire to welcome into His kingdom others in the same way He’s welcomed you and me.

A woman who was a member of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota, once told her former pastor, Mike Foss, how she’d landed in that congregation:
“I came to this church when I was at a crossroads in my life, Pastor Mike. My marriage had failed, I was between jobs, and struggling to find myself. And when I came [here], the first thing I noticed was how warm it felt, how close to Jesus it brought me. But the best thing was that, when I looked for a place to serve and belong, I found [several] right away...[I got involved with several small groups.] This church not only gave me a sense of the nearness of God, but by welcoming me into ministry, by making room for a stranger, I could belong.”
Foss says that the woman then looked at him for a moment and said, “Pastor Mike, this church gave me the strength to believe in God and myself again. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for the people of [this congregation].”

Through the years, I personally have known or talked with hundreds of people who could tell stories similar to the one told by that woman: How, at pivotal moments in their lives, they too were welcomed to turn from sin, to follow Jesus Christ, and to get involved with the ministries of the Church.

In fact, that’s really my story. When Ann and I were first married, you know, I rejected the very notion of God as a an unnecessary fiction, a crutch for the weak. The pastor of Ann’s home church didn’t know my sentiments when he dropped by our apartment one day and asked us to be the youth group leaders. But, having been welcomed into the ministry of the Church, I was incited to learn more about this Jesus I was serving. When we welcome others, we are most clearly doing Jesus’ will for our lives!

And this ministry of welcome isn’t something that we’re called upon to extend just to strangers. We're to extend it also to the people we know well, something that can, at times, be more difficult than reaching out to strangers.

The late priest Henri Nouwen, was an amazing writer and one who spent a good portion of his adult life living with and caring for the mentally retarded. Toward the end of his life, he ministered to gays and lesbians dying of AIDS and wept as he said that it broke his heart to see these people were literally dying for the love that the world had withheld from them.

In one of his books, Nouwen wrote about the nuclear family—moms, dads, and children--and observed that in those households where love prevailed and children thrived, there was a common thread: Parents treated their children as guests sent to them from God. That isn’t to say that the parents didn’t provide loving discipline. But these parents, Nouwen observed, never lost sight of the fact that their children were gifts sent to them from God.

How might our lives be changed if we regarded every person we encountered as though they were a very special guest: Jesus?

What consideration might we show them?

Would we quench their thirst for hope and kindness?

Jesus says that when we freely give to others the same hospitality and welcome He has given to us, we in turn hold on tightly to the free gifts of forgiveness and life He gives to all who follow Him.

During our recent mission trip, some of our church members cleaned a Christian elementary school in inner city Grand Rapids. The staff there deeply respected the principal. One of the stories they told about him is how at the beginning of each school day, this principal greets every student by name and shakes their hands. It’s a simple thing. But that simple gesture may alone explain the success that school seems to be having in turning the lives of at-risk children around. You see, by acknowledging those children personally, that principal is saying. “I see the Jesus in you. I see how important you are. Welcome to this outpost of God’s kingdom!”

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a sort of parable about the day of judgment when He will judge the whole world. Those who enter His kingdom, Jesus says, are those who saw the Jesus in the neighbor, in the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned.

When we see Jesus in those around us and extend Christ’s love to them, something amazing happens: they see Christ in us.

This week, I hope that you’ll join me in accepting the challenge in Jesus’ words to us today, the challenge of making Christian hospitality part of our lives each day.

We could try, for example, to ask a co-worker or a neighbor how they’re doing and then, actually take the time to hear their answers.

We could invite a spiritually disconnected friend to be with us for worship next Sunday or come with you to the Roots of Our Faith class tomorrow evening.

Let’s extend the loving welcome of Jesus to those who need Him. For a world thirsting for love and truth, hope and God, we can be a cup of cool water that refreshes them now and gives them hope for eternity.