Saturday, September 13, 2008

Save Lori's House

A friend of mine, writer and one-time parishioner D.C. Stanfa just informed me of an effort being spearheaded by freelance writers and journalists from around the country to help Traverse City freelancer Lori Hall Steele with her mortgage payments and medical bills. They're taking online contributions via PayPal to help this single mom, currently totally bed-ridden, the victim of both Lou Gehrig's Disease and Lyme Disease.

To learn more and, if you choose, to make a donation, go here. (You'll also find lots of links to more information about Hall Steele's situation there.)

Whatever else you do, please pray for Lori. Pray for her health. Pray for her child.

Please pray too, that doctors will be guided in finding treatments and cures not only for the diseases afflicting her, but other fatal diseases as well.

Also, take some time to inform yourself on the positions of all candidates in the 2008 elections for President, the U.S. House of Representatives, and, if a seat is up for grabs this year in your state, the U.S. Senate. It seems to me that there is a growing national consensus on health care, at the very least a common emerging belief that the issue needs addressing. Here is The New York Times' excellent summary of the two presidential candidates' positions and proposals on health.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Praying...

for all in the path of Hurricane Ike.

Palin, Clinton, the National Guard, and National Security

History repeated itself recently when John McCain suggested that his running mate, Sarah Palin, is an experienced hand when it comes to national security issues because the state she serves as governor, Alaska, is close to Russia and because she commands the state's National Guard.

It was reminiscent of a flashpoint in the 1992 presidential election. That year, attempting to respond to charges that he wasn't prepared to lead the United States on national security, Bill Clinton pointed out that he was commander of his state's National Guard. From that point, it became a stump speech staple of the incumbent President, George H.W. Bush, to scornfully ridicule the fitness to lead of "the commander of the Arkansas National Guard." Because Clinton and his campaign were right in believing that the central issue of 1992 was "the economy, stupid," Clinton's alleged lack of national security heft and his lame defense of the same proved to be moot; Clinton won in a close three-way race.

National security doesn't appear to have center stage in 2008 either, meaning that questions about the fitness in this realm of Sarah Palin--and, for that matter, Barack Obama--may not be that important to voters. Nonetheless, national security fitness is important in evaluating potential the candidates.

Presidents make foreign policy and since World War 2, the power to make war, in spite of legislative attempts to check that power, has been largely ceded to the occupants of the White House.

But how does one measure the fitness of a presidential or vice presidential candidate for dealing with national security?

History suggests that actual military or foreign policy experience may not count for much.

The two greatest war-time presidents in US history had almost no experience with war-making prior to coming to office. Abraham Lincoln spent a few weeks as the elected captain of a militia during the Black Hawk Indian War. By Lincoln's own admission, he and his volunteer corps spent most of their time searching prairie thickets for enemies they never found. Franklin Roosevelt served as assistant secretary of the Navy during the one-year engagement of the US in World War 1, but he never served in the military.

Most US military careerists who became president have either done poorly or they served for so short a time that their service can't be fairly judged. One, Dwight Eisenhower, who spent nearly forty years in the Army, proved to be an effective president, managing to keep the US out of armed conflict at the height of the Cold War, no mean achievement and, as he told a friend in a letter, no accident. (See here.)

In the realm of foreign policy, few of our presidents had much experience on taking office. Harry Truman is an interesting modern example. His is a mixed record, I think: correct in establishing containment as the policy which ultimately helped protect the country and brought down Soviet Communism and misguided for going into Korea.

In the end, Senator Obama is probably right: In matters of national security, judgment is more important than experience.*

And who has the better judgment, Obama and Biden, on the one hand, or McCain and Palin, on the other? That's a judgment each of us will be called to make in November. But whether a candidate led a state National Guard or edited a student law review is irrelevant to that judgment.

Instead, we'll have to evaluate how each of the candidates have discharged their duties in life and whether they seem to possess the maturity, the insight, and the vision needed for dealing with national security issues.

Also see here and here.

*You've probably heard the saw about the person who claimed to have twenty-five years of solid experience, but turned out to have one year of disastrous experience repeated twenty-five times. That can happen with politicians as much as it does the rest of we who make up the unwashed masses.

[Above image from Yahoo.com]

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

'True Blood' and Thoughts on Eternity

Alan Ball, creator of True Blood, the new vampire series on HBO, was interviewed today by Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air. One thing he said interested me. Vampires, you know, supposedly have eternal life. Ball said, and I hope that I’m quoting him accurately: “If you have eternal life, each day becomes less important. Everything you have, you lose.”

Maybe Ball has identified part of why people don’t follow Jesus Christ. Christ promises eternal life, a state of timelessness lived in the presence of God, to all who follow Him. But in a timebound world, which inevitably limits our imaginations, we may not want to take Him up on the offer. That's because it’s easier to keep score, to quantify friends, relationships, possessions, income in a realm limited by time. In a timebound world, we have things we don’t want to lose.

Eternity renders those things irrelevant. It pushes us and our desperate attempts to conquer, to manage, to be in control away from the centers of our perceptions and daily life. Everything you have, you lose.

But in losing all the things that we use to describe "really living," at least by the lights of this world, we gain everything. We are no longer defined or controlled by the things we have, own, control, or label. In taking Christ’s offer of eternity, we are made simply ourselves, children of God, created in God's image, free to live in the now moments of this world and in the eternal now as the people God, our designer and redeemer, made us to be.

That’s scary. It entails ceding control and leaving behind our usual means of measuring the value of our lives, whether it's others or we ourselves do the measuring.

It’s also liberating. An unquantified and unquantifiable life is a blank slate on which we are free to live as fully human beings in the place where our deepest, purest desires and God’s design, both of the universe and of ourselves individually, meet.

This is what Jesus Christ offers us when He tells us to believe in Him and follow. He makes each day of this life more important, not less so, because through Christ, we gain the confidence that no risk we take is ultimately fatal and we learn that in us, eternity with all its patience and assurance, not only invades today, but also has its start today.

This isn't easy. Every day, I come face to face with ways in which I don't believe, the ways in which I allow my horizons to be limited by a time-and-space-trapped world. But in those moments when I put down my dukes and let eternity slip past my defenses, there is joy and hope. And I feel sorry for and pray for people like Alan Ball.

Politics Doesn't Belong in the Pulpit

[This is a piece I just submitted to The Logan Daily News, the local paper in the community I serve as pastor.]

Several weeks before the war in Iraq began, I heard from two different pastors who had differing views of the impending conflict. One argued that followers of Jesus couldn’t possibly support the war. The other claimed that it was the moral duty of followers of Jesus to do just that.

Both of these pastors were sincere followers of Christ. But their conflicting opinions show the difficulties that arise when members of the clergy decide they know how Jesus wants us (or our members of Congress) to vote.

“Christianity,” C.S. Lewis once wrote, “has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political [program] for [application at every] particular moment.”

Christians, I believe, should be interested in politics. And I hope that committed Christians run for political office. But no pastor or church can claim to know God’s partisan or political preferences, if in fact, God has any. Instead, preachers and churches should focus on other things.

Jesus once said, “…when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to Myself” (John 12:32). Jesus wasn’t only talking about His being lifted up on a cross here. He was also saying that when followers of Jesus lift Him up for the whole world to see, in our words and in our lives, others will follow Him. That, in turn, will affect how they live their lives as citizens and politicians. If God wants to guide them in their voting, God will do so without the meddling of preachers or Christian organizations.

Preachers and churches are to keep sharing Jesus Christ. We’re to trust that as we lift Jesus up, at least some in the world will come to see Jesus in our lives and believe in Him.

Except in the face of horrific evil, like slavery, racism, or prejudice, social issues that must be addressed politically as well as in other ways, politics has no place in the pulpit.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

'The Shack'

I'm reading The Shack, the best-selling novel by William P. Young. I've gotten about one-third of the way through. There have been times in these opening pages when Young's writing has been tediously descriptive.

But I've just finished the fifth chapter, the last pages of which found me chilling, something I initially thought was only my imagination, until I looked to see the hairs on my arms standing on end. (Those of you who have read it already likely know exactly where I mean.)

I was going to go to bed soon, but now I need to learn more about what happens to Mack Phillips, Young's protagonist, in the shack.

My recommendation so far? Read this book.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Cross: God's Wisdom and God's Power (Looking at the Bible Lessons for Sunday, September 14, 2008)

[Most weeks, I try to publish at least one post dealing with the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday. My hope is that I can at least help the people of the parish I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. Others may find these explorations helpful because we use the same Bible lessons used by most other North American Christians each Sunday. For information on the Church Year and the plan of lessons called the lectionary, see here.]

The Bible Lessons:
Numbers 21:4b-9

Psalm 98:1-4

1 Corinthians 1:18-24

John 3:13-17


The Prayer of the Day:
Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross so that he might draw the whole world to himself. To those who look upon the cross, grant your wisdom, healing, and eternal life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
Comments:
1. We take a detour from the Bible lessons we would ordinarily use this coming Sunday--the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A of the three year lectionary cycle--in order to commemorate Holy Cross Day. Holy Cross Day is one of the Lesser Festivals of the Church Year. When such a festival falls on a Sunday, the appointed texts are frequently set aside.

2. Holy Cross Day happens on September 14 of each year and can be traced back to that same date in 355AD. It was then that the Basilica of the Resurrection in Jerusalem was dedicated. It was constructed under the direction of Saint Helena, mother of the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great. Helena found what was thought to be the true cross near the site shortly thereafter.

In the ensuing centuries, Holy Cross Day has been a day on which, in contrast to Good Friday, which emphasizes the sacrificial elements of Christ's crucifixion, other aspects of Christ's cross are featured. The Bible lessons emphasize the cross as the way to salvation for all who look to Christ in faith and the cross, as the ultimate disclosure of the power and wisdom of God, marshaled in our favor. Whereas the mood of Good Friday is somber and penitential, the mood of Holy Cross Day is celebratory and joyful.

There is only one set of lessons appointed for the day, the same ones designated for use each year.

For Holy Cross Day, as for other lesser festivals of the Church Year, as well as for Pentecost Sunday and for the ordination of pastors, the color is red.

3. Numbers 21:4b-9: God's people, the Hebrews, have been in the wilderness for about forty years when we meet them in our first lesson. God sends poisonous serpents to bite and take the lives of His people who have "murmured" over their limited diets and their nostalgia for the food they had--along with the enslavement from which God set them free--back in Egypt.

This isn't the first time while they were in the wilderness that the people complained about how God was performing His job as God. Earlier, their complaining resulted in water, quail, and manna. But this time, God reacts very differently. God punishes them. What accounts for the difference?

Very simply, those other incidents happened before God gave the commandments and made His covenant with the people at Mount Sinai. God has revealed His will and character, along with His commitment, to the people. They are called to trust and obey. Instead, though they should know better, they become whiny.

4. Moses intercedes for the people, who come to regret their ingratitude. (You would too, probably, if you and your neighbors were getting bitten by poisonous snakes, right and left.) God tells Moses to create a bronze serpent and to put it on a pole. Those bitten by the poisonous snakes will look at it and be healed.

This, of course, can seem read like a story of superstition. But it isn't.

God could have chosen any means to bring about the healing of the people. Why a bronze serpent?

Here's what I think. The serpent on the pole symbolized the means by which God was punishing His people. In their bodies, they bore the consequences of their sin, consequences which followed from their rejection of and separation from God, the source of life.

But, in the midst of this "cross experience," God called His people to own the reality of their rebellion--the bronze serpent reminded them of this--and look to Him for restoration and healing. It was as though at that moment God was saying, "Meet me in the bronze serpent. Look to Me and be restored."

In a similar way, centuries later, the New Testament says of Jesus on the cross, "For our sake [God] made [Jesus Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). God makes it possible for all people to be restored to relationship with God and life forever when they turn to Christ. (You can find more information on this passage here.)

5. Psalm 98:1-4: There are two elements of this brief passage from the Old Testament song book I want to mention: (1) The reality of God and God's goodness aren't apprehended by analysis or intellect. God reveals Himself. God does this, vindicating Himself--and the faith of those who believe--by acting in accordance with the steadfast love He bears for those who trust in Him. God's actions are discerned not by those who demand that God prove Himself and aren't seen by those who expect God to do our selfish bidding, but by those who humbly trust and look to God. God is seen by those who are willing to see God on God's terms, not their own. (2) The "right hand" refers to God's power. God uses His power on our behalf.

6. 1 Corinthians 1:18-24: The cross was probably the worst form of execution ever devised. Yet, Paul says that God, Who has always shown a penchant for doing the unexpected, used the cross of Jesus as a way of displaying His wisdom and power. Paul's fellow Jews demanded signs of Jesus' Lordship and Greeks (Gentiles...non-Jews) wanted Jesus to earn His Lordship on debating points. Instead, God established Jesus' cross as the sign of His love to which we, like the Hebrews in the wilderness, must turn to acknowledge our sin and receive the restoration that comes to all who trust in Christ.

7. John 3:13-17: Christ goes to the cross and bears the burden which He, the sinless Savior of humanity, doesn't deserve. He does so that we can turn to Him and live. Jesus underscores this in the last verse of our lesson:
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
Not a part of our lesson is the next verse, also words said by Jesus to Nicodemus:
"Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God."
Thank God for Christ's cross!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

When Other Christians Sin Against Us

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

Matthew 18:15-20
John was a member of my first parish. Whenever there was a congregational meeting, no matter what the issue being voted on, John voted, “No!” If someone had proposed a resolution that read, “Resolved: Grass is green,” he would have voted, “No.” Finally, one day, several years before I was the pastor there, some members of the congregation, purely out of curiosity, asked, “John, why do you always vote against everything?” He looked at them as though they were from another planet. “Because if I didn’t,” he said, convinced of the flawlessness of his logic, “the vote would be unanimous.”

Psychologist and pastor Alan Loy McGinnis says that in all healthy relationships, we must be willing to allow one another our little insanities. Because the people of that church were so spiritually and emotionally healthy, they could accept John’s contrariness even as they shook their heads over it. We all need to be charitable toward one another and to recognize that even when we get exasperated with each other, we’re still called to love and live in fellowship together.

But what happens when a fellow church member moves beyond simple contrariness and sins against us in some way?

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says that when one member of the Church sins against another, we have the means of resolving things because He--the crucified, once-dead, now-risen, and living Lord of the universe--is with us. Jesus promises to be among us.

For some, the very notion that Christians might sin against each other doesn’t compute. Many believe that if Christians ever hurt each other, it’s proof that they’re not Christians.

But the Church is a support group for recovering sinners, a haven for the imperfect. Lutheran theology, taking its cue from the Bible, realistically looks at baptized believers and says that we are “saints and sinners simultaneously,” just as was true of the disciple Peter who, in one breath, Jesus called the Rock on whose confession of faith he would build the Church, and in the next Jesus described as, “Satan,” someone who was standing in Christ’s way.

My friend Virgil Meyer likes to remind people, “If there weren’t any sinners in the church, it would be empty.” We Christians aren’t called to live in the Kingdom of Nice, but in the Kingdom of God with other real-life, feeling, thinking human beings. And this side of heaven, though we’re forgiven and recovering sinners, we are still nonetheless, sinners capable of doing wrong and of wronging others. It happens.

So, why bother being part of the Church if other members will maybe sin against us? Why not live in isolation and have a “Jesus and me” sort of faith?

Because the Bible repeatedly affirms that to be Christians, we need the imperfect fellowship of the Church. Paul, for example, says that the Church is the body of Christ in the world and just as an eye, or a leg, or a brain can’t function without the whole body, our faith will die if we don’t remain in vital fellowship with the church.

Part of growing up as followers of Jesus Christ is recognizing that we won’t always agree on everything. We’ll have disputes. And ninety-nine percent of the time, those disputes we have with other Christians are insignificant. But sometimes, they’re the result of someone having sinned against us or our belief that they've sinned against us.

Jesus says that the way for Christians to handle these latter situations isn’t to simply ignore them.

Or to sue the other person’s socks off.

Or to gossip about or ignore the other person.

As followers of Jesus, we can dare to take a more difficult approach. Jesus outlines it in the Gospel lesson this morning.

First, Jesus says, we go to the person we feel has sinned against us. The congregation I formerly served in northwestern Ohio was in a rural setting in which we had to burn all our trash. Once, during a drought season, the burn barrel fairly full, the fire I started fell out of the barrel and onto the ground. Ann and I had to work quickly to put it out. When we finally did, three-quarters of the softball infield, next to which the burn barrel stood, was blackened from the fire. The next day, a bunch of kids were playing ball there and asked me what had happened. I told them about my fire. That evening, I got a call from a church member asking why I’d told everybody that he had started the fire. “I didn’t,” I told him. “I told everybody I started the fire and what a dolt I'd been to have done so.”

The point: That man didn’t bother gossiping to anybody else, complaining about how I’d pinned a bad reputation on him. He came directly to me and in short order, our conflict over my perceived sin against him was resolved.

Jesus says that when another Christian sins against us, we’re to go to them privately. We may learn that they didn’t really sin against us and our fellowship will be restored. Or, if they did sin against us, they may apologize and fellowship will be restored.

But, Jesus says, if the other person turns out to be unwilling to hear you out, you’re to enlist two or three other Christians to listen to both of you and guide you toward restoration. Lutheran pastor Mike Foss once told the true story of a time when he and a man in his congregation and the man's three sons formed an intervention group to confront a wife and mother for her gambling addiction, something that was having a devastating effect on the family.

At the beginning of this session, for twenty minutes, the husband laid out all the reasons for his concern for his wife and what her addiction was doing to all of them. Then, weeping, he told her how much he loved her.

Writes Foss: “She looked at her three boys, took a long look at her husband, and then looked at me. What came out of her mouth next was probably the fiercest barrage of venom I’d ever heard from anyone...ever. With her three sons sitting close by, she called her husband names that made my skin crawl...”

That’s the sort of thing that can happen when we confront other believers for their sins against us. But if our motives are to help the other person and not get some sort of revenge, we can do this knowing that Christ is with us.

Jesus goes on to tell us that if the person refuses to listen or repent after we’ve enlisted two other members of the church, we’re to get the whole church involved. Probably in our case, the involvement of the church would happen through our Church Council.

A colleague of mine in northwest Ohio once told us about an incident that happened in the congregation he served. One member learned that another member of the congregation, a guy he didn’t like, had cancer. So, after worship one day, this fellow walked up to the cancer victim. “Joe,” he said, “I understand you have cancer.” “Yes,” Joe replied. “Well,” the first man said, “I guess you get what you deserve.” When my colleague got wind of this remark, he followed the process Jesus outlines in today’s lesson. The man refused to repent and ultimately, the Church Council decided that he was no longer a member of the congregation and could not receive Holy Communion.

The whole point in the process Jesus gives is not for us to spiritually look down on others, but to facilitate the restoration of relationships. It’s designed to act as a megaphone so that those who sin against us can hear and heed the Holy Spirit again and so, repent and be at peace with God and their Christian family.

My colleague’s church excommunicated its member not to punish him, but in hopes that he would see the gravity of his guilt and be restored to the body of Christ.

Had they not taken the action they took his unrepented sin against a fellow church member would have been another sort of cancer, one on the body of Christ that blocked God’s forgiveness not just from one unrepentant person, but from the whole congregation.

The process that Jesus outlines requires courage and truthfulness and humility and a commitment to living in the fellowship of a church to which Christ calls all believers. It requires us to think less about me, more about we.

For all the risks, the results of pursuing this process can be wonderful! Years ago, I became aware of a fellow Christian saying some things about me to others that were completely untrue, things which I felt at the time, if left unchallenged, would severely damage my reputation and hamper my ability to do ministry.

I stewed about what to do for a while. Then, praying desperately, hands shaking, I picked up the telephone and confronted the guy.

He immediately confessed that he had repeatedly said the things I’d heard attributed to him, apologized, and promised to tell everyone to whom he had previously spoken that his statements were untrue.

“I’m sorry, Pastor,” he told me, “I know that everything I said was wrong, but sometimes I’m a gossip.”

That man died a few months later and I presided over his funeral. I felt a special twinge of sadness because not long before, our confrontation and the restoration that resulted had given us a good friendship. We genuinely appreciated and loved one another. And the funny thing is, as I was preparing the sermon for today, Ann and I tried to remember what the man had been saying about me and though we racked our brains to remember, we both have completely forgotten. We can’t always forget, of course. But, with Christ’s help, we can forgive.

Are there are any Christians—here or in other congregations--you feel have sinned against you? Then, resolve today to strengthen your relationship with God and the life of Saint Matthew by taking the steps Jesus outlines today. You will be glad you did.

Be reconciled to those who have wronged you. Forgiveness among us is a salve that heals our souls and strengthens Christ’s Church.