Saturday, December 20, 2008

Handel's 'Messiah': A gift from God...

but more.

Clarification: About Rick Warren

When it was announced that Rick Warren had been chosen to give the invocation at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration ceremonies on January 20, my first reaction was disappointment. My first pick was a colleague, admittedly a fantasy choice, but one based on the fact that he had prayed at a major Obama event before.

But I mentioned in that post that I liked Rick Warren.

In the intervening days, it's become clear that a lot of people don't like Rick Warren and for many different reasons.

I disagree with Warren on some things.

But for the past twenty years, I've been able to be a fan of Warren without being a fan of everything he says or does. Why?

1. He's a shrewd, insightful analyst of culture and human nature. Back in the early 90s, I listened to many of his sermons on tape. Theologically, there are often things I wish weren't missing in Warren's preaching; but there's also a lot of substance.

2. He's a brilliant communicator. Like the best communicators, Warren has an enviable capacity for distilling big ideas and truths in memorable phrases.

3. He's a fabulous leader. Warren understands the art and science of leadership.

Part of that can be attributed, probably, to the example he had in a father who was a pastor. Because pastors can't coerce those they lead, they, along with other not-for-profit sector leaders, are called upon to exercise leadership in its purest form. They must lead through persuasion and influence, hopefully undergirded by guidance sought from God through prayer. Pastors who try to coerce never amount to much as leaders. On the other hand, pastors who refuse to lead end up in the same boat. Warren no doubt observed both good and bad examples of leadership in his dad.

On top of that, Warren has been a student of leadership. One of his tutors, for example, was the leadership guru, the late Peter Drucker.

I've learned a lot about leadership from Warren. His monthly "Leadership Lifters" audiotapes back in the 90s, brought greater clarity to my thinking as a leader. Leaders in all fields would benefit from what Warren shared in them.

4. He understands the function, the purpose, of the Church. As the body of Jesus Christ in the world, the Church, especially the individual congregation, is commissioned to "make disciples" for Christ. The word disciple means student or follower. Belief in Christ isn't meant to be a stagnant, dusty idea stowed away in our brains, like a poem memorized for an elementary school play. The follower of Christ is meant to be a lifelong student of the Christ-way of life, following Christ to discover new ways to love God, love neighbor, share Christ with others, serve others in Jesus' Name, and to personally continue growing in our relationship with the God.

Warren explains this as well as anyone and has done so most memorably in two major books: The Purpose Driven Church (1995), in which he outlined a strategy by which churches can help people in the process of growing as disciples, and The Purpose Driven Life (2002), where he helps people answer, from a Christian perspective, what our purpose for living is.

As a Lutheran Christian, I have problems with some of what Warren has to say in these books. I don't think that we're driven, for one thing. I believe that we're called by a God Who, through the Holy Spirit, woos us, persuades us. This same God also frees us from the monkeys on our backs that often drive us. The Christian is liberated from the demands of sinful world in order to live as truly human beings.

I also, not surprisingly, disagree with Warren when it comes to his understanding of baptism. He sees it as a rite in which persons who have reached "the age of accountability" make a public commitment to follow Christ. Such commitments are great, of course; we Lutherans do the same thing in the Affirmation of Baptism (Confirmation, which usually happens around age 14) and in our weekly invitations to worshipers to confess their faith in such formulas as the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. But, I believe, these are only our responses to what Christ has already done for us, first from cross and empty tomb and secondly, in Baptism, which is God's act of claiming us as children of God. That's why we Lutherans--and most Christians in the world--present infants for Baptism. It isn't that children can't turn away from God or the covenant of Baptism. They do and God gives that freedom to the baptized. But God will never renege on the claim He made on us in the waters of Baptism.

Yet, I find more that I agree with in Warren's writings on discipleship than I find disagreeable. That's why in my former parish, we became involved in reading and digging into The Purpose Driven Life as a congregation.

5. Warren has done much good to combat poverty and AIDs around the world. His work in Africa shames those who like to talk about combating injustice and promoting peace. Warren has been engaged in those tough, demanding pursuits.

There are also other areas in which I disagree with Warren. I won't go into those here.

I think that President-elect Obama was right when, in defending his decision to invite Warren to give the invocation at the Inauguration:
"We're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common."
Those who portray Warren as a demon for his positions on homosexuality or a sellout for praying for the new president in January aren't paying attention to the whole person. His positions--theological and political--aren't driven by hatred. Nor, in being part of the Obama inauguration, is he endorsing abortion as a form of birth control.

His critics could learn a little tolerance.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Will spiking your egg nog eliminate the possibility of salmonella?

Actually, I've never had egg nog, spiked or otherwise. But the answer to the question above is maybe.

Too much of this spiked egg nog could cause other problems. So, a bit of advice, don't go on the road after consuming it. And only try this experiment at home.

What he said!

"I find the professional screamers and their checklists of what constitutes a 'liberal' or 'conservative' predictable to the point of boredom."-Bob Schieffer in the preface to his book, Bob Shieffer's America

Who owns the longest current winning streak in Division 1 men's college basketball, including two marquee victories: Miami and Notre Dame?


These guys, that's who!

Go, Buckeyes!

[UPDATE: Major bummer! Get well, David.]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Making Our Relationships Work: Empowerment

[This is the third and final installment of midweek Advent sermons inspired by ones written by Pastor Roger Sonnenberg.]

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Ephesians 1:3-12
Luke 7:18-28

A colleague of mine, now retired, once told me how he came to be a pastor. It all went back to when he was about thirteen at his home church in a small town here in Ohio. He was a great student and a great athlete. But he hadn’t really found the thing in life that “floated his boat.”

He was acolyting on a particular Sunday. He was in the sacristy, where both he and his pastor were getting ready for the start of the service. “You know,” his pastor said, “as he put on his alb, cross, and stole, “you should probably be doing this when you grow up.”

“That was it,” my colleague says. God used those simple words to empower him toward the goal of becoming a pastor. He knew from that exchange in the sacristy that God had called him to be a pastor.

I can assure you as a pastor who has sometimes encouraged young people to consider going to seminary that although my colleague’s pastor probably made that statement in as casual a tone as he could muster, it wasn’t an off-the cuff comment. God had empowered him to empower that young acolyte to contemplate a future in which he would first, complete his high school education, then get his Bachelor’s degree after four years of college or university, and finally, undertake another four years, including a one-year internship, to go to seminary.

Two weeks ago, we began this Advent series looking at Biblical counsel for cultivating and developing positive, joyful relationships by saying that they begin with covenants, promises or commitments, which only God can help us keep. Last week, we said that those covenants are maintained through grace, the charitable forgiveness, acceptance, and understanding we afford one another, also only possible as a gift from a gracious God.

Today, we move onto a third ingredient: Empowerment. Empowerment too, is a gift from the God of promises who is charitable in His dealings with us.

Being empowering in our relationships, according to the authors of a recent book on family living, is “the process of helping another recognize strengths and potentials within, as well as encouraging and guiding the development of these qualities…” Of course, our strengths and potentials are among the “good and perfect” gifts which the Bible says that our good and perfect God gives to all people.

God empowers us to do things that we cannot otherwise do. I knew a woman who had just learned that a friend of hers had lost her job. “What should I say?” the woman asked me. “I don’t know,” I told her sagely. “But listen to her and while you’re listening, ask God to give you the words you need to speak when it’s time to speak.” “I barely said a word,” the woman told me later. “But my friend kept telling me that I must have been sent by God. She told me everything I said stuck with her.” That woman had been empowered by God and so had I in my advice to her.

A man I know was in his thirties, without any clear direction for his life. He had long ago dropped out of college and was working as the manager of a fast food restaurant. His older brother, an overachiever with a deep and abiding faith in Christ, died, after a long battle with a terrible disease. Added now to the younger brother’s uncertainty about life was uncertainty about God. “What's the point?” he asked people with cynical resignation.

Finally, a friend approached that man. “Do you think your brother would want you to continue floating like a rudderless boat all your life? If you want to stay in the fast food business, do your best at it. But if that’s what you’re going to do, quit complaining and start living. Otherwise find a new direction!”

That conversation set off changes in the younger brother’s life. He went back to school and, through prayer and the grace of God, found his niche. Today, he counsels grieving families. Through his friend’s tough love, God empowered him to find his gifts. But his friend would say that it was God Who empowered him to have that tough conversation in the first place.

Pastor Roger Sonnenberg would hear about this incident and say, as he does in a sermon on the very same Bible lessons at which we’re looking tonight, that “such empowering is the very essence of what Jesus came to earth to do.” After all, Jesus says that He became human, died, and rose for us so that we might have "life, and have it to the full." And in the preface to his gospel, part of one of the lessons that we’ll consider on Christmas Eve, John the evangelist writes that "to all who received Christ, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of humankind, but of God."

The God and Savior Who came to earth at Christmas to empower us to be God’s children also empowers us to help others become their best selves.

All three of our Bible lessons for tonight deal with this same subject.

The Old Testament prophet Zephaniah, whose ministry happened between 640 and 621 BC, during the reign of one of the most faithful of Old Testament kings, Josiah, promises those who faithfully follow God a “day of joy” beyond judgment. “The Lord, your God,” he says, “is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice with you in gladness, he will renew you in his love.”

God empowers us for living, God sends others into our lives to spark God’s empowerment within us, AND God sends you and me to empower others. We empower others whenever we offer to pray for them, actually do pray for them, point out their gifts, and, at times, lovingly (and figuratively, not actually) kick them in the duffs, reminding them that they are children of God with God’s imprint on their design, talents, and personalities.

In our second lesson, drawn from the New Testament book of Ephesians, we’re reminded that when we set our hope on Jesus Christ, we’re empowered to live lives that bring God glory.

Our Gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus Christ has come to set us free from anything that prevents us from being the joyous, fulfilled, purposeful people God made us to be.

In the lesson, John the Baptizer is in prison. In his mind, the Messiah was going to be a vengeful king who punished people and didn’t even bother with asking questions later. But Jesus wasn’t like that at all. So, John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one we’ve been looking for or should we look for somebody else?”

Jesus didn’t bother defending himself. He just told the disciples and John to consider the evidence. Through His ministry, Jesus said, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them…” And, Jesus adds, people who take no offense at Him are blessed. Consider my ministry of empowerment, Jesus says, a ministry in which I do all the things that the Old Testament prophecies said that the Messiah would do and tell me whether you think I’m the Messiah or not.

I have people of all ages ask me all the time, “What’s my purpose in life? What am I here for?” Let me assure you that as long as you’re living, whether you’re two or one-hundred-and-two, God has a purpose for your living. And if you’re earnest about doing God’s will, your purpose in life will always revolve around Jesus’ great commandment that we love God and we love our neighbor. God will empower us to do that in our own unique ways.

Often, that will unfold as we take the time to empower others to become their better-selves, what I call their God-selves.

Last week, I asked you to skip making a financial offering and to instead, make an offering of grace and acceptance to someone with whom you may not always get along. This week, I ask you to make a different offering and to offer it not just for the coming week. Instead, I ask you to make it for throughout the coming year.

It’s this: Pick a person, maybe the same person you picked last week. In the coming year, commit yourself to being the instrument by whom God empowers them to become their best selves. Pray for them. Ask them about their dreams in life. Encourage them in pursuing them. Send them notes of encouragement from time to time. Be willing, when necessary, to show them some of that “tough love” that helps them to see that they really can do all things through Christ Who strengthens them.

Then watch what the God Who keeps His promises, gives us forgiveness and new life, and empowers us for living…watch what God does in that person’s life. Amen

[Here are links to installments one and two of this series.]

I was actually pulling for my buddy, Glen VanderKloot...

But Rick Warren will give the Invocation at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. VanderKloot, the inspiring, humble, intelligent pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois, whose daily emailed inspirations I often share with readers of my blog, gave the invocation at the big rally with Obama and his then-newly announced running mate, Joe Biden, held at the old Illinois State House on the Saturday before the Democratic National Convention. I had hoped that Mr. Obama would ask Pastor VanderKloot to perform the same duties on January 20. But I like Warren, too.

Obama as Person of the Year: Predictable and appropriate...

as noted here and here on November 26.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Some Background on That Shoe Incident

A little background on those shoes hurled at President Bush at an Iraqi press conference seems in order.

In traditional Mideast culture, the foot is considered the filthiest part of the human body.

This is reflected in a book in which I spend quite a lot of time, the Bible, and it plays an important role in an annual event on the Christian calendar. Maundy Thursday--maundy being an Old English word meaning commandment, used for the Thursday before Easter because it was then that Jesus gave a new commandment to His followers, to love one another with the same self-sacrificing love he extended to the world--remembers an extraordinary event. It was then, on the night of his impending arrest, that Jesus did the low servant's work of washing the feet of his disciples. At first, Peter, no doubt speaking on behalf of the other disciples, was horrified. He wouldn't let Jesus do the task of a slave. But Jesus pointed out that only those willing to be servants of others were worthy of being leaders. When he told Peter that unless Peter allowed him to wash the disciple's feet, Peter could have no connection to Jesus, Peter relented.

Feet were considered so filthy in Biblical times, in fact, that untying the thongs of someone else's sandals was considered task fit only for a slave. That viewpoint is what lay behind comments made by John the Baptizer which have, over the past two weeks, been read in most Christians churches around the world. (See here and here.)

These feelings about feet persist in the modern Middle East.

Several years ago, former CBS anchorman Dan Rather scored a coup when he and his producers arranged to interview then-Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. But the thing was nearly shortcircuited when Rather thoughtlessly crossed his legs, allowing Husein to see the sole of one shoe turned up toward the Iraqi dictator. Saddam stormed out of the room and would have ended the interview had his aides not explained to him that in US culture, exposing the bottoms of one's feet to another wasn't a sign of disrespect.

As mentioned in the BBC piece linked above, among the enduring images of the past six years was the day that Saddam Hussein's statue in Iraq was brought down, signaling the downfall of his regime there. Immediately following that, hundreds of Iraqis could be seen hitting the downed statue with their shoes, a sign of spurning disrespect and contempt.

The intended symbolism of the Iraqi journalist at the Bush-al Maliki press conference is clear to Iraqis and to others in the Middle East. It too, was an act of spurning disrespect and contempt.

Jesus and Santa

Another Igniter Media Group my son pointed out to me.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mary probably didn't ride on a donkey. She and Joseph probably weren't turned away from an inn.

There weren't three kings, but an untold number of magi who arrived some time after Jesus' birth. And, there's no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25.

But it's still a wonderful thing to contemplate God taking on human flesh on the first Christmas.

Thanks to my son, Philip, for putting me onto this video.

By the way, my seminary professor and mentor, Bruce Schein, was of the opinion that Mary and Joseph walked from Nazareth to Bethlehem. That actually makes sense to me. People in first century Judea were accustomed to walking long distances and a very pregnant woman riding on a donkey or being a passenger in a wagon for some seventy miles seems an unlikely prospect.

Rejoice. Pray. Thank.

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

First Thessalonians 5:16-24
You don’t need for me to tell you this morning that these are tough economic times.

About a million-and-a-half Americans have lost their jobs since the beginning of the year. Some of them are members of Saint Matthew.

Two of the country’s Big Three automakers are saying they could go out of business soon without a bailout.

State governments, like our own in Ohio, are putting together contingency plans in case projected revenue shortfalls resulting from people making less and paying less in income and sales taxes. If the cuts have to go into effect, it may mean fewer services for some people at the very times they most need them.

Retirees and workers alike are watching the values of their pension funds decrease. (I checked my own pension account while preparing this sermon and found that it's lost one-third of its total value since the beginning of this year. Well, I don’t want to exaggerate; it’s actually only lost 32.9% of its value.)

How do we Christians, people who believe in a loving God Who cares about our every moment, people who believe in a God Who came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and people who trust in a Savior Who promises to come again--how do we--deal with the grim realities of life? And not just grim economic realities, but all of life’s grim realities?

The people of the first-century church in the Roman colony of Thessalonica had similar questions. And for good reason.

Thessalonica, a city that set on the Aegean Sea in the northeast of the Greek peninsula, in the province of Thessaly, next to Macedonia, owed its existence and its fortunes to the Roman Empire. It was a key stop on a major trade route that connected Europe and Asia. Most of the people who lived in Thessalonica were economically well off, in no apparent need of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ when they first heard of Jesus.

Yet about three years before Paul wrote the words in our second lesson for this morning, in the summer of 50A.D., a few Thessalonians dared to confess that their hope wasn’t in the Empire or the emperor or their money, homes, or possessions, but in Jesus Christ alone.

In the intervening time, the Thessalonian church had been subjected to opposition from the local synagogue and Roman officials. They had suffered economic pressures, persecutions, and beatings. Members who had believed that Jesus' return to the world and the Day of the Lord were imminent, had died, leaving survivors wondering where Jesus was and what had happened to those who had died believing.

To help the Thessalonians cope with their circumstances and to prepare for Christ’s intervention in their lives, Paul gives the Thessalonian church--and us--two sets of three imperatives on how best to await Christ’s coming to us. The first set is short and sweet:
  • Rejoice always;
  • pray without ceasing; and
  • give thanks in all circumstances.
This morning, I want to assure you that as followers of Jesus Christ, we can rejoice, pray incessantly, and give thanks in all circumstances.

In fact, to be ready for Christ’s return or for the moments when we meet Him at the ends of our lives, adopting Paul’s three imperatives is essential.

Through them, God answers the prayer Paul mentions in our lesson, a prayer he offered not just for the Thessalonians, but for all followers of Jesus, including you and me: that God would sanctify us, make us holy, make us more like Jesus, more like the people we were made and redeemed to be.

We can rejoice. Last weekend, I heard a sermon by Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois. He talked about things he’d learned from God in previous economic downturns. One of the lessons he mentioned happened in 1982, during our last major recession.

Three years before, he had founded the Willow Creek congregation. It was still meeting in a movie theater. He and his wife were struggling with their personal finances and saw it as a great personal turning point: They were able to put away $1000 in their savings account.

They were savoring the knowledge that their adoption of the Christian discipline of thriftiness had led to their achievement when an elderly man who was part of the church approached Hybels. This man was living in a condominium and would soon be turned out. All of his investments were either tied up or had gone south in the recession. He’d also accumulated uncovered medical bills and simply didn’t have the money to pay his mortgage. “Does the church have the money to cover what he owed, a thousand dollars?” he wondered.

Hybels explained that the congregation was in the process of paying down the land on which its first unit was to be built and was barely covering its expenses as it was. The man said, “I understand. I was just wondering.”

On his drive home, Hybels had a thought: What if he and his wife Lynne just gave this man the thousand dollars he needed? He stewed about how he could share this proposal with his wife. But when he explained it to her, she said, “Bill, that’s a no-brainer. Of course, we can give him the thousand dollars. That’s probably why God gave us the money in the first place.”

So, that’s what they did. The thousand dollars allowed the man to stay in his condo, helping to ease him through the recession.

Months later, that same man approached Hybels again, this time offering to begin repaying him in installments. Hybels immediately refused the offer. You can’t put a price tag on the good things God taught him and his wife from the experience. They had learned to rely on God completely, not on money; that every good and perfect gift comes from God; and that God gives to us so that we can give to others. Above all, maybe, they experienced the joy that belongs to people who are living in sync with God’s will for their lives. If we’re walking with the God we know in Jesus Christ we can rejoice no matter what our financial situation.

We can also pray in all circumstances. George Mueller was a pastor and social reformer in nineteenth century England, a time and place where the poor had it particularly rough. If you were indebted and couldn’t pay your bills, you were thrown into prison. Disease and alcoholism and abandoned children were everywhere. Most of Dickens' novels convey something of what that era was like. It was a tough time!

After his conversion to Christian faith at the age of twenty, George Mueller became a pastor and moved to the city of Bristol. The small church he pastored grew over the course of his lifetime and starting with just a few pennies, he founded an orphanage for which, before his death, he had raised the equivalent of about $7.5-million.

Mueller was a hard working person of action, but he was also a man who spent hours praying. Everything he did was built on the foundation of waiting for God's direction through seasons of prayer.

His diaries record that in November, 1844, he began praying that five different young men, children of friends, would come to faith in Christ. He prayed for them every single day, no matter where he was and no matter how he felt. Eighteen months after he began these prayers, one of the young men came to faith. He thanked God and kept praying for the other four. Five years later, the second one came to faith. Mueller thanked God and prayed for the other three. Six years later, the third one came to faith. One year after Mueller died, fifty-three years after he began praying for those five young men daily, the last two surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ.

I’ve had similar experiences with prayer. One that especially stands out, which I’ve shared with many of you before, involved a source of real, deep personal anguish for me. I prayed about this issue every day for thirteen years, sometimes wondering if God was telling me my concern weren’t really important. I had just about given up on praying about this item, when God answered my prayer suddenly and more wonderfully than I could have ever imagined. I want to urge you today: even in the tough times, even when your hope is running out, pray without ceasing.

Finally, give thanks in all circumstances. It was Advent, days before Christmas, when I got the telephone call informing me that Margie, who had suffered a long time from a debilitating disease, had passed away. I had visited with Margie and her husband hours before she died.

During that visit, her husband Carl told me, “Advent has always been Margie’s favorite time of year.” He explained that Margie loved everything about the Christmas season. But she also loved remembering that some day, whether at the end of her own life or the end of the world, Jesus would come to her and take her to be with Him forever. “Maybe, this Advent will be Margie’s Advent,” Carl had said.

I rushed back to the nursing home. “It is her Advent,” Carl told me as I walked into Margie’s room. And then, Carl and I gave thanks, not that Margie had suffered and died, but that Christ had come to her and taken her home. That experience underscored for me that we can give thanks, not for all, but in all circumstances. Carl taught me that even when times are tough, Christ is still with us and we still have blessings that deserve our thankfulness.

If I had to summarize the three imperatives in our second lesson today, it would be simply: When tough times come, hang in there with God.

We can do that because God has demonstrated His love and concern for us in the baby born in a cattle stall, Who died and rose for us.

This Savior is returning. In the meantime, we hang in there by rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks to God for our lives, our salvation, our hope, our purpose, for the joy of Christmas, for the love of Good Friday, for the promise of Easter, for the presence of Christ with us always, and all of our blessings in this world and the next.

When we hang in there with the God we know through Jesus Christ, we’re ready to welcome Jesus whenever He comes to us. We can join in the ancient prayer of the Church, "Amen! Come, Lord Jesus."