Thursday, January 22, 2009

Breathing for the Christian

[This is my friend Glen VanderKloot's daily emailed inspiration for today.]

Thought for the Day

To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing. (Martin Luther King Jr.)

Scripture: Romans 12:12 NCV
“Be joyful because you have hope. Be patient when trouble comes, and pray at all times.”

Lord, help me to make prayer a priority in my life. Amen

New Battle in War Over Turkey's Future

Is Islamic fundamentalism Turkey's future, with secularism, what we in the West would call democratic pluralism, its past?

Apparently secularists who plotted a coup against Turkey's democratically-elected Islamic fundamentalist government fear that seemingly topsy-turvy scenario. Many have been arrested for plotting against the government there.

Many in the West have presumed that because democracies have tended to be less aggressive or oppressive, having elections will necessarily result in less aggressive or oppressive regimes. But that's faulty logic. Without what I would call the idea base, the metaphysical turf from which true pluralism arises, being in place, exercises in democracy may be little more than legitimized mob rule, the proverbial lipstick on a pig.

Most democratic and pluralistic societies have arisen from ways of thinking that support the value of individuals and free inquiry, not values upheld by fundamentalists of any religious tradition, really. (Historian Rodney Stark argues in The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, that democratic pluralism and capitalism arose in Europe and North America arose because Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, encouraged a belief in reason.) If those basic cultural assumptions don't exist or if they're questioned by large enough numbers of people, regimes that don't conform to Western notions of democracy or pluralism may be duly installed.

Is that what's happened in Turkey, a country that, unlike many of its neighbors, has had a tradition of democratic pluralism? And are the Turkish secularists wrong or right to plot the current government's downfall?

Whatever the answers to those questions, the battle over Turkey's future continues.

[See also here and here.]

Is Israel Losing the PR War in Gaza?

It appears so.

By disallowing much in the way of journalist-imbedding with their fighting units, Israeli government officials clearly tried to avoid being played as the heavies as they were in Lebanon several years ago. Their efforts seem to not be working now in Gaza.

Gitmo Closings: Now Comes the Hard Part

The Obama Administration yesterday began circulating a draft executive order that would close down the Guantanamo Bay detention center. But doing that could prove difficult as explained here by Columbia University law prof Matthew Waxman.

What Do You Make of This Dream?

This is the dream from which I awakened this morning.

I've apparently become a trucker hauling heavy equipment to be used by a road construction crew on Montgomery Road in Cincinnati and I'm heading north on I-71. My truck breaks down on the Montgomery Road ramp. Traffic starts stacking up behind me immediately. But I notice that it's also jammed ahead on the ramp.

Apparently, the construction crew needs the equipment I'm hauling quickly. So, I go to the back of my truck, unstrap the equipment, roll it off, and start pushing it up the ramp toward Montgomery.

On the way, I pull out my cell phone to tell my wife, who evidently works at or near Kenwood Town Centre at Montgomery and Kenwood Roads, that I may be running late. But, I tell her, I'll be walking to her, rather than driving. "That's OK, honey," she says, "I'll see you when you get here."

Mind you, I have no sense of struggling with this massive piece of equipment. I'm just moving along and it's gliding like the two-wheeled fork hand trucks we used whenever I worked at warehouses or loading docks. Only, it glides like those little trucks do when they were empty.

After I get off the phone with Ann, still pushing, I decide to call the truck driver ahead. How I know him or his number, is a mystery. But I call him and hear, at the other end of the line, the voice of Alan Greenspan. Evidently, we're old buddies and he's generous in sharing a working person's philosophical ruminations. Greenspan tells me that the key to enjoying life is to change jobs about every three years. "That's what I did," he tells me, "and I've had a ball."

By this time, I've pushed the equipment to where Greenspan is standing next to his truck, presumably awaiting help. We laugh, engaging in the kind of the yelling back-and-forth I remember workers engaging in back in my factory days, the dialog of people who can't wait to get home and away from their grimy jobs. They laugh to forestall the sense of futility they feel about their work.

Just then it dawns on me and I tell Greenspan: "Hey, you worked for years at the Federal Reserve. You were there more than three years." He throws his head back in uproarious laughter and we both wave as I push on.

By this point, I'm moving onto Montgomery Road, westbound toward Kenwood. I can see the road crew ahead.

But suddenly, there's a scene change. Evidently, it wasn't the crew itself that needed the equipment I'm pushing, but the company for which it works.

I find myself pushing this thing onto the grounds of the construction company's offices. There's a gravel parking lot, surrounded by twelve-foot fencing topped by barbed wire.

I stop pushing in order to report to someone in a small, squat, brick office building. Along the way, another trucker--remember I'm a trucker in this dream--starts walking alongside me. I find the guy annoying. I don't know him from Adam. But he's acting as though we're old pals. "Hey," he says, "I wonder when they'll let us off." He keeps up his patter, yapping at me like one of those little annoying puppies that won't go away when all you want to do is take a walk.

His question riles me up. I want to get out of this place in a hurry. I'm already late for meeting my wife.

We go into the building, which looks like any dispatching center you've ever seen, whether for a trucking company, smalltown police department, or highway patrol outpost.

There's one guy in charge there, bustling around. My annoying companion asks the bustler, "Hey, are we going to get out of here before 9:30 tonight?" "9:30?!" I cry, "I can't be here until 9:30. I'm meeting my wife for dinner."

"Hey!" the annoying guy says to me--and he's still smiling--"they always feed us dinner here." He says it as though it's a real privilege, a perk of the job. He enjoys it. I feel trapped. I want to be with my wife.

It's then that two things dawn on me. First, I'm an independent trucker. I don't work for this company. Having duly delivered their equipment, I don't have to hang around. I can walk away. Second, this is a stupid dream. So, I stopped it.

Now, several points should be made about the dream itself.

First: When we lived in Cincinnati, we often would take the half-hour trip from our house to Kenwood Town Centre or to visit with our friends there. But we rarely would have traveled on I-71 North.

Second: I have no idea what the piece of equipment I was pushing might have been. It was yellow and about the size of the cab of a crane used on construction sites. Lots of its paint was scratched off from heavy use. It clearly wasn't new.

Third: Alan Greenspan was in work clothes when I saw him.

Fourth: While I've done many jobs over the years, before I became a pastor twenty-four years ago, I never drove truck. I've never even learned to drive a stick shift, which may explain why I was broken down on the exit ramp!

Fifth: I remember dreams infrequently and I think that few dreams are imbued with much in the way of meaning. I doubt that that this one is either.

Have you had any dreams you've remembered lately?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

'What I Do When I Feel Blue'

As I was preparing my sermon for this coming Sunday, I ran across a piece I wrote nearly four years ago with that title. Here is a link to it. I hope that you find it helpful.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Look at This Coming Sunday's Bible Lessons (January 25, 2009)

Most weeks, I present a bit of something about one or more of the Bible lessons that we'll be using in worship on the following Sunday at the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. I do it to help both the people of the congregation and me to prepare for worship. But because we use the Biblical texts appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), used by most Christians in North America and elsehwere, I hope that these little jottings help others too.

Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 25, 2009

The Bible Lessons:
Jonah 3:1-5
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

The Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, by grace alone You call us and accept us in Your service. Strengthen us by Your Spirit, and make us worthy of Your call, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen

General Comments
The Epiphany Season theme of the presence of God among us is continued in the lessons for this Sunday, but with a variation. The focus of the first reading and of the Gospel lesson is on God calling people into service to God and neighbor, the call of all Christians, no matter what their profession.

In the Old Testament lesson, we read of God's second call to Jonah. (More on that below.)

The Gospel lesson tells the familiar story of Jesus' calling the first four apostles to follow Him. Don't let the familiarity prevent you from seeing the unique ways in which Mark recounts this incident.

I'm only going to write comments here on the Jonah text. It may or may not be the primary text on which I preach. But even if it isn't, it will still play a prominent role in my sermon on Sunday.

Jonah 3:1-5
The book of Jonah, recounting an incident from earlier in Israel's history, was probably composed in the period after the nation's exile. It was a time of retrenchment when Israel, drawing on its status as God's chosen ones, wanted to isolate itself from the dirty world around it.

This tale of a reluctant prophet who hated the foreign people to whom God wanted him to go, told with comic overtones designed to change people's minds by making them laugh, was a challenge to Israel's penchant toward being isolated and condemnatory of others. Israel was to be a light to the nations, after all, and it couldn't be a light if it kept that light hidden under a basket in the Judean countryside. (The book of Jonah, then, is the perfect companion to the Old Testament book of Ruth. Like Jonah, Ruth only runs to four chapters and through its tale of how a foreigner became ancestor to Israel's greatest king, David, also challenges Israel's insularity and prejudice against foreigners.)

In the first chapter of Jonah, God issued a first call to Jonah. Go to Nineveh, God said, and warn them that their evil has grown so great, I intend to destroy the place.

Nineveh was situated on the site of modern day Mosul, Iraq and was the capital of the Assyrian Empire which had always been hostile to Israel. (Just last week, by the way, a Christian from Mosul was murdered. It's a place from which Christians have fled because of intimidation and killings to which their community has been subjected. Last week's murder came after many Christians had begun to return to the city and their property.)

Understandably, Jonah didn't want to go there. Not only could he be reasonably certain of not receiving a welcome in Nineveh, he was even more certain that he personally hated the Ninevites and wanted to have nothing to do with them.

You can find our what happened next, by reading the book of Jonah yourself. Suffice it to say, Jonah went through an experience he likely wouldn't have wanted to repeat. So, when God calls him this second time, instead of running in the opposite direction as he did in chapter 1, he goes to Nineveh.

The book of Jonah says that Nineveh was so huge it took three days to walk its length. According to Wendy Baumgardner, a certified marathon coach and running enthusiast who runs's page on walking, the average person without any complicating medical conditions can walk about eight miles in an eight-hour stretch, probably the maximum advisable distance. (See here and here.) So, a three day walk across Nineveh, as Jonah tells it, would entail traveling about 24 miles. Assuming that the city was as wide as it was long, that would make the place just a few miles smaller in area than metropolitan Houston today.

Now, my liberal friends will criticize me if I don't add that none of the archeological digs on the site of Nineveh indicate the city was ever that large. And at 576 square miles, Jonah's Nineveh would have dwarfed any other known ancient city.

But, along with my conservative friends, I would say, "Don't discount the information given in Jonah about the city."

The bottom line, of course, is that the book of Jonah, along with the rest of Bible, isn't a book of science. It's a book of faith with, if you'll excuse a poor turn of phrase in light both of Jonah's earlier chapters and of the Gospel lesson, bigger fish to fry.

The important thing to remember is that the place to which God is calling Jonah to go is not only hostile, it's also big. Big and hostile. Would you want to go there? I wouldn't!

Jonah complies with God's call. But just barely.

He spemds just one day walking toward the center of the city and then bellows out what is a five-word sermon in the original text (v.4): "Forty days more Nineveh destroyed."

The strange thing is that on the strength of those few words, with no indication that the foreign Deity represented by Nineveh would forgive them, the whole city repented. They turned away from sin and turned to God.

The question for you to ponder until we worship together on Sunday is simple:


Why did the Ninevites repent?

I'll see you on Sunday.

"I Have a Dream"

The entire speech by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is here.