Saturday, October 02, 2010

'The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg'

Just watched a 1988 documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

Greenberg was the first Jewish American to play in the major leagues and was a phenomenal hitter.

Along the way, he endured much Anti-Semitism. (Jackie Robinson's rookie year was Greenberg's final season in the Bigs and he was able to encourage Robinson in ways that probably no other major leaguer could have. He did so and Robinson was grateful.)

Greenberg's career was interrupted by four years in the Army during WWII. Even with that interruption, on his return, he led the Tigers to win the '45 World Series.

Greenberg was not a practicing Jew and the inhumanity he saw perpetrated by those claiming to be religious during the war turned him off to religion. What people do "in the name of God" is no doubt a grievous sorrow to God.

This was an enjoyable film and admittedly hit me in two of my "sweet spots": baseball and religion.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Never Ashamed!

"Christians commit themselves to God, like someone putting their most precious possession into safe keeping in a bank or a secure the same time God commits something to us: a particular calling, a new set of responsibilities, and life, the life we have in the present through the spirit. Our task is to be faithful and responsible before God, as he is utterly faithful and reliable for us. Along the path lies the kind of life which will never be ashamed, in whichever direction the winds of fashion, political fortune, and popular opinion may blow." (N.T. "Tom" Wright in his commentary 2 Timothy 1:8-14)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Compromises FDR Made to Get Social Security

And its implications for ensuing events. Undoubtedly, Social Security is one of the most significant federal programs in US history, a liberal program with a conservative funding mechanism.

When Jesus Made My Muslim Friend "Feel Good"

Today's installment from the Our Daily Bread devotional speaks of what we do for others when we praise God. That set me to thinking. I wrote the following in linking to the piece over on Facebook:
A Muslim friend once asked me to come to a funeral visitation. His brother-in-law had just died. I was able to show up just before the public calling hours began and before a class I was teaching that night.

I spent some time with my friend and his family. He then guided me to another room in the funeral home so that we could speak privately. He thanked me for being there and then asked me what I believed happened to human beings at the point of death.

Long ago, I learned to be upfront about what Jesus, the Bible, and the Church teach about issues when my non-Christian friends ask. So, I told him that while I couldn't know everything for sure and that while I was certain that God will respect the choices of those who overtly reject Christ during this lifetime, one day we will all stand in the presence of the risen Jesus for "judgment."

But judgment will not depend on our "good works" or on being "nice people." I know myself, at least, and I am aware of all the sinful thoughts I've harbored, all the inhumane deeds I've done. I know my sins and that no cosmic eraser is big enough to alter the simple fact that I'm incapable of being righteous, incapable of being good enough to live--let alone, stand--in the presence of the perfect God of creation. I don't deserve heaven with God.

In a very real sense, Jesus won't even judge us. Jesus said, "God did not send the Son [that's Jesus] into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Those who believe [trust] 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" (John 3:17-18). We will judge ourselves, effectually, and be judged on whether we have dared to trust the goodness of Jesus, whether we have given up on trusting in ourselves or the world more than we trust in God, whether we repudiate our sins and grasp hold of Jesus Christ as our only hope.

Martin Luther put it well. At the judgment, Luther pointed out, Jesus will look on two different throngs of people, both throngs composed of sinners. But one throng will stand naked in their sin. The other throng will stand covered with Jesus. My hope for eternity, I told my friend that night in the funeral home, was not based on my works or my goodness, which are negligible at best, but on Jesus Christ alone.

I went on to explain that my relationship with Christ gave me confidence and hope for the living of each day, it softened my heart to the needs of others for justice and compassion, and it emboldened to me serve in Jesus' Name without regard to the opinions of others. (That is, my relationship with Christ does these things when I don't allow myself to spend too much time contemplating my own navel, worrying about my priorities, or worshiping at the altar of Mark.)

It wasn't clear to me how my friend would react to my answer to his question. In answering him, I tried to abide by the words of Saint Peter who told the oppressed churches of Asia Minor: "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:15-16). I wanted my friend to know that, like God, I loved him and cared about his family, whether he chose to trust in Jesus or not.

We talked about some other things. Then, it was time for me to go. I hugged my friend. As we approached the door of the funeral home, with tears in his eyes, he said, "Mark, I don't know what it was exactly, but something you said back there made me feel really good."

The truth about Jesus Christ can make us feel miserable, of course. Knowing that a just man who committed no sin died on a cross for my sins is an indictment of every member of the human race. Our sins put Jesus on that cross He didn't deserve. We deserved it instead.

But the compassion of Christ, the fact that He undertook this act of self-sacrifice for us and that all who repudiate their own sin and trust in Him (and commit themselves to the lifetime struggle against their own sin to which all Christian saints/sinners are committed) "makes us feel good." It brings joy and peace and hope!

The Bible says, "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). And in another spot it says this gift comes to all with faith (Romans 3:21-26).

Whenever we praise God, as I tried to do in that funeral home room with my friend, we really do it for others. (This is true, even in our private times with the Bible and prayer to God, because these things fortify our faith and fill us again with the infectious love, grace, and truth of the God we know in Jesus.) Our gratitude to God for Jesus Christ, swelling up in words and deeds, as well as in "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" can bring hope and strength to all people...and it may plant the seed of a new life that will last forever with God. 
Share Jesus! The world needs Him...and Jesus is counting on you to help others "feel good" for all eternity!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Note from a Former Atheist and Current Sinner/Saint to My Atheist Friends

"It’s not too late to make a fresh start with God."

Take it from one who has wandered from God time and again, God does give fresh starts.

Don't believe there is a God? I was once there myself. I was an atheist. But something (or Someone) incited me to dare to believe. I found myself willing to believe, though I couldn't explain that willingness rationally, in spite of the fact that such belief ran counter to my penchant for utter empirical rationalism and complete self-sufficiency. God, loving and powerful, has been turning my surprising willingness to believe into a deepening trust (faith) in the God made known in Jesus Christ ever since.

If I go to a great movie or a cool restaurant with tasty fare or if I read a book that changes my perspective on things, I don't keep that stuff in. I tell people about them. The same thing is true for my faith. I fell in love with Jesus Christ, God-enfleshed, thirty-plus years ago and I've found God to be incredibly faithful, my relationship with him exhilarating, challenging, and comforting.

Please, consider being willing to believe in God. Just tell the God you're not even certain is there that you're willing to believe and then see what happens. 

Then, be prepared to be as surprised as I was and have remained for over thirty years, by all the fresh starts that come your way. Really.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Importance of Being Hospitable

This devotional piece on hospitality includes an insight from the late Henri Nouwen, the priest who left academia to care for the mentally disabled:

Hospitality...means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.
In spite of the penchant of some Christians and churches to tame their faith into a domesticated religion of niceness and stagnation, there is actually an availability to constant change which we Christians embrace for ourselves.

Christ has changed us from enemies of God to friends of God. Each day, we submit our lives for examination by God, seeking correction, reproof, and renewal so that, in spite of our inborn impulses, God will make us over increasingly into the image of His Son.

Because of the new life that Christ has given to us, we desperately want to introduce our family, friends, and others to Christ. We want them to experience the warm welcome of the ultimate change agent, Jesus, Who died and rose for a world of people who are not strangers to Him, even when we regard the One Who made us as a stranger. We want others to know and trust in Christ. We know that doing so will change their lives today and for eternity.

Christ's commission compels us to share Christ with others and make disciples.

Christ's compassion, living inside us now, motivates us to share the Good News of new life through faith in Jesus that is available to all people.

Jesus made clear the consequences of choosing to spurn Him. He was utterly honest about how the person following Him would suffer indignities in this world. And He (along with the first Christian disciples) made it clear that all who trust in Him are surrendering their lives, allowing God's Holy Spirit to undertake a radical makeover of our priorities, habits, beliefs, and relationships. Following Jesus is no walk in the park, as they say.

But Jesus also made clear that following Him is the only way to real life: abundant, eternal life, a life in which God sets us free to become our true selves...
the selves God had in mind when He formed us in our mothers' wombs, 
the selves God designed for us to be long before He scooped up the dust into which He blew the breath of life to make the first man, he selves Jesus died on the cross to reconstruct from our current distortion to ultimate perfection in eternity. 
Nouwen's quote reminds us, as does God's Word, that faith in Christ cannot be coerced. No matter how wonderful we who trust in Christ know it is to be in relationship with God through Christ, beating people over the head with Jesus, guilting them into following Jesus, proof-texting them into accepting our version of Christian faith, imposing our specifically Christian ethics through political pressure, is not how people are called to faith in Christ. Christ never coerced people into following Him. Indeed, He couldn't do so.

Coerced confessions in Christ are as worthless as confessions induced from prisoners through torture are in courts of law.

Coercion, shame, peer pressure, all these things may get people to sing Christ's praises. But that won't mean they trust Christ. No change will have come to them.

Instead, to be faithful to our commission to make disciples and to display the compassion for our Christ-less neighbors that Christ's love creates within us, we need to be hospitable. We need to welcome people into our lives. Hospitality is not about changing people through the force of our effort, but providing the place in which the God we know in Jesus Christ can create the change God sees need to be made within all of us.

In order to be able to truly trust Christ and to embrace "the good news" of new life with God, we must, of course, repent for sin. Jesus said, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). Sin stands as a wall between life with God and us. Repentance, authentic turning to God, can bring that wall down. David wrote of his experience with repentance:
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:3-4)
Sin is real. Sin, when unrepented, will separate us from God forever. (Of course, being human, we're incapable of remembering every sin we've committed. God isn't interested in a catalog of particulars we can't provide; God wants to be our friends. Repentance makes that possible.) No Christian who is truly hospitable will fail to respectfully, lovingly convey the truth about sin and the need for repentance with those they welcome into their lives. (And not necessarily on the first or the first fifty meetings, either. Christian hospitality, like Christian love, entails patience.)

But remember this: "God's kindness is meant to lead to repentance" (Romans 2:4). As a Christian, I can look back over my thirty-plus years-walk with Christ and see the patience and kindness God has exhibited toward me time and time again. There have been many instances when I've sinned knowingly--saying unkind things, harboring hateful feelings for others, failing to take a stand for what I knew was right, doing things that I wanted to do instead of what God wanted me to do in particular situations. God would have been justified in those moments in taking my life from me. Or in giving up on me. But God's kindness created a space in which God could work positive change in my life. God still has a lot to do in making Mark over. I only pray that I'll prove a more surrendered Christian in the future, whatever future I have left on this earth, than I have often been in the past.

All of us need the kindness of God.

We Christians are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, the body of Christ, as the New Testament puts it. We are called to hospitality. We are called to create the spaces--not just the physical spaces, but the spaces in our everyday lives and schedules--in which those we encounter each day can begin to experience the Lord Who has come to work eternal changes in people's lives.

May God teach us--may God teach me--the true art of hospitality.

A plausible scientific explanation for the parting of the Red Sea?

This was interesting and it's certainly consistent with the Biblical witness that God, Who made the universe, not only sets aside laws of nature and physics to accomplish His ends (in miracles), but also works within them for those ends.

The Bible doesn't need to be "proven"; the functioning of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who dare to believe in Christ is proof enough of the Biblical witness to the nature and will of God for believers. But this scientific paper will give everybody food for thought.

For background, you might want to read here.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Your Money or Your Life

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

1 Timothy 6:6-19
It may be an example of holy coincidence, what someone has called God-incidence, that on the Sunday following the premiere of the movie, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, our Bible lessons for the day warn us of the dangers to our very souls represented by the love of money. Gordon Gekko, the main character played by Michael Douglas in this long-anticipated sequel, is known for his tagline in the first film: “Greed is good.” Jesus, in our Gospel lesson, the prophet Amos in the first lesson, and the apostle Paul in the second, all tell us today that “Greed is not good.”

But more than that, they say, “Greed for wealth can rob you of life for all eternity. Watch out for greed!”

The most tempting thing for us to do when we encounter Bible passages like these is to ignore them, thinking that they don’t apply to us. We’re not millionaires or billionaires, after all. There’s little chance of our getting trapped in the snare represented by the greed for wealth, right? Don’t be so sure!

There’s a number that development experts and even the CIA use called PPP. It stands for Purchasing Power Parity. It measures the median household incomes of every country in the world. This is the average income and purchasing power of all nations' homes, measured in US dollars. The United States ranks 11th in the world in median household income: $46,000. If that seems high, it may be because the median household income here in Hocking County is $40,000, about the same as Canada, which ranks 27th in the world.

All through the list, there are countries where people enjoy comfortable life-styles, yet don’t rank that high: the United Kingdom is 35th, Japan is 40th, Saudi Arabia is 61st. The point is this: By the standards of the world, many of us in this sanctuary this morning are incredibly wealthy. While impoverished people may fall prey to making gods of money, ignoring Paul’s warning in our second lesson that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” it’s far more likely that those of us who get regular paychecks will do so.

Like the addict who finds that he needs a little more today in order to get the same buzz he got yesterday, the love of money can become an absorbing passion that pushes God clear out of our lives. God forbid!

Please pull out your Celebrate inserts and look at our second lesson. Read along with me silently as I read the first five verses:
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
There is nothing wrong with wealth. The love of wealth though, can cause us to make money our god, even though it has no capacity to give us life beyond the grave. Greed for gain, rather than a consuming desire for God, can make us think that the money we have earned with the bodies and the minds God has given to us, is ours. But this isn’t true.

First Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. ”

All who are baptized and confess Jesus as their Lord have been bought out of sin and death through the death of Jesus on the cross. We belong to God. So does our money. In one of our hymns, we tell God that all that we have is “a trust, O God, from Thee.”

Last Sunday, during worship we prayed for those effected by the tornadoes that ripped through southeastern Ohio a week-and-a-half ago. As I greeted folks after worship, one of our members said to me, “Pastor, if you learn of anybody without a home, let me know. I have a place people could use if they need it.” When our desires are focused on God, greed is pushed from our minds in ways that cause a passion for God and God's will that supplants the greed for financial gain. God helps us then to use whatever wealth we do have for His purposes.

Verse 11 in our lesson says: “But as for you, man of God, shun all this [that is, shun greed]; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” The apostle Paul wrote the letter of 1 Timothy to a young pastor named Timothy in about 64AD. Paul meant for his words to be a primer on how to be a pastor. Shun the love of money, Paul tells Timothy.

It’s a tragedy when pastors become obsessed with money, when they confess Jesus with their mouths, but declare a greater faith in money with their lives. Pastors ought to be treated fairly by their congregations, of course. Paul says elsewhere in 1 Timothy, “The laborer deserves to be paid.” But, there are some clergy who seem to think that because they took a four-year Master’s degree after graduating from college, they deserve big bucks and fine things. This appears to be a bigger problem in the United States than it is in other countries where people are maybe, less addicted to wealth.

The Lutheran churches in Australia long ago instituted what I think is a great policy: Every single pastor, no matter the size of the congregation, receives the same salary, with adjustments for expenses like having families, living in more expensive communities, or extraordinary medical expenses. Each time this has been proposed at the conventions of Lutheran bodies in North America, it’s met defeat. In twenty-six years, I’ve never asked for a raise and I never will. This isn’t because I’m so virtuous—I’m a sinner like everybody else. It’s because I don’t want to give greed or the devil footholds in my life. I want to rely on the provision of the God I know in Jesus Christ and not on my capacity to shrewdly negotiate for or "guilt" people out of more money, which may in the end, only cause me to wander away from God, making me useless to God or to the congregation I serve as pastor.

Verses 12 to 15 say:
Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Before Pilate, the Roman governor, Jesus confessed that He was the Lord and King of the world, God in the flesh, making no attempt to deny that He had made this confession before. If we were baptized as infants, our parents and sponsors made this same confession at the baptismal font. If we were baptized as adults, we made this confession ourselves before water was splashed on our heads. When we were confirmed, we made this confession. And Timothy, like all other pastors over the past 2000-plus years, reiterated that same confession. Paul is telling us today to fight the temptations that exist within all of us to betray Jesus by fudging on our confession that Jesus is the only Sovereign of the universe.

This is the confession that Paul makes in a famous passage in Romans: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Keep this good confession not only with your mouth, but also with your life, Paul tells Timothy in today's lesson. His words are for us, too.

In verse 16, Paul says of Jesus: “It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”

Please notice: Only God is immortal; human beings die. Life is not our right, something God owes to us. Life comes only from the One immortal being in the universe. And new life only comes from Jesus Christ to those who believe in Him. "If anyone is in Christ Jesus," the Bible tells us, "there is a new creation: everything old has passed away…”

It’s our mission as people saved by the grace of God given to us through Jesus Christ to share this good confession with others. We are to be driven by love of God and love of others to tell everyone the truth about sin and grace, and to call them to make the same good confession God has used to save us from sin, death, and hell.

 Finally, read along with me the final part of our lesson, verses 17 to 19. Paul is back to talking about money. But now he tells Timothy what he should teach the people of his congregation about the proper use of money:
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
The bottom line is simple, really. We can either be greedy for wealth or hungry for God. The dividends paid by wealth end at the cemetery, but those who “take hold” of the God we know in Christ, take hold of real life, a life of meaning here and a life with God in eternity.

In a very real sense, when it comes to being greedy for more than our daily bread, we face the choice given by villains in lots of old movies: “Your money or your life.” Today, our lesson from God’s Word tells us that whenever faced with that choice--our money or our life--God desperately wants us to choose life, the eternal life that only an immortal God Who has died for us and risen again for us can offer.

Money is nice to have, but money can’t give us life; Jesus can. Choose passion for Jesus over greed for financial gain.

Today—every day—choose Jesus.