Saturday, November 13, 2010

What the Newest Zogby Poll Could Say

Yesterday over on Facebook, Ohio's outgoing Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, posted a link to a new Zogby Poll. Brunner, a progressive Democrat, understandably highlighted Zogby's finding that, in spite of the "shellacking" that Democrats took in the 2010 midterm elections a few weeks ago, voter majorities still favor government spending on infrastructure in order to create jobs. (That's what Zogby highlighted, too.) It's true, the majorities for such spending are still there.

But in looking at the poll results, something else became apparent.
This data, for the most part, indicates an overall moderation of views among Americans. The big red flag for those working in state governments across the country is the opposition to any help for states in balancing their budgets. Here in Ohio, of course, we face the prospect of an $8-billion shortfall. In California, the number is $52-billion.

The coming year may turn out to be the most challenging one for the country since World War Two. This makes the polarization offered up by the two parties even a greater problem than it has been; it will make it tougher to reach the compromises needed to go forward, I think.
Is there any chance that the two parties that both love to spend and give away money like drunken sailors (to their favorite special interest groups), will finally incite a moderate revolution? Or will the partisan kabuki dance continue until the American future is utterly mortgaged to the Chinese government and its allies, clients, and subjects? 

Right now, we have a very polarized electorate whose main question seems to be, "What's in it for me?" (And who nonetheless claim, if the exit polls are any indication, want the parties to work together in Washington.) That isn't a very promising political landscape. 

Praying, for those so inclined, like me, seems more than appropriate.

Just My Opinion: Watch Out for the Beijing Regime

Charles Krauthammer is no fan of President Obama, but he had no use for the silly (and largely misinformed) carping over the cost of the president's recent trip to Asia. I agree with Krauthammer. It's important for Presidents of the United States to go abroad for these diplomatic missions. The president is America's diplomat-in-chief. When presidents take such trips, it is in everybody's interest that he be kept safe and protected.

More substantively, I emphatically agree with Krauthammer on the wisdom of Obama's special overtures to India. The US and India, along with the rest of the world really, has an abiding interest in these two countries having strong relations. That abiding interest is the Chinese government, an enemy to its own people's freedom and an enemy to the peace and stability of the world. A partnership between India and the US is essential for strengthening democracy, for checking China's growing military power, and for preventing the world from being sucked into China's economic vortex, with permanent trade imbalances and endemic loss of employment opportunities. (That's why the President was right to say that the greatest object of his diplomatic mission was "jobs." That's really at stake right now in this era of unscrupulous business, environmental, economic, and human rights practices on the part of the Chinese government, practices that, along with the West's undisciplined spending and use of credit, is slowly turning the world into a playground for the Butchers of Beijing.)

President Obama's endorsement of India's desire to become a member of the Security Council of the United Nations is sensible for both the US and India. The council is reserved for those nations that are deemed major powers. As Obama pointed out in India that with major power status comes major power responsibilities. (And I would say, major power expectations.) India was not a major power after World War II when the UN was established. But it is now. That needs to be acknowledged.

Krauthammer explains very well why Presdent Obama's trip to India was so important for the US and the world:
[China's] hegemony is the growing source of tension in Asia today. Modern China is the Germany of a century ago - a rising, expanding, have-not power seeking its place in the sun. The story of the first half of the 20th century was Europe's attempt to manage Germany's rise. We know how that turned out. The story of the next half-century will be how Asia accommodates and/or contains China's expansion.

Nor is this some far-off concern. China's aggressive territorial claims on resource-rich waters claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan are already roiling the neighborhood. Traditionally, Japan has been the major regional counterbalance. But an aging, shrinking Japan can no longer sustain that role. Symbolic of the dramatic shift in power balance between once-poor China and once-dominant Japan was the resolution of their recent maritime crisis. Japan had detained a Chinese captain in a territorial-waters dispute. China imposed a rare-earth mineral embargo. Japan capitulated.

That makes the traditional U.S. role as offshore balancer all the more important. China's neighbors from South Korea all the way around to India are in need of U.S. support of their own efforts at resisting Chinese dominion.

And of all these countries, India, which has fought a border war with China, is the most natural anchor for such a U.S. partnership. It's not just our inherent affinities - democratic, English-speaking, free-market, dedicated to the rule of law. It is also the coincidence of our strategic imperatives: We both face the common threat of radical Islam and the more long-term challenge of a rising China. 
Mind you, all of this is just my opinion (and Krauthammer's). I'm still just a preacher and I'm not foisting a social statement on anybody. These views haven't been brought from Mount Sinai. But I nonetheless think the world would do well to watch out for the regime in Beijing.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

One Little Thing

It’s just one little thing.

In this case, the “one little thing” is the letter E.

In itself, it may be a minor matter.

But when you’ve watched the denomination you’ve loved and that you labored and prayed, in your own small way, to help birth, as it slides deep into error through a profusion of “little” things, one little thing is just one more thing.

And that one little thing points out how desperately the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) needs reform and renewal. (Which I pray for regularly.)

The E in question was called to my attention this past Sunday morning at breakfast. Our daughter, who was to read the Bible lessons in worship, was going through them one more time when she saw something she hadn’t noticed before.

Our lessons for each week, which are largely taken from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), are printed on bulletin inserts published by the ELCA Publishing House, Augsburg Fortress. The inserts are called Celebrate. On the inserts, each of the lessons is preceded by brief explanations. Those explanations, which are meant to be read during worship just before each of the lessons is read, are designed to give context to the Bible passages. They’re often helpful. (The explanations also appear in an annually published book called, Sundays and Seasons.)

Here’s what our daughter saw when she read the introductory explanation for this past Sunday’s first lesson, Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18:
The book of Daniel was written in the second century B.C.E., when the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes was severely persecuting the Jews. Daniel’s vision of the four beasts serves to proclaim the message that human kings will come and go, but the kingdom will ultimately belong to God and to God’s people.
“What’s this E doing after BC?” our daughter wondered.

“Is that a mistake?” my wife asked.

“No, it’s not a mistake,” I said. “But it shouldn’t be there!”

The old designations of B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, Latin for Year of Our Lord), have been replaced in most contemporary scholarship and journalism by new designations. B.C.E. stands for Before [the] Common Era, while C.E. stands for [the] Common Era.

And you know what? I get that. Christians, varied and as numerous as we may be, members of the fastest-growing religion in the world, are still just one group among many who occupy this planet. We live in a world whose most enlightened people eschew cultural, racial, or religious imperialism, a world in which diversity is celebrated. And as a Christian, I embrace this trend. In fact, I pray for it to continue.

I think that this trend favors a project very dear to me, the central calling of all Christians: fulfilling the great commission Jesus has given to the Church. We’re to make disciplesfollowers of Christ—among all peoples.

In looking at history, I see that Christianity first spread not in the artificial hothouse of being the favored religion of an empire and not just in defiance of state condemnation and persecution, but in the context of theologically diverse societies, where people believed in many different gods and philosophies. History, to me anyway, shows that true pluralism and democracy always favor Christianity; when people are free to explore differing beliefs and come to know the relationship with God offered by Jesus Christ (as opposed to the "religion" offered elsewhere), following Christ will always look good. The more diverse, pluralistic, and free societies are, the more likely people are to become disciples of Christ.*

But, to me, pluralism and diversity are good for another reason. In a nutshell, Christians shouldn't even appear to be throwing their weight around, forcing their faith and worldview down other peoples’ throats. It isn’t right. It isn’t how Christ won disciples. It’s unloving. And it sets the cause of Christ back, not forward.

And so, though confessing that part of me cringes a bit every time I see “B.C.E.” or “C.E.” in books and articles from the fields of history, science, or the arts, I understand the use of these terms.

I accept it.

I even support it.

Nothing about the faith of Christians should be forced on others. People who subscribe to other religious convictions and people who have no religious convictions should not be forced to see history in terms of what happened before Christ or after He came to earth bringing the reign of God. Non-Christians don’t see what the theologians call “the Christ event,” as the center of human history.

But, here's the point: We Christians do! We see Jesus as the center of our history. We see Jesus as the center of all history!

When Christians read the Old Testament, we see the God of creation, by grace, calling a people—the Jews—to believe in Him, to become a light to the nations. We see prophecies pointing to the Messiah Who would come into the world to offer, by grace, new and everlasting life to all who believe in Him. For the Christian, everything before Christ, points to Christ.

In the New Testament, we see God becoming flesh, living in our world, being spurned by Jews and non-Jews alike, bearing the sins of the whole human race on His shoulders, dying for our sakes, and being raised to life again by the Father, so all who repent and believe in Jesus, will live forever with God. After Jesus died and rose, we believe, everything changed. The lives of all people were marked by new possibilities. "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Christians believe that, after the fall of humanity into sin, all of human history has been the theater in which God has worked for the time—what the Bible calls God’s kairos time, as opposed to chronos, human or chronological time—when Jesus Christ would enter the world, bring the reign of God to all who believe, promise that one day, He will return and make all things new, and, in this intervening time--in these Years of Our Lord--will fill those who follow Him with the Holy Spirit, fortifying them for lives of loving God, loving neighbor, sharing Christ in words and actions, and living "in the sure and certain hope" that even though we die, we will still live with God for eternity.

The timeliness of God’s action in Christ is emphasized by the apostle Paul in the New Testament’s Romans 5:6: “…while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…”

In another New Testament book, Hebrews, which is a sermon preached to Jewish Christians in the first century, we see this Christian confession of Christ as the center, the goal, and the fulfillment of human history, of cosmic history: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1-2) (emphasis mine, of course).

Since we Christians believe that Christ is the center of history, why would a document prepared by a Christian denomination for use in Christian worship shy away from the use of the terms, B.C. and A.D.?

And why do some professors who teach at some seminaries of the ELCA “correct” students who use B.C. and A.D., rather than B.C.E. and C.E.?

Why should Christians be in any way wary of making the inherent confession of Christ as the center of all by using B.C. and A.D. in their own internal communications or in their public worship?

Why should we avoid declaring Christ’s Lordship? Jesus didn't avoid it!

He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

He said, "The Father and I are one" (John 10:30).

He also said, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).

And He said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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. 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” (John 3:16-18).

If Jesus claimed to be the Lord of everything, the center of history Who changes everything, the only access point to God, the liberator of humanity from the enemies of sin and death, then why should the Church claim anything less when speaking of Him? Why should we be shy about Christ's Lordship?

Is this “shyness” mere political correctness?

Is it absent-minded acquiescence to a cultural norm?

Or is there something more sinister about it?

Whatever the answers to those questions may be, the “little things” keep piling up in the ELCA. The Lordship of Jesus and the truth of God’s Word seem denied in numerous little ways all the time among us. When it doesn’t make me mad, it makes me sad. Then it makes me pray. (And write blog posts.)

You see, it isn’t really such a little thing, after all, because, no matter how many little things get piled on, the Bible still says of Jesus, the center of history, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

It may be a single letter E. But its addition to B.C. says a lot about the state of the ELCA and what at least some of its most influential people really think about Jesus.

The early Church faced persecution and death to declare that Jesus is Lord. Many Christians in many parts of the world today face the same threats for their faithfulness to Jesus as Lord. So, why can’t we North American Lutherans own Jesus’ Lordship in the comfort and safety of our sanctuaries as we worship? That’s a big question. And every member of the ELCA must, I think, eventually answer it.

*I speak from personal experience. For about a decade, I considered myself an atheist, but, in a pluralistic society in which I was free to explore other possibilities, Christ wooed me into relationship with Him.

"Your church might not be a church if..."

Tremendous food for thought. (Thanks to John Schroeder and Milt Stanley for leading me to this post. Readers here will want to check out John's thoughts on this topic as well.)

Sunday, November 07, 2010

How Emptiness Can Be Blessedness (All Saints Sunday)

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

Luke 6:20-31
He was a sophomore second-string quarterback at Boston College.* The son of a former NFL player, he had all sorts of talent. But, maybe because up to that point in his life everything had come so easily to him, he was, by most accounts, a so-so college player. Years later, he recalled, “...also...I didn’t work as hard as I needed because I think that gave me an out if I wasn’t successful...”

Then, during his second year of college, he went on a mission trip to Jamaica with a priest and sixteen classmates. First stop was a place called Riverton City, “a shanty-town built on a garbage dump near Jamaica’s capital city of Kingston...” There, the young quarterback saw poverty as he’d never seen it before. For several days, “he worked in a home for elderly lepers.” **

An article in the magazine, Sports Spectrum says, “He cleaned, scraped, then painted a bathroom in the home. In the evenings after a day’s work, he’d join the lepers for song and worship. It was then that [he] met George McVee, [a] man disfigured by leprosy. That first evening, [the college athlete] was the last to arrive and only one chair remained. It was next to McVee. “’I’m ashamed to say this, but it was hard to look at him,’” he remembered years later. “’I didn’t really want to sit next to him. His leprosy was so much worse than everyone else’s. They said it wasn’t contagious, but I was a kid. I didn’t know.'"

Once the young man was seated, McVee, who had lost his forearms, held a harmonica to his mouth with his remaining stumps. He played songs of praise to God. All around the room, accompanied by McVee’s harmonica, voices emanating from aged bodies being destroyed by leprosy joined together to worship God. “In between songs, McVee...[recited] long passages of Scripture and poems he had composed. One of his poems he called, ‘My Cup Runneth Over.’”

In his affliction and desperate poverty, McVee still regarded himself as a blessed man, all because of the God we know in Jesus Christ. The athlete from Boston College remembers: “’I’m saying to myself these people should be angry. What they were born into--poverty, poor health. What do they have to be happy about?...But in their eyes, it was the exact opposite. Their attitude was what my attitude should have been like.”

The young man saw a lot of other things on that trip to Jamaica. And the thing that struck him most was how faithful and how joyful the people he encountered in Jamaica were.

Shortly after his return to the States, the quarterback was stricken with Hepatitis A, which he probably contracted while in Jamaica. In the hospital for six days, he went from 215 to 185 pounds. As “he lay in the hospital, [jaundiced], waiting for his release” he wondered “about his future in football. ‘But I never really thought, “Why me?”’” he says. “’I thought, “This is nothing compared to what the lepers in Jamaica deal with.” And they had so much joy in their hearts because of the Lord, despite their circumstances.’”

It was then that sophomore Matt Hasselbeck, who would go on to play in Super Bowl 40 in 2006, “made a promise to God.” He first apologized to God for not being all that he could be and then told the Lord that in all departments of his life, he would always try his hardest. Second string, practice squad, also ran, whatever, he would always do his best.

Hasselbeck says that it was not only the moment that changed him as an athlete, but also the moment that changed him as a human being.

And it all happened because of the faith and joy he saw in people suffering from the worst poverty and disease, people the world would say had nothing. But Hasselbeck knew that the world was wrong: George McVee and the others he met had Jesus Christ!

Today’s Gospel lesson begins a section in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus delivers what’s usually referred to as The Sermon on the Plain. It has a lot in common with the more famous Sermon on the Mount, found in the Gospel of Matthew. You’d expect to find similarities to appear in the two sermons; after all, Jesus was the preacher in both cases.

But I’ve sometimes wondered, why is the sermon in Matthew more quoted than the one in Luke? Both are equally beautiful and important. The sermon in Luke's gospel has the added asset of being the shorter and, in some ways, more elegant of the two.

But I think I know why the sermon in Matthew is quoted more often. You see, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In our lesson today, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.”

In today's lesson, Jesus is saying: Blessed are...
  • the George McVees, 
  • the elderly lepers in Jamaica, 
  • the homeless who sleep in Worthington Park,  just one block from this church building,
  • the destitute in Haiti, 
  • the orphans in Iraq and Afghanistan, 
  • the military veterans of America forced to live on the street. 
This is a jarring thought, this notion that those who have nothing of what the world values most are blessed by God.

We’d much rather quote Jesus’ words from Matthew and speak of ourselves as being poor in spirit. To be poor in spirit sounds less specific, like a description of people who are, well, just like know, ordinary.

But when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,…blessed are the hungry….blessed are you who weep now,” it may make us feel left out. While all of us in this sanctuary have experienced or are experiencing adversities in life, few of us have known the yawning emptiness and grief that Matt Hasselback saw in George McVee and the lepers in Jamaica.

In fact, George McVee seems to be exactly the sort of person Jesus is describing in the first verses of today’s Gospel lesson.

But where exactly is the blessedness of poverty or disfiguring disease, in poverty or hunger or grief?

Matt Hasselbeck saw how even those experiencing the worst that life brings can be God’s blessed ones.

The people he met on that college mission trip were stripped of things that we all count as valuable, things like money, property, position, health.

But precisely because they lacked such things, these people turned to Jesus Christ and found...
  • a God Who loved them, 
  • a Friend Who would stand by them no matter what, 
  • a Lord Who would give them a peace that passes all understanding, 
  • a life that will never end. 
All people should be so poor, so destitute, so empty!

Jesus, of course, isn’t saying that only the poor, hungry, and grieving can have a relationship with Him.

Nor is he saying that folks like these aren’t sinners.

Salvation is still a matter of sinful human beings, in response to all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ, turning from our sin and trusting our whole lives to Jesus Christ.

That’s true whatever our circumstances in life.

But it also is true to say, that the poor, hungry, and grieving, though, have a much easier time knowing how much they need God!

When you’re cruising along in life with a full belly, cash in your bank account, and no troubles on the horizon, it’s easy to forget about God, easy to think you don’t need God. Life’s tragedies and difficulties can act as, in a wonderful phrase coined by C.S. Lewis, God’s trombones. It's hard to ignore trombones! And when adversities blare at us, they wake us up, showing us how much we need God after all.

So, where does that leave you and me, people who, by the mysteries of life and history find ourselves not living in places like Jamaica, Haiti, Sudan, Indonesia, Iraq, or the inner city of Columbus, people whose lives, though not untouched by difficulty, are still likelier easier than most of the people who have ever lived or who are living now?

We find the answer to that question in a verse that comes just before our Gospel lesson, one that sets the stage for it. It’s Luke 6:17, which you’ll find in the pew Bibles on page 592. This passage comes just after Jesus calls the twelve apostles, an event that happens up on a mountaintop after Jesus prays. It says:
And He came down with them and stood on a level place with a crowd of His disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem, and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear Him and be healed of their diseases...***
Jesus could have stayed on the mountaintop, could have kept spending time with His Father in prayer. But He came to a level place, the place where all of us—rich and poor, hungry and full, happy and sad—live.

This same Jesus tells us today that those who are truly blessed—those who are His saints—are the ones who, filled with the certainty of a grace that loves us just as we are and is committed to helping us to become all that God made us to be, live in those same level places.

Saints aren’t exalted beings whose lives are spent in a series of mountaintop experiences.

Saints are ordinary sinners, just like us, who, through Jesus, have been filled with the power to live in life’s ordinary places and, when a need is made known to them, extend Christ’s hand of love to others.

Ann, our then two year old son Philip, and I were living in the almost-one bedroom cinder block apartments the seminary had originally built for single students, but which were then being used as housing for seminarians with a spouse and a child. We didn’t have two pennies to rub together. As the saying goes, "We had nothing and thought we were going to keep it."

Ann commuted by bus to a job that paid close to minimum wage at the downtown Columbus Lazarus store. One day, she accidentally left her purse on the bus. It contained a couple of credit cards, a few dollars in cash, and her driver’s license. We put a stop on the credit cards and Ann planned on calling the BMV the next day to start the process of getting a new license.

But then our phone rang. It was a woman who had found Ann’s purse. We later met her. She was neat in appearance, but elderly and, from the look of things, could have used what little cash was in the purse herself. She was an African-American woman who worked as a cleaning lady and was raising her great-grandson.

As she handed the purse over to Ann, we thanked her profusely. She smiled and said, “I just loves the Lord.”

Folks, that is a saint.

No airs.

No self congratulation.

Just a person who lived Jesus’ love.

A saint isn’t a person grimly trying to live up to the golden rule Jesus cites at the end of our lesson—“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

They’re people so grateful to the God Who, in Christ, has come down to them, so filled with thankfulness for the undeserved blessings of God, that that the love commanded by the golden rule spills out of them every day…just because the Lord loves them and they loves the Lord.

May we ever be so thankful!

*The true story, extensively quoted, appeared in an issue of Sports Spectrum magazine three years ago.

**Leprosy, Hansen’s Disease, “can eventually cause a variety of skin problems, loss of feeling, and paralysis of the hands and feet.”

***This comes from the New King James Version translation.