Thursday, September 11, 2003

Septeber 11 Remembrance
On this sober anniversary of the most deadly attack ever on American soil, we will be remembering September 11, 2001 in different ways.

It's certainly appropriate for us to remember the many who lost their lives and to work and pray to insure that such horrors don't happen again.

It's appropriate also that we remember 9/11 by devoting ourselves and praying for those who are working to bring terrorists to justice.

A healthy patriotism, a deep appreciation for the uniqueness of America, where most of our citizens enjoy freedom and opportunity and where the constant theme of our history has been the struggle to expand freedom and opportunity to all people, is another way to memorialize this day, I think.

But I want to suggest two other ways in which we can remember 9/11.

America and Americans were never so compelling to other people in the world as we were on that horrible September day two years ago. Accustomed to seeing America as a colossus bestriding the world, enjoying untold material benefits, the heart of the world was pulled to America when it saw us attacked, saw a President who was strong enough to cry while speaking with reporters in the Oval Office, and witnessed the care and compassion we displayed toward one another and the appreciation with which we accepted the prayers and the help of other peoples. Seeing that we too were vulnerable human beings capable of suffering, the rest of the world wanted to help.

In the time since 9/11 however, old resentments against America and Americans have reappeared. Some of them may be unjustified. But some may be understandable. I fear that we have allowed our patriotism to harden into arrogance, into an angry striving for vengeance.

America is a miracle and a sacred trust. Each generation of Americans, with our different racial and national backgrounds, must take care to pass it on.

But we must be clear about what we mean when speak of passing America on to the next generation. America is more than a swath of geography spread across the Western Hemisphere and it is more than the sum of all our material possessions, technological achievements, or military power. America is an idea and an ideal. Both the idea and the ideal can be summed up in one word: freedom.

I believe that freedom came to America not because we were or are smarter, or better, or stronger, or richer than other peoples. When the thirteen colonies originally declared their independence from Mother England in 1776, there was little reason to think that they could win that independence from the world's greatest power. Nor, with the institution of slavery and our mistreatment of Native Americans, along with all the other sins common to the human race which existed in the fledgling country, could one argue that America was more virtuous or worthy than other nations or peoples. But God blessed and has blessed America for His own mysterious reasons.

In ancient Biblical times, God chose a group of people descended from an imperfect, sinful, and sometimes scheming group of patriarchs--Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--to create a nation that would act as a light to other nations and to give birth to the Light and Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. Over and over again, God's Word, the Bible, affirms that God chose Israel not because of any special qualities or virtues its people possessed. God chose them simply because God chose them. That should have evoked humility and a commitment to living life God's way--loving God and loving neighbor--from ancient Israel. Israel experienced God's grace, His undeserved favor, after all. But often, God's blessings caused Israel to be arrogant and forgetful of God, always to their detriment or destruction.

I don't equate America with ancient Israel. I don't even equate modern Israel with ancient Israel. The Bible's New Testament in fact, describes the Church as the new Israel.

But what I do say is this. For His own inscrutable reasons God chooses to bless people and nations--the just and the unjust alike, according to Jesus. In fact, each nation of the world has received blessings of all kinds.

God's call on the lives of those He blesses and His call on us as Americans, I believe, is twofold:

First: We need to humbly acknowledge all of our blessings.

Second: We need to humbly share our blessings with others.

The New Testament book of James says that every good and perfect gift comes from God. The gifts of America and our freedom come from God. I believe that on this September 11, we need to tell God we know that He has blessed us and thank God for it.

We also need to look for ways in our every day lives to be blessings to others, which is just another of way of saying, "Be a good neighbor."

My wife commented last night about driving home from work on 9/11. She noted something that many observed in the days following that horrible time. Drivers were incredibly courteous to one another.

It seemed to me that people were solicitous of each other in supermarket check-out lines and in the mall. People seemed to call and check up on each other with greater frequency. Volunteerism increased dramatically (only to shrink even more dramatically). Donations to food banks and blood banks went up. We got more interested in the world around us. I think that out of gratitude, we became good neighbors.

Jesus once told a story we've come to call The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). You know it well. A man was robbed and beaten badly and left for dead. Two different men, each blessed by God, each with special responsibilities in the spiritual life of ancient Israel, saw the man in his need and even though they could have been blessings to him, went on their ways. A third man came along, a member of the ethnic group most hated by Jesus' fellow Judeans--he was a Samaritan. The Samaritan approached the dying man, poured oil on his wounds, bandaged him, put the man on his animal, carried the man to a nearby inn, paid for his accommodations and care, and said that he would be back to check on things later. Jesus said that the person who cares for others like that Samaritan is a neighbor.

Of course, the ultimate Good Samaritan is Jesus. God saw us alienated from Him, facing the certainty of death and being separated from Him for all time, and went into action. He sent His Son Jesus into our world. When Jesus came to us, He went even further than the Good Samaritan. Jesus didn't just bind up the wounds caused by our sin, selfishness, and death. He was wounded Himself, taking the punishment we deserve for our sins, dying on a cross. He then rose from the dead as a sign that all who dare to turn away from sin and who humbly surrender their lives to Him, will live forever with God.

If we who are Americans follow Jesus Christ, however imperfectly (and I know that I am a most imperfect follower of Jesus), we have two reasons to humbly acknowledge our blessings and to humbly share our blessings with others. For one thing, we're blessed to live in America. Second and more importantly, we're blessed to belong to the God Who will never let us go.

Humility before the blessings of God may be the best way for us to commemorate September 11.
QUOTE FOR TODAY AND A BIBLE PASSAGE TO GO WITH IT: "The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself." (Mark Caine)

"Beloved [here, followers of Christ in first century Asia Minor are being addressed, but the words are for all Christians, whose true home is with God], I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when He comes to judge." (First Peter 2:11-12)

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

The Obsession Continues

In my last column, I mentioned two recent CD releases to which I've been obsessively--and enjoyably--listening: "More Than You Think You Are" by Matchbox Twenty and "The Beautiful Letdown" by Switchfoot. Today, I want to mention two other CDs that I highly recommend.

(1) "The Light of Things Hoped For..." is the second release from Brave Saint Saturn, a four-man group made up of members from the soon-to-be-defunct ska band, Five Iron Frenzy.

This release is a pleasant surprise, as the quartet's first CD was unimpressive. Reese Roper, who serves as part-time assistant pastor of the wonderfully-named Scum of the Earth Church in Denver, handles most of the composing and lead singing duties, as he did in his other band.

Many of the tracks seem to deal with the after-effects of a relational break-up. This helps to make "The Light of Things Hoped For..." the most emotionally poignant album I have heard since Bob Dylan's 1974 release, "Blood on the Tracks."

Roper has an interesting voice. His lyrics run the gamut from an irony reminiscent of Steve Taylor or They Might Be Giants to a tenderness that can evoke tears. Musically, this is a rock band that can occasionally break into ballads.

(2) Two members of the OC Supertones, calling themselves Grand Incredible, use overdubbing to sound like a traditional rock foursome on "G.I.gantic." While containing many thoughtful tracks, this is a fun release which is at times musically reminiscent of Elvis Costello or the J. Geils Band.

Like Switchfoot and Brave Saint Saturn, these Christian musicians produce more than praise music, although it should be remembered that according to the Bible, everything we do well and with the right intent can glorify God. The Bible says, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (First Corinthians 10:31). Martin Luther once said, "A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God." Today he might also say that a rock musician can do the same thing plunking his or her bass guitar.

Conversely, Christians should feel free to enjoy the work of non-Christian bands like Matchbox Twenty because, "every perfect gift" (one surmises that this includes the gift of musical talent) comes from God (James 1:17).

Whenever musicians use their talents to build up, strengthen, encourage, incite thought, give expression to our common emotions, or just positively entertain us, God is glorified.

Luther also said, "Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise." I believe that.
CDs to Obsess On
[I write a regular column for the Community Press newspapers in the Cincinnati area. This is the first of two columns I've just submitted dealing with four newer CDs I find myself listening to a lot these days.]

Music has always been important to me and I tend to obsessively listen to several new CDs for weeks or months on end before moving onto the next obsessions. Right now, my attention is on four recent releases, all of which I highly recommend. In this column, I'll review two of them and in the next, I'll look at the other two.

(1) Matchbox Twenty occupies a place in the contemporary pop-rock pantheon just one step below bands like U2 or the Rolling Stones. Security from their niche in the music world may explain the lyrical and musical confidence that is evident on each track of "More Than You Think You Are."

Although Matchbox Twenty is often derivative in their melodies and arrangements, the tunes–from rollicking rockers to ballads–are always satisfying. Lead singer and composer Rob Thomas pens wonderful lyrics; memorable lines abound on this CD.

(2) "The Beautiful Letdown" comes from Switchfoot, whose music off of previous releases added so much power and beauty to the movie, "A Walk to Remember." One word describes "The Beautiful Letdown": passion. But not the cheap version of that rich and important word that is often trotted out on prime time TV and in movies. Composer and lead singer Jon Foreman oozes with a passionate desire to live life to its fullest, refusing to take a single moment for granted.

Switchfoot isn't so much a Christian band as they are a band made up of Christians. The result of that twist on their identity is that Foreman and mates avoid the cliches of much Christian music today. There are no praise tracks here. Foreman is unapologetic about that. He said in a recent interview with "Guideposts for Teens" that not every building designed by a Christian architect is going to be a cathedral, so we shouldn't expect a Christian musician to only produce worship music.

But in Foreman's case, what you can expect are haunting melodies, engaging arrangements, sparse and insightful lyrics, and authentic wrestling with the real gut issues of life. Dim echoes of Sting and the Police can be heard in Switchfoot's work. But they really use their influences as launching pads for creating truly unique music. This is my favorite CD of the past year.

To be continued...

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Purpose Driven Living:
What's Life About?

Matthew 25:14-30
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, September 7, 2003)

An elderly woman approached me one day. "Mark," she said, "there's something that I've been meaning to ask you. Why exactly are we alive? I just can't figure out what life is all about." This an important question which everybody asks at least once in their lives, I think.

There are all sorts of answers that people give about the purpose of life. Author and business consultant Steven Covey once conducted a thorough study of all the self-improvement literature produced in America from Revolutionary times through the bicentennial year, 1976. Each of the books Covey surveyed tried to help people live "on purpose," to answer the question that woman posed to me: What exactly is my time on this earth supposed to be about? In his survey, Covey noticed something curious. For roughly the first 150-years he surveyed, the primary theme of all this literature was character, how to make oneself useful to God and neighbor. The underlying assumption would seem to have been that life's purpose is found in service to God and others. But then, this self-improvement literature took a major turn. Most of the books for the next fifty years, Covey observed, said that life was about getting: more money, more financial security, more power, more prominence. Twenty-seven years later, that's probably still true.

Back in the Stone Ages when I was growing up, the phrase American Dreamwas used of universal human desire to be free--free to worship, free to think, free to speak, free to live where we wanted, free to marry who we wanted, free to be our best selves. Now, it seems that the American Dream is about one thing: show me the money. The result is a deep seated unhappiness of the kind that prompted that woman to ask her question of me.

Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Life, begins with a truly subversive assertion for this day and age. He writes simply, "It's not about you." I don't know about you, but I find that a little hard to swallow. One of the reasons I so love the classic movie, It's a Wonderful Life, is that I identify with its main character, George Bailey. Any average two year old and everybody else on this planet has probably said or at least thought the words that George spoke to Mary that night he finally realized he was in love with her: "I want to do what I want to do!" So, if it's not about me, what is life about?

Our Bible lesson for this morning contains a famous story, or parable, that Jesus told during His time on earth. A wealthy man goes away for a time and leaves three employees in charge of talents. A talent was a unit of money. The boss doesn't leave the same amount of talents with each guy. He parcels them out according to their ability levels. One guy got five, another two, and the last guy got one talent. But you shouldn't feel sorry for the third guy. One talent was equivalent to about sixteen years of pay for the average wage earner in first century Judea. In today's money, the first worker was told to manage $2,080,000, the second $832,000, and the third guy $416,000, astronomical sums of money.

After doing this, Jesus tells us, the boss went away for an indefinite period of time. He didn't say when he was coming back exactly. The great nineteenth century devotional writer Andrew Murray, in his book God's Plans for You, points out that this is exactly what Jesus has done with us. After Jesus died and rose and spent forty more days with His followers, He ascended back into heaven and He said that He would come back one day, although none of us can know precisely when. Before He left though, Jesus entrusted incredible riches to us. To all followers of Jesus, He gave something called the Great Commission. He said that you and I are to be in the disciple-making business, helping others to turn from sin and death to instead, follow Jesus and receive everlasting life with God. Jesus also entrusted another treasure to all of us who call ourselves His followers: the Great Commandment. In it, He tells us to spend our lives loving and serving God and loving and serving our neighbor. On top of all that, the God we know through Jesus also gives to each of us our own custom-made cluster of blessings: our minds, our bodies, our talents, our passions, our interests. The value of all these treasures dwarfs anything the boss in Jesus' story gave to those three employees.

Jesus continued His story. The boss came back and called the three men together to give an accounting of what they had done with the talents with which he'd entrusted them. The first guy reported that he had been able to double the boss' money. The second had done the same. Because of their faithful pursuit of the boss' purposes, their portfolio was doubled. The more willingly you and I step out in faith, using the blessings of God to love God and love neighbor, the more God blesses us, sometimes in ways we don't see or fully appreciate.

The third guy stepped forward. Timidly, he told the boss that he knew the boss to be a demanding character. He hadn't wanted to lose anything that he'd been given. "So," he says, "I buried the talent that you gave me. Here it is; I'm giving it back." This poor old dufus probably thought he was doing a good thing. Instead, the boss takes away the talent, gives it to the first guy, the one who had taken the bigger risks, and threw the third guy into what Jesus calls "the outer darkness." Jesus explains:

" all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."

The late humorist Erma Bombeck once wrote about a recurring dream she had:

"[In it]...I am asked to give an accounting of to a higher court, it [goes] like this: 'So, empty your pockets. What have you got left of your life? Any dreams that were unfulfilled?
Any unused talent that we gave you when you were born that you still have left? Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven't spread around?

"And I will answer, 'I've nothing to return. I spent everything you gave me. I'm as naked as the day I was born.'"

You and I will never find our purpose in life by dedicating our lives to getting. Nor will we find our purpose by holding back, hoarding all of God's gifts to us. We find our purpose in life when we commit ourselves to giving ourselves, our time, our talent, and our treasures in service to God and neighbor.

From Jesus' Great Commission and His Great Commandment, we know that life is really about five basic things: loving God with our whole lives; being active participants in God's family, the Church; letting God hammer at and mold us into becoming more like Jesus Christ; willingly serving God and other people; and telling others about how Jesus changes us from God's enemies to being God's friends.

Living life that way isn't always easy, for sure. But I firmly believe that until we begin to live our lives for God's purposes, we won't be living. Life--real life--can only be found when we start to live it in accordance with the specifications invented by the One Who gave us life in the first place!

When we yield control of our lives and let Jesus Christ take control, using whatever gifts God has given to us, for God's purposes, then we will find the meaning and purpose for our lives. It begins with a simple act of surrender to Jesus Christ. That's what I want to invite you to do right now and everyday of your life.

[This series of messages is built around the book, The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, which the people of Friendship Church began reading together on Tuesday, September 2. While I don't agree with everything Warren writes in this book, it really is tremendous and I recommend it to everyone! Rick is a Baptist pastor who founded and serves the progressive Saddleback Valley Community Church in southern California.

[The Covey survey of self-improvement literature can be found in his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The interpretation of what he found is my own.

[The Erma Bombeck anecdote, taken from a column she wrote in 1987, appeared in an e-mailed inspiration by Methodist pastor Steve Goidier. Steve is a phenomenally insightful and helpful writer and I recommend that everybody with access to e-mail receive his Life Support mailings. You can e-mail Steve at: In addition to being a gifted writer and speaker, Steve is pastor of a congregation in Utah.]