Friday, December 31, 2004

I'll Take an "F" for Funny

Pat Sajak says that everybody is reviewing events of 2004. But since we all know what's just happened, that's easy. No matter what your politics, his review of events in 2008, is hysterically funny.

A Call to Prayer for Tsunami Victims

My colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot has shared the following Call to Prayer.

As the death toll mounts to over 100,000 from the recent 9.0
magnitude earthquake (4th largest in history) and subsequent
two-story high tsunami waves in Southwest Asia, pastors, churches and
Christians are being asked to take IMMEDIATE PRAYERFUL ACTION.

Although we sit safely in the protection of our homes,
churches and communities, we can still be directly involved
with those much less fortunate. We have the ability to pray
boldly on their behalf and extend the hope of Jesus Christ
to them through the power of our spoken PRAYERS.

PLEASE JOIN Christians in Fervent Prayer:

Ask God to reveal His peace and comfort to thousands of
grieving families.

Ask God to provide the necessary rescue workers, recovery
air lifts, and relief agencies today and in the months ahead
during the long rebuilding process.

Ask God to give wisdom to our President and our nation to respond
compassionately by caring for all involved as Jesus would.

Ask God to let you see the victims of the tragedy in Sri Lanka,
India, Indonesia or Thailand through His eyes in order to
move you to fervently petition that their critical needs will
be met spiritually and physically.

Thank God for sparing the west coast of the U.S. from the
effects of this earthquake and tsunami, but pray that our
hearts would be humbly and fully trusting in Him if we do
experience another disaster in our homeland.

Ask God to help us use this specific reminder to responsibly
prepare, as Scripture illustrates, and help others prepare for
any natural or man-made disaster that could occur closer to home.

This is a time to pray and a time to open our hearts and
checkbooks to help!

Glen VanderKloot
Faith Lutheran Church
Springfield, Illinois

Let the Conspiracy of Kindness Continue

My friend Steve Sjogren would love this column from by Ralph Kinney Bennett. May the conspiracy of kindness continue!

The mission statement for our congregation, by the way is this:

Friendship Lutheran Church is a welcoming and caring people who seek to share the kindness of God so that all metropolitan Cincinnati may grow in the faith, hope, and love of the living Christ!

And why not? The Bible tells us that it isn't damning people that leads them to repentance--turning from sin and to God--but, kindness!

Kindness is also fun, whether you're on the receiving or the giving end of it.

Ukraine's Impact on Freedom in the Old Soviet Union

Stephen Schwartz has interesting reflections on the implications of events in Ukraine on Uzbekistan and other republics of the late Soviet Union. He underscores just how pivotal a successful in democracy in Ukraine is.

More on a Dignified Inaugural Celebration

It's not too late for the President to scrub the elaborate Inauguration celebrations and to instead, celebrate American democracy with a simple, dignified service and a donation of unused private contributions for the event to tsunami relief efforts.

For more information on this gesture, designed to show respect both to the victims of the tsunamis and to our fighting men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq, see the following posts:



Tsunami Reporting Team Asks for Moderation in New Year's Eve Celebrations

The writers of SEA-EAT, a blog reporting on the tsunami tragedy, today asks for us all to remember the victims during our New Year's Eve celebrating.

Prayers for Peace

Deborah White has a moving set of prayer petitions for Peace in 2005.

How to Celebrate in the Midst of Suffering

In Part 7 of his series on Charles Dickens and Christmas, Mark Roberts has some helpful hints on how to celebrate in the midst of a world of suffering.

Agreement Between Sudanese Government and Rebels from South Feeds Hope for End of Darfur Genocide

While the signing of a treaty between the Islamic government of Sudan and Christian rebels from the south of that country has nothing to do with the genocide the government is perpetrating in the Darfur region, one can hope that it may mark a move in ending the area's suffering. Read the CBC article here.

The Passion of the Present acts as a wonderful clearinghouse of information on Sudan.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Advice from India

India Uncut has advice for those considering the donation of items rather than cash for relief efforts. Go there for other information about the Indian Ocean disaster in his country also.

Social Mobility in the US Today?

This article from The Economist raises important questions about the state of social mobility in America today.

Write to the White House, Asking President for Plainer Inaugural, Sending Contributed Money for Tsunami Relief

A few moments ago, I sent an email to the White House. In it, I asked the President to adopt the suggestion of Pastor Gordon Atkinson. Gordon, on his blog, Real Live Preacher, said he thought it would be a fine idea for the President to forget about an elaborate Inaugural blowout on January 20 and to instead, designate whatever money has not yet been spent of the privately-contributed funds for tsunami relief efforts.

I thought this was a capital idea! I feel it has special merit in light of the fact that we are at war, just as was the case when President Roosevelt opted for a simpler ceremony in 1945. (See here.)

Below is the text of the email I sent to the President:

Mr. President:
The Inauguration is a celebration of America's freedom and principles. Under normal circumstances, this celebration should be festive.

But as was true when President Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated for his fourth term in 1945, our nation is at war, young Americans fighting and dying.

In addition, the worst natural disaster in recent history is still unfolding in south Asia.

Under these circumstances, Mr. President, I suggest that the Inauguration on January 20, 2005, be a low-key and dignified affair held in the White House itself devoid of parades, balls, or other extrvagances. Then, I would hope that the bulk of monies contributed for the event will be designated for tsunami relief efforts.

This idea was first suggested by one of your fellow Texans, Pastor Gordon Atkinson on his popular blog, Real Live Preacher.

I think it's a great idea, one worthy of the greatness of America.

Have a wonderful new year, Mr. President.

Blessings in Christ,
Mark Daniels

If you would like to also send such an email to the President, it's a simple thing to do. Mr. Bush's email address is:

Ruminations on Giving to Our Global Community

This morning, a friend told me of a conversation she had yesterday.

"Isn't what's happened with the earthquakes and tsunamis horrible?" she asked a man she knows.

"Well, you know" the fellow said, "the populations in those countries were awfully huge anyway."

My friend could hardly believe what she was hearing. It seemed as though this man was suggesting that the massive earthquake and tsunamis were a fortuitous means of trimming the excess population of south Asia.

This guy's comments seemed gruesomely similar to those of the unreconstructed Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

There, two gentlemen have entered Scrooge's counting house, soliciting funds to help the poor. Scrooge asks if the prisons and work houses have closed. When assured that they haven't, Scrooge tells the gentlemen that the poor for whom they seek funds can very well go to those places for the help they need, not to him.

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die," Scrooge is told.

"If they would rather die," [Scrooge says], they had better do it and decrease the
surplus population..."
There have been indignant responses to the UN official who called Americans "stingy." He backtacked from that assessment when he began to see the outpouring of contributions coming from Americans and their government.

But it should be said that when people have the sort of wealth and ease that most Americans in the middle class and above enjoy, there is a danger of our developing a Scrooge mentality.

A few years back, I was talking with a neighbor. The news at the time was filled with stories of a famine endangering the lives of millions of people. "I happily donate money to animal shelters and the humane society," my neighbor told me, "but I wouldn't send a dime to help hungry people. The way I figure it, it's all about the survival of the fittest."

I considered the expanding paunch around our middles, his and mine, and suppressed the urge to tell him, "The fittest? Neither one of us is a Charles Atlas."

I know, of course, that my neighbor wasn't suggesting that we were physically fitter to live than the victims of hunger or disaster. He was saying that in America, we have a greater capacity to cope with disaster, to withstand and overcome the fickle forces of nature.

But that has nothing to do with anything I've done. Generations of people who relied on God and each other, worked hard, and accomplished much have given me the middle class life style I take for granted.

I'm pretty certain too, that if some massive disaster hit me or my neighbor, we both would hope and pray that the world wouldn't regard us as "surplus population" or as the appropriate victims of some inexorable law called, "the survival of the fittest."

"Where you live should not decide, whether you live or whether you die," sings U2's Bono in the song, Crumbs from Your Table. Nor should where we live decide whether we harden our hearts to the living and dying of others.

Jesus once shocked His followers when he said that it's harder for a rich person to enter God's kingdom than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Wealth--and by the standards of the world, most Americans are fabulously wealthy--can lull us into a hypnotic somnambulence. Largely insulated from the pains with which the vast majority of the human population must wrestle, we can view our material well-being and the intellectual and physical capacities God gives us to obtain it, as only our due.

It isn't! Fortunately, I have several friends whose examples constantly remind me of that fact. They're what I would describe as middle-middle income people. They're comfortable, but they aren't taking vacations four times a year either. They all are resolute about making giving and responding compassionately to the needs of others a regular part of their lives. They believe that as difficult as it sometimes can be to keep that resolve, it's the only thing that keeps them from dehumanizing themselves, reducing their existences to piling up money which, after all, they won't take with them beyond the grave. Their examples inspire me!

Everything we have is a gift that God has entrusted to us to be used not just for ourselves and our needs, but also for our neighbors.

I'm a middle class white American. This notion of giving and being available to the hurting people of the world is tough for me to accept. But, grateful for all the blessings God has given to me, it only makes sense to me that when my neighbor--whether the one across the street or across the ocean--suffers, I should share those blessings.

Dickens writes at the beginning of his classic story that Scrooge resolutely kept to himself. We may try to do that, too. But in our increasingly interdependent global village, it's becoming harder to turn away from the crying needs of those on distant shores. Especially in the case of a tragedy of the magnitude we see unfolding in south Asia today.

I pray for the character, grace, and faith to turn toward those needs...and to offer what help I can.

To make contributions, click on the links to the following various relief organizations:


World Vision

Lutheran World Relief

Catholic Relief Services

American Red Cross

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

People from Flyover Territory, Unite!

Hugh Hewitt has a withering piece about the attitudes which at least some in what he describes as the "legacy media" have about anywhere but New York, Washington, and LA. I think he's right. Whether some folks want to admit it or not, people really do have brains and abilities in Flyover Territory.

Inaugurals Are a Celebration of US Democracy

Cincinnati-area attorney Stan Chesley is a major fund-raiser for Democratic Party candidates. But check out this post on his contribution to the President's Inaugural celebration. I'll bet that Chesley would be willing to see his money go to tsunami-relief efforts.

An Example of Generosity

Cincinnati businessman Carl Lindner has donated $200,000.oo to fuel the transport of relief supplies to tsunami-afflicted south Asia. Lindner, a committed Christian, has also been active in efforts at combating anti-semitism, among other important causes.

What If the President Cut Back on the Inaugural Celebrating in January?

Gordon Atkinson at Real Live Preacher hit a nerve with this post. In it, he suggests that President Bush cut back on the nearly-$30-million Inaugural celebration, instead opting for a simple White House ceremony and forwarding the money onto relief agencies assisting those hit by the tsunamis this past weekend.

I don't think that Gordon was suggesting that Americans are stingy, as did UN emergency aid chief Jan Egeland the other day.

But I do think Gordon was saying that in light of the tsunami tragedies and other such events, it would be good for all of us to periodically examine our priorities.

While we certainly want to celebrate our American democracy and our unity as a nation when our presidents are inaugurated, we have taken to spending an enormous amout of money in doing so. (All of it private contributions.)

It seems reflective of the lavishness that often characterizes America today.

A friend of mine, a Republican officeholder, gained an electoral promotion in the 2004 general election. This came after he defeated a well-heeled and politically-connected opponent in a fiercely-contested primary in March. Before the primary, he and I had breakfast together one morning. He knew that, if initial projections proved accurate, he and his opponent were going to be spending a huge amount of money on their campaigns.

He shook his head and said wistfully, "When I think of all the good things that could be done with that feeding hungry makes me sick. But that's what the system has come to..."

There is so much excess in our society.

There is also much generosity.

Sometimes, as was true for my friend, we get caught in the trap of having to be excessive. If my friend had any hope of winning his election and using his abilities, principles, and integrity for the people of our area, he had to engage in fund-raising and campaign spending which he personally regards as being both excessive and offensive.

But what should we all do--presidents, paupers, plumbers, politicians, preachers, and others--when we have the choice between excess and generosity?

Speaking for myself, I must admit that more often than should be the case, I engage in selfish excess.

The tsunamis give us all the chance to examine our personal priorities and decide how we best can love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

In 1945, with America still at war (and his health in obvious decline), President Franklin Roosevelt opted for a simple Inaugural ceremony as he was sworn in for his fourth term.

Maybe with our nation at war now and the chance our President has to put a large amount of private money to good use, helping the victims of what is probably the greatest natural disaster in history, he could decide to simplify his Inaugural ceremony and send the money on to agencies like UNESCO, World Vision, Lutheran World Relief, and others.

Such a step, I think, would show respect to the young men and women risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan right now and provide needed funds for an important relief effort.

To my mind, it would be a very appropriate way to celebrate the greatness and the goodness of America.

The Tsunamis: Putting the Numbers in Perspective (Plus: Link to Excellent Interview)

Evangelical Outpost has a short, arresting piece that puts the current tsunami death toll--60,000--in perspective. He also has other relief organization contact addresses besides that of Lutheran World Relief. Whatever of the many reputable relief organizations you choose to support, it appears that there is tremendous coordination happening among them.

By the way: Margaret Warner, senior correspondent on The NewsHout with Jim Lehrer, had an interesting and informative interview last night with the heads of Oxfam, America and of Catholic Relief Services.

Kilimanjaro Climb Update

Nancy Beck, executive director of the Clermont County Boys and Girls Club, is preparing to climb Mount Kilimanjaro next year. She's not just doing it as a matter of personal achievement, though. She's also accepting sponsorships for those who will pledge financial contributions to the Club after she completes the climb.

Nancy has posted quite a lot of new stuff to her blog, Climbing for Kids' Sake. I hope that you'll go there and check it out. I also hope that if you've got a spare million or so just collecting interest somewhere, that you consider making a pledge--even a pledge far more modest than a million--to her climb for kids.

More Great Things to Read from Mark D. Roberts

Mark Roberts is so good. Check out his new blog series called Christmas According to Dickens.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Reds Incite Pennant Dreams for '05

For a time this off-season, we Reds fans were resigning ourselves to another season of being among the also-rans.

But lately, there have been signals that the team that, in spite of suspect pitching, stood at first place in the NL Central for two months of the 2004 season, might be making a serious run in the 2005 campaign.

This would seem to confirm that those signals.

Also, check out John Fay's analysis.

Book Nook

I finished reading Joseph J. Ellis' fine biography of George Washington, His Excellency, several days ago. I've already spent a good deal of time riffing off of Ellis' insights into Washington and his times. So, I won't write more here. While I prefer Richard Norton Smith's treatment of Washington, I do recommend this book.

Not long ago, I mentioned having purchased The Gospel Code by New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III. In it, Witherington deals with the faulty notions on which a recent best-seller, soon to be a movie, is based. I'm about half-way through this book and I must tell you that I enthusiastically recommend it!

With the credentials and abilities of a scholar and the writing skills of a good columnist, Witherington convincingly dismantles the notions that inform Dan Brown's fatally-flawed, The DaVinci Code.

He points out, contrary to Brown's assertions, that:
  1. The Gospels found in the New Testament portion of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) pre-date the so-called Gnostic Gospels. The Biblical works are closer to the actual events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Even the most skeptical of scholars agree that the latest of the four Biblical gospels, John, was written no later than 150 A.D. They therefore, were not repressed by the early church, as Brown suggests: they simply appeared, works of fiction, later.
  2. It's simply not true that Jesus was only declared divine as well as human under the prodding of Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea. All of the New Testament material---from the Gospels to the letters of Saint Paul---view Jesus as being divine as well as human and they precede the Nicene Council by at least 175 years. (Check out Philippians 2:5-11; John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1: 1-4; Colossians 1:15-20) While the Council at Nicaea wrestled with the question of how Jesus was divine, that He was divine was never questioned.
  3. There is simply zero evidence to support the proposition that Jesus married Mary Magdalene.
  4. Witherington also points out that, contrary to Brown's apparent assumptions, Jesus being married would present no problem for the Christian witness that He lived a sinless earthly life. The Bible does not believe that sex is sinful or decadent. The Bible does believe that sex within marriage is a blessing from God. Therefore, it would not have been sinful for Jesus, truly God and truly human, to have been married. But the Biblical witness is that Jesus chose not to marry in order to focus on His mission of revealing God, dying on the cross for our sin, and rising from death to give those with faith in Him new life.
This is a fascinating book and I hope that all fair-minded people will read it.

Finally, I've just begun a book I've long wanted to read, London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. Until now, I found the cost prohibitive. But I was able to pick up a copy at Half Price Books for much less than half-price. Ackroyd is a wonderful writer and though I've only just made a modest dent in this massive book, I'm already enjoying it!

Is This a Story About PC Politics from Across the Pond?

George Miller of 'London Calling' is upset because the UK's Inland Revenue (collectors of the nation's income tax) is contemplating a change in inheritance laws. Presently, Britain's widows receive their husbands' estates tax-free, as I understand it. But Muslims in the country have been long lobbying for a change in the rules. The change would allow multiple wives of husbands of Muslims observing the religious rule of sharia to also receive a piece of the inheritance tax-free. Miller calls this an incentive for polygamy.

I wondered what might be motivating this policy review because, should it be adopted, a nightmare would likely ensue. Some would see it as preferential treatment for the adherents of one religion. Others would call for similar flexibility for others in the distribution of their estates.

While the IR, as it's called, may have an independent board of governors, it nonetheless falls under the supervision of the Chancelor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, a member of the Labour Party inner circle around Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair will soon be required to call a general election. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats appear to be incapable of dislodging Mr. Blair and his party from power. But the Labourites are probably concerned. The PM's enthusiastic involvement with the war in Iraq is not popular in the UK.

In the meantime, demographics show that the Muslim vote in any elections will be very important. There are now more Muslims than Presbyterians, Methodists, Sikhs, Hindus, or Jews in the UK. And they are a more cohesive group than others.

Is the Inland's policy review about politics and demographics more than any notions of what's just or fair?

More on Russia and Ukraine Mending Fences

This article from the December 29 edition of the online The Times (from London) talks about the efforts to mend fences between Ukraine and Russia following the latter's attempts to disrupt the elections in Ukraine. Most interesting to me was this, quoting a Kremlin functionary:
An economic adviser to the Kremlin said yesterday that the vote was a wake-up call for Russia. “Ukraine is our most important partner in showing us that we can get rid of our complex about empire,” Andrei Illarionov said.

“Russia cannot become truly democratic and develop economically unless it ceases to be an empire.
Governments and nations that impose themselves on others can never be truly free themselves. They must always watch their backs, always deal with the human and financial expenses of maintaining their dominance, and risk exposing the fact that even if it's not true that the 'emperor has no clothes,' he certainly is vulnerable.

Great Editorial About New Ukraine President and Putin

The New York Times has today published an editorial about the election of Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency of Ukraine. It suggests that Yushchenko's win is a victory for democracy and that the new president will have a difficult time of it. The eastern and southern portions of the country, the regions with the greatest economic potential, are also the parts of Ukraine that voted against him and wish to see the country aligned with Russia, rather than with Europe and the West. It's also a place of loose talk about seceding from the rest of Ukraine.

The editorial's comments about Russian president Vladimir Putin are particularly interesting:
For his part, Mr. Putin disgraced himself by meddling in the internal affairs of Ukraine - which he clearly considers one of his territories. He even summoned Ukrainian authorities to a Moscow airport to demand that the first compromised election results stand. Now Russia has lost face. Mr. Putin may well have been playing solely to Kremlin hard-liners opposed to the West, but in so doing, he alienated the eventual winner of the Ukrainian balloting.

Initial reports suggest that Mr. Yushchenko is so far proving to be the bigger man. Last week he said that his first trip after the election would be to Moscow. It would certainly now behoove Mr. Putin to paste a smile on his face and put a spring in his step as he welcomes the new Ukrainian president.
Good advice! Now, if Putin could simply be made to learn what it means to be the president of a free country.

If You're Considering Donating to Relief Efforts

Among the world's most cost-efficient and effective international relief organizations is Lutheran World Relief. I would say this whether I were a Lutheran Christian or not. For years, LWR has been recognized by any number of organizations and publications as the world's best-run charity, its effectiveness and range of activities being disproportionate to the numbers of Lutherans comprising the world's population.

So, as you consider where to donate monies to go toward bringing relief to the many effected by the recent Indian Ocean tsunamis, you might want to consider a donation to Lutheran World Relief.

Here are relevant links:

Lutheran World Relief

LWR information on relief efforts already happening: here, here, here.

Page on which you can make contributions.

Another good relief organization is World Vision.

Let me hasten to add that I have no personal connection with Lutheran World Relief, apart from my denominational affiliation. But through that "connection," I have received frequent reports of the organization's activities. That's why I feel so comfortable in recommending it as way people can financially respond to the needs of the victims of the recent tsunamis.

The congregation of which I am pastor sponsors a young Zimbabwean child through World Vision. I also have a high regard for that organization.

Indian Ocean Disaster Raises Questions

The sadness from the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunamis compounds, it seems, by the moment. The present death toll is estimated at about 50,000.

A tragedy of these dimensions can't help but cause us to reflect deeply on life and tragedy. Below are links to a recent series I wrote on When Tragedy Hits the Innocent:

When Suffering Hits the Innocent, Part 1

When Suffering Hits the Innocent, Part 2

When Suffering Hits the Innocent, Part 3

When Suffering Hits the Innocent, Part 4

Bouts with Bedhead Help Teach Valuable Life Lesson

For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from what can only be described as industrial strength bedhead.

Five minutes of slumber can give my hair more swirls, ridges, and flat points than you’re likely to find in half-finished Jello after a potluck.

Mostly though, my bedhead causes every strand of my mane to protrude like the quills of a porcupine.

Through the years, if people have caught glimpses of me in the mornings before I’ve had the chance to put a ball cap on, laughter is the sure result.

I used to wonder why folks laughed. After all, I reasoned, doesn’t everybody’s hair look this bad when they wake up?

Sure, I’d seen numerous TV shows and movies in which the hair of characters awakened from deep sleep looked like they just left a barber or hairdresser. But, I knew, these people really had just left barbers and hairdressers. Hollywood fantasy was one thing, I thought, but bedhead was the common lot of the human race.

Gradually though, I came to realize that my bedhead was different. It really is industrial strength.

I’ve always been competitive. Some practitioners of psychoanalysis would no doubt say that part of this stems from feelings of inferiority left over from my childhood. They’d say that I have a need to excel at things to compensate for areas in which I might feel wanting. All of that may be true. But I can tell you that as silly as it sounds, I have entertained fleeting feelings of resentment that some people can wake up in the mornings looking as though they’ve just stepped from the shower, while I look like someone who has never seen a shower.

Now, don’t make a big deal out of my confessional. Although I’ve never seen an episode of Seinfeld, I’m culturally-aware enough to know that I must assure people reading this that I don’t spend time obsessing on this subject.

But I bring it up because comparing ourselves to others is a trap.

Jesus once told a parable about a wealthy man who took a trip and entrusted some of his property to three different servants he left behind. To the first, he gave five “talents” (a term used for money, but which stands for all the assets with which you and I can be blessed in life); to the second, three; and to third, one.

Jesus said that when the wealthy man came back from his trip, he was pleased that the first two servants had doubled the money with which they’d been entrusted. But he was enraged to find that the third guy had, out of fear, simply buried his one talent and handed it back to the master. (Matthew 25:14-30)

The point is that you and I have no control over how many talents God gives to us or how extensive our talents may be. My job isn’t to compare myself to others or to nurture resentment because somebody else is more talented than I am.

My talents are God’s gifts to me. But as the old saw so aptly puts it, what I do with my talents is my gift back to God.

Bedhead always goes away when I shower. Chances are that lots of the things that give us pangs of inferiority feelings can also be overcome.

We owe it to God, the world, and ourselves to make sober judgments about our personal assets (Romans 12:3) and then dedicate ourselves to making good on God’s investment in us.

Fortunately, the God Who, through Jesus, accepts us we are is also committed to helping us become our best selves. (Ephesians 2:8-10) It’s simply a matter of getting over ourselves and allowing Him to help us.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Continuing Help and Prayers Needed for Victims of Pacific Disaster

The numbers are staggering! The death toll from the tsunami in the Pacific is now estimated to be over 20,000. Please continue praying for the people in nine different countries impacted by this natural disaster.

The singlemost effective relief organization in the world, in terms of efficiency and bang for the buck is Lutheran World Relief.

Another organization worthy of financial support at this time is World Vision.

On-the-Ground Journaling of Ukraine Election

From Ukraine, check out this on-the-ground journaling.

Where is the Real Danger in US Economy?

Is what James Glassman calls "the glorious period of Wealth Americana" coming to an end?

Unlike some analysts of the US economy, Glassman, writing at isn't alarmed by the US budget deficit, which he views as being relatively inconsequential, or the current performance of the US dollar against the euro.

Instead, Glassman speaks of three major clouds on the US economy:
• We're developing a science gap. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Adam Segal points out that "38 percent of America's scientists and engineers with doctorates were born outside this country." Now, as their own Asian economies strengthen and as we take steps that make work here less attractive, such as accounting changes that force companies to drop their stock-option plans, these U.S.-educated scientists are going back home. Innovation will shift elsewhere as our government skimps on basic research in the hard sciences. In R&D, the United States is already starting to trail countries like Japan and South Korea.

• We're discouraging what economist John Maynard Keynes called "animal spirits" -- the drive to take business and investing risks that ultimately benefit others as well as ourselves. Proximate cause of the new risk aversion is runaway lawsuits and stultifying regulations like those in the Sarbanes-Oxley law that followed the Enron scandal. But at root is a general attitude of entitlement and irresponsibility spread by politicians who promise constituents wealth without risk or pain.

• We won't have enough workers to provide the Social Security and Medicare benefits for retired Americans. Today, there are 3.3 workers per retiree; by 2030, the figure will be just 2.2. If benefits are cut and taxes are raised, then the standard of living of groups will decline.
Glassman goes on to worry that the latter two "dangers," as he calls them are cultural or social, "
the result of a decline in striving, a lack of striving, a softness that has afflicted every other great nation in history. Call it American decadence -- our own version of what happened to the Roman Empire."

In a society composed of human beings, of course, decadence is inevitable. It resides in me and Mr. Glassman and every other member of the human race.

And I would agree with him that a lack of industry is decadent.

But so too, is hyper-materialism, the notion that we must always be striving for more material wealth, else it will spell the end of American civilization. Untrammeled materialism with no thought of how we can share the blessings we've received is incredibly decadent.

The antidote, from my perspective, is an individual connection with God which causes us to see that whether it's made possible by our brain, brawn, or a combination thereof, our capacity to generate income comes from God. That insight in turn, will make us more inclined to share and that includes sharing opportunities with others.

Was 2004 the Year of the Blogger?

There is an awful lot of blog triumphalism and blog smugness these days. Bloggers clearly played a role in the 2004 campaign. My feeling is that blogging will not reach its full potential though, until it triggers the sort of "glocal" (global and local) mutual communications--and in much more than just the realm of politics--of which it is capable.

But Edward B. Driscoll, Jr.'s article at, The Year of Blogging Dangerously, points out that blogging has had its impact over the course of 2004. He picks, David Letterman-style, from 10 to 1, the most important blog stories of the year. Number 1, as you can imagine, was 'Rathergate,' a story blown open largely by Powerline.

Smugness is something always to be avoided. But it will be interesting to see what 2005 brings to the realm of blogdom.

Democracy Wins in Ukraine!

Democracy has won in Ukraine! From the New York Times article on the presidential election:
Viktor A. Yushchenko, the opposition leader, appeared headed for a resounding victory early Monday in a riveting presidential race marked by intrigue, charges of poisoning, fervent street demonstrations and widespread abuses of state power.

There were no independent reports of the egregious election violations that had discredited the previous round of voting. Mr. Yushchenko, addressing supporters at this headquarters, predicted an end at last to an extended and bitter election season.

"It has happened," said Mr. Yushchenko, his face still disfigured from dioxin poisoning this fall for which he has blamed his adversaries in the government. "Today we are turning a page of lies, censorship and violence." Ahead, he said, lay a "new epoch of a new great democracy."

With 74 percent of the votes from the Sunday election counted, Mr. Yushchenko was leading Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovich by 55 percent to 40 percent, according to the Central Election Commission. The early results placed him within the range predicted by surveys of voters exiting the polls, which gave the opposition a 15- to 20-point lead.
I'm praying that the results will now be accepted peacefully by all and that Russia and its allies within Ukraine will do nothing to disrupt the peaceful transition of executive power.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Film Reviewer Identifies Trend in New Christmas Releases

Orlando Sentinel religion editor Mark Pinsky, writing in the often-irreverent, but often insightful magazine, Ship of Fools, reviews three new Christmas movies--including one produced for airing on cable by my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America--and concludes that each showcase a Christmas without Jesus Christ. If so, they all fit in with a general trend in US culture. Although I've never felt that every Christmas story needs to be about the Christmas story, there seems to be an increasing trend toward the secularization of the holiday.

Hewitt Book Promises to Be Interesting

Hugh Hewitt is among the most prominent of bloggers. (As well as a conservative talk show host.) It's likely that few have a firmer grasp on the power and potential of this medium than Hewitt. That's why I'm looking forward to reading his soon-to-be-released book, Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World.

A Review of 'Feeding Your Appetites' by Stephen Arterburn and Dr. Debra Cherry

Stephen Arterburn has become a cottage industry. An search yields references to numerous books which he has authored, co-authored, or to which he's made contributions.

The founder of New Life Ministries and host of a daily radio show that focuses on the connection between Christian spiritual insights and psychological issues, I'd always assumed that Arterburn was a counseling psychologist.

It turns out that isn't the case. But often, he enlists counselors to co-author his books.

I'd never read any of Arterburn's work. But at an outlet store recently, I picked up a copy of Feeding Your Appetites: Take Control of What's Controlling You!, which he co-authored with Dr. Debra Cherry, a clinical psychologist.

Frankly, the content of this book would probably better fit a decent two-installment magazine article. But as it's probable that it will reach a wider audience as a book, I suppose that the appearance of it in this form is justifiable.

The basic thesis of the book, with which I agree, is that "every human being has an inborn desire to know God, but our personal and selfish wants get in the way." In essence, Arterburn and Cherry tell us, because we can't see God and because we'd rather not submit to God's dominion over our lives, we allow God-imitators like money, sex, food, work, and ego--things that we delude ourselves into believing we can control--to become the object of our seeking.

Writes Arterburn, who at one time was overwhelmed by what can only be described as an addiction to food:
When I realized that I couldn't get my appetites under control on my own strength, I started down the road to healing. After I surrendered my considerable burdens to the God who created me and admitted that fixing myself was beyond my capabilities, God brought my appetites back under control.
If this sounds like the famed Twelve Steps first developed in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement, it should. Arterburn and Cherry say good things about the Twelve Steps and really, commend it as the way to freedom from various addictions. That's appropriate given that AA was spawned under the direct influence of Christian theology. (I've heard one of my favorite preachers, Gerald Mann, say that the Twelve Steps of AA are nothing other than "the Gospel in drag.") The book has an appendix called, "Twelve Steps to Successfully Feeding Your Appetites." In other words, how to replace our hunger for artificial gods with a relationship with the real God.

There's much to commend this book. We all struggle to lead balanced lives and to get free to be our best selves. I suspect that this little volume can help some do that.

Fast Company's Lessons from the Rockettes

Fast Company, whether in its online or paper-based magazine formats, has become one of my favorites. Here are their five lessons for leaders and managers from Radio City Music Hall's Rockettes. Two observations:

1. It's easier for groups to maintain focus and avoid personality conflicts when they have specific, defined tasks that are fulfilled on a date certain. This fact may explain why life among the Rockettes is relatively friction-free and why so many participants want to come back to the show year after year.

But this insight has special application to volunteer organizations, I think. So often, volunteer leaders recruit persons for membership in nebulously-defined committees with open-ended time horizons. That's a prescription for volunteer frustration as conflicts arise and mission drift makes everyone feel that they're tethered to a raft going over Niagara Falls.

The answer, from my perspective, is for leaders to rely much more heavily on task forces. The result? High morale stemming from a clearly defined purpose toward which all task force members are working and an openness to taking on other, sometimes more demanding, tasks later on.

2. In established organizations, the best thing for leaders to do is blend the old traditions with innovations that promise to work better than current practices. This is less threatening to those with ownership of old ways of doing things and demonstrates the leader's respect for past practices and the people behind them.

The King!

Matthew 2:13-25
(Message shared with the people of Friendship Church, December 26, 2004)

This past week, people in Tbilisi, a city in the nation of Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, had a tearful celebration. They commemorated the 125th. anniversary of the birth of Josef Stalin. Oddly, a large number of people in the old USSR remember Stalin fondly, which may explain why many in contemporary Russia like the dictatorial actions of their current president, Vladimir Putin.

Along with Adolf Hitler, Stalin was among the most murderous despots in world history. He killed millions of people in violent purges designed to maintain his complete authority. Josef Stalin was intent on being king of his world and would brook no opposition, real or imagined.

That’s not a new phenomenon. One of the people about whom our Bible lesson tells us is King Herod. This king, Herod the Great, was the father of the Herod (the one also known as Herod Antipas) who saw to it that Jesus would be crucified some twenty-eight to thirty-three years later.

But this Herod wasn’t a nice guy either. When he learns that the long-promised Savior of the world, the ultimate king of the Jews, has been born somewhere in Bethlehem at some point within the two years before the wise men showed up in his territory, Herod is excited...but not happily so.

Now, let’s be clear about something. Herod believed there was a God Who had promised to send a new king for the world. He even believed that the prophecies had come to pass in Bethlehem. But he didn’t like any of it. As novelist Frederick Buechner has written, “For all his enormous power, [Herod] knew there was somebody in diapers more powerful still.”

Herod’s view of Christmas was not that different from that of the average Christian's. He was certain that all the events of the first Christmas that you and I know believe to have happened did happen in just the way we say. He would even agree with us that all these Christmas happenings were from God. But he was the king and he didn’t even want to let God replace him!

So, in a futile attempt to thwart God’s power, Herod ordered the murder of every child in Bethlehem two years of age or younger.

That this was horrible, any decent person will readily agree. It puts Herod in company with Stalin, Hitler, and other tyrants of history.

But on this day after Christmas, as we prepare to move into a new year, let me ask you something. I need to ask it of myself all the time. It's this: Who is the king of your life? Who’s in charge?

You see, it’s one thing to believe that the baby born in Bethlehem two-thousand years ago was God-in-the-flesh, Who came to our world in order to die and rise for us. A huge percentage of Americans believe that as an intellectual proposition.

But the real question that confronts us is whether we’re willing to let Jesus be our King, the final authority over our lives.

Are we willing to surrender to Jesus and give our obedience to Him?

Herod was unwilling to do that. We may not be despotic rulers, but we still like being the kings of our own worlds. At least, that’s true for me and I suspect it may be true for you, too.

At 7:30 Christmas Eve morning, I sat at my computer, writing. I’d been up for an hour, the day before had been spent, as I’m sure was true for many of you, digging my family out of the snowstorm and helping some neighbors do the same. I was intent that this day, I would get this message done. I didn’t want it hanging over my head on Christmas day.

It was then that I heard a car obviously stuck in the snow. I looked out one of our front windows and saw that our neighbor had backed her car into a pile of ice created at the end of her driveway by the township snow plow.

Now, I’ve got to tell you something, folks. I hate winter. I hate cold weather. As distasteful as I find some of our muggy Cincinnati summer days, I’d take those any day over a day of cold weather. I like to look at snow. But I don’t like being in it.

For a few moments, as I watched my neighbor’s tires spinning in the ice ditch in which she was becoming increasingly buried, a little moral drama played out in my conscience. I had my agenda, after all. I’d done a lot of pushing of cars the day before. I was safely ensconced in my warm house, the king of Mark World. My neighbor would never know if I simply chose to ignore her situation.

But then, things that God has taught us all in Christ came to mind. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of My family, you did it to Me.” “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you...” “What’s good for the goose...” Oh, forget that one.

So, our son and I put on our coats and gloves and tried pushing our neighbor’s car out of the ice. (I should point out that he was much quicker to respond the neighbor's situation than I had been!)

We weren’t successful. In the end, she had to call her brother, who was able to use his truck and some chains to yank her car free.

Nonetheless, I felt better about myself after failing than I would have had I just gone back to my computer and created the Sunday message of an unrepentant hypocrite.

I didn’t go out to help my neighbor or rouse our son from sleep because I’m such a wonderful guy. I’m not a wonderful guy. I’m a sinner saved from damnation to hell and everlasting separation from God only because of what Jesus has done for me.

I went outside to push that car because I’m grateful for what Jesus has done for me. As a result, if He asked me to take a nose dive off of Mount Everest, I hope that I would simply say, “When do you want me to do it, Lord?” (I hope I would react that way, anyhow. And, by the way, I also hope that if Jesus ever issued such an order to me and I had expressed the willingness to obey, that He would then smile and tell me, "Psych!")

The point is that the call to follow Christ never comes at a convenient time or under circumstances convenient for us. It always comes in the midst of living life, while we pursue our own agendas.

Herod heard the call and decided not just to ignore it, but also to kill the very living Message of heaven. Because that’s what Jesus is: God’s Message that we can have our sins forgiven and our lives made eternally new when we follow Christ!

I’d like to tell you that I always follow when Christ calls me.
That I always obey God.
That I always step down from my throne of power and let Jesus rule my life.

But I would be lying if I said any of those things. Most of the time, I try to act like a king, taking the road of selfishness and self-absorption, hurting God and hurting others. But I take comfort from the words written by one of Jesus’ followers, the apostle John:
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He Who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
On the cusp of a new year, let’s make it our aim to dethrone ourselves and let Jesus be our King. We may not always succeed. But if doing so is our intent, our lives will eternally be the better for it!

One Jewish View of Christmas

Rachel Barenblat, always a thoughtful writer, has interesting things to say about Christmas from her Jewish perspective. Describing herself as a "spiritual peeping tom," Rachel says that while the ubiquity of the secular Christmas can be overwhelming--I assure you that it is to Christians as well, the holiday can in fact be enjoyable to persons of all religious persuasions. Rachel is a really fine writer!

Who Will Be Next Supreme Court Chief Justice?

Also on, Pejman Yousefzadeh speculates on who President Bush might appoint to the Supreme Court should Chief Justice Rehnquist resign soon. Will the President elevate an Associate Justice to the Chief position and therefore, have to go through two confirmation processes with the appointment of a replacement associate? Or will he simply appoint a replacement for Rehnquist?

An Interesting Look at Education Reform, Republicans, and Democrats

Ryan Sager, an able writer whose columns appear, has an interesting look at how, at local levels across America, the Republican Party has gained the advantage over Republicans when it comes to educational reform. There is, I suspect, much merit in what he writes. But I also feel that here in Ohio, Republicans and Democrats have done a pretty good job of standing in the way of progress in our local school districts.

Webber's 'Phantom of the Opera' Hits Big Screen

I may be among a tiny phalanx of English-speakers in the world who have never seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. While our son--now twenty-three and newly finished with his undergraduate work--was in high school, he, along with the Art Club, and students' parents went to New York and took in the Broadway production. My wife was one of the chaperones and attended as well.

Frankly, I've never been into Webber's music. That fact, coupled with the huge expense involved in buying tickets for even traveling productions of Phantom, have conspired to prevent me from even thinking about attending a performance of the stage show.

Now, Phantom of the Opera is a movie. The reviews are mixed. Here's a fairly representative one. I guess I'll check out The Polar Express instead.

Thinking of, Praying for the People of Ukraine

Today, my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Ukraine as they vote in yet-another runoff election between incumbent president Viktor Yanukovych and challenger Viktor Yuschenko. This round of elections was necessitated by the fraud found by Ukraine's supreme court in the previous balloting.

I'm praying that the election will be free and fair and that all of Ukraine will accept its results. One of the best sources of on-the-ground reports from Ukraine is here.

Helping Victims of Earthquake, Tsunami

Press reports say that more than 9000 people have lost their lives as the result of the massive earthquake and resultant tsunami. An honest, efficient agency through which you can donate funds for relief for survivors of this natural disaster is Lutheran World Relief. Of course, prayers on behalf of the millions impacted by the disaster are always appropriate!

Friday, December 24, 2004

Taking a Short Christmas Break

As you may know, my part of the country got slammed with a huge winter storm this week. My family and I spent much of yesterday digging out and helping others do the same. After taking our daughter to work (the roads were treacherous and she asked if I could do this for her), I stopped at a local establishment for the one last item on our Christmas list. I also had quite a bit to get done in preparation for tonight's Christmas Eve worship celebration and for Sunday morning. So, all these factors, along with exhaustion, prevented me from posting anything yesterday. My plan now is not to post anything here until the day after Christmas.

So, enjoy your Christmas holiday and I hope to be back blogging on December 26!

To all who make visits to Better Living, thanks so much!

And, feel free to check out the archives, if you get desperate for a Better Living fix.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Christmas Eve Message, 2004

Luke 2:1-20

You’d think that by now, I would have learned. Starting with my first year of seminary, I’ve now been presenting Christmas messages every year for twenty-four years. And every year, I try to go through the same process: I study the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth and then ask myself, “What new thing can I say? How can I really grab people’s attention?”

Ultimately though, I ask myself, “Why should I say anything new? Isn’t the true story of what happened on the first Christmas when Jesus was born sufficiently-attention grabbing to not need my added touches?”

So, I always end up deciding that the story of Jesus’ birth is stunning enough and important enough and life-changing enough on its own. I just need to tell it. I feel like the Project Apollo astronaut who, after going to the moon, said that while that experience was amazing, more remarkable to him than a man walking on the Moon was God walking on the Earth.

What’s even more remarkable to me is the way God walked on the earth. In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, writer Philip Yancey talks about sitting in a concert hall in London for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. During the performance, he glanced up at the royal box “where the queen and her family sat.”

Yancey recalled that a short time before, the queen "had...visited the United States, and reporters delighted in spelling out the logistics involved: Her four thousand pounds of luggage included two outfits for every occasion, a mourning outfit in case someone died, forty pints of plasma, and white kid leather toilet seat covers. She brought along her own hairdresser, two valets, and a host of other attendants. A brief visit to a foreign country [by a British royal] can easily cost twenty million dollars.”

Tonight, we celebrate the very event that Handel’s music so grandly commemorates--the arrival of the King of the universe in the Person of the baby Jesus. Jesus' arrival though, stands in sharp contrast to the ways kings and presidents, pop stars and top athletes, and other "important people" arrive, when they show up anywhere in our world.

As Yancey puts it: “God’s visit to earth took place in an animal shelter with no attendants present and nowhere to lay the newborn king but a feed trough...the event that divided history, and even our calendars [BC and AD], into two parts may have had more animal than human witnesses. A mule could have stepped on [Jesus]. [As the song, O Little Town of Bethlehem puts it,] ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.’”

In Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament, a star announced the coming of Jesus. But, in contrast to how we usually remember that event, the star that guided wise men to Jesus, probably got them to Him about two years after His birth. By that time, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had moved out of the cave-barn in which the little one had been born and into a house in Bethlehem.

But in Luke, the only special effects in which God engages for the first Christmas happens when He sends angel messengers to a bunch of shepherds.

Of course, in Old Testament times, Moses had been a shepherd. It was the job he took on after he’d become a wanted fugitive back in Egypt and couldn’t find respectable work.

King David had been a shepherd. But that was only because he was the youngest, homeliest, weakest, and least-likely-to-succeed member of his family.

Shepherds were nobodies. They were, one preacher has said, the people who got rejected from the biker gang. First-century Judean society considered them lowlifes!

Yet on the first Christmas, it was only lowlife shepherds who got the benefit of an angel performance announcing Jesus’ coming that must have made Handel’s Messiah sound like two year olds playing kazoos. No wonder they said to each other, “Let’s get over to Bethlehem and check out this news from God!”

Were they disappointed when they saw a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes laying in a barn? Not on your life and not just because the angels had told them what to look for!

When earthly royalty or leaders meet ordinary people like you and me, chances are they’ll try to dazzle us with their power. Michael Douglas’ fictional chief executive in the movie, The American President, says that the White House and its Oval Office, for example, were designed to be the “biggest home court advantage” in the history of the world, an intimidating display of the power of the President’s office and of America.

When God came to earth, He could have dazzled us. After all, you can bet that heaven is a lot more impressive place than the White House, or Buckingham Palace, or even the new Anderson Township Kroger’s store. Instead though, God laid His power and His perks aside to become one of us. He became a baby subject to the danger of a donkey’s clumsy hooves crushing Him to death before He could fulfill His mission.

It turns out that God isn’t interested in a home court advantage by which He can cut us down to size. Instead, He cut Himself down to our size so that He could lovingly shape those willing to surrender themselves to Him into the people God made us to be!

While our daughter was working with the college program at Walt Disney World, she said that often, she would think about Friendship Church. Frequently, when she did, she thought of the part of our Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship coming up soon. It’s the part that comes just before we sing Silent Night, when I read--as I will again shortly--the prologue to another of the gospels in the New Testament. The Gospel writer John, using terminology that people steeped in either Greek philosophy or Hebrew Scripture would have known back in the first and second centuries, said that God was the Word--the animating Power Who spoke into the dark primordial chaos and brought life into being. And then, John says, almost literally that “the Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us.”

He didn’t do this with luggage or extra plasma or toilet seat covers, valets, or attendants. God became one of us. In doing so, His mission was simple: To be our Savior by spilling His blood on a cross, sacrificing His life to pay the debt you and I owe to God for our sin...and then, rising again so that all who follow Him will live with God forever.

There’s nothing I can add to the incredible story of the first Christmas except to beg you to make it your life style to turn from sin and accept the gift of new living that Jesus offers us...and then to tell you, “God bless you, dear ones whom Jesus loves. Merry Christmas!”

[In preparing this message, I consulted Luke (from the Interpretation Commentary series) by Fred Craddock, among several other sources.]

With Just Two Clicks You Can Help Feed Hungry People

I try to go to this site every day. It's on the up and up and it will only cost you a couple of mouse clicks.

You May Not Have Known That This Organization Existed

Check out the web site of Democrats for Life.

Experiencing the True Meaning of Christmas

Relevant magazine has some great advice on how to experience the true meaning of Christmas. While it may be a bit late to implement the suggestions in time for this December 25, they all can help us develop a close relationship with God and by the time Christmas rolls around next year, the holiday will have a heightened significance for us.

Make Plans...Be Prepared to Have Them Changed

Father Myke, the New York Fire Department chaplain killed in the September 11 attacks, was fond of telling people, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him what you're going to do tomorrow."

Jesus' earthly brother James said something similar.

This time last evening, I was preparing to be part of my brother's comedy Christmas show at a restaurant in the Columbus area. I was to present the Christmas story.

But, we're in the midst of a winter storm that makes roads slow and treacherous. So, here I am, prepping for Christmas Eve worship and the service for the Sunday after Christmas. If God wants it to happen, I'll be there for the second show tomorrow night.

Eyewitness Account of Mosul Attack's Aftermath

An army chaplain has published his account of the attack at Mosul. Whether you support the war in Iraq or not, you will find his telling of the tale moving. You can also post your comments on the site, a great way to assure him and others in Iraq of our prayers for them. (Thanks to Hugh Hewitt and Glenn Reynolds for this link.)

She's Climbing for Kids' Sake!

Clermont County (Ohio) Boys and Girls Club executive director Nancy Beck is training for a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro along with her fiance, Jim. She's seeking sponsors who will make donations to the Club upon her successful completion of the climb, scheduled for next year. For more information, check out Nancy's blog.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

That Little Price-Buster is At It Again

I don't know much about this techy stuff. But this looks like a price break.

Insisting that others cry, "Uncle"...I mean, "Merry Christmas"... is a rotten Christian witness

Craig Williams has a few solid points to make about Christians who insist that clerks at stores they frequent tell them, "Merry Christmas."

When will these Christians---I would describe some of them as latter-day Pharisees---learn that they don't give the world a positive, compelling witness for Jesus Christ when they attempt to employ coercion in order to leverage acquiescence to their preferred cultural customs? (After all, forcing people to say, "Merry Christmas" as we sign our credit card receipts doesn't bring them any closer to Christ's kingdom!)

When will these same Christian legalists understand that Christ is interested in His followers establishing loving relationships with our non-Christian or marginally-religious neighbors so that they can become interested in how Jesus changes lives for the better and so, want to follow Jesus too?

When I opened my Bible to First Peter a few moments ago, I notice that the apostle's words have not been rescinded where he said:

"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." (First Peter 3:15-16)

Peter was no wallflower. He had a well-known penchant for shoving his feet directly into his mouth and for getting into dust-ups with people. Yet, through both humiliating experience and the inspiration of God's Spirit, Peter had come to realize the importance of sharing the life-changing good news with gentleness and reverence. (Notice he doesn't say "with arrogance and coercion"?)

That's how we twenty-first century Christians need to interact with our neighbors. Craig is absolutely right on the money!

God Can Be Worshiped Anywhere

The ancient Israelites worshiped God in tents. (I guess that you could say that their worship was in-tense.) Check out the blog of the US soldier in Iraq showing the tent-like structure in which they worship on Sundays and evenings during the week.

Recommended Reading If the Posting Gets Sparse

My days will be wildly busy for the rest of this week. Blog posting may be sparse. So, sometime during your Christmas holidays, you might want to take the time to read posts from my series, Why I Believe Christian Faith is True.

Here are the links to all six installments:

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 1
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 2
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 3
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 4
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 5
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 6

Thanks so much for reading Better Living. The readership is growing every day. I appreciate your making it part of your daily dose of reading!

Book Deals with Historical Accuracy of Bible's Accounts of Jesus

Last night I began reading Biblical scholar Ben Witherington's book, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Da Vinci. From what I have read so far, I recommend it heartily. It is a scholarly, yet accessible, refutation of the totally unsubstantiated baloney that masquerades as historical truth in such junk as a recent novel being turned into a movie with Russell Crowe.

Making Room for Portman's Future?

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports this morning that Ohio governor Bob Taft is about to appoint his lieutenant governor, Jennette Bradley, to be state treasurer.

The treasurer's position will become vacant on January 2, when the incumbent Joe Deters resumes his old job of Hamilton County (Cincinnati-area) prosecutor. (Deters ran as a write-in candidate for the job when Mike Allen, current prosecutor, backed out of the race owing to a sexual harrassment lawsuit.) Bradley, who has a background in banking, will take her new job on January 3.

What intrigues me is that this would appear to confirm a rumor that's been circulating on local radio for many weeks. According to the rumor, Governor Taft will appoint Cincinnati-area congressman Rob Portman to be his lieutenant governor. Then, the rumor says, Taft will be appointed by President Bush to an ambassadorship, elevating Portman to the governorship.

Portman is wildly popular in southwest Ohio. In addition, he has strong ties to President Bush. He served in the administration of Bush the Elder and has acted as a stand-in debate opponent for Vice President Cheney. So strong are his ties to the Bush Administration that the House Republican leadership created a special position for Portman. In it, he essentially acts as a liaison between the President and House Republicans.

With two Republican senators and a bevy of statewide Republican officeholders in Ohio--there are no Democrats holding statewide office here, except on the state Supreme Court--the politically-inclined in the state wondered how Portman's political light could be allowed to shine outside of southwestern Ohio. Many feel that he has presidential ambitions or that he ought to have them.

Whether any of this will happen, I, of course don't know. I'm just a preacher and my track record as a prognosticator is, to the say the least, suspect. But it is interesting to watch these events unfold.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Peace on Earth?

Every Christmas season, we sing any number of songs that proclaim, "Peace on earth." But where exactly is the peace that Jesus is supposed to have brought to the world? Tod Bolsinger tackles that question in two recent posts on his wonderful blog. Here are the links:

Peace be with you...Part 1

Peace be with you...Part 2

Soldiers Need Armor...Astronauts Need Food, Oxygen, Supplies

As an afficionado of space exploration, I've welcomed this year's leaps toward privately-funded suborbital space flight. But, as was true when European royalty footed the bill for exploration of the New World, earthbound governments will still be the ones pushing the envelope into the "final frontier."

That means that the work of NASA and other space agencies must remain vital and strong. At the very least, everything should be done to assure that the men and women on the frontlines of cosmos exploration have the tools they need, including food.

I'm praying that the US astronaut and Russian cosmonaut currently aboard the international space station will receive their food and other needed supplies in time to continue their vital mission and to keep them safe and healthy. I also hope that NASA will get the space shuttles up and operational soon, so that the space station can become what it is intended to be: a beginning platform for going to Mars and beyond. Check out this story, too.

Reports from an Almost-Finished-With-Christmas-Shopping Trip

So, I got back from my almost-finished-with-Christmas-shopping trip a little while ago and I can report the following:
  • Most of the mall and stand-alone store parking lots are close to full. But eventually, you'll find a parking spot.
  • The clerks seem extra-friendly this year. One called every store within a two-hour driving distance in order to find the item for which I was looking. It will be shipped here and ready for us to pick up late on Tuesday.
  • Smiling and wishing people a Merry Christmas was universally welcomed.
By the way, Merry Christmas to you! God bless you!

Hooray for John Boehner!

Congressman John Boehner deserves applause and higher office for sticking to his principles when it comes to pork barrel spending. While many of his fellow Republicans spend our tax dollars, in the words of GOP Senator John McCain, "like drunken sailors," Boehner refuses to raid the federal treasury for budget-busting "earmarks."

Sunday, December 19, 2004

God Even Blesses Panicked Preachers

Gordon Atkinson (aka: Real Live Preacher) shows us in this post that, yes, sometimes preachers say things that they shouldn't and that even then, God is gracious. What a great writer Gordon is!

Joseph: The Power That Comes from Forgiving Others

Matthew 1:18-25
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, December 19, 2004)

A theologian and counselor once told the only slightly fictionalized tale of a married couple who we’ll call Ben and Betty. Ben was a man of moral rectitude, one of those somber Christians who was offended by any levity in church and saw it as his role in life to point out everybody else’s faults. Betty was an open, friendly woman who loved her husband as much as he would let her.

One day Ben came home to find Betty in, shall we say, a compromising position with another man. People who got wind of it were certain that Ben would send Betty packing. But out of deference to his wife’s words of repentance and the consequent obligation he felt, Ben chose to proclaim his forgiveness to her.

Though Betty was a good wife and did her best to make their reconciliation work, Ben was eaten up with feelings of resentment, anger, and suspicion. He couldn’t contain his impulse to constantly bring up his wife’s adultery to her. The loneliness and pain felt by Betty became almost unbearable. Ben suffered too. The longer he failed to truly forgive and be reconciled to his wife, the more isolated and hateful he felt.

Finally while offering up his obligatory prayers one night, Ben sensed the still, small voice of God saying, “Stop!” Ben remembered when Jesus said that if on our way to worship, we remember that we have wronged someone, we need to be reconciled to them. Otherwise, God will not accept our prayers, no matter how righteous we may seem. This is exactly why Jesus included the petition, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in the Lord's Prayer.

Ben realized that he had put himself in the place of God, sanctimoniously withholding forgiveness from Betty. Tearfully, he went to his wife and asked for her forgiveness. That was when their relationship began again.

These Advent and Christmas seasons, do you know who gets little notice? The carpenter from Nazareth God selected to be Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph. One Presbyterian pastor wrote a few years back that when he made an inventory of the most prominent Christmas hymns in his denomination's songbooks, he found that the ox and ass in the Bethlehem stable where Jesus was born got more mention than Joseph. (I'm sure the same thing is true of our favorite Lutheran Christmas songs.) Only two of the Gospels tell us the story of the first Christmas, Matthew and Luke. Luke tells the story from the vantage point of Mary while Matthew gets at it from the viewpoint of Joseph. But even Matthew tells us precious little about Joseph. By the time Jesus became an adult and undertook His public ministry, Mary was still on the scene, but Joseph was evidently already dead, a distant and unspoken memory.

We do know something about Joseph though. In our Bible lesson for today, for example, we learn that Joseph was “a righteous man.” But when that phrase is applied to him, it doesn’t mean that he was judgmental or unforgiving, as Ben had been. In Joseph, being righteous meant being in a relationship with God and others. Joseph was a person who sought to love God and neighbor as he knew God loved him.

Matthew tells us that when Joseph first learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he understandably disbelieved her tale of being visited by an angel and being told that that while she was still a virgin, she was pregnant, soon to give birth to the Savior of the world.

Joseph would have been within his rights, under the laws of that day, to have revealed Mary’s sin and demanded that she be executed. Instead, Joseph resolved to quietly end his engagement to Mary. He didn’t think that he could be married to her, enduring the pain of knowing that she had been unfaithful to him. But he wouldn’t cause her death over it either.

But that night, Joseph had a dream in which God told him, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”

I’ve always found that phrasing on God’s part to be interesting: “Don’t be afraid.”

Joseph had a lot of which he could have been afraid. For one thing, the whispers and the putdowns of a close-knit community saying that he and Mary had been guilty of sexual intimacy outside of marriage could have caused him fear.

So, too could other things he might have imagined his fellow Nazarenes saying: that he was a chump for acting as father to another man’s child.

Joseph might also have feared that, based on the evidence of her pregnancy, Mary had a penchant for catting around with other men.

But God tells Joseph, “Don’t worry about any of that. It’s just like Mary told you. She is a virgin. She will give birth to the Savior of the world. Take her as your wife.”

The word for forgive in the New Testament Greek literally means release. When we approach God in the Name of Jesus Christ, seeking forgiveness, God releases us from the debt we owe. “The wages of sin is death,” the Bible says. For our sins, we deserve to pay the penalty of death. But Jesus took that penalty for us. For Jesus’ sake, God releases us from our debt.

When we forgive others, there is also a release. For one thing, we release others from the burden of shame.

Once, while serving as pastor of a church in northwestern Ohio, my family and I had returned from a long day of Confirmation and graduation parties, followed by a visit to the house of some friends. The next morning would bring our five-week long Summer School, in which we taught eighty-five students about the Bible and Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. I had a few last-minute things to do in preparation for that. I went to the church building and entered one room to find a young man I knew, not a member of the congregation, watching a pornographic movie on our newly purchased VCR and TV. I wanted to yell at him and condemn him. Somehow though, I sensed that wasn’t the way to handle the situation. I simply told the young man to leave the building and I promised that I would never tell a soul. Except in this version nearly twenty years later, I never have.

Not long ago, I learned that the young man is a dedicated, almost model husband and father, active in his church and in his faith. I wonder if any of these good things would have happened if I, as a pastor, a respected leader in a close-knit community, had thundered at him and exposed his mistake to the world?

A wise man once taught me that if ever our God has erred, He always has done so on the side of grace and forgiveness, maybe we should do the same. Of course, God never has made a mistake, which should tell us that forgiving others is never a mistake. When we do forgive, it’s possible that we may release the people forgiven from the burden of shame, liberating them to become the people Jesus died to help them be!

When we forgive, we also release ourselves from the wall that our unwillingness to forgive builds up between God and us. In the mythic tale of Ben and Betty, Ben finally released himself to receive the blessings of God when he forgave his wife.

There have been people in my life who have wounded me deeply, sometimes causing me to doubt my own self-worth or my ability to do anything constructive. The wounds have sometimes hurt so badly that I haven’t wanted to forgive. In times like these, I go to God and I honestly tell Him, “Lord, I don’t want to forgive. But because I know Your will, I want to want to forgive others.”

What I have learned is that honest confession has been enough for our gracious God. Somehow, he takes my weak resolve and fills the space between me and those who have hurt me with his forgiving grace for others. Soon, I really do forgive those people and God empowers me to live and love in confidence and hope.

Even before God came to him in his dream, Joseph had resolved to release Mary of her punishment when he decided to quietly end their marriage arrangement. That truly righteous decision shows that Joseph was qualified to undertake the mission God had in mind for him, to act as the earthly father of the Savior of the world.

When we forgive others, it’s like getting heart bypass surgery. The impediments that prevent the power and grace of God from flowing into our lives are removed! The ability of Satan to create static in our relationships is forcibly erased.

So much of what God intends to do in this world depends on the willingness of His followers--people like Joseph and you and me--to forgive as we have been forgiven by God.

It was just before Christmas and Kayleen Reusser was taking her six-month old baby for an immunization shot. Her head ached, leading her to think that she was coming down with the flu. She’d just learned that her husband could soon be laid off from his job. She was in a foul mood as she unbuckled the baby from her car seat.

A honk from the truck behind her expressed impatience that Kayleen was blocking traffic on the one-way street in front of her doctor’s office. When she finally had her little one cradled in her arms, she realized that she had parked in a delivery zone and that the man honking the horn was trying to deliver a package to the building where Kayleen was headed.

Upset that she hadn’t noticed where she was parking, she put her baby back in the car and drove more than a block away before she could find a spot to park. After she managed to parallel park in a tight spot, she got out of a car and found the delivery truck driver standing outside. She braced herself for a tongue-lashing.

Instead, the driver said, “Sorry about that back there.” Kayleen noted a “strong note of apology” in his voice. “I saw you had a baby,” he said, “but there wasn’t a place big enough for me to park in.” Kayleen apologized too. “I’d like to give this to you,” the man said. He held out a mug with his company’s name on the side. He smiled and said, “Merry Christmas” and “sprinted away as fast as he dared on the slick pavement.”

Kayleen writes: “...that mug now has a permanent place on my kitchen windowsill. It serves as a constant reminder to me of the way that driver showed unexpected kindness and forgiveness to me that day. It also reminds me of the way God consistently forgives each of us even when we deserve it the least.

“Seeing that mug each morning as I begin my day inspires me to work on showing that same kindness and forgiveness to everyone I encounter--clerks, cashiers, complete strangers--not just at Christmas, but every day of the year.”

Jesus has come into our lives to bring us the forgiveness of God. May we, like Joseph, live that forgiveness toward others so that we and they are released to live life with all the joy and passion and freedom from fear that God wants us to enjoy.

[I have searched through many of my books in an effort to find where I originally read of the slightly-fictionalized tale of Ben and Betty. But I couldn't find it. I apologize to its unknown author.

[Kayleen Reusser tells the true story of the forgiving parcel delivery man in the collection of Christmas stories, Christmas: Celebrating the Joy of Faith and Family God's Way.]

A Site For Finding Information on Darfur, Sudan

Sudan: The Passion of the Present continues to be a sterling resource for information and inspiration for action in response to the genocide happening in the Darfur region of Sudan. Let's keep praying about this situation, writing to public officials about it, and taking practical steps to end this dreadful crisis!

Another Perspective on US Poll Regarding Treatment of Muslim-Americans and Other Muslims in Country

Deborah White, politically liberal and an evangelical Christian, shares my concern over a recent poll showing many Americans favor what can only be described as the mistreatment of Muslims.

TIME Redeems My Reputation As Prognosticator

After my recent predictions that the Saint Louis Cardinals would win the World Series and Jason White would pick up his second Heisman Trophy failed to come true, my reputation as a soothsayer was, shall we say, suspect.

But with TIME's selection of President George W. Bush as its Person of the Year, I feel somewhat redeemed as a prognosticator. Thank you, TIME magazine. (Of course, it was relatively easy to get this one right. There were no real viable alternative contenders this past year.)

One of my predictions still out there: Donald Rumsfeld will leave the Pentagon within the next several weeks. (I'm using the term "several" because, even 207 weeks, roughly the number left until the end of Mr. Bush's second term could, in other than a strict constructionist view, be described as "several" weeks.)