Friday, July 30, 2004

Just Getting Into Joan

Last week, my wife suggested that we watch as CBS re-ran the pilot of its series, Joan of Arcadia. We'd both heard good things about this series that recounts the experiences of a seemingly typical teenage girl when God (taking carnation in various human physical guises) shows up in her life and asks her to accept by faith the instructions given.

The reactions of young Joan are as confused and as conflicted as one would expect, not unlike people like Moses and Abraham when God appeared in their lives and gave them instructions. But like Moses and Abraham, Joan ultimately takes the faith plunge and does what God tells her to do. At the end of the two episodes we've seen (we watched Episode 2 with friends tonight), God has accomplished the unexpected and, since this is God we're talking about, retained an aura of divine, yet accessible, mystery.

I'm intrigued by this show and hope it continues to be so interesting and positive.

Great Expectations

One of my favorite web logs is that by a woman named Rachel from New Zealand. It's called Cre8d Journal. In her most recent post, she references a television series in that country and asks an interesting question:


Last night on "The Insider's Guide to Happiness" the narrator says that it's better to go through life with no expectations. That way, you won't be disappointed.

According to the dictionary, expecation means: "eager anticipation, to look forward to, to consider likely or certain, the idea of looking ahead to something in the future, to anticipate."

Agree or disagree? Are expectations a bad thing? Is disappointment such a bad thing that we must avoid it at all costs?

I couldn't help responding ( I added a few things here)...

Whether to have expectations or not depends on what (or on Whom) one places one's expectations, I think.

Some people expect to win the lottery, but never buy a ticket. They're risk averse.

Some people expect perfection according to their standards. But, as Sting wrote years ago, "to look here for heaven is to live here in hell."

I think that Christ does invite us to have expectations and hopes, but in Him and His will. He calls us to take the risk of faith in Him.

I like the line in the Psalms that says to "Delight in the Lord" (which reads like a precondition to me) "and He will give you the desires of your heart." I don't always delight in the Lord, I must confess. Most of the time I "delight" more in me and my agenda. But I imagine that if I delighted in the Lord, I would always want what God wills.

One of the reasons people counsel against having expectations, I think, is that all of us have been hurt by life. It's easier to give up than to believe in a better day. (Or, as a character in one of Steve Taylor's old songs says, "Life unwinds like a cheap sweater, but since I gave up hope I feel a lot better.") But that doesn't seem like much of a way to live to me. Every day I ask God to help me put my hope in Christ. I'm in the process of learning how.

What do you think?

Friday Items for Prayer and Thought

Last night, I had a great time “working” at the Clermont County Fair. What I did wasn’t really work though. It was fun! For four hours, I took sandwich and beverage orders at the Clermont County Ohio State Alumni Association stand.

An Alumni Association veteran, Jim, did the hard work, grilling the great cuts of meat that have people routinely gathering round the stand, sometimes in droves. An OSU engineering graduate, Jim has been working this concession during every county fair for twelve years!

It’s a labor of love for the Clermont group of Ohio State alums. Proceeds from the sales help support an annual scholarship for Clermont County young people who are going to OSU.

This and that from last evening and recent days...

  • It was Demolition Derby night at the fair last evening and it’s obviously a crowd-pleaser. It took me about an hour to make the trip from my house to the fairgrounds, a trip that would ordinarily take about ten minutes. Roads leading to the fair were crawling parking lots. I was told that grandstand seating was already full hours before the derby began, in part because many folks attended both a patriotic tribute to the troops and the car-crashing.
  • Some folks, I’m told, were aware that Cincinnati TV stations were going to attend the patriotic program and had dressed “accordingly” for their fifteen seconds of fame. Some dressed to the nines. One woman did a Morgana impression, dressing as scantily as is legal and chasing the TV cameras. To their credit, I was told, the camera people ran faster than she could.
  • At the stand, a man from Miami Township stared at me for a few seconds and asked, “Do you write for the newspaper?” I said that I do. He said, “I’ve always wondered about you.” That’s always a scary thing to hear. It turns out that he grew up in Mulberry and there was a guy in his youth group then who was named Mark Daniels. The picture that appears with my column apparently makes me look enough like that “other Mark Daniels” that he had wondered if we were one and the same. He also told me that he couldn’t remember what I’d written about in my columns. I assured him that sometimes I don’t either.
  • Another woman, accompanied by what appeared to be her daughter and granddaughter, ordered some sandwiches. We talked while their food was being grilled to order. The woman asked me, “So, what are you taking up at Ohio State?” I was taken aback and just said, “I’m sorry?” “What are you studying at Ohio State?” she asked. When I explained that I was fifty, she was incredulous, certain that I was “pulling her leg.” I told my wife later that either the light was horrible by the concession stand or I may have fallen in love all over again.
  • I love visiting with people under such informal circumstances and it can be an opportunity for real ministry. I learned this from two mentors: Pastor Jim Petteys and Pastor Ron Claussen. Jim was the supervising pastor for my seminary internship experience. Ron was a colleague and later, a member of the first congregation I served as pastor in northwestern Ohio. Both understood the “theology of interruptions,” the need to be open and available to people no matter what our agendas may be for the day. It’s in people’s times of need that we have the best opportunities to share the love God gives us through Christ. A lot of the time that special ministry expresses itself best not in what we say, but simply in our being there and listening. (Of course, I pray the whole time I listen and talk. One of my most frequently-offered prayers as I visit with people is, “Lord, give me the right words and the right silences.”)
  • When I got back from the fairgrounds last night, I watched some of MSNBC’s postmortem of the evening’s Democratic National Convention session. I thought that it was interesting that John Kerry saluted and reported for duty. Back after the death of John Heinz, the Pennsylvania senator, Mrs. Heinz-Kerry’s first husband, a special election to fill his term was held. It was won by a Democrat who, on the night of his victory, stood at attention, saluted, and said that he was reporting for duty.
  • Finally, I’ve received this email request for prayers from my German colleague, Pastor Jochen Mueller-Busse: (1) That God will decrease the power of money and of imagery rather than real ideas in the political campaigns of our democracies; (2) That God will protect Islamic holy places from attack, because such attacks only increase tension in the world. Good prayers!

Because we are all neighbors whom Jesus has called us to love, more and more I like the advice of theologian Leonard Sweet, “Get glocal!” In other words, let’s try to live the godly love of neighbor, whether that neighbor is local or across the globe.

Back to preparing my sermon for Sunday...

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Fred Flintstone in a George Jetson World

That's how I felt when my wife and I went to Best Buy tonight. Our mission was simple: to buy a new wall-mounted telephone containing digital answering capabilities.

But apparently because so many people are now contracting with local phone providers for multiple mailboxes, only a handful of the models on hand actually had answering capabilities built-in. Here I'd thought we were cutting edge. But the tide of technology had obviously passed us by!

My wife then suggested that we take a walk through the appliance department. Since our microwave oven dates back to the Reagan Administration and our refrigerator came with the house in which we live, built sixteen years ago, I agreed. There, among the stoves and washing machines, I realized what a cave man I truly am!

We came upon a range, the oven of which doubles as a refrigerator. That way, busy commuters can keep cold items refrigerated until a timer kicks the oven on. That seemed practical to me, even though a little extravagant. (Especially extravagant for me since I "commute" down two flights of stairs to my basement office each day.)

But what really blew me away was the tall stainless steel refrigerator/freezer with the television set in the door! The little descriptive blurb attached to the unit touted its supposed practicality, saying that it allows people to save counter space. (Sheesh! I don't even have a TV set on my counter, leaving me several permutations behind the advance of suburban America!) The blurb also explained that you can hook your refrigerator to cable or to a DVD player in another part of the house.

Just imagine, with that little beauty, while you get popcorn or drinks from the kitchen, you won't have to miss an action-packed minute of the latest Jackie Chan thriller, otherwise playing in the main theater: your family room. Or, after a hard day at work, you can simply yank a gallon of Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Mocha out of the freezer and barely moving a muscle, plop down on your kitchen floor to watch exercise videos.

As we drove home, I fantasized about some future archeologists on a dig in suburban North America, coming to a find more impressive than Pompeii: The ruins of a massive housing development filled with overweight people, gazing at their refrigerators.

Conveniences are wonderful. But is there a point when we say, "Too much is too much"? I think that the TV in the refrigerator may be that point for me.

Late Lunch This and That

Wolfing down a late lunch, I thought that I'd post a few things I've been thinking about...

First: The column on discerning the will of God turned into a monster. No matter how many runs and re-writes I took to the topic, nothing worked. So, as they say, it's back to the drawing board...unless it's not God's will right now.

Second: I'm a political junkie and I admit it. But my wife is an enabler. I had successfully avoided watching any of the Democratic National Convention coverage last night until she came home late in the evening. So, when she turned on the television, I simply had to keep her company. It was my spousal duty.

I loved the panel MSNBC assembled for the evening: Chris Matthews, Howard Fineman, Andrea Mitchell, Willie Brown, and Joe Scarborough.

Scarborough, whose over-the-top partisanship on his own show rubs me the wrong way, is at his best when, as part of a panel, he analyzes things political. His comments last night that John Kerry's heroic military career would allow him to sleep well at night if Kerry were president (even though he disagrees with Kerry on nine out of ten issues) was a particularly gracious thing to say.

Matthews and Fineman are, of course, absolute pros. Both are so insightful and as always, I appreciate Matthews' evenhandedness and obvious love for both America and its politics. It's always a joy listening to and watching him!

Something that struck me as I watched last evening's festivities is that while Jimmy Carter has become the elder statesman of the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton is its elvis statesman. Like him or not, "the man from Hope" has undeniable star power. Part of that must come from his obvious love for people, an attribute about which both Mitchell and Brown commented last evening. In his ability to convey empathy and communicate accessibly and compellingly, Clinton is the Democratic Reagan. Like Reagan, Clinton communicates optimism. That's an indispensable asset to the leader. Optimism, to paraphrase the Bible's words about love, covers a multitude of sins.

There's another thing Clinton has in common with Reagan, I think. Those who knew Reagan in his younger days in Hollywood say that he was a motormouth, unable to stop talking about the minutiae of public policy issues. Clinton is the same way. That makes Clinton's tight and disciplined delivery last evening all the more remarkable.

Third: There's a really good article about Marshall McLuhan in the Spring, 2004 issue of the Wilson Quarterly. It was written by Tom Wolfe, today's would-be Mark Twain. It paints the guru of "understanding media" as something of a lovable carnival barker. Although McLuhan was a man of undeniable brilliance, he also was a self-promoter who liked to speak in the language of deliberately obscure paradox. (At least according to Wolfe.) Another insight that Wolfe offers is his belief that McLuhan was deeply dependent on the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin. Wolfe is such a good writer and he obviously has a warm affection for McLuhan.

Fourth: A book I've been reading lately is Brother Lawrence's Practicing the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence believed that we could be in constant conversation with God, something he tried to enact in his mundane activities in the monastery kitchen.

I love this notion, one that resonates with me as a Lutheran. In my tradition, we emphasize things like the priesthood of all believers (First Peter 2:9-10) and a theology of the cross, theology done "from below," rooted in the God Who took on flesh, dwelt among us, lived as a servant, and died for us (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:4-11).

I also love it because when I am at my best in life, it's when I live with the consciousness of God's presence and the desire to glorify Him in all that I do.

Conversely, my life is always at its worst when I "go it alone," leading me to act in ways that were I to catalog them here, would cause people to have a rather low opinion of me, I think.

But here too, Brother Lawrence is helpful. Part of living in a constant consciousness of God's presence is remembering that He is a God of grace, "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." Lawrence repeatedly underscorse the fact that once God has called attention to our sins, we should confess them and then, "without anxiety," keep on living in the cheerful certainty of God's love and His willingness to help us avoid such sins in the future. It reminds me of the wonderful words that appear in First John:

...if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous...
Fifth: The latest issue of The Lutheran magazine reports on a study comparing female and male preaching styles at Lutheran congregations. The study was done as part of her graduate thesis at Ball State University by Tracy Paschke-Johannes. In it, Paschke-Johannes is quoted in the article as saying, that she "looked for themes and common usage of persuasion...any phrase or words used to change a person's thoughts or actions."

Among Paschke-Johannes' findings:

  • Women who employed "repetition" did so with greater frequency than did men.
  • Men "explained" God's relevance to everyday situations more than women.
  • Women were more likely to "tell stories on themselves," revealing their faith struggles or making themselves the butt of their humor.
  • Women were more likely to joke or make "sarcastic comments" about their children.
  • Few prayed either before or after their sermons.
  • Men were more likely to explain the Greek background of Biblical words.

A few reactions:

1. While it's difficult for me to tell from this article, it appears that the study is based on a very small sample of sermons. (Which may be understandable; not even a preacher like me would want to sample too many sermons). According to The Lutheran, Paschke-Johannes looked at fifteen sermons by women and fifteen by men.

2. All of the sermons used in the study were posted on the web. That makes it difficult to know whether Paschke-Johannes's conclusion that only three women and two men prayed either at the beginning or the end of their sermons is accurate. I post my sermons (messages) on this web site; while I always pray before I preach, I never write my prayers out, or post them on the site. One suspects that I'm not alone in that practice.

3. It's possible that some of the differences in preaching style, whether as it relates to revealing personal faith struggles, comments about one's family, or relating the Scriptures to real-life situations, might have less to do with gender than it does with generational differences or differences in personal piety.

It may in fact be worthwhile to know about the differences between male and female preaching styles. It could be particularly helpful in understanding the effects of various preaching styles on congregations. But it's difficult for me to draw any conclusions from at least the summary of Paschke-Johannes' study.

That's more than enough for now.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

The Happiness Project: The People Who Make Peace

Matthew 5:9
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 25, 2004)

Back in the 1960s, a young Christian, a white Quaker from the North named David made a courageous decision. Aware that African-Americans in the South were daily subjected to the physical, social, emotional violence of legalized discrimination, he would go south and befriend African-Americans and whites. He would be a peacemaker.

One day, David and one of his African-American friends walked into a drug store and ordered two Cokes. In a moment, David felt something sharp and hard being pushed into his back. He turned to see the most hate-filled face he’d ever seen. It belonged to a man who was holding what David now saw was a knife. It was aimed at his heart. David looked into eyes full of contempt and said, “Friend, whether you push that knife into my heart or not is obviously up to you. I want you to know that in either event, I love you.”

How did the knife-wielding man react? His hand trembled a bit, he dropped his weapon, and he ran from the store. That man had come face-to-face with a response to violence he may have never seen before. Usually, we react to violence in one of four ways. We either fight, run, refuse to get involved, or we give in. But David evidenced a fifth response to violence. I call it the Jesus way. He stood his ground and refused to meet violence with violence. He had the courage to say in effect, “I’m not going to be a monster. I’m going to be a human being.” David truly was what Jesus calls a “peacemaker.”

Now, when Jesus and the New Testament writers talk about peace, they can mean three different things, often all at the same time.

First: They can be referring to the end of hostility between people, whether between nations or individuals.

Second: They can mean the peace between God and us that comes to those who entrust their lives to Jesus, Who died on a cross to bring that relationship of peace.

Third: They can also mean the peace of mind that comes to our lives when we know that through Christ, we belong to God forever.

The New Testament also makes it clear that all three of these forms of peace are gifts that come to our lives through Jesus Christ. That’s why the Bible says that Jesus “is our peace” and calls Him the “Prince of peace.”

But the peace of Christ is not some abstract concept achieved through advanced study or contemplation.

The peace of Christ is more like a disease---a good disease---that gets transmitted from one organism to another. And what are the cells that Jesus uses to transmit this good disease? You and I are. The followers of Jesus are the conduits by which peace comes to people.

And that, to tell you the truth, is precisely where I have always struggled with Jesus’ words in today’s Bible lesson.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” I sure want to be called a child of God. Maybe you do too. I want everybody to live in peace. Theoretically, anyway. But, as David’s experience in that drug store demonstrates, being a peacemaker can be dangerous.

One thing that makes peacemaking dangerous is that we live in a violent world. Not only can we, in extreme circumstances, be threatened with physical violence, we can also be subjected to other kinds of violence. We can be rejected and snubbed. We can be ignored or treated as though we don’t even exist. There may be people here this morning who have been at the receiving end of that sort of violence. Frankly, I don’t know if I have the courage to be a peacemaker in such a world. And yet, this is precisely the kind of world that needs courageous peacemakers.

A Christian who was involved in the struggle for all people to be treated fairly back in the 1970s was once telling a group of people how important it was for Christians to make peace by being peaceful themselves, even risking responses like the one David evoked. Someone objected, asking, “Don’t you realize where advice like that might lead some of us?” “Yes,” said the Christian leader, “I know where it leads. Before you start down this path [of being a peacemaker] you better make sure you look good on wood.”

I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when He told us that anybody who follows Him needs to take up a cross first? If so, it scares me.

But peacemakers risk more than their lives. To this point, I haven’t mentioned something important in this series of messages on happiness that I’ve been doing on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, verses 1 through 12. It’s this: In the balance of chapter 5, as well in chapters 6 and 7, Jesus expands on the portraits of blessedness or happiness He gives. And so, at one point, later in chapter 5 of Matthew's book, Jesus explains what it means to be a peacemaker by saying:

“You have heard that it was said. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
These words frighten me too, because here Jesus is saying that once we throw in with Him, entrusting our lives and our futures to His hands, we need to be so secure and so certain of our destinies with Him that we willingly give everything that we have and everything we are to live with love for God and love for neighbor.

I find that difficult, to say the least. This past Tuesday afternoon, our son and I went to see the Reds play the Brewers. We had a great time. We ate lunch at the Machine Grill. We bought seats up near the top on the first base side so that we not only enjoyed the game, but also sat in the shade, soaking up gentle breezes and occasionally, looking out over the Ohio River, watching the barges and the speedboats pass by. It’s sort of what I imagine heaven will be like, folks.

But as we walked back to our car, a clean, respectably dressed man approached me. “Sir,” he said, “may I speak with you for just a moment?” He said that he’d recently lost his job and while he had put in three applications just that day, he didn’t know if any of those would pan out yet. “I just need a few dollars.” I cut him off and walked away.

Was the guy scamming me? Probably. But as the day wore on, I remembered the words of a woman, formerly a member of this congregation, who said that whenever she was confronted with beggars as she walked around downtown, she always gave them money. “If they’re lying,” she told me, “the onus is on them. But my conscience is clear. I do what I can for them.”

And Jesus’ words---”Give to everyone who begs”---couldn’t be clearer. It would have been easy for me to have pulled out a couple of bucks and handed them to the man who talked to me outside of Great American Ballpark. Instead, for the rest of the night, I wrestled with my conscience and offered a prayer of grief and repentance to God. I vowed to God that, with His help, I would live differently. I would be a peacemaker who gives love in all its forms to my neighbors in need.

And then yesterday, after the wedding, I was greeting people when an interruption came. Somebody told me, “There’s a young woman wanting to speak with the pastor.” I was introduced to a slight young woman. “I was just wondering,” she said, “if maybe my family could get some help. My father has MS and is unable to work any longer. Could you donate a few dollars to help us?” My heart started erecting new walls even as the young woman spoke. I hid behind them and said, “Our church doesn’t really have money set aside for things like that. We do give to organizations that help with such situations, but we don’t have the money.”

I don’t know if the young woman was scamming me, too. But that’s beside the point. I could have handed her a few bucks. The fact is that I was afraid---afraid of having less for myself, afraid of being played for the chump.

And fear, I have discovered, is the main reason we fail to be peacemakers. We’re afraid of losing our property, our lives, our positions. But the follower of Jesus Christ knows that everything we have---our very breath---is just a gift from God. Even when we give our lives away out of love for God and neighbor---exactly what Jesus did on the cross, the Jesus-Follower knows that God has more life and blessings up His sleeve for us. And He’s committed to giving those blessings to anyone who turns from sin and turns to Him for forgiveness and new life for all eternity. So, we don’t need to be afraid. I wish that I could remember that in the day-in, day-out living of life!

Holden Village is a camp in Washington State run by the Lutheran church. It’s a place where people often gather to talk about how they can be peacemakers. Once after a lecture, one man whose farm sat astride an Indian reservation, shared with the lecturer that some of the Native Americans who lived nearby to him kept stealing gasoline from his tank. A lock he’d installed was broken and removed. A spotlight failed to chase thieves away. The lecturer listened as this man struggled to understand what the Jesus way was through this problem. Finally, he suggested a solution to the man. Why not put up a sign that says, “Help yourself if you need gasoline”?

The farmer’s reaction was incredible. “Oh, would that be freedom,” he said, “to be able to do that and have the awful burden of protecting that gas tank off my mind!”

Real peacemakers, having totally surrendered to God, experience that kind of release, I think. They experience true happiness. I hope to be that kind of happy person someday. I can only pray that God will have patience with me until I grow up enough to get there. I will have to simply keep depending on His grace that accepts me as I am and that loves me too much to let me stay there.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” Jesus tells us today. May we all learn to be Jesus’ peacemakers.

[The true stories of David and the farmer, as well as the quote from the Christian peacemaker about looking good on wood, all come from John and Mary Schramm's book, Things That Make for Peace. I am heavily indebted to that book for inspiration for this message.

[The summary of the New Testament's teaching about what peace is, comes from the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.

[The list of typical reactions to violence appears in the Schramm book and summarizes insights shared by Lanzo del Vasto in his book, Warriors of Peace. I haven't personally read this book.]