Friday, September 03, 2004

Prayers Urgently Needed

Please pray for all in the Bahamas and in Florida who have been or likely will be effected by Hurricane Frances. Ask God to keep people safe, to help people to rebuild their lives, and to be given a sense of God's presence in the midst of things. We all know that life on this planet is far from perfect. But can give strength and peace to those who call on His Name.

Pray also for former President Bill Clinton. Pray, please, that God will give the former President a rapid and full recovery. Kudos to President George W. Bush for urging people to pray for Mr. Clinton during one of his campaign appearances today!

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

What M. De Tocqueville Discovered About Democracy in America

Every American high schooler has heard of Alexis de Tocqueville. He was the French social commentator who traveled to this country in the 1830s in order to understand what made the United States tick.

America was unique. Until the US came into being, democracy had only been tried in places like cities or regions. The audacious American experiment extended democracy to an entire nation.

Many thought it an impossible feat. Yet by the time Alexis de Tocqueville came here, the US had survived two wars with Great Britain (then the world’s preeminent power), expanded well beyond its original thirteen states, and emphatically told Europe not to meddle in the Western Hemisphere.

Of course, the US was still home to the shameful institution of slavery. Women were still unable to vote and their subjugation to males was taken for granted. Native Americans were dismissed for being subhuman savages. Yet even with those unconscionable deficiencies, the US was more democratic than any other nation and, to the mystification of the world, thriving.

No wonder de Tocqueville wanted to check things out. In the book about his observations,
Democracy in America, de Tocqueville sought to explain how this nation worked.

He gave special attention to the way Americans handled their freedom. Most political thinkers believed that if everybody in a nation was free, everyone doing what they wanted when they wanted to do it, chaos would ensue. Of course, they were right.

James Madison and the other framers of the US Constitution had known this. They had an accurate sense of just how selfish and self-serving we human beings can be. Almost to a person, irrespective of their own religious views, they would have affirmed the Biblical teaching that all human beings are born sinners with a tendency for “looking out for number one” coming as standard equipment in our make-ups. That was why they included an elaborate system of checks and balances in the Constitution, designed to ensure that nobody used freedom to run roughshod over others.

But no legal system, however well-constructed or well-enforced can prevent human beings from misusing freedom. So, how was it that America worked?, de Tocqueville wondered.

Americans, he said, had developed certain “habits of the heart,” rooted in their faith in Jesus Christ. Several decades before, the United States had undergone a “great awakening.” A nation that had been largely agnostic and disinterested in God had seen a vast majority of its citizens turn to faith in Christ. Americans had renounced selfishness, received the free gifts of God’s forgiveness and favor, and adopted the ethic of Jesus’ kingdom: love of God and love of neighbor. Without Americans’ faith, de Tocqueville concluded, America’s democratic experiment would devolve into chaos. But, he saw that American democracy valued not only freedom, but also equality and community. It was America’s faith, he said, that explained how democracy in America worked.

This is how he put it: “Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot. Religion is much more needed in...[a] republic...than in [a] monarchy...How could society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God?”

In this political year, there are many Christians speaking out on political issues. Often, I feel, they do so less from Christian perspectives than from politically ideological ones. Yet, as de Tocqueville learned, people with faith in Christ bring attitudes, beliefs, and habits to the body politic, assets that help make democracy work. In my next few columns, I intend to talk about the positive things that Christian faith can bring to democracy’s table.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Living in Confident Humility

Luke 14:1, 7-14
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, August 29, 2004)

In his book, The Great Divorce, writer C.S. Lewis recounts a welcoming celebration held in heaven honoring a follower of Jesus who has just died. The book’s narrator, being shown around heaven at the time, sees this and wonders if the person being honored is some great celebrity. But his guide tells him, “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived on Golders Green.”

The narrator says: “She seems to be...a person of particular importance?” His guide agrees. “She is one of the great ones.” But then he says, “Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

There is a difference between who heaven calls great and who the world calls great. Jesus reminds us of that in our Bible lesson today.

There, Luke tells us, Jesus is invited to a dinner by one of the Pharisees. The Pharisees, you know, are a group of Jesus' fellow Jews. They have rules for everything. They have rules for earning God’s favor. And they don’t like Jesus because He says that God’s favor can’t be earned; it’s a free gift for all who are willing to admit their powerlessness to defeat their sins and addictions on their own, turn from them, and let God take complete control of their lives.

The Pharisee’s dinner party is a trap; the host and his buddies want to lure Jesus into saying or doing something that they can use as evidence against Him so that they can kill Him.

Probably to easily note His every word and movement, Jesus is given a place of honor near His host. From His spot, Jesus watches people intently. Jesus could have been the model guest, making witty comments, delivering an innocuous after-dinner speech. Instead, He tells two “parables” (or stories with deeper meanings) to His host and the other guests, each one devastating punches at their egos and spiritual pride.

To the guests, He says, “When you go to a dinner party, don’t fight for the best places, closest to the important people and the shrimp cocktail. Instead, take a spot in the back, close to the noise and the chaos of the kitchen, where nobody else wants to sit. Try not to be noticed. Let your host be the one to decide whether to give you a place of honor or not.” I imagine that if Jesus were here this morning, He’d tell us, “When you come to worship, don’t look for a spot close the building. Park as far away from the door as you can, so that newcomers will find it easy to park and then come into the building to worship with you!”

To His host, Jesus says, “When you throw a bash, don’t invite all the ‘right’ people: the ones with cash and connections. When you invite those folks, they’ll deem it politically correct to return your favor by inviting you to one of their soirees. Instead, invite My people to your parties: the riffraff, the refuse of society, the blind, the lame, the poor, the prostitutes, the sinners, the despised.”

In the middle of these two vignettes, Jesus says (to what must have become a crowd stunned into silence): “...all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

There are three things that Jesus is not doing in these two little scenarios.

First: He is not giving us a lesson in good manners. Now, I'm sure that if Jesus were here this morning, He would tell all of us not to belch at a formal dinner party and to say, "Please" and "Thank you." But Jesus didn't see good manners as the most important thing in life. If Jesus cared a fig about good manners, He wouldn’t have told these stories in the first place. Telling them represented bad manners on His part.

Second: He is not telling us that if you act humble, God is going to give you a gold-plated condo in heaven. God doesn’t make deals. We can’t earn the blessings that God intends to be our gifts. Our way into heaven is bought and paid for, not by our actions, but by Jesus Christ. He did that when He went to a cross, accepting our punishment for sin, and then rose from the dead. All we can do is renounce our sin and ask Jesus to be in control of our lives forever.

Finally: Jesus is not describing dinner parties. He’s describing life with God, life lived under the reign of God. People who have become part of God’s Kingdom by turning from sin and receiving Christ as the God and King of their lives live in what I call confident humility.

What do I mean by confident humility? The confident person isn’t a blowhard braggart. She or he simply has a serene certainty about their place in the world.

When Martha Taft was growing up in Cincinnati, she was asked to introduce herself. “My name is Martha Bowles Taft,” she said, “My great-grandfather was President of the United States. My grandfather was United States Senator. My daddy is ambassador to Ireland. And I am a Brownie.” You see, young Martha wasn’t impressed by the credentials of her forebears. She was confident in herself.

Jesus makes it possible for you and me to live confidently, knowing that we belong in God’s Kingdom forever. We have that confidence not because we’re better than anybody else, but because Jesus covers our sin and deficiencies. In the New Testament, a man named Paul says that “love [God’s love, given through Jesus] covers a multitude of sins.” (Thank God, because I have a multitude of sins to be covered!)

Every time a follower of Jesus raises a prayer to God and every time they die and come to the gates of heaven, Jesus---God the Son---turns to God the Father and says, “It’s okay. She’s with me. He’s with me. They’re mine. They’re my precious children, bought out of their slavery to sin by My death and resurrection.” That’s where our confidence comes from!

Humility isn’t thinking less of ourselves; it’s thinking of ourselves less. It’s freedom from self-absorption.

Before we let Jesus into the center of our lives, our self-esteem is so low that we think about ourselves all the time. We do that not because we think highly of ourselves, but because deep down, we suspect that everyone is better than we are, more together, more noticed, more worthy of being noticed.

You see this all the time in little kids. My mother will tell you that the moment she brought my sister Betsy home from the hospital, she lost her sweet son. Instead, I became a little he-devil consumed with being in first place and keeping Betsy (and later, the rest of my siblings) in second place or lower. When David says in the Old Testament’s Psalm 51 that he was born in sin, he’s speaking for all of us. Nobody taught me how to be a little creep. The sin in me led me to be a creep! (The same is true, I'm sorry to say, for all of you as well.)

But today, Jesus tells His fellow guests (and us) that wherever we may set in this world’s power structures, we can have a place of honor in His Kingdom. To His host He says that when you treat others with love and respect, it doesn’t hurt your standing in God’s eyes. The follower of Jesus can live in confident humility when we put Him first.

Now, I say this. But I’ve got to tell you that it’s a hard way to live. I often struggle with whether Jesus or I will hold first place in my universe. I fight God's priorities for followers of Jesus: God, first; others, second; myself, last. In fact, I struggle over whether to let God be first in my life more than with any other aspect of being a Christian.

Back in 1989, I was asked to chair a committee planning a meeting of all 196 Lutheran congregations in northwestern Ohio. My committee planned the worship services, small group gatherings, and meeting agenda. We put together an All-Star extravaganza. The presiding bishop of our church, a prominent radio personality, a nationally-famous preacher, and the composer John Ylvisaker (the guy who wrote I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry and lots of other songs) were lined up. Nobody had ever seen anything like it and people who knew how hard I’d worked on it were calling me and asking, “How on earth did you make this happen?” I just smiled smugly and thought to myself, "Daniels, you are really it."

All the plans were in place and I went to the gathering, just waiting for the applause to come my way. Everything went great. But at the end of the weekend, not one word was said. The bishop didn’t introduce my committee and me to the adoring throng. There was no mention of my name or hard work in the program. I was miffed. And then, on the drive back home, I sensed God telling me, “Hold on there, hotshot. Who were you doing all of this for, you or Me?” I hate it when God talks to me like that!

After that, I remembered a story I’d read not long before. It seems that a missionary couple had retired. They headed home to America from Africa on a big ship. Also onboard was a famous military hero. Through the whole trip, the missionary husband felt a little sorry for himself. As they boarded the ship, the military hero received accolades, while the missionary couple was ignored. That continued through the whole trip. The missionary husband consoled himself with the thought that when they arrived home, they would be appreciated for their faithfulness to Christ. But when they docked in New York Harbor, there was only a boisterous welcome and a key to the city for the military hero. No one even met the missionary couple. The man was so discouraged. But his wife looked at him and reminded him, “It’s okay, sweetheart; we’re not home yet.”

As long as we live on this earth, followers of Jesus won’t be home yet. Our home is in eternity with God. But until we get there, we can live in confident humility. Certain of God’s love, given to us through Christ, we can give love and respect even to those the world counts despised. Certain of God’s love, we can love God and love others with the same passion and commitment with which God loves us. The world may count us as nobodies. But in God’s eyes, anyone who keeps following Jesus is a real somebody whose arrival will be loudly celebrated when we finally do go home!