Saturday, December 31, 2005

Greatest Hits of 2005: February and March Posts

Continuing to link to the posts on this blog which either got the most hits, the largest number of comments, or that I just liked during 2005. Here are my greatest hits from February and March, 2005:

It's Time to Dethrone Romance!
My Picks for the Four Best U.S. Presidents
What I Do When I Feel Blue
Was Music Born with Elvis? Or Did It Die?
The Effects of Fame on the Famous
Letting High Schoolers Go on Spring Break is a Bad Idea!
Easter: Life Triumphs Over Death!
Go Ahead, Fool Everyone by Being Yourself
Goal Setting, a Christian Approach, Part 5 (with links to previous installments)
What is a Positive Attitude for the Christian?
The Promise and the Perils of Democracy, Part 3 (with links to previous installments)
Hope Meets Despair!
Thinking About Last Night's Good Friday Service
Considering the Terri Schiavo Case from Several Angles

Greatest Hits of 2005: January Posts

Over the next few days, I'll be posting links to my "greatest hits" from 2005. These are the posts that got the most traffic, elicited the most comments, or that I just happen to most like myself.

Here are the hits from January, 2005:

Light of the World!
Foreign Policy Over Burritos and Tacos
Was the Inaugural Address 'Christian'?
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 9 (with links to the previous installments)
What Happens to Believers in Christ When They Die?
Are Infants Who Die in Heaven?
Of Rosemary Woods and the Problem of Loyalty
What Happens to Those Who Die Without Hearing of Christ?

Quick Takes on Our San Francisco Getaway

My wife and I recently returned from a trip to San Francisco, my first trip there. We had a fantastic time!

Rather than composing a long post on the details, I thought that I'd write a rapid-fire review of some of what we experienced. You might find it helpful if you're considering a first-time visit:

Cable cars and trolleys: Charming and practical. The trolleys SF has now come from all over the world. We rode some from Italy and saw one from Cincinnati's former fleet.

Sea Lions on Pier 39 off of Embarcadero: Funny.

Chocolate at Recchiuti Confections: Exquisite.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: The permanent collection is outstanding, including pieces from such disparate artists as Calder and Picasso. The current exhibitions are boring and unexceptional.

Union Square: A really fun place, even though the band's cover version of Who Can It Be Now? (an old Men at Work tune) was sort of annoying.

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART): Wow!

Tadich Grill: Great food, great service, great atmosphere, fun place!

The View from Twin Peaks: Breathtaking!

Ghiradelli's: Tasty, as always.

A Big Regret: Not going into the National Maritime Museum.

Most Enjoyable Shopping Venue: The recently-refurbished (2003) Ferry Building, on Embarcadero where Market Street ends.

People: Incredibly friendly and helpful!

Unexpected pleasure: Saint Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, close to the Museum of Modern Art. Its doors were open and people were praying there. The creche was stunning as was a life-sized depiction of Jesus near the Stations of the Cross.

Not Worth the Time: A wax museum in the Fishermen's Wharf district. We wouldn't have gone if we didn't have free admission. About one-third of the persons portrayed actually looked like them.

Unexpected Treat: Boudin, A bakery, restaurant, deli, and kitchenware store that's really neat.

Biggest Regret: Being unable to hook up with some old high school friends.

Biggest Pleasure: Being able to hook up with some old high school friends.

Greatest Blessing: Taking a pleasure trip with my wife, our first since before our two twenty-something kids were born.

Friday, December 30, 2005

First (and Maybe Only) Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lesson: Philippians 2:5-11

Because I just returned from a trip to San Francisco last evening and didn't have time last week to make a thorough study of the Bible passage around which our worship will be built this weekend, this will probably be my only "pass" at the lesson this week. (By way of explanation, I should tell the uninitiated that to help members of the congregation I serve as pastor and others who might be interested, I've been giving background on the focal passages each week, usually amounting to two or three posts.)

This week's Bible lesson is from the first-century preacher Paul's letter to the church at the city of Philippi. The specific passage is Philippians 2:5-11, one of my favorite in the Bible.

Here it is:

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

A few notes:

v. 5: This is a call to an attitude, a frame of mind, which is different from what comes to us naturally. Our reference point, Paul says, is to be Jesus. But Paul isn't calling us to mimic Jesus. Instead, He's calling us to a conversion of mind that's utterly radical.

In other words, we allow Jesus to take up residence in our minds so that we begin to think as he thought and thereby, live as He lived.

Frankly, though I may say that I want to be like Jesus, the ultimate goal of Christian spirituality, the fact is that I only want to want to be like Jesus.

At heart, I am selfish and self-aggrandizing. I don't really want to be the kind of selfless servant Jesus was when He washed the feet of the disciples on the night of His betrayal and arrest, even though I may want the world to think that's the sort of servant I am or think I want to be like Jesus.

The truth is that I want the benefit of being highly esteemed for having a servant's heart without the pain or self-sacrifice that might entail.

Paul is here commending a commitment of service that's willing to accept anonymity, a servanthood that isn't rendered for the sake of getting credit from either God or others.

It's the servanthood that characterizes the person who knows that there is nothing a human being can do to make themselves more acceptable to God. They know that they already have God's acceptance, a gift appropriated by all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ.

Instead of rendering service out of a sense of religious obligation, these folks have so let Jesus invade their minds (and bodies and spirits) that servanthood springs from them involuntarily.

To understand this, think of the judgment scene parable Jesus presents in Matthew 25:31-46. There, Jesus welcomes the sheep on His right into eternity, citing their clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, and such.

But these people are oblivious to their good deeds. They ask Jesus when they had done any of the wonderful things that He ascribes to them. Jesus says that whenever they served the least, the most despised, the lowliest esteemed, they had served Him.

What strikes me about this is that the "sheep" had no recollection of the service they had rendered others. They hadn't lived as religious folks trying to demonstrate their goodness. They were humble folks who, like the tax collector in Jesus' parable, cried out, "Have mercy on me, God, a sinner" and allowed Jesus to take up residence in their lives.

Jesus told His disciples in John 13 that true greatness is composed of being a servant to all. One of my frequent prayers finds me asking God to not just to want to be seen as a servant, but to actually want to want that!

v. 6: It's so easy to exploit our human or worldly advantages over others. But those are puny by comparison with the advantages enjoyed by Jesus, God the Son, over we human creatures.

To deal with our rebellion and sin, God could have exploited His power over us quite easily. Like Bill Cosby's Cliff Huxtable talking with his son Theo on the old Cosby show, God has every right to tell us, "I brought you into this world and I can take you out." God could have blown us away. He could have reengineered us to be automatons who unquestioningly do His will.

Instead, God took up a harder course. He embraced human life for Himself, starting out that life as the son of a peasant woman, a child dismissed as a bastard whose first crib was a manger.

His purpose was to woo us so that we would invite Him into our lives, giving Him permission to work on our minds, spirits, and wills to make us like Christ Himself.

v. 7: Jesus emptied Himself. Yesterday at the San Francisco Airport, because we got bumped off of our first flight of choice to Cincinnati, my wife and I got to spend several hours with two women similarly bumped. They were both salespeople with Otis Elevator, planning on flying through Cincinnati and on to Paris. We had such a great conversation and we were so thankful for the opportunity that our delay gave us to meet them!

At one point, we were talking about how hard it can be sometimes to offer to help someone who's hurting. We get afraid that we might do or say the wrong thing. But we all finally concluded that we need to learn to "get over ourselves."

Jesus never had to get over Himself because He was never hung up on Himself. (Although His wilderness temptations indicate that He did have to fight the very understandable inclination to be so hung up.)

To empty oneself then, I think, is to divest oneself of the focus on ourselves that prevents us from caring about another more than we care about ourselves.

It also and more importantly means, willingly laying aside the opportunity to pull rank or look down our noses on others, often a favorite Christian activity. Christians who have emptied themselves know, in Martin Luther's wonderful phrase, that "we are all beggars," utterly dependent on God for "our daily bread" and every blessing from heaven!

Though we may applaud such an other-focused ethic in life, the fact is that it doesn't come naturally. We require the "holy lobotomy" that Paul talks about in verse 5, the transaction between heaven and earth that begins to happen when we surrender our lives and wills to Jesus Christ.

v. 6: Jesus' going to the cross was the ultimate act of selflessness. Selflessness is not selfisness with a pious attitude. Jesus didn't say, "I'm sacrificing Myself; look at how wonderful I am." He sacrificed Himself and invited us all to take up our crosses and follow Him.

vv. 7-11: Because of His Servant path, Jesus has the Name above all names.

(Tomorrow, I may write a bit summarizing words about servanthood from Celebration of Discipline and A Theological Word Book of the Bible.)

Woman Marries Dolphin

Today's news brings the weirdest wedding announcement since the one telling all that the Roman emperor, Caligula, had made an honest horse of the animal he'd been sleeping with for awhile and by joining it in matrimony.

A British woman has "married" a dolphin to which she's taken a shine. The animal is resident in an Israeli sea park.

Now, of course, this is all quite ridiculous. People will say that it signifies nothing. It's just a filler story for the end of news broadcasts.

But I can't help but wonder if, in one way or another, the tale doesn't reflect the world's prevailing "anything goes" mentality.

This wasn't the act of an individual woman, after all. The dolphin's trainer and owner had to go along with this fruity idea. Whether they acquiesced out of a love for the almighty buck--the "bride" is a millionaire rock show promoter--or out of a genuine commitment to trans-specie intermarriage, granting the dolphin's fin in marriage, as one of the news accounts cleverly describes it, is still irresponsible.

I also have no doubt that there will be anthropomorphizing animal-lovers who applaud the ceremony.

Caligula, whose antics have traditionally been pointed to by historians as symptomatic of the moral deterioration and spiritual ennui that led to Rome's fall, probably would have sent a wedding gift.

(I first saw this item mentioned on Rick Moore's blog.)

A Low-Key Christmas Celebration

Recently, I wrote that "God likes simple." My brother, Marty and his wife, Trina, seem to live that reality that I sometimes only talk about. In this recent post, Marty describes some of how the two of them celebrated Christmas this year, including some time spent in Columbus' German Village, one of my favorite spots on the planet.

For obvious reasons, I was personally taken with this passage in Marty's post:
...but I want to also point out the carolers we listened too outside of Helen Winnemore. Now in the Daniels family Helen Winnemore has a real personal connection. My brother, Mark, who is a really wonderful Pastor and talented writer purchased the wedding rings for he and his wife...there back in like, 1970-something. Since then it has always been a place where I have purchased SPECIAL gifts for Trina. When you go there you need to look through their Kaleidoscopes, they are a real treat!
Read the whole thing. (The year when we bought the rings, by the way, was 1974.)

Marty is one of the funniest comedians around. His humor is incisive and perceptive. What makes it all the more remarkable is that it's clean. That doesn't mean infantile. His routines are intelligent. But Marty's not so intellectually challenged as to need to resort to crudity. He does lots of engagements for business groups. If you have the chance to invite him to be with you sometime soon, take advantage of it. In my (admittedly biased) view, he's really terrific!

"If it feels like you're stuck in a rat race...

...perhaps it's because you're stuck in a rat race." As domestic retailers and Chinese manufacturing facilities gear up for what Charlie Lehardy calls "Christmas 2006™," he asks us to consider what's really important. A thoughtful piece from Charlie's ever-interesting site, AnotherThink.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Greatest Communicator Speaks to Us

[Message shared with the people of Friendship Church on Sunday, December 25, 2005]

John 1:1-14

No long-winded sermon on this Christmas morning. Just a few thoughts on our Bible passage.

It's one that sounds strange to our post-modern ears. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." What does that mean?

Back in the book of Genesis, you may remember, when God wanted to create the heavens and the earth, the plants and the animals, and humanity, He spoke a word and life sprang into being.

God's Word has power. This is something affirmed repeatedly in both the Old and New Testament portions of the Bible.

"Your Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path," one of the Psalms says.

The "...word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." That's from the New Testament book of Hebrews.

God loved speaking His Word to His ancient people, Israel.

He told them, after upbraiding them for trying to live without Him in their lives, "I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for."

And He said, "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before Me."

God spoke His Word and parted waters to free His people from Egyptian slavemasters. He spoke it and gave them a land. He spoke again and allowed enemies to overtake His people after they had forgotten Him and His love. He spoke it again to tell His people that one day, an anointed king, a Messiah in the Hebrew, a Christ in the Greek, would come to save them from their sins and to give them new lives with Him forever.

As the centuries wore on though, most of God's people seemed to have forgotten about Him or to have consigned Him to one hour of their weeks. But one day, God sent an angel to speak a word to a man named Zechariah, a priest. He and his wife, Zecharaiah was told by the angel Gabriel would have a son, a great prophet who would call people to turn from sin so that they could receive the coming Messiah.

Later, Gabriel went to a young peasant girl in the hill country near the Sea of Galilee. He had a word from God for Mary: She was to give birth to the Messiah, God in the flesh.

On the night of Jesus' birth, angels brought word of this great news from God to shepherds who went and worshiped Jesus.

Jesus, you see, is the ultimate, definitive Word from God. God is the greatest of all communicators and through Jesus, His message has been communicated directly into our lives.

He says: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me."

He says, "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

He says, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life."

And later, filled with the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus, Peter said, "All who call upon the Name of the Lord will be saved."

In Jesus, God is speaking His Word to us again this Christmas morning. He says, "Turn from sin, turn from worry, turn from the dying ways of a world edging toward inevitable demise and instead, follow Me. I give life beyond the grave, forgiveness beyond your wrongs, strength beyond your weakness, hope beyond your despair."

Those are good words for us today. And the Word made flesh will make them good for all of who follow Him, for all eternity!
God bless you with a wonderful Christmas. Above all, may you sense the presence, the love, and the transforming power of Jesus Christ in your life!

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

O How Great That Manger Was!

Check out this poem by Tod Bolsinger!

Lessons from the Shepherds

[Message shared with the people of Friendship Church on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2005]

Luke 2:1-20
A few nights ago, my wife and I welcomed some friends to our house for dinner. Not long before that, we were discussing what to serve when my wife said, “Why don’t we have Raclette?” I thought that was a great idea!

Raclette is something that our daughter and I learned about in Germany a few years back. It all centers on a Raclette grill, which you place in the middle of the table. You take small cuts of various meats--we usually choose steak, ham, and pepperoni--and cook them on the top, flat surface of the grill.

Then, everybody takes individual, small triangular pans and loads them with cheese, veggies, and macaroni noodles--whatever they want. On a lower level of the Raclette grill, each person cooks that food. While everybody tends their selections, they chat and laugh and enjoy each other’s company. It’s fun!

Fast forward a few days after our dinner party: I ran into one of the couples who’d been at our house. “We’ve been telling everybody about your little machine!” the wife said. And the husband told me: “It’s great! I told people about how it really creates a little community around that grill!”

I obviously was happy that they liked it so much. But later, this thought crossed my mind: We had created Raclette evangelists! These friends are even now making plans to buy their own Raclette grill and to invite others to their house for fun evenings around it!

It made me think of all the other things we tell people about. For several years, a friend of ours who works at the Apple Store kept telling us why Apple computers were so much better than PCs.

He kept urging us to buy one. “Besides,” he said, “I can get you a discount!” That got my attention and so when it was time to replace our old computer a year-and-a-half ago, we bought an Apple.

We so fell in love with it that our son went out and bought an Apple laptop. Now, we go around telling people how much we love our Apples! We’ve become Apple evangelists.

The word evangelist literally means good newswer. When you’ve got good news and you share it, you’re sort of evangelizing, good newsing. It’s what our friends are doing now as they tell others about our Raclette party. It’s what we do when we start rhapsodizing about our Apple computers.

Now, you know where I’m going with this. But stick with me, okay?

There are two Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth. One of them is in the Gospel of Luke, which we read just a short time ago. The other is in the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew has the magi or the wise men coming to visit Jesus. Luke has the shepherds. In a way, you can understand why heaven would want to get the attention of the wise men to announce the birth of Jesus. The wise men were people of influence, power, and importance. If you want to influence the world, get to the influencers, right?

But it’s sort of difficult to understand why heaven bothered letting those shepherds out in the fields near Bethlehem know about the birth of God-in-the-flesh. Shepherds were regarded as despicable, dishonest creatures who lived on the wrong side of the camel caravan tracks. Having them on your side was nothing to brag about.

And yet, Luke says that on the night of Jesus’ birth, a whole squadron of angels went to the shepherds to give the news. The shepherds were so revved up that they fairly ran to find the baby lying in a manger, the Savior of the world. Luke records that these shepherds--rough, uneducated guys--couldn’t stop evangelizing. First, they talked about it among themselves. Then, they told Joseph and Mary about what the angels had said. And then, Luke says:
...they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them...The shepherds returned [that means they went back to work], glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
They were carrying the good news that God was on the loose in our world, that God had become one of us, that the Savior long-awaited had begun His march to triumph, a march that you and I know will lead to a cross and a resurrection and the forgiveness of sin and hope that never dies for all who believe in and follow this Bethlehem baby. The shepherds couldn’t contain themselves. They had to tell everybody.

Yeah, Martin Luther said in one of his Christmas sermons at the church in Wittenberg, Germany back in the sixteenth century, they told everybody in sight about Jesus...for awhile.

But we have no record of the shepherds after this. If they became faithful followers of Jesus, we don’t know about it. If they kept telling others about Jesus, there is no documentation of it. My guess is the same as Luther's, that after a short time, their enthusiasm gave out. The pilot light of their faith in Christ seems to have died down.

You and I know people like that. Their passion for the God Who died and rose to give us life once gave off light for others to see their way through the tough passages of life and into the arms of Christ. But now, they never think about Christ. They may worship once or twice a year. They might whisper a prayer or two when they’re in a jam. And the notion of serving their neighbor is something that rarely crosses their minds.

What happens to people like that? How do they, as seems to have been true of the shepherds, lose their ways? What's behind their spiritual amnesia? How do they lose their grasp of the strongest hand that can hold them and of the greatest truth any of us can know, the truth that God is for us?

I suppose that there are lots of reasons. But one thing I know to be true is this: If we’ve lost track of where the God we know through Jesus Christ is in our lives, it’s because we’ve let it happen.

Once God gets you in His great bear hug of love and acceptance, He will never let you go. But He won’t hold you against your will.

Among the greatest things about God is the fact that no matter how far we may wander from Him, He is always willing, anxious to welcome us back. I’ve learned that personally in my life...and more than once.

I read this past week about a couple whose children were grown and away from home. It describes them on Christmas Eve:
Reggie and Oneita sat on the living room couch. They were close together, holding hands. They were waiting for their son and family to come from New Mexico, their daughter and family from Michigan. Preparations were complete. [Even the Santa Clause covers were on all the door knobs in the house!] Only the people were missing. Later that day, when everyone had arrived, it was time to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas is meant to be shared and not just tonight or tomorrow and not just with our families.

The Good News that draws us here and now is Good News for every day of our lives and for everybody and for all of eternity.

So, as an old year closes and we move to a new one, resolve to be good newswers, evangelizers who, unlike the shepherds, keep telling others and showing others that God has come into our world and is for us. Who knows, you might be the very person who can ignite the flames of someone else’s faith in Christ.

And if you are one whose faith has burned out, don’t give up! Come to the Christ Whose birth we celebrate tonight. Ask Him to hold you tight. Ask Him to forgive your sin and renew your strength for living and your hope for eternity. He will do these things if you let Him. I promise. And if you will, you can remember this as the Christmas that changed your life forever.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

[The true story of Reggie and Oneita is told in Christmas Is...A Treasury of Meditations, Stories, and Quotes]

What Christmas Means

Last night, I presided over a wedding ceremony. The groom is a young man with whom our son graduated from high school and is now a co-worker of my wife's. It was great seeing the simple joy on the faces of that couple and their families!

Afterwards, my son, who had the night off, went with me to our favorite Mexican place for dinner. When I pulled out my charge card to pay for the meal though, I was told by our server, "It's on me. You're one of our regulars. I just hope that you all have a merry Christmas!"

Wow! Joy and then an unexpected gift within a few hours. Those were good things!

Then, I got word that the father of one of our members, a patient at a Cleveland hospital, was expected to die soon. I got the word this morning that he passed at 9:30 A.M., his wife and all nine of their children in the room when it happened. They were still at the hospital later when I reached them by telephone to assure them that everyone who grieved the loss would be in our prayers and to ask them if there might be anything we could do to be supportive to them.

Life is like that sometimes: A disjointed kaleidoscope of highs, lows, good, bads, life, and death. That's why the event we celebrate at this time of year is so important.

Through the Baby born in Bethlehem, we know that God is for us and that for all who dare to trust in that Holy Child, the joys will be sweeter, the kindnesses more deeply treasured, and the grieving from which we suffer will be turned into endless celebrations in the presence of God!

I pray the certainty of these blessings for you this Christmas Eve!

Taking Time to Savor the Savior (Audio Version)

this is an audio post - click to play

Tell me if you like having an audio version of some of my posts like this or if you'd prefer my using the audio capabilities just for random talking.

The purpose of this post to encourage everybody to celebrate Christmas by either attending a Christmas Eve candlelight service tonight or heading for worship tomorrow morning!

Taking Time to Savor the Savior

It's likely that neither our son or our daughter will be able to attend tonight's Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship service.

That's a shame, because my daughter told me once that the service is the highlight of the year at our church for her.

It's definitely one of the real highs on my annual calendar. It's been that for me, either as a lay worshiper or worship leader, for thirty-two Christmases now.

On the face of it, there's nothing special about the service. We sing some Christmas songs. We hear the Christmas story. I share a Christmas message. Near the end of the service, I read John's majestic overture to His account of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection by candlelight and then, everyone holding candles, we sing Silent Night, Holy Night.

I suppose some of what makes the service so enjoyable each year is all the sentimental attachments of the season and the annual renewal of a kind of ritual that brings back a flood of memories of Christmases past.

It's difficult as we sing the words of Silent Night the way we have all these years, not to remember those who have died with whom we've sung this song before.

I also remember the sanctuary of our home church in Columbus, decked out in greenery, full of people who helped me come to faith in Jesus Christ. The congregation no longer exists, having merged to form a new church and moved to a different site. But the memories are still there.

I remember the German-American congregation I was privileged to serve as pastor for six years when I first was ordained. Although we sang every verse in English, we also sang the Christmas classic in German. I can still hear the voices of those wonderful people as they sang: "Stille nacht, heilige nacht..."

But sentimentality aside, because sentimentality has nothing to do with being a Christian, I think there's another more important reason I find the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service so meaningful.

It's a rare moment in our bustling, nervous, spasmodically-energized culture for us to simply

...and turn out the lights

...and turn off the background music

...and by candlelight, hear our own imperfect, but earnest, voices sing about the love and power of God.
It's a love so deep and a power so great that God willingly cast aside the advantages of heaven in order to become one of us,
to serve us,

to die for us,

to rise for us.
God came into the world in Jesus Christ so that all who turn from sin and believe in Him will live with God, in all His love and power, for all eternity.

In The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis portrays how the Christ-figure of his Narnian tales, Aslan, sings the world of Narnia into being. The entire event is witnessed by four persons from our world and a witch from a dead place called Charn.

Seeing this dazzling display of love, creativity, order, and power--of unmitigated goodness, the witch and a cunning amateur magician are repulsed. They hear the singing and they want it to stop. They see the power and close their eyes. They can't stop talking about wanting to leave.

Meanwhile, the other three, including a simple cabbie from Victorian London named Frank, stand in awe and reverence.

Finally, upset with the noisy, selfish cynicism of the witch and the magician, Frank turns to them and says, "Oh stow it...Watchin' and listenin's the thing at present; not talking."

That's what I love about the way we sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve. It's also why I think it's so meaningful to us.

For a single, still moment, we stow all our talking and our busy-ness and our frenzied striving.

We watch and we listen and we remember that God so loves the world--so loves each and every human being--that He gives His only Son so that all who believe in Him will not perish, but have life forever with God!

We take time to savor the Savior...and that's a very good thing!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Contra-Terrorism in America? I Hope Not!

Who can understand or explain what goes on in the mind of a terrorist?

What is it that creates that lethal blend of hatred, cowardice, vengefulness, self-loathing, disrespect for their Maker, and pathetic self-aggrandizement that makes it seem acceptable for people to guide a jet into a tower full of people or to blow themselves up in a marketplace?

I'm sure I can't say with any degree of certainty.

But today, Cincinnati police are investigating what appears to have been an act of terror in the Clifton area, near the University of Cincinnati.

The mosque of the Islamic Association of Cincinnati was bombed. "Two explosives detonated in the doorways of two adjacent buildings of the Islamic Center..." says the account in this morning's Cincinnati Enquirer.

Police have yet to establish that the bombing was an act of hate and terror, but it seems likely.

After the event, a number of Cincinnati's most prominent religious leaders condemned the act. I'm glad they did so. They were sending a clear message that first of all, not all Muslims are Islamofascists. And secondly, they were telling the bomber, "Just in case you think that you were doing this because of a commitment to the Judeo-Christian faith, you were wrong. You don't overcome hatred or terrorism by becoming a hateful terrorist yourself! This is contrary to everything we believe!"

Sad as it would be, I hope that this act of violence has more mundane causes: a familial dispute, an argument among one-time friends, the act of a disgruntled former participant in mosque activities. All of those would be horrible circumstances, of course. But they would be easier to accept, creating less long-term anxiety.

We simply don't need vigilante contra-terrorists in America.

Mr. Christian and Mr. Mainstream Talk About Intelligent Design

Years ago, just as the debate over late-term abortions was heating up, they agreed to periodically meet. They laughed back then, after they decided there could only be one spot for their get-togethers: A twenty-four hour diner that had somehow weathered the storms of time and changing culinary fashions to keep its place at the corner of Church and State Streets downtown. Many of their discussions through the years, had been about the clash, or the perceived clashes between, church and state. So the setting had always seemed appropriate.

Mr. Christian and Mr. Mainstream, not their real names, of course, felt that they owed it to each other and maybe to society, to strive to be, if necessary, the last two people in America discussing contentious issues involving religion, government, culture, and society with civility.

Today, Mainstream, noticed that Christian was already sitting at their usual booth, approached it, and slid into the seat opposite his old friend. They had an unspoken custom for these meetings: They never began their dialogues until both had given their orders.

For Mainstream, this was a perfunctory exercise. He always ordered the same thing, whether their meals took place at seven at night or two in the morning. "Bacon and eggs sunny side up," he told Mona, their usual waitress a few moments later.

She never bothered writing his order down on her green pad, but always had it and a pen poised for action when she turned to Christian. He was the more adventurous of the two, often mixing and matching items that weren't listed together on the menu. Sometimes, he even brought in an exotic food find and asked the cook to add a touch of this or a pinch of that to an order. Mona and the gang might have minded, but Christian and Mainstream were regulars...and usually good tippers.

Orders given, Mainstream said, "I suppose you're disappointed with the Intelligent Design ruling from Pennsylvania."

"What makes you think that?" asked Christian.

"Well, I presume you think that there's an Intelligent Designer behind the universe..."

"Sure," Christian interrupted, "but I presume you think similarly."

"I guess I do," Mainstream replied. "I guess that most people do."

"Sure they do," Christian affirmed, "From a logical perspective, it's sort of loopy to think that this whole bloomin' universe, with all its intricacies and elegant structures, simply came into being. It'd be like..."

"Like a battle ship just showing up in the harbor all by itself, I know," Mainstream said. They'd met for so many years, they could sometimes complete one another's sentences. "So, are you upset with the ruling or not?" Mainstream, a journalist by profession, loved to push his friend, who could at times, be unintentially indirect.

"Not really," Christian said. This wasn't what Mainstream had expected to hear. "Look," Christian continued, "the judge only ruled that Intelligent Design couldn't be taught as a scientific theory. But it can be taught in a Comparative Religion class or in a Social Studies class. I can live with that, I think."

"You can?" Mainstream was still incredulous.

"Yeah, for one thing, I've never been that riled up over the whole ID thing. As a Christian, I've got bigger fish to fry. As long as no science teacher can say that evolutionary theory disproves the existence of God, I'm okay."

"What do you want that science teacher to say?"

"Well, I want that teacher to recognize the limits of science."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean science has questions it's capable of answering and those it can't. It might be able to well respond to the when, what, and how questions about the universe, what I call the mechanical questions of life. But it can't tell us who or why all of this stuff, including those eggs you're wolfing down, came into being. Or who made us. Or why."

"And religion can?"

"Well," Christian said with a smile, "I think that some religions can. Pass me the ketchup."

"Here's what I think," Mainstream said, "that old school board in Dover has gotten its wings clipped twice now. First, they all got booted out and now the judge--a conservative Republican Bush appointee, by the way--has thrown out their whole program. Serves 'em right."

"Why do you say that?"

"How can you ask me that question? You're the one who..."

"Oh, calm down! I just wanted to hear what you think."

Mainstream smiled. "I just think that if you believe in a religion of love, you shouldn't go forcing your views down other people's throats."

Christian pulled out a couple of bucks and laid them on the table for a tip. "I think you're right on that. I gotta git. Have a..." He paused.

"Go ahead and say it. Go on. You were going to say, 'Merry Christmas,' weren't you? You're allowed."

Christian shook his friend's hand. "Okay then. Merry Christmas. But it's awfully unfair of you. After all these years, I keep laying my soul bare to you and you've never told me what your religion is. Or even if it is."

"No," Mainstream said with a wink. "I never have. See you soon."

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 22

We come to the turning point in the story of Joseph. At the end of the chapter 39, Joseph was sent to prison--admittedly a Martha Stewart-like facility, but a prison, nonetheless. Here he is: A slave far from home, after being sold into slavery by his own brothers and now doing time for a crime he never committed.

Today, a court-appointed psychotherapist might say that Joseph, after a profusion of bad breaks, should he be released, was a good candidate for recidivism and for leading a life of crime.

But Joseph, although far from the family who other than himself, were the sole worshipers of the God of the Bible, lived in the certainty that God was with Him. He also had those dreams to latch onto from his youth that seemed to hint that God had a plan for his life.

So, Joseph held on to God while in prison. In fact, as the preceding chapter ends, we see that Joseph's abilities as a leader and administrator, which had previously caught the eye of his owner, Potiphar, are now being used in the prison. (Joseph is sort of like Tim Robbins' Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption.)

Genesis 40:1-23
The Pharaoh's cupbearer and baker, apparently guilty of some wrongdoing end up in prison too, where, one night, they both have dreams.

Gerhard von Rad points out that in those days, the interpretation of dreams was regarded as a science. But neither one of the Pharaoh's servants are apparently competent to discern their dreams' meanings, dream-interpretation being a specialized field, in any case. But both are disturbed by their dreams.

When Joseph learns what's bothering the two men, he assures them that the interpretation of dreams is something that comes as a gift (what the New Testament calls a charism) from God. This belief lay behind the emphatic rejection of astrology or other ancient superstitions by Israel.

Joseph rightly interprets the dreams of both men. Yet in spite of Joseph's pleading with him, when the cupbearer is released, he forgets all about Joseph or the young man's insistence that he is really not guilty of the crime for which he's imprisoned.

Genesis 41:1-24
Later, the Pharaoh has two dreams. (By the way, this pairing of dreams is a pattern throughout the story about Joseph.) Both disturb him. Finally, the cupbearer remembers the wrong he's done Joseph by forgetting all about him and tells the Pharaoh of the young Hebrew who can interpret dreams.

What follows is rather remarkable. Although consigned to a position of abject subordination, a foreigner, a slave summoned to appear before the head of the greatest empire of its day, Joseph seems completely unruffled.

This is a model for any person of faith asked to "speak the truth to power": We should be as respectful of the powerful as we would be of any other human being, all of whom are created in the image of God. But we should remember, as Bob Dylan wrote many years ago, "even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked." Someone, I can't recall who, has recently observed that they had known three different people who seemed to treat everyone they met, whether presidents or paupers, exactly the same way every time: Billy Graham, Johnny Cash, and Bono. Is it a coincidence that each of these admittedly imperfect men have also been people of faith in God ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ?

Genesis 41:25-36
Joseph listens to the Pharaoh describe his dreams and, reliant on God to give him the right understanding, Joseph interprets their meaning. Egypt, he pronounces, is about to enjoy seven years of bumper crops. But there will follow seven years of famine.

Joseph could have fairly been expected to leave things at that. Instead, gifted not only as a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, but also as a leader and an administrator, he goes on to suggest the managerial implications of the dreams. The Pharaoh, Joseph says, needs to select somebody who will set aside 20% of the crops during the bumper years so that they will be available for sale to the hungry in the draught and famine years to follow.

Genesis 41:37-45
Joseph's entire game plan so pleases the Pharaoh that he installs Joseph as his second-in-command. As von Rad notes:
The narrator describes Joseph's installation by describing ceremonies, customs, and laws that were actually practiced in Egypt. The office given to Joseph is that of grand vizier, i.e., the authorized representative of the king himself...Especially important was the handing over of the royal seal, which the vizier had to administer; with it he becomes the actual public executor of the royal decrees...
Genesis 41:45-57
Charles Dickens's or Alexandre Dumas' fictional tales of improbable--and in some cases, to be dreaded--reunions between family members or one-time opponents have no more drama than that in the true story of Joseph and his brothers which is about to unfold.

Everything in Egypt is going as Joseph had foretold and his administrative remedy is proving to be a success. Egypt is doing okay under Joseph's wise guidance. Meanwhile, the famine has hit Canaan too...

[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14
Part 15
Part 16
Part 17
Part 18
Part 19
Part 20
Part 21]

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

First Pass at The Christmas Eve Bible Lesson: Luke 2:1-20

[Although this is Gospel of Mark's "year" in the lectionary, that three year cycle of Bible lessons I talk about here, because of the brevity of Mark, it's necessary on some weeks to use readings from the three other Gospels to fill out the lectionary year.

[The Gospel of John is usually used to do this. But, like Mark, John has no account of Jesus' birth. So, on Christmas Eve, for a lesson that contains an account of Jesus' birth, we turn to either Luke or Matthew.

[During our Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship, we read lessons from Isaiah and Titus, this lesson from Luke's Gospel, and the majestic preface--one might say, overture--to John's Gospel.

[On Sunday morning, Christmas Day, I'll be doing a brief meditation on that overture. But for Christmas Eve, the message will be built around one of the many themes surfaced in Luke's birth narrative.

[Because of the busy-ness of this week--I also am doing a wedding--this may be the first and only pass I take at the Christmas Eve Bible lesson.]

First, the passage itself:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Some comments:

vv. 1-5
Luke is the systematizer. His intent in this Gospel and its sequel, the book of Acts, is to lay out, first, an orderly account of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection and in the latter book, the history of the Church from Jesus' ascension until a date about thirty years later.

Luke also intends to put the events in question within their historical context. Usually, Luke is accurate and successful in this second intention, so much so that he's often referred to as "the historian."

However, verses 1 through 5 have been the subject of lots of scholarly for centuries. I mean questioning from believers in Christ and the Bible. The historic facts Luke cites simply don't match what we know, or at least, we think we know, from other sources.

The issues are mainly threefold:
  • 1. The eras during which the emperor and the governors cited did their work did not overlap as Luke reports.
  • 2. We have no evidence of the general census Luke mentions happening until something like 6 AD, whereas it appears that Jesus' birth occurred anywhere between 8 and 4 BC.
  • 3. Roman law would required neither that people go to their native areas to register for a census, even if they owned property there, or that Mary accompany Joseph on such a journey.
There have been numerous attempts to explain away these difficulties, most notably the one cited here. But they really amount more to pious wishing than to the sort of faithful consideration of all things, the sort of consideration with which Luke himself attempted to look at the events he describes.

Frankly though, our faith doesn't rise and fall on the details of Jesus' birth. That He was born cannot be disputed.

More important are the accounts we have of His death and resurrection. They just happen to be more numerous and closer to the events themselves than those of His birth, by far. In fact, the accounts we have of Jesus' death and resurrection are more numerous, more corroborated, and more reliable than those we have of the lives or deaths of Socrates or Alexander the Great, to name just two other figures from ancient times.

But as the eminent Biblical scholar, Father Raymond Brown pointed out, the problems with Luke's specifics about the secular rulers he cites in the birth accounts are too numerous for us to easily explain. Since they aren't essential for us to believe in order to accept Christ's Lordship, it's best to move on.

After placing these events within the context of so-called secular history, although it's a stupid and ill-informed project attemtping to separate the history of the world from the God Who insistently interacts with it, Luke tells the actual story of Jesus' birth with great economy. (With far more economy, one imagines, than Mary might have used to tell it, since she was forced to give birth in a town far from her home, in a barn, without a midwife. The miracle of Christmas, Martin Luther said, was that the baby was born at all and that his mother survived the life-threatening event. Imagine it, Luther would say, it was "a sight for tears.")

According to the New Interpreter's Bible (NIB), the use of "bands of cloth" on newborns was common in those days. It showed "maternal care and may have kept the child's limbs straight."

Does the infant Jesus' placement in a feeding trough, the NIB wonders, denote His humble origins or is it "a foreshadowing of the failure of humanity to receive the Lord"? (Check out Isaiah 1:3) I don't see that as an either/or proposition. Jesus was raised in a humble household and the world would spurn Him.

I would also say that Jesus' placement in the trough carries with it a third possible significance. My professor and mentor, Bruce Schein, pointed out that the particular trough in which the baby lay was called a phantne in the original Greek of the New Testament. A phantne was usually a stone manger, suggesting the stone tomb in which the crucified Jesus would one day be lain and from which He would rise.

In Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus, we read of magi following a star from distant lands to visit the child and His family, who had, by the time of their arrival, moved to a house in Bethlehem. Luke instead shows us angels informing nearby shepherds of the event. Their sign isn't a star, but the baby in a manger.

As NIB points out, "Shepherding was a despised occupation." Shepherds were seen as "shiftless" and dishonest people who "grazed their flocks on others' lands."

But the revelation of the birth to the shepherds also solidifies the baby Jesus' connection to the throne of the great ancient King David, who was also a shepherd. It's as if the "guild" of the greatest of all Old Testament kings acknowledges this ultimate heir to the Davidic throne.

The angels' song ascribing the bringing of peace by Jesus would have been a politically subversive proclamation in the first-century world. The viciously-maintained pax romana, imposed by the Emperor Augustus, was supposedly a great blessing which was brought by the all-but-divine and nearly-worshiped emperor.

The NIB says that the shepherds' response to the revelation of the angels comes in three stages:
  • their discussion with each other (v.15)
  • finding the Holy Family (v.16)
  • their telling about the angels' visit (vv.17-18)
If you've ever seen the Christmas movie, Bishop's Wife, with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven, think of the taxi driver, Sylvester. He seems to be a fairly good approximation of the humble, open, hopeful shepherds in Luke's birth narrative.

(An interesting sidebar issue here is that the angels, as God's agents, have proven in these opening chapters of Luke, to be perfectly willing to give signs of the events they proclaim to those who dare to believe them. But Zechariah is deemed faithless and struck mute in Luke 1, when he demands a sign.)

"The center of the entire birth scene," says the NIB (and I agree), " the christological affirmation of the angel (vv.10-12) and the response of the heavenly chorus (v.14). The child is the Messiah." (Note: Christology is the study and the understanding of Christ's function, what the theologians sometimes call His office. As the Christ, God's Anointed One or Messiah, Jesus plays the central role in our relationship with God. Check out, as always, John 3:16.)

Another important point: The shepherds' trust is based on what has been revealed to them. This is a central element of the Judeo-Christian faith. When we're at our best, we who proclaim Jesus Christ is Lord do so on the basis not of what we think or what would make us popular to say or what we would prefer to be able to say, but on Who God has revealed Himself to be, ultimately in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The shepherds were seen to have faith because they lived out the trust they had in the angels' message.

Two things bring the birth narrative to their end:
  • Mary listens to the shepherds and treasures their reports in her heart. It's a heart which, as old Simeon will tell her eight days later, when Jesus was circumcised in Jerusalem, will be pierced with grief. But it's also a heart that knows Who this Son is, even if there will be times when a mother's love will cause her to resist giving Him to the world to die.
  • The shepherds go back to their work, glorifying God for what He has done in Christ. I wonder how many of us will go back to our work after the Christmas holidays, glorifying God in our own unique ways? He's still worthy of our glory and praise, after all.

The Loneliness of Singles at Christmastime

And what it's really about. Jan at The View from Her has a thought-provoking post on this topic. Follow the links in the piece as well.

UPDATE: I fixed the link on this. My apologies to Jan for getting it wrong initially and my thanks to Richard for pointing it out to me!

Why Was Saddam So Quiet Today?

Put this post under the category of Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth. But I can't help wondering why Saddam Hussein was so quiet during his trial today.

Until now, Saddam appeared to be vying to take the title of Most Creatively Disruptive Defendant from Abbe Hoffman and the rest of the Chicago 7. But during Wednesday's proceedings, Saddam was largely silent.

What's up?

One theory immediately suggested itself: Maybe Saddam was tranquilized. I figure that, given his obvious volatility, the former Iraqi dictator would only require twice the dosage used to subdue your average African rhino in the wild to becalm him. But a court scrupulously attempting to be fair while the eyes of the planet are fixed on it probably wouldn't resort to a dart gun to keep Saddam under control.

Then, I realized what the explanation must be: Saddam is taking his cues from Cincinnati Bengals pass receiver Chad Johnson.

Johnson, who leads the National Football League (NFL) American Conference in receptions and yards and was a high-finisher in fan voting for the Pro Bowl, is known for his outrageous post-touchdown celebrations. Once, for example, he gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the football he'd just caught. After another score, he used the orange marker at the back of the end zone as a putter, sinking the football he'd set in front of him into an imaginary hole. Yet another time, he did an interesting version of River Dance.

Even those who regard Johnson's antics as juvenile and disruptive give him style points for creativity.

But this past week, in the Bengals' win over the Detroit Lions, when Johnson scored, he simply handed the football to a nearby referee. It was evidently in homage to longtime Lions running back, Barry Sanders, who on scoring touchdowns, always gave the ball to refs in the same understated way.

Meanwhile, from the clink in Iraq, Saddam has apparently been watching the NFL on satellite TV and made note. A subdued Chad and a subdued Saddam. Coincident? Puh--lease!

In fact, I've heard rumors that the former Iraqi strongman has instructed his guards and defense team to refer to him now as Chaddam.

If this is all a ploy on Saddam's part to make him more palatable to middle America, somebody needs to tell him it isn't working.

UPDATE: Maybe Saddam heard that Chad plans a special TD-celebration should he score during this coming Sunday's game against the Bills. Saddam must have taken that as a green light to resume his bad behavior because, once again later in the day, he threw another one of his signature temper tantrums.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Liz Shares the Beach with Four Horses...

...and un-self-conscious nature. Later, the horses let her eat the apples.

Look at Alex's Blips on the Blogosphere

Alex Jordan is such a gracious guy and presents Blips on the Blogosphere #3, a rundown of recent blog posts by other folks. I'm honored that one of mine is included.

Make sure that you bookmark Alex's site and go back for later visits to read his thoughful, honest wrestling with Christian living.

Getting a 'Handel' on The Messiah

The always-wonderful Charlie Lehardy is doing a series of posts detailing the background of one of this season's most cherished traditions, The Messiah.

God is Better Than Santa Claus

Tod Bolsinger shows us why.

The Controversy Over 'Artistic Design' and Theory of 'The Big Spill'

This is clever.

Is Museveni Bringing the Bad Old Days Back to Uganda?

Is Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, desperate to be given a third term in next year's election, going the way of one-time Ugandan despot, Idi Amin, or of Zimbabwe's current president, Robert Mugabe?

It sure looks that way.

One month ago, Museveni's only credible rival for the presidency was arrested on civil charges. Now, proceedings in a military court packed with Museveni henchmen are hearing treason charges against Kizza Besigye. Despots always love to accuse their opponents of treason. It's tough for dead candidates, the victims of firing squads, to take office even if they are elected.

It isn't easy to establish democracies. It requires a rare selflessness in the elected leaders, people willing to establish a precedent for the peaceful transition of executive power. This is why, among many reasons, the United States was blessed to have George Washington as its first president.

Please pray for the safety of Mr. Besigye and all opposition leaders in Uganda. Pray too that God will cause the wills of both Mr. Museveni in Uganda and Mr. Mugabe in Zimbabwe to be open to His counsel and that God will incessantly send His counsel to them. Pray also that governments around the world, particularly those that represent Commonwealth nations, will use their influence not only to spring Mr. Besigye from prison, but Uganda from the tightening grip of despotism.

To read more, see here and here.

Monday, December 19, 2005

I'm Still in the Hunt: Please Go to Radioblogger and Vote for Me!

Read mt review of the movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

At Radioblogger, it's one of a number of such reviews you can read and then vote for the one you think is best. (I'm suggesting here that mine is the best.) There are three Crosley Radios being given to the top vote-getters.

Thanks to those who already have voted for my review, but please go over to Radioblogger and vote for me!

By the way, here's a link to my review.

Some Additional Thoughts on Last Weekend's Bible Lesson

I have a Biblical prep-work to do on several texts for this coming week. Christmas Eve worship and regular Sunday morning worship, which just happens to fall on Christmas this year,will command my attention, among other things. But there is one additional point about the Gospel of Luke that I should have mentioned in my posts on this past weekend's Bible lesson, Luke 1:26-38.

To this end, God knocks down the haughty and the self-satisfied powerful and lifts up the humble and the repentant.

I'll mention just a few places in Luke's Gospel where we see this:

(1) As I mentioned last week, in Luke 1, we find two annunciations, or announcements. The angel Gabriel goes to the priest, Levi, announcing that his wife Elizabeth, long barren, will give birth to a son. That son was to be John the Baptizer, described as great, but as subservient to the Savior Who John will be called to announce and for Whose coming He will prepare people.

Later, Gabriel goes to the virgin, Mary, and announces that she will give birth to the Savior of the world, "Son of the Most High," a phrase that denotes oneness with God. (Check further Colossians 1:15-16.)

As a member of the priestly ranks, Zechariah would have enjoyed a privileged station. Mary, by contrast, is a peasant girl from a backwater village in the less-than-esteemed area near the Sea of Galilee.

Yet, Zechariah is stricken mute for doubting the proclamation of Gabriel while Mary believes. The high one is brought down, the low one is lifted up.

(2) Mary talks about God does the same thing for all believers in her famous speech, the Magnificat, found in Luke 1:46-55. She says of God there:
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. [Not unlike
what God did the arrogant people of Babel in the Old Testament.]
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones;
and lifted up the lowly...

Mary's speech echoes that of Hannah in First Samuel. Hannah gave it after she too learned that she would give birth to a son. But there, the theme is less about leveling than it is about the elevation of the poor at the expense of the wealthy.

(3) We see the language of road engineering to describe the work of John the Baptizer in Luke 3:4-6. Just picture giant earth-movers as they make cuts in great hills or push dirt into low places in order to create a smooth superhighway:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.
"Every valley shall be filled,
"And every mountain and hill shall be made low,
"And the crooked shall be made straight,
"And the rough ways made smooth;
"And all flesh shall see the salvation of God."

John's role was to make it possible for all to see Jesus.

In the selection of Mary, the "favored one" to be the mother of Jesus Christ, we see one more example of God's penchant for lifting up those deemed unimportant by the world. The Old Testament says that God doesn't look at human beings the way we do. He sees their trust in Him and that's what we need to have a relationship with God.

Sharon Needs to To Do Succession Planning Now

In ancient times, the people of Egypt were terrified that a growing population of Hebrew slaves would overtake their country. Fearul of this demographic time bomb, Pharaoh instituted a policy in which midwives were to kill off Hebrew boys at the moments of their births. The Old Testament book of Exodus tells us that the policy didn't work and that God secured freedom for the Hebrews, who eventually took up residence elsewhere, in a place that gained the name Israel.

Centuries later, people in the modern state of Israel, at least those who think it must remain a Jewish state, believe that their country faces a similar demographic dilemma. The Palestinian population within its territory is growing at such a rate that sometime in the twenty-first century, if Israel maintains all the territory it has conquered in recent decades, Palestinians will outnumber the Jewish population.

When Ariel Sharon first came to the prime ministership in Israel, many viewed it as the death knell for peace prospects in the Middle East. Sharon had always been a hardliner, the founder of the right-wing Likud Party. But like most politicians, Ariel Sharon knows how to count. He hears the timebomb ticking beneath the population trends he reads on neat demographic spreadsheets.

That's why Ariel Sharon has become a moderate, unilaterally ceding territory to the Palestinian Authority, and totally altering the political landscape in Israel by forming a new party of the middle.

Sharon's evolution as a poltical ideologue, from ardent conservative to ardent moderate, points out that to be a moderate is not to be a milquetoast, as some firebreathers in this country presume. Among Abraham Lincoln's compatriots in the Republican Party, for example, there were many firebreathers who disagreed with Lincoln's intention to be concilatory toward the South following the Civil War. But Lincoln was a moderate, ardently so. Had he lived, there's no way of knowing, but it seems likely as not that firebreathers in his own party would have tried to remove him from office, just as they did the successor who pursued Lincoln's policies, Andrew Johnson.

Sharon's gamble for peace, no matter what its motives may be, demonstrate that proponents of moderation too, can have fire in their souls and can be willing to gamble everything for a big idea. This is exactly what the Israeli prime minister has done by effectively dismembering Likud and creating a new political party. This makes Sharon unique in the history of democracies.

In America for example, it's difficult to imagine any sitting president bagging his or her own party and forming a new coalition in anticipation of the next election. In our own history, Theodore Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party in 1912, but that was four years after he left the White House as a Republican. Millard Fillmore ran as the nominee of the Know-Nothing Party after his tenure as President. But none of our Presidents has shown the same admirable cheek we see in Sharon, doubly impressive because the old party he's trying to kill off was his own brainchild!

Like numerous figures similar to him in history though, Ariel Sharon is a political genius who doesn't so much forge consensus by working with others--the conventional model--as he creates consensus. He does this by working things out in his own mind. In a way, he appears to be a loner, unafraid to take ten steps ahead of everybody else in the belief that through a combination of boldness and articulating a previously unformed consensus, others will come along.

This penchant of some leaders, the instinct for getting out front enough to lead, but not so far out front that you lose your constituency, will be a topic in a future installment of my Leadership Lesson series. Sharon seems to possess this ability. But the loner in him could create difficult consequences for his country.

All of which makes his stroke of yesterday and the frightening manner in which he has brushed it off after a daylong stay in the hospital rather frightening. Sharon is 77-years old, grossly overweight, inclined to overwork, and now a man who has suffered a stroke. Yes, he has built a coalition through a combination of his big idea and his big personality. But what happens if, God forbid, he should suffer another and now, fatal, stroke?

Leadership guru John Maxwell says, "There is no success without a successor." Great leaders and great organizations understand this and have succession plans in place. General Electric amazes me in this and other areas, for example. Succession planning is such a pervasive part of life at GE that they even do it for their signature programming franchises at NBC television: We knew for several years that Brian Williams would take over from Tom Brokaw on the evening news and we already know that a few years from now, Conan O'Brien will succeed Jay Leno on The Tonight Show.

Certainly assuring the smooth transition of leadership of a new moderate political movement in Israel, one that holds the promise of Middle East peace, is worth as much succession planning as the question of who will host The Tonight Show!

Yet, loner political geniuses have a tendency to deny their finitude or the very notion that the world might be without the leadership around which they create an aura of indispensability. Franklin Roosevelt was a frail 62-year old who had been through the fires of polio, the Great Depression, and the Second World War when he was re-elected President in 1944. Everyone around him knew it was unlikely that he could live out his term. But Roosevelt, who always kept his own counsel, never took his new Vice President into his confidence, endangering the world with the possibility that an unschooled new President would treat atomic weaponry like toys.

Sharon can insure his legacy by grooming a successor who will carry on his work of defusing Israel's demographic time bomb after he has left the political stage. In fact, it seems urgently necessary after his stroke: Even those inclined to vote for Sharon's coalition may now wonder whether it's safe to hang the future of Israel on the fragile health of Sharon and his embryonic political movement.

If You Haven't Done So Yet: Please Go to Radioblogger and Vote for Me!

That's what my GodBlogCon colleague Rick Moore says I should be telling all you folks.

Recently, I wrote a review of the movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

At Radioblogger, it's one of a number of such reviews you can read and then vote for the one you think is best. (I'm suggesting here that mine is the best.)

Rick said he'd voted for my review and that I should campaign for your vote in order to win a new Crosley radio. (Actually, the thought of that appeals to me because the Crosley folks came from Cincinnati.)

I'm a little rusty on this because the last time I campaigned for anything was when I ran for the State House of Representatives last year, but...go over to Radioblogger and vote for me!

By the way, here's a link to my review.

(Thanks, Rick!)

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Tom Cruise Kills Oprah

This just made me laugh.

Trust in Spite of Fear

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on December 17 and 18, 2005.]

Luke 1:26-38

If you've ever been to Washington, D.C. at this time of year, you know how cold it can be as arctic winds surge and blow around the monuments and expansive walkways there. It was to avoid the biting temperatures on a December day close to Christmas that Marion Brenish, a native Californian, sought refuge in the warmth of Union Station. In recent years, that old railroad terminal has been restored and houses all sorts of shops and restaurants.

Marion stopped at a bench across from the upscale American Restaurant. A few moments later, she saw a homeless man, who seemed to have positioned himself for catching an occasional whiff of the aromas wafting through the restaurant entryway. Marion was sure it had been awhile since the man last ate.

With that thought in mind, she secretly resolved that if he approached her for a handout, she would give him something. After all, it was the Christmas season. But the man never came up to her.

Marion then wondered whether she should be proactive, approach the man herself, and offer help, unbidden. The very thought made her heart race. She didn’t know if she could be that bold. What if the man were just some mooch who would squander what she gave to him on booze? Of what if, having met Marion, he might follow her to some darkened place on the Washington streets and do her harm?

While Marion debated all of this within herself, a younger couple, leaving the restaurant, walked up to the homeless man. The husband told him, “Excuse me sir, but my wife and I just finished eating and our appetites weren’t as big as we thought. We hate to see this good food go to waste...We were wondering if you could help us out and put it to good use.” They gave the man a container filled with good food.

“God bless you both,” the man said. He sorted all the food out, positioning each item before him to appear how they might had a waiter placed the food on a table for him. He looked at the club sandwich and, slowly, took the plastic cover off the soup and then with deliberateness, picked up the soup spoon.

But then something else happened to interrupt the man's reverie. Marion watched as this homeless man looked up and caught sight of an old man, wearing threadbare clothing that couldn't have insulated him against the cold. He too, had come into Union Station to get warm. Clearly, he'd been out in the elements for a long time.

What Marion saw next was stunning. The homeless man, who had a moment before been ready to dig into his unexpected feast, put it all down, got up, and helped the frail, cold old man to the bench where he had been seated. He put the old man’s hands between his own and rubbed them, the way you or I might for a child just in from playing in the snow.

Then Marion heard him say, “Pop, my name’s Jack, and one of God’s angels brought me this meal. I just finished eating, and I hate to waste good food. Can you help me out?” He placed the cup of hot soup in the old man’s hands. The old man looked at Jack and said, “Sure, Son, but only if you’ll go half-way with me on that sandwich. It’s too much for a man my age.”

After Marion Brenish watched this, she sprang into action. Wiping away tears, she went to the Union Station food court. Not long after that, she walked up to the two men and gave them enormous containers of coffee and a huge assortment of pastries. And she told them, “Excuse me gentlemen, but my appetite wasn’t as great as I thought…”

Folks, you’ve heard me say that love isn’t always what you feel; sometimes, it’s what you do in spite of how you feel.

Well, here’s another truth I’m only starting to learn: Faith, trust in God, isn’t the absence of fear; real faith in God is seen in what we’re willing to do in spite of our fears.

Marion Brenish militated against her fears to commit an act of loving faith there in Washinton’s Union Station.

It’s the kind of faith to which the God we know in Jesus Christ calls us all the time. Often though, we allow our fears to override our faith in Christ. When that happens, evil gets the upper hand in our lives and in our world.

How many of you have things of which you feel afraid today? I know that I do.

To tell you the truth, I live with the daily fear that if you knew me from the inside-out as I do--flawed, sometimes insecure, sometimes judgmental, sometimes lured by sin, sometimes angry, sometimes self-satisfied--if you knew me from the inside, you wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me.

I sometimes get afraid that after fifteen years in this place, you may no longer hear me when I say that you and I need to avoid the perilous hobby of navel-gazing. I’m afraid that you’ll tune me out when I say that we need to look up to God and look out to our unchurched neighbors, making growing in our dependence on God--what the Bible calls discipleship--and praying for and asking our nonchurchgoing friends to worship with us--outreach--our absolute highest priorities in life.

I also sometimes fear that by following the course I have in life, I won’t have enough money in my older years to provide for my wife and me or to avoid being a burden to our kids.

And I fear doing or saying things that might cause people to discredit Christ or the Church.

So, I have fears.

When the angel Gabriel visited a young girl named Mary in the tiny village of Nazareth some two-thousand years ago, he said to her, “Do not be afraid.” Then he told her that in spite of her virginity, she would give birth to the Savior of the world. Mary had to have felt fear! Here she was, a girl of only fourteen or fifteen, betrothed, and yet she was going to give birth to God in the flesh!

But how does she respond to Gabriel’s news? “Here am I," she says, "the servant [or more literally, the slave] of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word [your testimony.]”

Lots of challenges and heartache lay ahead of Mary, not the least of which would be watching her son die on a cross. But, Mary knew that faith, trust in God, isn’t the absence of fear; real faith in God is seen in what we’re willing to do in spite of our fears.

Of course, Mary’s faith was more than just a feeling. A baby would soon stir within her womb, confirming Gabriel’s announcement that she would have a son, conceived in her by the Holy Spirit.

Mary was the first to know for certain what Martin Luther, the founder of the Christian movement of which we at Friendship are a part identified. “Christmas,” he said, “is God deep in the flesh.”

Like Mary, we who live on the Easter side of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection know how God can reach deep into the recesses of our lives and give us the capacity to face any situation and help us trust Him in spite of our fears.

The writer of our Bible lesson for today, Luke, underscores God’s willingness to reach into the micro-moments of our lives in the very way he tells the story of Gabriel’s announcement--or, what has traditionally been called, annunciation--to Mary. Gabriel, Luke says, went to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary, betrothed to a man named Joseph. You can just picture Gabriel, sent by God, plunging down from heaven into the very guts of life, can't you?

No matter what our fears, God can reach us where we are.

We learn a truth to which an eight year old girl once pointed: “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”

Philips Brooks was a pastor and humanitarian back in the nineteenth century. He once took a trip to the Holy Land, a trip that found him on Christmas Eve, 1865, riding a horse from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. He saw the field where the shepherds received the news of Jesus’ birth in a stable not far away. As he looked around, he could see real-life shepherds watching their sheep in the very same place. It all made him think about the first Christmas and the gift of God Himself come to us.

Once he returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, Brooks wrote a song for his church. It’s a song that you and I have sung many times before.

It came about because there in the Holy Land, Brooks contemplated the closeness of God to us even in the most daunting of situations and how the God Who died and rose can turn every heartache, every grief, every sorrow into eternal joy, endless hope, and unending life with God.

Think of all that the next time you sing the words:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by...
Sing it with me:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Whatever your fears today, do not be afraid. Act on your faith in spite of your fears and your fears will be banished.
Ask a friend to worship.

Reach out to someone you’re sure hates you.

Give more than you’re capable of giving. (That one’s hard for me.)

Tell somebody that you’re sorry.

Offer to pray for someone at work.
Whatever your fear, act on faith instead.

God is near. He is with you. He is for you, just as He's for every person you'll meet this week. He will receive the sinner who turns from sin and make them brand new. He will receive the hopeless who fall into His arms and He'll give them hope that never dies. He will take those of only small trust in Him and turn them into giants of faith!

Like Mary, allow yourself to be God’s servant and let Him have His way in your life!

[The true story of Marion Brenish was brought back to my memory by Pastor Michael Foss' sermon on this text. Foss retold it in his words and I retold it in mine. All the facts remain true. The story appeared in Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul.

[I've read the story of Phillips Brooks' composition, O Little Town of Bethlehem, many times. Most recently, I saw it in Christmas Is...A Treasury of Meditations, Stories, and Quotes.]

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 21

[This coming week, a group gathering under the name of Tuesdays with Markie will complete a study of the book of Genesis. These random notes, by now about nine chapters behind our discussions, are presented to help participants and non-participants alike to get a feel for some of the key things at which we've looked.

[After the first of the year, we'll be delving into another book of the Bible on Tuesday nights. Join us either in person or via cyberspace!]

Genesis 39:1-6
1. Whether or not it was a deliberate story-telling ploy designed by the editors of Genesis to heighten suspense and interest in the plight of Joseph, the interruption of his saga in chapter 38 is over. Genesis 39 brings us back to the young man, now about seventeen, years old sold into slavery by his resentful older brothers.

2. If you were to look at Joseph's story through any other but the lens of faith, you might say that the kid has a capacity for landing on his feet, a penchant he'll demonstrate several times in the future. He ends up as a slave to "Potiphar, an officer of the Pharaoh, the captain of the guard..." In other words, Joseph finds himself in the household of an important official in Egypt, an apparently somewhat benign slavemaster who will eventually see Joseph's skills as an administrator and give the young slave a privileged position.

But there is no "luck" in Joseph's situation in Potiphar's house. "The Lord was with Joseph," Genesis says, "and he became a successful man..."

3. In some ways, Joseph is another example of a stereotyped figure in Israelite history. As commentator Gerhard von Rad writes:
The narrator is very expansive in unfolding this matter; several times he emphasizes the reason for this surprising preferred status [enjoyed by Joseph], namely, Yahweh [the Hebrew word for God's most prominent name, shared with Moses, meaning I AM]. This reference to Yahweh, however, has only mediate significance here. The narrator is much more concerned to draw a rather sharply defined picture of Joseph the man, the picture of a clever, pleasing, industrious, and handsome young man with whom Yahweh was. The narrator of I Sam.[uel] 16:18 also draws a similar ideal picture of such a young man of good standing and good upbringing...[H]ere is expressed the educational and cultivated ideal of definite exalted stations...
Another Old Testament figure, Daniel, can be seen to be portrayed in a similar light.

In the case of all three of these figures--Joseph, Samuel, and Daniel, one sees the happy confluence of natural talents, supernatural giftedness and favor, a deep trust in God, and a commitment to personal virtue. Each understands himself to have been placed in difficult circumstances to serve God's purposes, although those circumstances may not always make them personally happy.

At a more secular level, George Bailey, the main character in It's a Wonderful Life, might be seen in a similar light. George wanted desperately to get out of Bedford Falls, a fact that the evil Mr. Potter tries at one point to use as a devastating sword thrust to bring the young man down. Unlike Joseph, George resents his situation until, in the climactic moment of the film, he realizes that he's been blessed to play a pivotal role in the lives of its people. Joseph, by contrast, derives his greatest blessing from remaining steadfastly in relationship with God and faithfully anticipates God's unseen hand to be revealed, which it ultimately is. Near the close of Genesis, Joseph will understand that God had enabled him to play a key role in saving a nation--not just Egypt, but more importantly, the embryonic Israel--through circumstances that had sometimes been extremely painful for him.

4. Joseph is such an extraordinary young man, so blessed by God, von Rad says, that "a blessing goes from him to all with whom he comes in contact." As a result, six verses into this chapter, Joseph, the slave, is overseer of Potiphar's house!

Genesis 39:7-9
5. Joseph is not only able, but good looking. This combination has created seemingly impossible temptations for many a young person over the centuries. They've used their brilliance and their attractiveness to have their ways with others, materially, financially, sexually, and in the acquisition of personal power.

But not Joseph! Though he catches the eye of Potiphar's wife, who wants to have sex with him, Joseph resists, believing that to sin against Potiphar would also be to sin against God.

C.S. Lewis talks about how Jesus did the strange thing of forgiving people's sins as though He Himself were the one against Whom they had chiefly sinned. And of course, it's true that when we sin against others, we really sin against God...and chiefly against God. God, you see, created all people and He is so invested in us and our well-beings that when any of us is hurt, God is pained by it.

Elie Wiesel helps point us to this in a story I've often retold. Wiesel was a boy when he and his family were interred in Nazi concentration camps. He was the only one of them to survive and through the years, he's written and spoken movingly of the horrors of the Holocaust, which he experienced firsthand.

One day, the entire camp population where Wiesel was imprisoned were forced to watch the hanging of several of their fellow prisoners. One of the rigs malfunctioned and the entire camp watched in deadly horror as a man spasmodically twitched between life and death for several moments. A whimper rose from among the prisoners, a plaintive voice asking, "Where is God now? Where is God now?" Quietly, a voice interrupted the questions and said, "He is at the end of that rope."

God is so with us, I believe, that when any of us is hurt, God is pained by it and I believe, even more than we are. Joseph knew this. That's why he refused to bring pain to his master and so, to God Himself.

6. Adultery was strictly forbidden among God's people and Joseph was loathe to violate God's will, even though Potiphar's wife had made herself overtly and constantly available.

Genesis 39:10-19
7. While working indoors, Joseph would have worn a single garment, likened to an undergarment. It would have been a long shirt, usually tied at the waist. When Potiphar's wife grabbed Joseph and he ran away, the garment would have easily pulled away from him and keft him naked. This would make the accusations of rape made by Potiphar's wife more credible.

One of the things I tell my Catechism students is that Joseph gives us a great example of what to do when tempted to do wrong things: Run the other way! That may not seem very heroic. But it is the best way to handle things. My life would have been much happier on many occasions if I had followed the same course as Joseph in this circumstance! A lot of other people I know would say the same thing.

Genesis 39:20-23
8. An interesting point is made by von Rad, one dealing with the curious fact that despite the fact that rape, especially committed by an upstart slave against his master's wife, was clearly punishable by death, yet Joseph was allowed to live. Von Rad says:
Ever since the Joseph story has been expounded, people have been surprised at the relatively mild punishment which the angry master of the house inflicted on Joseph...There have been those, therefore...who think that the man's anger (v.19) was not directed basically against Joseph but against his wife...
Not only was Joseph's life spared, but he was put in the relatively cushy environs reserved for the king's prisoners, rather than being sent to other more dehumanizing prisons. We don't know why for certain except that, as von Rad also points out, "there too [Joseph] is protected by God's care."

9. The true tale of Joseph is written from the perspective of mature faith. Immature faith views God as a good luck charm who will make all the bad stuff go away. But what Joseph shows us is that while God goes with us and may even be able to use the rotten things that happen to us for good ends, faith in God doesn't banish the bad things from life. In an imperfect world, bad things do happen to God's people. But when we place ourselves in God's hands, He can transform even the bad things into engines or occasions for blessing, as we'll see happen in the unfolding of Joseph's story.

10. One thing that causes me to marvel at Joseph is the tenacity of his faith in spite of his lacking any outward reminders or reinforcements of faith.

Keep in mind that in this point in history, the only people who believe in the one God of all creation are Jacob, Joseph's father, and Jacob's family. And they are far away from him.

Joseph is surrounded by pagan worshipers of multiple gods, people who even regard their king, the Pharaoh, as a deity.

Joseph has no Star of David--it will be centuries before David is born.

He has no cross--it will be multiple centuries after David before Jesus is born.

He has no Scriptures--they haven't been written yet.

He has no temple, synagogue, or church.

No clergy. No worship services.

In short, Joseph has none of the resources you and I might draw on to strengthen our faith in hard times.

Although he was in the king's prison, it was a prison, as a foreign slave, in which he found himself. And yet, he still trusted in God. Unlike his father Jacob, or his father Isaac, or his father Abraham, Joseph seems never to have faltered in his faith. With nothing to rely upon but the promises from God he'd heard about at his father's knee and the strange dreams he'd had as a youngster, Joseph held on. He kept believing. He is a model for us all!

[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14
Part 15
Part 16
Part 17
Part 18
Part 19
Part 20]