Saturday, January 08, 2005

Savage Lives Up to His Last Name

Radio host Michael Savage's comments on the tsunami will make your blood boil. If they don't, they should. See also this from Le Sabot Post-Moderne, written by a conservative who is revolted by Savage's hateful diatribe(s). (My son tells me that Savage is also homophobic, another reason for Christians to spurn his spew.)

More on Kilimanjaro Trek

Nancy Beck has posted a new entry on her journal/blog. which recounts her preparations to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It's really good!

Relentless Relief and Prayer Needed!

The blogging is apt to be non-existent to sparse this weekend. I will resume the series ASAP and have a few other ideas percolating as well. In the meantime, please give as generously as you're able to tsunami relief efforts and keep the victim of this unprecedented disaster in your prayers. As always, I suggest forwarding contributions to one of the four following reputable relief agencies:

Lutheran World Relief
American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services
World Vision

Thank you so much for making Better Living a regular part of your day.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Tsunami Relief for Fellow Residents of the Global Village

Please remember to send your gifts to a reputable relief agency to help the victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami. We're all residents of this single global village. Sending our contributions for relief is another way in which we can love our neighbors as we love ourselves!

Here are links to four reputable agencies to which you might consider sending contributions:

Lutheran World Relief
American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services
World Vision

Striving to Be an Equal Opportunity Offender: Ticking Off Some in the Christian Right and Christian Left in One Post!

On Christmas Day, our son's girlfriend, a wonderful young woman who's a bright Poli Sci major and a preacher's kid, visited with us. At one point, she looked over the books that constitute a part of my personal library and said, "Hmmm...Even though I see a biography of Kennedy, your books would seem to indicate that you're a conservative."

"I suppose that I am," I told her. As she too, is a conservative (she interned at the RNC last year), she was pleased.

But one thing I have found is that I seem equally adept at offending people from both the Christian Right and the Christian Left.

That's because I don't think that in political terms, Jesus is either a conservative or a liberal. In fact, I think that Christians who insist that Jesus is in agreement with their political, social, or economic agendas--irrespective of the direction in which they tilt--are guilty of subordinating Jesus to their ideas, or their countries, or their isms, or themselves. In other words, it's their ideas, countries, isms, or themselves that they devoutly worship, turning Jesus into a subservient acolyte for their real gods.

Here's where I offend the Christian Right, or at least some elements of it. James Dobson has recently issued a warning or an ultimatum or a threat to some Democratic senators. If they don't hue to his preferred conservative line, he's going to politically upend them.

Back when our kids were young, we found great value in James Dobson's books and tapes on family life and child rearing. He combined top-notch psychological scholarship with Christian faith in ways that truly helped me to understand my roles as husband and parent and I will always be grateful that I was made aware of him at a critical time of my life. But in recent years, I have watched with rising alarm as he has become an increasingly reckless spokesperson for a kind of Christian Pharisaism.

I understand Dobson's frustration with contemporary US culture. It breaks my heart to see how, like lemmings moving inevitably toward self-destruction, so many of our neighbors across America, move mindlessly away from the God made known through Jesus Christ. For anyone who has experienced the new life that comes from Christ, there is a deep desire for others to know and follow Jesus, too.

But even if you successfully use the political process to get legislation passed by the Congress which you think of as being "Christian" (though other Christians may disagree with you), you won't bring people any closer to walking with Jesus, Dr. Dobson! They'll still be lemmings heading for eternal destruction. Only now, they'll be lemmings who deeply resent Christian coercion and mistakenly think that you and your ilk actually speak for Christ on these issues!

The problem with Dr. Dobson's approach is that it's really functional atheism. Jesus has given us a strategy for positively changing people's lives. It's called "making disciples," gently, kindly, and reverently sharing the love of Christ by our words and our actions. (Check out Matthew 28:16-20; First Peter 3:15; Romans 2:4) This is the means by which turn from rebellion against God to relationship with God, as offered by Christ. This strategy requires patience on the part of believers. It requires trusting that, in spite of setbacks, frustrations, and maybe even persecution, God knows what He's doing. It means trusting God, not our ability to raise more money than some other politico or to smash opponents. You see, we're called to believe in God, not power. Christians are meant to be spiritual healers, not ward heelers.

But in Dobson's approach, there is so little faith in God that Christians of a particular persuasion decide to take the levers of political power instead of trusting God's Spirit to use our faithful wooing of others in accordance with Christ's will and direction.

(For more on the Dobson situation, see the following: Sidesspot; A Believer's Thoughts.)


Having said that, you should know that I've apparently managed to offend folks on the Christian Left in recent days. In my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the questions of whether to ordain practicing homosexuals or to sanction homosexual unions have become front-burner issues. I believe that the Bible clearly teaches that some behaviors are sinful, including the practice of homosexuality. While we are all sinners (including me), I don't believe that the Church should be asked to depart from the teaching of Scripture, selectively sanctioning some sins simply because society's mores have changed, especially in a Christian movement that is committed to the authority of God's Word.

This is not the same as saying that states should not have laws sanctioning some sorts of unions of those engaged in homosexual life styles or that the civil rights of such persons shouldn't be recognized by the state. Those are altogether different issues from those with which the Church is confronted these days.

Well, after making my comments, I got accused of hating gays, of not reading the New Testament, and of not loving my neighbor. While I totally own up to being imperfect, I found some of these arguments not only unfair and over-the-top, but intellectually lazy. By the way, for a really good discussion of these issues, you might want to check out Robert Gagnon's web site and his excellent book, mentioned there. You could also look at some fabulous articles on this subject on the blog of Mark D. Roberts.

Now that I've probably offended everyone who has ever read this blog, I'm going to hit the sack.

(Here's the original post and the comments from I Am a Christian Too.)

Thursday, January 06, 2005

For the Latest Info on the Tsunami... and bookmark this site.

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 3

If you're like me, you probably took the time during the Holiday season to watch the Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life. The story line of the movie has a significant pivot point when its hero, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, despondent over cash missing from the Building and Loan's account and certain that he's facing prison, goes to Martini's Tavern. There, George gets drunk and through desperate tears, sobs out a prayer. "I'm not a praying man," he confesses, but he asks God for help.

George's friends, Nick the bartender and Mr. Martini, are concerned to see him in such a state. They try to convince George to let someone take him home. George resists and starts to leave. "Please, Mr. Bailey," Martini pleads, "you don't look so good."

A guy standing at the bar wonders what Bailey this is. When told, "This is Mr. George Bailey," the guy, husband to a teacher George had rudely told off a short time before, decks George. Apparently convinced that the sock he received was God's answer to his prayers, George runs to a nearby bridge, preparing to drown himself.

An angel sent to help George during his crisis assured George that the slug wasn't God's answer to his prayers. Instead, the angel, Clarence, insists that he is God's answer. Through a good portion of the rest of the movie, George is unconvinced that Clarence is God's answer to his prayers or his problems. Or, George thinks that if he is the answer to prayers, Clarence is the sort of rotten answer he might expect in his miserable life.

Instead of accepting this answer to his prayer, George fights to get out of the situation in which the angel places him. At this, George proves to be just as helpless as he'd been when trying to find the missing money earlier in the evening.

In the first two installments of this series, I've said that even if you feel hesitant about making prayer a regular part of your life and even if you have doubts about prayer, you should go ahead and pray anyway.

But before plunging ahead to discuss prayer further, I need to tell you one thing and I need to warn you of another.

The thing to be told: Not all prayer is about asking God for things. More on that in a later post.

The thing of which I want to warn you: You won't always like God's answers to your prayers.

George Bailey didn't like it when Clarence showed up as God's answer to his prayers. He didn't like the way Clarence answered his prayers either.

But, as the fictional George Bailey learned, God's answers are usually better than the ones we want Him to give to our prayers.

Besides, if in faith and desperation we genuinely ask God to do His will and submit to His greater wisdom, we can hardly squawk when He does things differently than we expect.

I have learned that it can be dangerous to pray, especially to pray, "Your will be done."

The last thing I ever wanted to be was a pastor. I was intent on a career in politics from the time I was a little boy. But after I fell in love with Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, back when I was in my mid-twenties, I prayed, "God, Your will be done."

I haven't always meant it, mind you. But I've wanted to mean it. When God hears from imperfect people (like me) and they say that they want to want what God wants for their lives, God considers their intentions and then says, "Okay. If you want My will for your life, here it is."

I didn't want to be a preacher. But God made me a preacher. I love it.

I didn't want to live in a small town. But on my seminary internship, in spite of my pleading with God, I ended up in a small town. We loved it.

I didn't want to live in a rural area. But for six years, my family and I had corn, soybeans, and the church grave yard as our closest neighbors. We loved it. In fact, we loved it so much that I would often pray, "Lord, let us stay here for the rest of our lives."

Then one day, at home for lunch, our telephone rang. It was someone from southern Ohio, asking me if I'd be interested in starting a new congregation in the Cincinnati area. We've been here for fourteen years now.

I can confidently tell you that if you will begin the adventure of regular prayer, you won't always like the answers you get.

You may be familiar with the story of a man named Jonah in the Old Testament portion of the Bible. One day, God told Jonah to go to a city called Nineveh and to tell its residents that God was totally disgusted with their nastiness and sin. Because of it, God wanted Jonah to say, God would soon destroy the city.

Jonah was resistant to this directive from God. Why? As it develops, for two reasons. One is easy to imagine: Jonah hated the Ninevites. He didn't want to have anything to do with them.

But there was a second reason for Jonah's unwillingness to go to Nineveh. It comes out after God finally forces him to go to the city and spread this message about God's displeasure. The result was incredible! Not knowing whether God would forgive or change His mind about them, the Ninevites genuinely rejected all their evils and asked God for forgiveness. God changed His mind and Nineveh was spared.

This irked Jonah. He hated the Ninevites. He hated seeing them have a relationship with God and changing their lives for the better. We're told:

...this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ (Jonah 4:1-3)

Jonah was disappointed because God is merciful and kind and willing to forgive. He hadn't wanted to go to Nineveh for fear the Ninevites would turn from their sins and get to live.
Seeing how things turned out, Jonah prays: "Just kill me," he tells God.

So, how do you suppose the God Who takes us at our word when we claim to be praying submissively to Him responded to Jonah's prayer? He let Jonah live and observe Nineveh as it thrived and grew, now sound of heart and soul.

As the book ends, Jonah is sullen. But the God Who was patient and slow to anger with Nineveh, exhibited these same traits toward His reluctant preacher. That's just the way God is, it seems. And I say that from personal experience!

So, if you really are intent on praying, be prepared to get answers you don't want.

[Also see:

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 1

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 2]

Putting My Money Where My Mouth...

Putting my money where my mouth (and keyboard) has been, I'm sending my check for the relief agency our congregation is supporting to help the victims of the earthquake and tsunami of December 26.

Any of the following reputable, efficient relief agencies would be great places for you to send your dollars:

Lutheran World Relief
American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services
World Vision

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 2

I was twenty-five years old. Sometime within the previous year, a new and shocking thing had happened in my life.

Once an atheist convinced that there was no God and that life inevitably ended at the grave, I had fallen in love for the second time in my life. This time, the object of my passion wasn't my wife, but Jesus Christ. I had taken the plunge of faith and experienced that Jesus, once crucified and dead, was alive and ready to be my best friend.

Not long after this new life had begun, my wife and I moved from an apartment into a rental house. We'd been there just a few weeks when I looked out my front door to see an EMS vehicle and a couple of police cars, their lights flashing ominously.

A short time later, I saw police officers and emergency medical personnel come out of the house in front of which they'd parked. They left abruptly.

I didn't really know the neighbors. I'd seen them a few times. They were seventy-somethings whose house and yard were well-kept. We had said, "Hello" to each other as we got into our cars or edged our lawns, but that was all.

After the cruisers and emergency squad vehicle had driven away, lights turned off, eerily silent, I felt a dilemma brewing in my gut. "Should I do something? Should I go over and see if they need help?" I asked my wife. She was as baffled as I was.

I began praying. What should I do?, I asked God. I wasn't really sure whether my neighbors needed or would welcome an offer of help from a stranger. I pictured them looking at me crossly and asking, "Why don't you mind your own business?"

Finally, I told my wife, "I'm going over there. It may be stupid. But we're supposed to love our neighbor, even if the neighbor thinks you're crazy for caring."

Even as I said this, I was thinking that maybe I shouldn't go. Who knows, I thought, maybe they just accidentally brought these emergency vehicles to their place and now, embarrassed, would prefer not to be bothered. After all, nobody had been taken from the house by the EMS.

I didn't listen to my doubts, though. I pulled on a jacket and walked the short distance to the neighbor's house. "God," I prayed, "grant that I won't make a fool of myself...or of You."

It was a good thing I'd thought to pray! After I knocked on the door, the man of the house--I would come to know him as Joe--let me in. His face wore the expression I have since learned is the visage of shock, the look of a person wrestling with a loss so enormous that it bleeds the capacity to emote from a person's face.

"I live across the street," I explained. "I saw the vehicles here and wondered if there might be anything I could do to help?"

With a single motion, Joe let me into his house and pointed to the floor, where the lifeless form of his wife lay, beneath the small arch that separated the living room from the dining area. "My wife just died," he told me.

I had never dealt with death well. When I was fifteen, my father's mother had died. I was incapable of going to the viewing or even the funeral. Seven years after that, my mother's father, the grandfather for whom I was named and with whom I felt a closeness, died. Even though I was at that time closing in on age twenty-three, I found it hard to go through all the funeral stuff. Death frightened me.

But here I was, a brand new Christian, wobbly as a baby doe in my faith, immersed in a situation I felt that I'd prayed myself into, a situation that involved the presence of a dead body on the floor before me and a grieving husband standing next to me.

I prayed again. "God help me," I kept saying from the interior of my being. I must have prayed that prayer a hundred times over the next hour or so.

In the next few moments, Joe haltingly told me that, because it was Friday night and they were good Roman Catholics of the old school, he and his wife had been enjoying a fish dinner. (It's funny, but until that point, I hadn't noticed the smell of fish in the house. But ever since then, I can't smell fish without thinking of Joe and that night.)

There, at the dinner table, Joe's wife had collapsed. He dialed 0 for Operator. (These were the days before 911.) The fire department emergency personnel and the police had gotten there in a flash. But it was still too late. They'd tried to revive her. But she was already dead.

"Why did they leave you here like this?" I asked.

"None of them could certify death. A funeral home will have to pick her up..." his voice trailed off and then he finished, "Only the coroner can certify..."

I felt paralyzed and utterly incompetent. But, competent or not, I felt like I'd been nominated to help this grief-stricken man on a Friday evening when his whole world had come undone.

I asked God to help me again and then I asked Joe, "May I call the funeral home for you?"

I'd never done anything remotely like this before in my life. But the people at the funeral home were professionals. They just needed an address and I could give that.

By now, Joe was sitting in a chair in the living room, staring at the body of his wife. Their phone was in the dining area, next to the stairwell. I had stepped by his wife's body--I hoped, respectfully--to get to the phone. With the completion of the call, I stepped back toward Joe.

"The funeral director is sending a hearse right away," I reported. "Is there anyone else I should call?"

Joe said that his daughter and son should be phoned. So, I picked out the numbers he gave me to dial and then, again praying over every syllable, told these two adult children that their mother had passed away and that their father needed them.

A minute later, Joe asked me if I would call his priest. "What parish do you belong to?" I asked. "Saint Mary Magdalene." I looked up the rectory number in the phone book. "Ask for Father Fred...," Joe told me. "We've always loved Father Fred."

Once the calls were completed, Joe, this neighbor I didn't know, and I sat in his living room. He seemed to have the need to talk about the events of the evening again, a need for repetition I suppose that we all have when we first try to process a cataclysmic change in our lives that seems couldn't possibly have happened.

Occasionally, his wife's body would emit gurgles, the eerie thing that can happen in the first moments after death. I steeled myself and kept praying inside and tried to remember, "This isn't about you, Mark. You're not the one who's lost a loved one here. Keep depending on God so that you can be of some use to this man."

After a time, the funeral director, the grown children and their spouses, some grandchildren, and the priest all came. There were hugs and prayers. After Father Fred led the praying, I left.

It was one of the most incredible and gratifying experiences of my life. At the time, I had no idea that it was a preview of something God has often called me to do in the intevening years: be with the families of those who have just lost loved ones. Within two years, I would be enrolled in seminary and six years later, I would be a pastor. That's been my job for more than twenty years now.

But what I learned that night is that God can use anybody to bring comfort or be of help to people in difficult circumstances. I learned that we can do almost anything that we're willing to do.

I also learned something about genuine prayer, which I would later find convincingly articulated in a book by one of my favorites, Ole Hallesby. The book is called Prayer.

Those of you who have read the book or this blog, where I've mentioned Hallesby's book before, will remember that authentic prayer is composed of two things:

Faith: The belief that, because of the compassionate face God has shown to us through the crucified and risen Jesus, we can trustingly call on God in prayer.

Desperation: The awareness that we are utterly incapable (or incompetent) to accomplish what we're asking God to do.
Until those two conditions are met, we may utter something that sounds like prayer, but really harbor the illusion that we can get along with God, that He's really just our rabbit's foot.

The great thing is that God is desperate to help us, just waiting to be invited into our circumstances.

The whole key to understanding prayer, Hallesby suggests, is found in words from the risen Jesus found in the New Testament book of Revelation:

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (Revelation 3:20)
These words of the risen Jesus were revealed to John and addressed to a church in the ancient city of Laodicea. The Laodicean Christians had become, Jesus says, "lukewarm," tepid in their faith. Jesus was no longer the love of their lives. They weren't as committed to loving God and loving others as they'd once been. They could take or leave Jesus. So, He was saying, "I'm knocking on the door of your wills and hearts. I'll come in to be with you any time you open the door."

That's what we do any time we genuinely pray. We say, "God, I need Your help. I know from Jesus that You're not against me, but for me. So, I'm swinging the door open and I'm begging You to come inside and make Your home with me."

That's certainly what I was telling God that night some twenty-six years ago. And I have found that when I am really praying, it's when faith and desperation once again impel me to let Jesus us into whatever I'm praying about and for whomever I'm praying.

Feel unqualified to pray? If you're desperate enough to sense your need of God, you're more than qualified!

[See also Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 1.]

More Reading Than Anybody Should Take the Time to Do (and, believe me, I haven't bothered...but somone did)

Vessel of Honour has an interesting listing of recent blog postings, many of which I liked, some of which I didn't, and most of which I haven't taken the time to read. (The blogs cited in the two previous posts here came from this list, which is dubbed, Carmival of Vanities.)

Another Moving Take on What Experiencing a Tsunami Must Be Like

Joe Gandelman writes of his experience of an earthquake in Mexico in 1985. It allows him---and through him, us---to have a deeper understanding and empathy for those who have gone through the south Asian tsunami.

You Are There

For a vivid and convincing portrayal of what it might feel like to be near a tsunami, check out this beautifully-written essay.

How Low Can People Go?

To be a Christian is to live with a realistic attitude about the depravity of which we human beings are capable. But this is incredibly low. Hopefully, in the midst of the unprecedented strains represented by the tsunami tragedies, governments in the affected areas will be able to find the missing children, nail the perpetrators of these unthiknable violations of children, and prevent this from happening in the future. In the meantime, all I know to do is pray!

Readers of 'Better Living' Called It: USC Wins National Championship

Readers of this blog turned out to be prescient. When polled, they overwhelmingly picked USC over Oklahoma for the national collegiate football championship. With the Trojans' decisive win, they decisively decimated any slim hopes that Auburn, which also had a perfect season, might slip through the BCS cracks and win the national title.

I'm sure that almost anybody who follows college footbal will agree that some sort of playoff system should be adopted.

My unbiased opinion of who should be called the favorite to win the national championship next year is: The Ohio State University Buckeyes.

Where to Help Tsunami Relief Efforts

If you haven't yet had the opportunity to give to tsunami relief efforts, here are links to four different reputable relief organizations"

Lutheran World Relief
American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services
World Vision

You can make contributions online. The sites also give snail mail addresses to which you can send checks.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

So-Called Christian School Teaches That US Slavery was 'Benign'

A school in North Carolina which calls itself Christian, is teaching very un-Christian things to its students. Mark Sides has posted the details, based on a story from Crosswalk, on his blog.

The school is teaching that the institution of slavery in the United States was not a systematic evil, but a benign institution. Many "Christians" who have advanced this notion through the years, as Mark Sides points out, have done so because of what Biblical scholars call the "household codes" in the writings of Peter and Paul, found in the New Testament. There, both of the apostles give advice on how people can conduct themselves in Christian ways within a variety of social relationships. Included are the relationships among masters and slaves, wives and husbands, parents and children, and governments and citizens, for example. The purpose of these codes was never to defend the institution of slavery as it existed in the first century, but to help Christians, whatever their circumstances, to present a positive understanding of what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

Several points need to be made here:

(1) Slavery, even in the period of the Roman Empire when Peter and Paul wrote, was never a benign institution. It was always evil. But slavery as practiced in the United States and Great Britain through the nineteenth century, was probably even more evil than that.

Often, in Roman times, slaves were able to buy their way out of servitude or others could do it for them. (This was known as redemption, a term that the early Christians borrowed to describe the manner in which Jesus gave His life on a cross, using Himself as the payment necessary to win our freedom from sin, death, and separation from God.) In later America and Britain, people were forcibly stolen from Africa and they and their descendants were consigned to life-long servitude.

(2) No matter how benignly slavemasters in this country may have treated their slaves, those slaves were still regarded as property, akin to cattle and hogs, by their masters.

In his new biography of George Washington, historian Joseph Ellis, recounts that Washington was probably a benign slaveholder, anxious to keep slave families together. The father of our country regarded slavery as an unambiguously immoral institution. (In that sense, Washington was light years ahead of his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, who notably held in the Declaration of Independence that all human beings are endowed by God with "certain inalienable rights...[such as] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.")

But even Washington allowed economic considerations to trump moral ones when it came to slavery. He only freed his slaves after his death, and primarily did so, Ellis suggests on good evidence, because in the changing national economy, Washington feared that slaveholding would be too great a financial burden for his wife and other heirs.

Washington was deeply perplexed when slaves who had been with him for some time, escaped while he served as President in the northern cities of New York and Philadelphia. He had at least one slave forcibly returned during this period and at least one other successfully escaped, refusing Washington's enticements to come back to Mount Vernon. These were slaves who, by the standards of the time, were treated well. Yet, they longed for their freedom and their supposedly "benign" master was loathe to grant it to them. There was nothing benign about American slavery.

(3) While some "Christians" attempted to justify American slavery before its forcible demise during the Civil War, Christians were also in the forefront of attempts to abolish the evil institution.

The Beecher family, for example, dedicated Presbyterians, fought to end slavery in the US. The entire abolitionist and Underground Railroad movements were rooted in Christian beliefs. Perhaps America's most visionary and persuasive abolitionist was William Lloyd Garrison, who operated out of a Christian worldview.

In Great Britain, the dedicated Christian layperson, William Wilberforce, was slavery's greatest and most effective foe. Another forceful spokesperson for the abolitionist cause there was the former slave ship captain turned pastor, John Newton. (It was Newton who composed, Amazing Grace, among other great songs.)

Clearly, these Christians who had seen slavery "up close and personal" did not regard it as a benign institution, but as a violation of God's will for human beings.

(4) Lastly, just exactly what is so wrong about slavery from a Christian perspective? I would say that there are any number of problems with it, but I'll boil it down to a few.

First, it's a violation of God's first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before Me." Whenever one human being forcibly and without provocation, imposes himself on another person, denying that second person the capacity to function as human beings are meant to function and enforces that imposition with violence or the threat of violence, the first person is taking the place of God in the enslaved person's life. Or at least is doing so, in the mind of the slaveholder. American slaveholders worshiped at the altars of self.

Of course, there are legitimate coercive institutions in any society, institutions to which we all submit for the common good. But slavery was never for the common good.

Second, it's a violation of what we Lutherans reckon as the fifth commandment, "You shall not kill." In The Small Catechism, Martin Luther shows that this is more than just a commandment telling us to avoid murdering other people. As he explains it, it also means that, "We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help him in all his physical needs."

In so interpreting this commandment, Luther is echoing Jesus' explanation of it in Matthew's Gospel, "You have it heard that it was said to those in ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire..." (Matthew 5:21-23)

Slavery was an inherently, coercively violent institution that denigrated all held in its shackles, treating them like fools who were less than human.

What Jesus is saying is that anytime we dehumanize or objectivize others, we are guilty of murder. American slavery did that systematically.

Third, slavery is a violation of Jesus' 'Great Commandment,' that we not only love God with every fiber of our beings, but also love our neighbor as ourselves. No loving person would ever desire to enslave or imprison a neighbor unless that neighbor were guilty of some crime and represented a threat. There is a four-letter word then, that can describe slavery: hate.

It was a great good when slavery came to an end. Sadly, we still live with its after-effects, like tremors following an earthquake and no amount of irresponsible talk about its being "benign" can alter the fact that slavery was an unholy evil. No Christian can possibly believe otherwise.

Americans Aren't 'Stingy,' But We Can't Rest on Our Laurels...or Wallets

[This is the latest of my columns, written for the Community Press newspapers in the Cincinnati area.]

United Nations official Jan Egeland was out of line recently when he accused Americans of being “stingy.” He riled up many in this country with that assessment, and rightly so.

In defense of Egeland though, it should be said that as a percentage of our country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), America’s foreign aid is smaller than that of any of the world’s other developed nations. US government appropriations for foreign aid amount to litle more than one-tenth of one per cent of our GDP. The Netherlands, for example, devotes about nine-tenths of its GDP to foreign aid.

Some misinformed Americans wildly overestimate the amount of money the government dedicates to foreign aid programs. And many often fail to see that it’s in the country’s hard-nosed self-interest to use aid in order to cultivate positive perceptions of our country internationally and to create future strong American trading partners.

But what Egeland’s rash statement failed to take into account is this country’s enormous private contributions to overseas charities and development organizations. They clearly prove that Americans aren’t stingy.

No doubt going back to Colonial times, when citizens of the embryonic United States had to develop local, non-governmental institutions to get things done, Americans have always had a tradition of personal giving and involvement in civic affairs. Alexis de Tocqueville noted these “habits of the heart” in Americans when he toured the young republic in the 1830s.

Perhaps an even bigger reason for this tradition in America goes back to our Christian roots. When I talk with Europeans, with their state churches resentfully supported by tax dollars, they’re astounded by the amounts of money that ordinary Christians in this country give not only to support their local congregations, but also to social service agencies and international relief efforts. It’s doubtful that without America’s tradition of separation of church and state and the strong influence of Jesus Christ on our cultural development that Americans would be responding as generously as they are to the recent tsunami tragedies.

But this is no time for Americans to sit back smugly on our laurels or our wallets. Jesus once said that it’s harder for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. By the standards of the world, most people reading this are unimaginably wealthy. Money can be the world’s deadliest drug: the more we have of it, the more dependent on it we become and the less inclined to share it. We begin to lose sight of the fact that even our capacity for earning the dollars entrusted to us is a blessing from God.

Jesus tells us that, in addition to providing for our families and ourselves, God expects us to use our money to express love for our neighbor. He says that from those who have much, much is expected and that whenever we provide for the most pathetically needy people we encounter, we’re really worshiping Him.

Jesus even says that we’re to use our money to buy friends for ourselves in eternity, by which He means that, in employing our money as an expression of His love, the beneficiaries of our largesse will be attracted to follow the One Who incites such selflessness, the only One Who can give eternity to us: Jesus Himself.

I’ll be honest: Giving doesn’t come easily to me. I’d rather buy books and CDs than give my money away.

But I find myself positively challenged by the pastor and family I know who have decided not to eat out for the forseeable future, choosing monthly to give what they would have spent on restaurant fare to tsunami relief work.

Americans aren’t stingy. But the best way for us to avoid becoming so is to give. At least that’s what I’m starting to learn.

Lots of People Could Imitate Sandra Bullock

Big time hurrahs for Sandra Bullock, who has donated $1-million to the Red Cross for tsunami relief!

There are probably at least a thousand Hollywood figures--actors, producers, agents, executives, key grips (okay, scrub key grips from that list)--who could make similar donations. I expect that the Hollywood-connected Bill Clinton will be hitting Tinseltown up pretty big in his new role of co-chairing the raising of private donations for relief efforts.

I also expect that his opposite number, George H. W. Bush, will be working his friends in the energy and Blueblood worlds.

One can further expect that both former Presidents will work hard to get other major donors to their respective parties' to pony up, along with corporations and foundations.

When added to the private donations of Americans as well as the contributions of the government, American support for tsunami relief efforts could be enormous. I hope that it will be.

Here are four reputable organizations to which you can send your donations (even those less than a million dollars can be a huge help):

Lutheran World Relief
American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services
World Vision

What About China Now? In the Future?

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit links to a piece from the International Herald Tribune which says that China's paltry response to the tsunami tragedy is proof that the nation is not yet ready to be a major player on the world scene.

Reynolds' post also cites an article from The Weekly Standard that points to China's long-term threat to the world. Several recent articles, appearing in a variety of paper and online publications, have reached the same conclusion. Over time, many experts and observers agree, China will be America's greatest adversary, not terrorists.

McCain v. Feingold in 2008?

Admittedly, I'm a political junkie, but I found this post from The Daily Kos interesting. Russ Feingold running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008?

What an interesting---and civil---debate could emerge if the Wisconsin senator's co-sponsor of campaign finance reform, the conservative Republican, John McCain ended up with the nomination of his party and opposed Feingold in the general election.

While most activists and observers seem to agree that the latest McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform has opened up new ways for the political process to be manipulated, both of the bill's sponsors are decent fellows who have great integrity and respect for one another.

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 1

[This is the first part of a series of blog articles I'm presenting on prayer. I hope that you find it helpful.]

An old story has it that two men were out fishing in the ocean when a fierce storm came along, turning their boat into splinters. They clung to to two of them. After the storm died down, they were washed onto the shore of a small island.

There were no people on the island. They had no food or supplies. And they didn’t have any means of communicating with the outside world.

They were desperate and so, they thought, it might be a good time to pray. Maybe, they reasoned, God could help them. The problem though, was that neither of them really knew how to pray.

They’d both thought long and hard about this when one of them finally had a “Eureka!” moment. “You know,” he said, “when I was a kid, I lived next door to a church and sometimes I heard them. Maybe if I just talked the way they did, that would be prayer and God would help.”

“Sounds good to me,” said the other guy. “Anyway, what have we got to lose?” So, he fell silent, letting his companion take the lead.

He did. He called out with a loud, clear voice, “B-7, O-45, N-22...” Apparently, the guy had never been awake on Sunday mornings to hear the prayers lifted up during Mass.

Actually, I don’t think there’s reason for any of us to feel embarrassed about not knowing how to pray or for not understanding just what prayer is.

Prayer has been an integral part of my life now for about twenty-eight years, ever since I moved from atheism to faith in Jesus Christ. I try to make it daily part of my living. Beyond more extended periods of prayer each day, I talk with God while I’m in the shower, taking walks, driving (eyes open at all times, of course), working in my office, participating in meetings, speaking to groups of people, working out, and so on. My life has been blessed through prayer many times. But I still can’t call myself an expert on prayer. I don’t always know how to pray and I can’t always describe what prayer is. I’m still learning about it.

But I can say that prayer is one of the most exciting things we can be learning to do, as well as among the most meaningful and rewarding.

There are lots of ways to pray. E. Stanley Jones was a missionary to India in the middle part of the twentieth century and a good friend of Mohandas Gandhi. Jones also came to be well known in this country for his inspiring writing and for the spiritual ashrams, weekend retreats, over which he presided and at which thousands of people got to know God intimately. Once, Jones wrote, that at the end of one gathering at which he spoke, an obviously well-to-do woman approached him:
and as we shook hands, [she] said, “If I had what you have, I wouldn’t be in the mess I’m in.” I asked her to wait, and as we talked, she laid bare her tragedy: Her home was going to be broken up after Christmas--they would hold together till Christmas so as not to break the children’s hearts. We prayed and I asked her to pray when she got home. But she said afterward: “I belonged to the country club cocktail-gambling set and didn’t know how to pray. So I wrote God a letter: ‘Dear God, life has dealt me a very bad hand and I don’t know which card to lead. Please show me which card I am to lead.’ And I signed it.”
Reports Jones, “God heard that prayer expressed in the only language she knew.” Somehow, that woman and her husband were able to stay together and become reconciled. Jones says that the woman was able to hold her home together “by her changed spirit.”

That changed spirit was the result of turning in desperation to God the best way she knew how.

You see, God isn’t interested as much in how we pray as He is in that we pray. This, frankly, can be a hard pill for some Christians, the kinds of Christians who think that form is everything, to take. These Christians seem to want to out-holy God Himself!

I once heard Texan Gerald Mann talk about the coffee shop in the small town where he served as a first-time pastor. There was a bunch of guys who gathered there every morning. Their language was coarse and their outlook on life could be crude. The “good” Christian folks wouldn’t have much to do with them.

To his credit, Mann decided to frequent the coffee shop, not to preach at these guys, but to be their friend. Maybe he also was tired of the high and mighty talk that passes for “Christian” communication in some churches; maybe he was looking for people who were real and not walking cliches.

In any case, most weekday mornings found Mann hanging out with these rough characters over cups of coffee. Eventually, they came to see him as a friend. One day, someone among their group had a question about God for him. Mann says that inside, he cringed a bit, fearful that his new friends would be so turned off by his preaching that he would not only lose their friendship, but also the chance to help them to know God.

But that went well. As time went on, Mann’s coffee shop friends brought more of their questions and finally, asked if some mornings they could all pray together. That began to happen.

Mann’s times at the coffee shop did not go unnoticed by the people of his church. One of the “elders,” as they’re called, asked Mann about the meetings and Mann invited the elder to come with him on a day when the group was to pray.

That morning, the group had apparently gotten word about a neighbor who was sick and in some other trouble. So, as they started to pray, one of the coffee shop denizens began, “Lord, you know what’s going on this S---of a B----’s life. This poor ol’ ba---rd sure needs your help...”

The guy’s prayer went on in this way, devoid of any consciousness that his words may have been a bit “colorful.” It was only after the prayer time had ended and the coffee shop group had dispersed that the elder from Mann’s church expressed rage at the language his sensitive ears had been forced to hear, language that he also apparently thought too vivid for God's dainty ears.

Mann tried in vain to point out to the elder that just a few months before, the fellow whose words had so offended wouldn’t have even considered praying. Instead of judging the man for failing to speak with something appropriate language, Mann hoped that the elder could be happy that the guy had grown desperate enough for God to want to pray.

Forunately, God doesn’t listen to our prayers with the celestial equivalent of Diana Hacker’s A Pocket Style Manual next to Him, knocking off points if our grammar is bad, our words unlike those used in the King James Version of the Bible, or our phrasing “colorful.”

In fact, some giants of the faith have used very colorful language in their prayers, the kind of language that we often use in our most intimate interpersonal conversations.

This past week, I watched the 2003-release, Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes. It tells the story of Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic monk, priest, and scholar who set out to reform the Church back in the sixteenth century. In one scene, it portrays Luther at prayer. Luther’s prayers, as any student of that period can tell you, were robust affairs in which he could sense the devil as well as the evil inside himself and in the world trying to pull him away from God. The movie accurately showed Luther, in God’s Name and power, turning his attention to the devil and calling him, “You sh-t!”

Some dainty church folks might consider that inappropriate and I think, in public settings, it would be. But is there a more appropriate nickname to give to the devil than that? Or a more accurate description of anyone who would try to prevent us from enjoying intimacy with God.

The point is that if concern about whether your prayers will be in the right form to please God is keeping you from praying, don’t let it stop you any longer. During the course of this blog series, I hope that you'll find encouragement either to begin a prayer life with God or, if you already enjoy one, the inspiration to deepen it.

Jesus, Who was God in the flesh, once said:
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father Who is in secret; and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words...” (Matthew 6:5-7)
Jesus wasn’t condemning public prayers. Although the lion’s share of Jesus’ praying was private, He engaged in public praying Himself. But He didn’t do so to call attention to Himself; His aim was share His intimacy with God the Father with others.

The best way I know to begin to learn to pray is to simply start praying. Maybe between this installment and the next one in this series, you can do that. You could do it in a letter or in a few silent sentences uttered while you shower. Again, don’t worry about form. When it comes to prayer, my advice comes straight from Nike, “Just do it!”

And if you feel incompetent to pray, start out by telling God that. He loves it when we’re honest with Him.

[E. Stanley Jones tells the story of the wealthy woman who wrote a letter to God in his fantastic book, How to Be a Transformed Person.]

Monday, January 03, 2005

Americans Raise Millions for Tsunami Relief...But Osama Still Doesn't Lift a Finger to Help Muslims in Indonesia

President Bush enlists his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Bill Clinton to lead an effort to raise millions of dollars from private American contributors for tsunami relief.

Already, ordinary Americans are giving by the millions of dollars to this effort, expressing solidarity and sympathy with people in twelve different nations who have been victimized by the tsunamis.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden, who styles himself as one who cares about the well-being of his fellow Muslims, has said and done nothing to help or encourage people in the world's largest Islamic nation, Indonesia.

Curious, isn't it, that Americans and others care about the needs of those orphaned, widowed, and made homeless by this tragedy; but bin Laden remains squirreled away in a hole somewhere, clearly not caring about the people he could help with his millions?

More on Preparation for Mount Kilimanjaro Climb

Nancy Beck, preparing to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and raise money for the Clermont County Boys and Girls Club in the process, has posted some new items on her blog. She reports that it's all a "hodge podge," but it's all cool stuff because it lets us all feel as though we're a part of her adventure!

Tsunami Ravages World's Largest Islamic Nation; Where's Osama Now?

While tooling around today, listening to The Diane Rehm Show, I heard an interesting point made by Norman Ornstein. He said that one question which people in tsunami-ravaged Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic country, and those in all other Islamic nations should consider is this: What help is Osama bin Laden and his band of terrorist thugs providing to the Muslims of Indonesia?

Perhaps the official US government response to the tsunami disasters was slow. But a response has come. While its commitment of $350-million was not immediate and is second to that of Japan's government, which has ponied up $500-million, the official US response is not insignificant.

And the private contributions of Americans, Britons and other Europeans, Canadians, and others have been extraordinary!

Osama and crew haven't emerged from their hiding places to express compassion and concern for the pain of their fellow Muslims. They haven't sent any of their stores of cash either.

Yet bin Laden's statement of a few months ago, the one in which he sat at a desk, a plain backdrop behind him, clutching his speech as though he were the President in the Oval Office, indicates that he views himself as a world statesman, as a landless equivalent of a chief of state or head of government. His non-response to this tragedy in the world's largest Islamic nation puts the lie to that pretense.

As if to underscore Ornstein's point, a Palestinian-American telephoned Rehm's show to say that the US is the most generous country he has experienced.

He also wondered where the financial support for relief efforts that he expected to come from the oil-and-cash-rich Gulf States might be.

He further expressed the hope that President Bush and the US government would become actively engaged in the Middle East peace process and not remain bystanders.

Are Americans selfish and stingy? We can be, of course. I'm alarmed by the seeming decrease in charitable giving over the past few years.

Could the US government have responded more quickly to the tsunami tragedies? Probably, although I think that the President has been subjected to far more criticism than was warranted. The scope of the tragedies was not immediately present, nor was it known what infrastructures were needed.

But a response is coming from both the US government and from ordinary Americans as we well as from compassionate people around the globe.

That response says simply, "We don't care what your religion or your skin color or your nationality may be. We share this planet together. We share our griefs and our joys. Just as certainly as that French headline proclaimed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that, 'We Are All Americans,' today we are all Indonesians, all Indians, all Filipinos, all brothers and sisters, and we are going to help the victims rebuild their shattered lives!"

I doubt that Osama would make such an all-inclusive statement. After all, he hasn't even bothered to say anything or throw a few crumbs at the Muslim brothers and sisters whose interests he claims to represent.

Tod Bolsinger on the Christmas Light the Tsunami Tragedies Cannot Put Out!

Tod Bolsinger's Sunday message from yesterday is excellent!

Tod is a gifted communicator and an insightful thinker. I love reading his blog nearly every day.

Not Just Meager Thoughts on the Tsunamis from Mark Sides

He calls them "a few meager additional thoughts," but Mark Sides' reflections on the recent tsunami tragedies are not meager. He discusses the statement on the tragedies by the Archbishop of Canterbury, a statement of which I had previously read an inadequate summary. He also makes suggestions about how to respond the Indian Ocean disaster.

Mark has a wonderful web site. This is a devoted family man and lawyer striving, humbly, to reflect Christ's light in the world.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

About US Private Donations to Tsunami Relief

Adrian Warnock points out that tsunami-relief donations from the British public have now exceeded the initial pledged aid from the British government. He wonders if such is the case in the US by now. A Google search has led me to believe that has happened.

So far as I can find, there are no totals from all private relief agencies in the States. But the magnitude of the private contributions that are known is pretty huge. Toledo Blade columnist Jack Kelly says that as of last Wednesday, contributions to seven US relief agencies totaled more than $34-million.

This article from the International Herald Tribune gives some totals for private giving around the world that are quite interesting.

The Light of the World!

John 1:1-18
[message shared with the people of Friendship Church, January 2, 2005]

Not many days ago, two tectonic plates below the earth, under the Indian Ocean, shifted. The result was a 9.0 earthquake on the Richter Scale and massive tsunamis that killed at least 120,000 people in twelve different countries.

It's difficult to even understand the enormity of this natural disaster. This past Friday, on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, columnist Mark Shields said that on September 11, 2001, had our country suffered loss proportionate to that experienced by Indonesia with the tsunami, we wouldn't have lost 3000 people, but 706,000 people!

In the wake of such tragedy, we look for explanations and there are some people more than willing to accomodate us in that search. One Christian web site says that the tsunamis victimized more people in Islamic and Hindu countries, proving that God was angry at them for persecuting Christians. Some in India claim that the tsunamis are punishment for the arrest of a Hindu leader and a rabbi has written that the massive death toll is indicative of God’s great anger with the world’s wickedness.

These "explanations" remind me of the words of a Christian leader who, after the 9/11 attacks, claimed that they were God's punishment on America for countenancing homosexuality. He later retracted that statement.

From a Biblical perspective, all such explanations are, at the very least, highly suspect. Jesus says that in this world, the sun shines and the sky rains on the good and the evil.

This morning, I’m called by God to speak Jesus’ Good News to the world's often indescribable pain. But I have to say that I have no definitive answer to the simple question of, “Why?”

I can tell you a few things though, that might help us all to cope not only with this tragedy, but with all the tragedy that can beset us in this life.

First, I can tell you, as I have before, that this isn’t heaven. God created this world, including you and me, to be very good.

But things are not as they should be. The singer, Sting, once said in his song, Consider Me Gone, “To search for perfection is all very well; But to look for Heaven is to live here in Hell.”

The Bible agrees. In the New Testament, Paul writes that since sin and death invaded our planet, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now...,” just waiting for a second chance at new life.

Even, Paul says, those who follow Christ, groan under the weight of a world where sin and death exist. Followers of Jesus, he says, “groan inwardly while we wait for...the redemption of our bodies.

So long as this world exists, tectonic plates will shift, malevolent people will plot terror, disease will claim innocent victims, and sin-tinged human beings will dismiss the suffering of others as only being what they deserve. All of that will happen because this isn’t heaven.

But here’s the second thing I want to share with you. There is hope. We are not alone. We can have a different future.

I love the opening lines of the New Testament book of Hebrews where the preacher says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son...” God has broken the silence and spoken to us in words and in actions. He did that through Jesus Christ.

That’s what our Bible lesson is all about. It says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...All things came into being through Him...What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it...And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth...”

On the first Christmas, two-thousand years ago, God didn’t offer explanations as to why every tragedy happens. I'm not sure such explanations would enable us to cope any better with tragic events anyway.

Instead of issuing an explanation, God became one of us to help us see and experience His good will for us, His love for us, His desire for us, His promise that, thank God, the darkness of this present age is not all there is for those who follow Christ.

Jesus, the Word, speaks a message to us, “If you let me, I will light your ways clear to eternity!”

But there’s a problem, as there always is when the human race is involved. Do you remember the movie, The Shawshank Redemption? When Red Redding, the character played by Morgan Freeman, was released from prison, he could hardly adjust to life on “the outside.” In one scene, he approaches the supervisor at the grocery store where he’s a bagger and says, “Boss, permission to go to the rest room.” He doesn’t know what to say when the supervisor, with a kindly voice, tells him that if he needs to go, he should just go.

We’re like Red, you and I. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the darkness and the confines of this world, that it’s hard for us to accept the goodness of God, the depths of His love for us, the eternal dimensions of the life He offers to those who follow Christ, or the permission that He gives to us to dare to be our best selves!

Writer Clark Cothern tells about the Christmas that a squirrel fell down his chimney and into the wood-burning stove in the basement. Cothern says, “I thought that if [the squirrel] knew we were there to help, I could just reach in and gently lift it out. Nothing doing. As I reached began scratching about like a squirrel overdosed on espresso.”

Cothern and his family finally constructed a cardboard box “cage.” There was a hole in one side of it. The squirrel walked in and once inside, Cothern was able to take it outside into a nearby woods.

Later, Cothern says, he thought about how strange it was that before the squirrel was set free, he tried like crazy to bash his way to freedom from his “dark prison” and that the harder he tried, the more pain he caused to himself.

“In the end,” he writes, “he simply had to wait patiently until one who was much bigger--one who could peer into his world--could carry him safely to that larger world where he really belonged. That is what we need the Lord to do for us.”

And that, according to the Bible, is what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.

But how do we know it’s all true? How, in the face of tragedy like the tsunamis, can we dare to believe such good news?

First, there are logical reasons to believe that Jesus is the Word made flesh Who lights our way to eternity with God. Among them is this inborn sense of good and bad, right and wrong. Where does that come from? And what of our sense that life isn't as it should be? Where does that come from? C. S. Lewis said that throughout human history, across cultures, people have had what he called "good dreams," the notion that there is a better, sinless place once inhabited by the human race and that, people hope, we can live again. The songwriter Randy Stonehill put it this way some twenty years ago: "Like a child who dreams of flying and aches for something more, we hold a dim remembrance of an ancient golden shore."

The religious impulse also seems to be universal among the human race. Anthropologists and archaeologists have noticed that all over the world throughout the span of time, people seem to have this incessant sense that there is Someone bigger than all of us Who deserves our worship. Freud, of course, believed that resulted from an infantile desire for a Father. But when you look at all the other evidence, assuming as it does a single, pervasive human dysfunctionality, that explanation just doesn't make sense.

Something inside of us says that life isn’t meant to end at the grave and that God wants to offer new life to us. Belief in Jesus just makes sense.

There are also good empirical, factual reasons to follow Him. The early documentary evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is, for example, vastly more extensive than similar evidence for such ancient figures as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or many of the Greek philosophers.

But, none of us can ever know the truth about Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, until we dare to experience Him. The great Norwegian Lutheran theologian Ole Hallesby, in his book Why I Am a Christian, gave us five things that we can do to experience Jesus.

He suggests that we first of all, read the New Testament. Contrary to some of the psuedo-scholarship referred to in the novel, The DaVinci Code, the New Testament is accurate in its portrayal of Jesus. By reading the New Testament, you will get to know Him. Don’t worry about what you don’t understand. Instead, savor and apply what you do understand.

Next, Hallesby suggests, that we begin to pray. Talk with God honestly about your doubts, fears, hopes, and joys.

Third, he says that while praying, we should make an honest inventory of ourselves, asking God to show us what we need to do to live life as He designed it to be lived.

Fourth, he says, participate in Holy Communion whenever it’s offered. We Christians believe that in the bread and wine, Jesus offers Himself body and blood and embodies His forgiving love to us. In Communion, the Word becomes flesh and lives among us again. How that works, I don't know. One reason we designate Communion and Baptism as sacraments is that they are mysteries. Sacrament is a word that means mystery.

Even if we don't understand how the bread and wine of Holy Communion are also Jesus' body and blood, we have His word on it.

Father Robert Capon, in his book, The Third Peacock, says that Holy Communion is "the hat on the invisible man." We can't see Jesus. But when Jesus' Word and the elements of bread and wine intersect, we're able to taste, see, and experience the presence of Jesus with us.

Finally, Hallesby says, we should fellowship with people who are wholeheartedly convinced that Jesus is the real deal, the Word, the Savior Who lights our ways.

When we allow ourselves to experience Jesus Christ, He will light our way through even the darkest of passages of life, enabling us to cope and inspiring us to love our neighbors--even those across the ocean--so that they too can be given light in their darkness and hope for their futures.

Do you believe that?

I do.