Saturday, January 15, 2005

More on Baseball and Steroids

In Boston, where baseball is still the national pastime, the Globe editorializes today regarding the new (but yet-to-be-adopted) steroid policy of Major League Baseball. The paper sees it as a healthy first step toward restoring the integrity of the game. It's an excellent editorial. Here's the opening paragraph:
If players and owners ratify baseball's proposed agreement on steroid testing and penalties, the sport will have taken a long step toward ridding itself of a shadow over its players' health and the integrity of their achievements. The proposal is notable both in its expansion of testing to the off season and in the scope of what it prohibits, including steroid-like substances and human growth hormone. Down the road, the program could be improved by including stimulants such as amphetamine and strengthening the penalties.
Meanwhile, Neil Hayes says that there are asterisks galore over recent power-hitting achievements and so, he's telling his son that the real home run kings of Baseball are Hank Aaron (career) and Roger Mays (single season). I can't disagree with him. This is a very well-written piece!

You Can Make a Difference!

Please prayerfully consider making a donation to a reputable relief agency in order to help with tsunami clean-up and rebuilding. There are many great organizations. Here are the four I recommend most:

Lutheran World Relief
American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services
World Vision

Boy, Can I Identify with This!

Phyllis, at Life on Widbey, says:
I signed up for an exercise class and was told to wear loose-fitting clothing. If I HAD any loose-fitting clothing, I wouldn't have signed up in the first place!

Friday, January 14, 2005

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 7

Okay, I'm about to make a confession that a loquacious wordsmith should probably avoid: Words aren't everything.

In fact, at times, they can be downright overrated.

Consider a woman whose husband has just died. Neighbor A drops by the house and because of her own awkwardness with tragedy, fills the air with supposedly comforting verbiage.

She tells the neighbor that God has perhaps, spared the widow's husband from even worse suffering he might have endured had he lived, that he's better off in heaven, that she and her husband will look in on her from time to time and that she only needs to call for help no matter the hour of day or night, that she'll feel better soon, and blah, blah, blah, blah.

You can be certain that the widow is praying that God will send this neighbor with all of her words away soon...preferably to somewhere inside the Arctic Circle.

Later that day, Neighbor B comes to see the widow. When the widow greets the neighbor at her door, Neighbor B may have a casserole or a dinner in hand, but she makes no move to barge into the house. And she remembers that this visit isn't about her or about befouling the atmosphere with words designed to insulate her or her neighbor from the reality of what's happened.

She says simply, "We're thinking of you. Here's a little something. Call if you need anything." Struck by Neighbor B's few words, the widow may invite her in.

With that, Neighbor B sits down and asks how the widow is faring in the midst of her trauma.

The words that pass between them are few.

There are long silences.

Some of the widow's sentences trail off into whispers and unspoken words that shout volumes of feeling, grief, hope, and longing.

Neighbor B bravely endures the silences. She senses how much her neighbor needs them, even though she wishes that there were something she could say to banish the hurt.

One year later, the widow, still dealing with her grief, but in a different place with it, tells Neighbor B that their virtually silent conversation immediately following her husband's death was exactly what she needed. It had been a still island of hope and comfort in the midst of a chaotic ocean of grief.

Words aren't everything.

I bring this up because presently in this series, I'm addressing the myths about prayer that sometimes keep people from praying or from experiencing prayer to its fullest.

Myth #2: "I don't ever seem to find the right words to pray."

But even in prayer, words aren't everything. So, let me say a few words about words and prayer.

First: God isn't necessarily impressed by lots of words when we pray. My wife and I once attended a kickoff meeting for a major ecumenical outreach in our community. There were all sorts of community leaders, not just from the churches, but also from government, business, and academia.

It was a great event until one of the local pastors was asked to come forward and lead us in prayer. For whatever reason, the man went on and on and on and...well, you get the idea.

Was God impressed? I don't know. Maybe. Perhaps that preacher's long-winded style didn't seem wordy to him or to God. But it sure did to me and my wife.

It may have been unfair, but right then, I couldn't help remembering Jesus' words condemning religious leaders who, "for the sake of appearance say long prayers" (Mark 12:40).

You and I can't fool God. He knows us inside out. If we think that wordy prayers make us look good to God, we only fool ourselves. If we say them publicly in order to impress others, we're trying to please the wrong audience anyway. In prayer, God only wants "truth in the inward being," down-in-the-gut honesty. (Psalm 51:6)

God is less interested in the word counts of our prayers than in how much we count on Him when we pray.

Second: God can fill our silence before with prayer--with meaningful communication--even when we are clueless about what to pray. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to all who follow Him. About the Holy Spirit and prayer, the Bible says:
...the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. [Romans 8:26-27]
Comedian Woody Allen once said that 90% of life is about showing up. I can tell you confidently that 100% of our praying is about showing up, about approaching God and wanting him to work in the lives and circumstances about which we pray. You aren't required to have the right words, just the right attitude, the willingness to let God in and do His will. God will take our wordless sighs and turn them into custom-made prayers from our spirits to God's Spirit!

Don't be afraid to silently open your heart and will to God. Take some time soon to simply let that be the content of your prayer. As was true between the widow and Neighbor B, you may experience more honest communication between God and you in the silence than you ever could in words.

To read more on this subject, check out:
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 1
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 2
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 3
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 4
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 5
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 6

About Baseball's New Steroid Policy

While many fans and sports journalists have expressed disdain for the new Major League Baseball policy on steroid use, there are some who view it as a positive step in the right direction. Columnist John Gambadoro is one of them.

Gambadoro does something even rarer and perhaps, courageous, than defend baseball commisioner Bud Selig's new steroid policy. He even says a few good words about Selig's overall stewardship of the game, even while acknowledging the commish's mistakes:
...not everything Selig has done has been bad. The addition of the wild card may be his biggest and best contribution to the sport. And inter-league play, while losing some of its luster, continued to be a success. Not allowing con artist Pete Rose back in baseball shows he really does care more about the sport than his own image, and I applaud him for doing what is right with the all-time hit king and that's keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. But what Selig was able to accomplish on Thursday - albeit with the help of a suddenly caring Players Association - is as important as anything he has done as commissioner. He has helped to bring back the integrity of the game by fighting hard to get Major League Baseball a stricter steroid testing policy.
Interesting slant on things.

To Stay Informed About Ukraine

For a helpful round-up of information about what's going on in Ukraine, check out Le Sabot Post-Moderne.

Still AWOL After All These Weeks

This article by a fellow from the conservative Hoover Institution was linked by Glenn Reynolds. It makes some interesting points, the most interesting to me being:
the myth of Islamic solidarity has been shattered. Even though most victims in Indonesia, the most populous Islamic country on the face of the earth, are Muslim, the support flowing from Arab governments has been pitifully small. The decades of petrodollars and the years of high gas prices have apparently not put the oil-rich Middle East in a position to afford to offer much help to Muslims in distress.
Are those nations unable to afford to help or do they simply not choose to help?

Beyond that, I go back to a point on which I've harped several times here: Osama bin Laden, self-styled spokesperson for the Islamic world, has been AWOL at the very moment he might have at least expressed some solidarity with his brother Muslims in the world's largest Islamic nation, Indonesia. But it has been other nations--both their governments and their publics--and not bin Laden and crew who have compassionately responded to the needs of the tsunami's victims in Muslim and Hindu nations. Check here and here.

A Response to the ELCA Task Force Report on Sexuality

For several years now, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has had a task force on sexuality looking at two different issues:
the possible ordination of practicing homosexuals

the possible acceptance of homosexual unions in relationships at least analogous to marriage
With the task force's recommendations scheduled to be brought for a vote at this August's Churchwide Assembly, I've long had a basic assumption about what it would recommend. My assumption has been that the group would attempt to split the difference between those who favor and those who oppose the above steps.

I believe that there are sound reasons for upholding the Biblical teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman. While it may be politically correct to hold otherwise, our freedom in Christ doesn't give us the license to change God's Word or bend it in order to make ourselves more accepted by the prevailing culture. (For a balanced, Biblically-sensitive discussion of these issues, I recommend The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert Gagnon. You can also visit Dr. Gagnon's web site.)

The task force has now forwarded its recommendations to the Church. In fact, the group has attempted to split the difference between conflicting views in our denominational body, although not in the way I expected.

The task force has made three basic recommendations:
  1. That, because of divergent views, members of the ELCA should try to find ways to "live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements."
  2. That the ELCA not break from the "pastoral guidance" given by our Conference of Bishops back in 1993, which said that only heterosexual unions would be recognized as marriage by the Church.
  3. That the ELCA continued to expect that its clergy would not engage in the practice of homosexuality.
Interlaced among these recommendations is a fourth undilineated one that the Church, while continuing to uphold prevailing teaching, should accept dissenting views on these matters even to the extent of not disciplining pastors or congregations who flout the clear teachings of the Church.

I had thought that ultimately, the task force would recommend what has come to be termed the local option. That is, that they would recommend leaving it up to each individual congregation and pastor to decide what they would do in these matters. They did not do so overtly. But it seems to me that the recommendations made have the same effect and so, leave the ELCA in a muddle.

Predictably, the recommendations have left a number of people unhappy.

Chris Tessone, a member of the ELCA, who advocates acceptance of both homosexual marriage and pastors who are practicing homosexuals, has written on his web site:
I have not decided whether this is it for me and the Lutheran church. Certainly I am a hard-core Lutheran in many, many ways, but I do not feel comfortable in an institution that sells out both conservatives and liberals in an effort to appease both sides.
And in a statement that came out yesterday afternoon, the WordAlone reform movement, which I support, has said:
Leaders of the WordAlone Network in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) said today that a task force majority report on ordaining people in same-sex relationships or blessing such relationships is an attempt to hoodwink “the people in the pews” into believing its recommendations won’t bring change to ELCA practices.
A press release from the organization goes on to say:
“While the ELCA Sexuality Task Force may say it isn’t suggesting change in the ELCA standards for ordination, the recommendations in its report will bring about de facto change because they suggest that the standards not be enforced,” said Pastor Jaynan Clark Egland, WordAlone president, Spokane, Wash.
I share the rather gloomy assessments of both Tessone and the folks from Word Alone.

So, where exactly does this leave us? In a muddle, I think.

No one of us is sinless. But the Church should not be asked to change God's clear teachings in order to accommodate the preferences of anyone. I stew about what churches and pastors who, under the tacit approval of the task force's recommendations, defy the teachings of the Bible and the Church, and thereby possibly tar the good name and reputations of the rest of the ELCA.

What should we do next, establish a task force on gluttony and declare that because there are those in our midst who think that gluttony is an acceptable behavior, we'll allow for dissenting views on the matter? As a recovering glutton--who sometimes loses my battle with this sin, I would like nothing better than to have the Church tell me that my gluttony is okay.

Instead, it seems to me, our call is to invite all sinners to repent and to join the fellowship of recovering sinners that is the Church.

As a recovering sinner who "falls off the wagon," I'm grateful that the Church isn't the fellowship of the perfectly smug.

I'm also grateful that it's also not a place where the sins that can drive an eternal wedge between God and me are enabled or encouraged.

So, what about the future? I intend to continue to be supportive of efforts to reform the ELCA, movements like Word Alone, which seek to call the Church to once more recognize the authority of God's Word. I will be a Lutheran until the day I die. I continue to hope and fervently (and daily) pray that the same will be true of our ELCA.

Whatever Happened to Susan Pevensie?

While driving home from my office for the second time last evening (it's a long story), I had a thought:

What happened to Susan after the events recounted The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis?

You'll remember that Susan, along with her siblings, entered Narnia through a wardrobe in the first book of The Chronicles of Narnia epic, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

But by the time Book Seven rolls around, Susan has gotten caught up in the shallow world of glamor magazines and such. She isn't even with her two brothers or sister when Aslan pulls them from our world to Narnia. And so, unlike them, Susan doesn't die, neither in a British railway accident or in the last dire fight before the end of the Narnian world.

So, whatever happened to Susan?

What was her grief like? (Remember that her parents and others she knew and loved all died at the same time.)

Did these events trigger complete despair or did she, in this world, cry for a consoling connection with Aslan?

Did she ever go back to Narnia?

Or did she suck it up, put the past behind her, and marry some BBC director?

Susan, always the most timid of the family, might well have rolled herself into a ball and become a recluse. Is that what happened to her?

In these speculations, the last thing I want to do is incite some fledgling storyteller to create a literary sequel to Lewis' classic books. Such efforts, written years after the inspiring works and usually by writers devoid of that spark of originality which made the first works so compelling, are notoriously bad. They're usually the written equivalents of grave-robbing.

But, if you feel so disposed, I would love to read your speculations in the Comments section below: Whatever happened to Susan?

Let's Stay Vigilant About Backing Tsunami Relief Efforts

The reports from tsunami-ravaged regions say that the initial quick response of the world has avoided the immediate threats of disease. But it will obviously take much time, effort, money, and prayer to rebuild people's lives there. Each day, I'm praying for the victims of this massive natural disaster and I'm asking you to send a gift to one of the following (or other) reputable relief organizations:

Lutheran World Relief
American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services
World Vision

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 6

Over the next several posts of this series, I'm going to address myths about prayer.

Strictly speaking, of course, a myth was a legend or tale created by ancient peoples to explain the origins of things. They were tall tales and so we often apply the word, myth, to falsehoods.

I'm going to deal with some falsehoods people tell about prayer or that we tell ourselves about prayer.

Myth #1: "I can't ask God for anything until I have a stronger faith."

Wrong! I know what the New Testament book of James says:
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:5-8]
When you read that, you may think that our first myth isn't a myth, but the truth. But hold on!

An important principle for understanding Scripture is this: Let Scripture interpret Scripture. In other words, don't isolate a piece of the Bible and ride it like a hobby horse. If you do, you're likely to be riding in the wrong direction. Instead, look at individual passages of the Bible in context. That includes not just the context of the book and chapter of the Bible in which you may find it, but within the context of the entire Bible. Ask yourself: Is the inference I'm drawing from this passage fit with the witness of the whole Bible as I know it? Does my first-blush interpretation fit with what I know about God, Who is ultimately and definitively revealed in Jesus?

The concern of James' short New Testament letter seems to be how Christians conduct themselves in the face of persecution for their faith. He commends an enduring faith in which believers treat each other well and are ethical in all their dealings. James is interested in believers being genuine and that includes living their faith in Christ authentically. And so, it's understandable why he tells Christians to be resolute and genuine in presenting their prayer requests, believing in God and His ability to deliver on the things for which we ask.

But does that mean we must scour our brains of every scintilla of doubt before we present our requests to God? Let's let Scripture help us to interpret Scripture by looking at another spot in the Bible.

In the Gospel of Mark, we're told about a father desperate for healing for his son. The boy is afflicted by a spirit that set him off into seizures. The father is at his wit's end. Any parent whose child has been seriously ill in any way will understand this man's agony. At first, he goes to Jesus' disciples. But they shrug their shoulders in helplessness.

When the father tells Jesus that the disciples had been unable to help his son, Jesus upbraids them, expressing frustration with them:
"You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to Me!" [Mark 9:19]
After the boy is brought to Him, Jesus watches the child have yet another fit and learns from the father that the boy has been doing this since childhood. In desperation, the poor man says, "If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us." Then we're told:
Jesus said to him, "If you are able!--All things can be done for the one who believes." Immediately the father of the child cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief!"
Jesus then made the boy well.

Now there are two interesting things to note here, especially in light of what James says about believing prayer.

First: In spite of having spent time with Jesus and knowing that they could seek His help, the disciples were sure that nothing could be done for the boy.

In other words, they were like the double-minded people against whom James rails. Such people may be very religious people who say their prayers regularly. But their prayers are hollow habits.

They remind me of the true story a friend once told me about the experience of his son-in-law when he was about ten years old. A person at church had given an impassioned and compelling talk about the work of overseas missionaries. My friend's future son-in-law was so moved that he approached the speaker after worship and asked how he could give some of his allowance to support this exciting project! The man said, "Don't worry about it, son. It was just a talk."

That was a double-minded person. Another term for it might be, "two-faced." (Of course, we all can be double-minded sometimes. Even preachers. We're all human beings, after all.)

Religious folks are prone to hypocrisy, even with God in our prayers. We're like the people in an old Bruce Cockburn song in which a character tells God, "I put on my dog mask and howl for you."

The disciples couldn't imagine themselves going to bat for this afflicted family because, even if they piously pretended otherwise, they hadn't yet learned that prayer is more than masks and howling!

They thought that all religious people were two-faced and duplicitous. No wonder that Jesus lost His patience with them!

Second: In spite of his doubts, the man had a stronger faith in God's power to change his circumstances than Jesus' disciples.

"I do believe," he tells Jesus, "but there's a war going on inside of me." Nonetheless, he had enough faith to know that no one but Jesus could help him.

I'm convinced that most of what we call prayer isn't really prayer at all. That's why so few of our prayers may seem to be answered---whether with Yes, No, Maybe, or Wait. We're disinterested in our prayers; so, why would God be interested in them?

We're disinterested in our prayers because we see God as just a cosmic back-up plan for concerns that, truth be known, we feel confident that we pretty much have under our control anyway.

But faith doesn't really come into play until we realize that there is almost nothing in life that we really control. Or when we know that only God can make a positive difference in the things for which we pray.

The disciples thought that not even God could make a difference in the boy's situation. In spite of his doubts and even though the restoration of his son seemed a possibility too good to be true, the father made his desperate request for help from Jesus.

If you and I have the faith to ask God for something despite our doubts, that's good enough for God. Jesus in fact said that we only need the faith the size of a tiny mustard seed.

Faith after all isn't some frame of mind that we create. Faith is simple surrender to the God Who is bigger than us. It's putting down our dukes and letting God take the punches for us.

If you can surrender--even if you simply want to surrender, the God we know through Jesus can hear your prayers.

Who Has Influence?

A friendly debate has been joined in the blogging world. It started when Hugh Hewitt asserted that Dr. James Dobson is the most influential person in America who is not in government.

Joshua Claybourn said, No, that designation belongs to Oprah Winfrey, which made sense to me.

Joe Carter has replied by saying that both answers are wrong. His candidate is Rick Warren.

Part of the problem with this discussion is something to which Hugh has already referred: how one defines influence.

Another is how one measures influence.

While Joshua has offered one, I'll take a stab at a definition: Someone with influence, it seems to me, is a person who, by whatever means, shapes or causes us to change our behaviors or our views.

Governments, of course, can coerce some of these elements of our lives. Hugh's very framing of this discussion acknowledges that and would almost seem to suggest that no individual outside of government can have as large an influence on us as those who are in government. Real shaping and changing though, happen not as the result of coercion, but of persuasion.

I think it's fair to say that few people influence others over sustained periods of time at the macro-level.

Think about it: Who are the people who have exerted the greatest influence over your life? Go ahead, name your top ten...I'll wait.

Okay, got your list? The ten people who have shaped or caused you to change your behaviors or views?

Now, I'm going to exercise blogger's prerogative. (A power I just made up.) If you're a Christian, I'm going to ask you to eliminate Jesus from your list. While I obviously think that Jesus is the best influence we can have in our lives and that, like other nominees for consideration, He is living right now, His designation hardly seems in keeping with Hugh's original intent. Besides, Jesus' deity and the promotional abilities of the Holy Spirit that back Him up give Jesus certain advantages over other potential entrants in this contest.

Having said that, I'll make a guess about your list. I surmise that the lion's share, at least six of the ten entries, are people you've personally known. Your father. Your mother. A friend. A teacher. A grandparent. A neighbor. A pastor.

Compiling such a list should put us all onto something: Our lives matter! That's true whether we're in the public eye or not.

Important as the work of journalists, scientists, theologians, politicians, business executives, musicians, and others may be in affecting the lives of people, the greatest influence is exerted by those with whom we interact in everyday life. They're the ones who shape or cause us to change our behaviors or world views, for better and for worse.

It's easy for us to underestimate the influence we wield over others. In Old Testament times, King Saul was upbraided for doing just that. His drifting ways and lack of confidence, born of a distorted relationship with God, were causing him to fail in his duties as king. "You may be small in your own eyes. But you are the king!" he was told. (This was the prophetic equivalent of Cher smacking Nicholas Cage and shouting, "Snap out of it!")

One of many great insights to come from Martin Luther was that parents hold the highest office in all creation. God entrusts the shaping of little lives in parents' care. Their work is more important, then, than that of any president or king. Parents are major-league influencers!

Those who influence us at more global levels over sustained periods of time are few. In history, the list would include people like Gallileo, Luther, Gutenberg, Lincoln, Dickens. People on such a list will have proven that they belong on it because of the continuing ripples emanating from their ideas or achievements.

But who is it that exerts the greatest influence on our lives today?

Hugh, Joshua, and Joe have all weighed in. Their choices each have merit. I might add other candidates: Roger Ailes, Bill Clinton, Billy Graham, JK Rowling (not an American, but certainly a huge influence), Osama bin Laden. (I don't endorse the views of everyone on that list; I simply note that they have influence, positive and/or negative, on us.)

But we need to be careful about this whole business. In his famous phone call from the Oval Office, Richard Nixon told Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, standing on the moon, that their landing on the lunar surface was the most astounding event "since Creation." Nixon loved superlatives, of course, and he might be excused his enthusiasm, even though his declaration overlooked God's incarnation in Christ, along with Christ's resurrection, as well multiple centuries of stunning events and scientific achievements. Superlatives are iffy things.

But it seems clear to me that in order to be designated "most influential person not in the government," a person must probably enjoy widespread trust. Very few people in the public eye, known to us only through TV, radio, newspapers, films, and the internet, will elicit that from us.

Our greatest influencers and our greatest opportunity to be positive influences on others are close to home.

Just a few lunchtime thoughts.

South Asia Relief Work Continues

Please consider a donation to any one of the following reputable relief organizations...

Lutheran World Relief
American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services
World Vision

There Are No Little Blogs...So Responsibility Necessary

While there may be superstar blogs and bloggers, there literally are no "little" blogs. On any given day, this currently modestly-read blog is nonetheless hit by readers all across the US and in many parts of the world. Just yesterday, for example, there were readers in New Zealand, Japan, Australia, the UK, China, and unknown parts of Europe and Africa.

Iain Ferguson of ZDNet Australia points out that no matter how modest a blog may be deemed, the instant accessibility to potentially mass audiences that the medium provides calls for the blogger to exercise responsibility. Nastiness can still have its consequences.

Writes Ferguson:

However, as the blogging phenomenon grows, its adherents face a harsh reality -- they are accountable for the content of their postings. (I might add, this applies to all Web authors, not just bloggers). While many treat their blogs as private diaries, a life update service for friends or a substitute for a spleen-venting session at the pub, they are unaware of the risks that wider accessibility to their words can bring. While few employment contracts these days specifically mention blogging, wider clauses designed to prevent maligning of corporate reputations -- or even disclosure of corporate secrets -- are likely to give companies a fairly easy way of ousting a blogger who has posted some ill-chosen comments. Even worse, defamation laws can also be invoked to pursue a legal outcome that can devastate a blogger financially for years into the future.

In short, be an educated blogger. Don't post anything you may regret. Even if your blog is password-protected or only known to a select few, a risk still exists - albeit fairly small -- that a malicious or otherwise damagingly incorrect posting could find its way to the wrong screen.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Baseball to Announce New Steroids Policy

Apparently, Major League Baseball will make an announcement tomorrow regarding a new, tougher policy on steroid use. I'm glad this is happening and that now, looking at the possibility of imposing sanctions and removing home runs from the records of those who have been in violation of current steroid policies will happen. This is a pipe dream, of course. But for anyone who loves the game of baseball, it's a travesty to think that people who may have compiled their records on the cheap can, unchallenged, supplant people like Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, who earned their records.

Faithful Until the End!

A story, no doubt apocryphal because it's variously attributed to Augustine and to Luther, is told. One of these saints was hoeing in his garden when someone came along with a question: "What would you do if you knew that the world was coming to an end in an hour?" The saint paused, looked at his garden and hoe, and said, "I'd finish this row."

Rev. Arnold, mentioned in this post from A Simple Desultory Dangling Conversation, finished his row!

Click On, Bookmark This List

Joe Carter of evangelical outpost is in the process of creating and maintaining a list of evangelical Christian blogs. They're a more diverse bunch than some might expect, only proving C. S. Lewis's observation that when Christ enters people's lives, God gives them the confidence to be their own unique and quirky selves. Thanks to Mr. Carter for undertaking this project!

The "Gift" of Guilt?

[This is my latest column submission for the Community Press newspapers in the Cincinnati area. I've been writing them for ten years now.]

“Guilt,” the late writer and thinker E. Stanley Jones once wrote, “is one of the divinest gifts from God.” Apart from any grammatical qualms we might have with that statement, is it true?

Truth be told, we don’t want it to be true. “Don’t guilt me,” we’re likely to tell one another in exasperated tones. In a culture that’s come to see guilt as an almost neurotic response, is it reasonable to see guilt as a gift from a loving God?

According to Jones, “guilt can be pushed into the subconscious and there fester, or guilt can take you by the hand and lead you to God.”

To buttress his claim about guilt’s festering properties, Jones cites the true example of a well-trusted man who stole $200,000.00 and covered it up through creative accounting. Nobody was suspicious. “But,” Jones writes, “he developed stomach ulcers and migraine headaches, the result of the strain of living a double life.”

Guilt, though, can also contribute to our mental and emotional health, leading us to what the Bible calls, “repentance.” The Old Testament’s Hebrew word for repentance conveys the picture of a person who has been walking in the wrong direction and makes a 180-degree turn to proceed the right way.

The New Testament’s word for repentance, reflective of the more cerebral orientation of the Greek in which it is written, literally means, “change of mind.” In the New Testament, repentance is seen not only as a change of direction, but as what I call a “holy lobotomy”: a change in our brains. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” a famous passage of the New Testament begins as it commends a turn from self-interest, toward concern for the interests of God and others.

When we repent, according to the Bible, our slates are made clean and the power of God for living life at its best is sent to us. That power comes through Jesus Christ, the God-Man Who accepted our punishment for sin on an executioner’s cross and then rose from the dead, to open up eternity between God and all those who have allowed guilt to be a gift, leading them to repentance.

Jesus once told the story of two men at the temple in Jerusalem, praying. The first was proud of his religiosity. His prayer went something like this: “Thank You, God, that I do good things and that I’m not a lowlife sinner like the tax extortionist crumpled in a heap over there in the corner.”

Meanwhile, Jesus said that the extortionist, for whom the first man had so much contempt, was offering a different prayer. “Have mercy on me,” he cried, “a sinner.”

Jesus said that the second man walked away from the temple restored. The divine gift of guilt had led him into the arms of God, to the new life God offers us all through Jesus Christ. The same thing can happen to all of us.

Great Writing About the Search for the Sacred in Today's Church

Rob Asghar, writing from the perspective of one who is beyond the what-attire-to-wear-to-worship fetishists, is wrestling with experiencing the sacred in today's Church and world.

In the meantime, Tod Bolsinger continues a beautifully insightful series on what unchurched Christians like U2 lead singer Bono and fictional character Neo tell us about needed directions in the Church.

In the Meantime, in the UK...

Adrian Warnock looks at the impact bloggers reporting on Rathergate have obviously had on CBS and vows that one day, something similar will happen on his side of the pond.

For Tsunami Relief

Please send your contributions to one of the following four agencies:

Lutheran World Relief
American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services
World Vision

Lemon Trees and Graveyards

Gordon Atkinson has a delightful appreciation of his daughter, Shelby, now entering adolescence. Anyone who's ever been an adolescent or parent to one will love this piece. By the way, God bless you on your journey, Shelby...and best wishes for success in the black market candy business.

My Choice for Best Pizza on the Planet!

For my money, the best pizza on the planet can be had at Tommy's Pizza of Columbus, especially at their Upper Arlington location. I've been going there for more than thirty years. The decor never changes...same dark orange-glow painting of a pizza parlor that's hung there all these decades. But neither does the special, one-of-a-kind taste of the pizzas! (No, I'm not doing an Armstrong Williams here.)

Lightswitch Blogs

Rachel Cunliffe writes intriguingly about lightswitch blogs. It's cool to be part of this glocal (global and local) movement. It's going to be interesting to see where it all leads!

Debate Continues in ELCA

The argument about proposed ordination of practicing homosexuals and sanctioning homosexual unions in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America continues to rage here.

One Conservative to Another

Joshua Claybourn calls Hugh Hewitt's assertion that James Dobson is the US's most influential person not in government, silly. He suggests that at the very least, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey have more influence over the American public and says that there are probably others ahead of Dobson in influence as well. I agree with that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 5

One of the most striking things you and I would have noticed about Jesus if we had traveled with Him back in first-century Judea is how often He went to be alone with God the Father in prayer. I've heard more than a few deep students of His life say that Jesus seemed to value these times more than anything else. To Jesus, prayer really was the essential conversation.

I suppose that if I were some neutral observer, this obsession on the part of someone who had as big a mission as Jesus claimed to have would seem strange. He had to let as many people as possible know that He had entered the world to seek and save those who had become lost and were flailing through their lives without the direction and help of God. He had to reach as many folks as He could in a short time with the news that if they would turn from sin and receive Him as Savior, they could live with God forever. And all of this needed to be accomplished prior to the main event of Jesus' life--what He calls His "glorification" in the Gospel of John: His death and resurrection.

With those sorts of daunting goals before Him, why would Jesus involve Himself in such a tangential, non-productive activity as prayer? And why would He do it so much?

I think that there were several reasons for this strange, we can say, obsessive practice of Jesus.

One was His need to remain close to the Father. One of the most interesting passages in the New Testament, coming at the start of a section of Luke's Gospel that the scholars call the grand inclusio, says that Jesus "set His face to go to Jerusalem." (Luke 9:51) Jesus was intent on going to Jerusalem, where He knew that He would fulfill His mission of dying and rising for us. He would not be deterred from that.

As is true today, when many people would prefer not having Him to answer to in their lives, not everyone Jesus encountered wanted Him to stick it out with His mission. If Jesus could be lured or intimidated into failing in that mission, His call to follow and to surrender to Him could be ignored. So, lots of people came to oppose Jesus in one way or another. One of the reasons so many ultimately wanted to kill Him was their disappointment over Jesus' unwillingness to become a simple human king who--like a Gallup Poll-obsessed politician--would subordinate himself to the whims of the people, rather than God the Father's will for His life.

And Jesus was no doubt tempted by the crowds' offer of an easy way around the cross, rather than through it.

If you were Jesus, wouldn't you be personally predisposed to not wanting to go through arrest, torture, scourging, derision, and death on a cross?

Wouldn't you be tempted to take a pass on the whole thing?

We're told that the devil tried to dissuade Jesus from going to the cross at the very outset of Jesus' earthly ministry, during a time of temptation in the Judean wilderness. The New Testament says that when he'd been unsuccessful in this, the devil "departed from Him [Jesus] until an opportune time." [Luke 4:13]

I believe that one of the ways Jesus avoided giving temptation any opportunity to sway Him was by spending time with God each day. Jesus fortified Himself against a "mission drift" that would have been fatal for all of us, by reconnecting with God the Father often.

Another reason that Jesus prayed every day is that the busier we are, the more we need God the Father working in our lives.

After turning from atheism some twenty-nine years ago and turning to belief in the God made known through Jesus, I slowly made a discovery: The days when I took the time to have a conversation with God turned out to be more productive than the days into which I just took head-first dives. Pathetically, because I'm an imperfect sinner, it's a discovery I have to keep re-making all the time.

This counterintuitive discovery isn't new with me. Martin Luther was one of the most productive people in human history. At one time, while still a monk and priest, Luther taught at Wittenberg University in Germany; wrote extensively; served as pastor of a parish church; and administered something like fourteen monasteries. Luther said that he had entirely too much to do at that time to even consider spending less than three hours a day in prayer.

For any of us engaged in professions largely composed of interruptions (including the profession of full-time parenting), having a quiet time with God, seeking His help, can fortify us for the day to come. (That's true if the only quiet time you can manage with God is in the shower. Try it; it's worked for me in the past!)

The last three years of Jesus' earthly life were filled with interruptions. But He was able to be responsive to the needs of others and to keep His face firmly set on Jerusalem because He took the time to pray.

In the Old Testament, you can find a tragic story from the life of King David. The Bible describes David as a person after God's own heart. He knew that all of the good things that had come to him were from God and came because of his close relationship with God.

But one spring time, when David would have been expected to lead his country's army against enemies who wanted to invade his nation and enslave his people, David became spiritually lax. He stayed behind while his forces fought.

It was then that he spied a beautiful woman, the wife of another man. One thing led to another. David and the woman, Bathsheba, had an affair. She became pregnant and David arranged for the murder of her husband.

Fortunately, God heard David's prayer of repentance, Psalm 51, and forgave David's sins. But the whole horrific business wouldn't have happened if David had remained spiritually diligent and maintained a daily appointment with God.

Who knows what sorts of character breakdowns we avoid in life by making sure that we spend time being fortified through prayer conversations with God the Father? Who really wants to know? It's better just to avoid such breakdowns?

The biggest mistakes of my life over these past twenty-nine years as a Christian, the most grievous errors and hurtful sins, have come when I have failed to pray.

Conversely, the most gratifying times, when I feel that I have been most in tune with the best self God wants to help me be and when I've been the most alive, have come on those days when I've maintained my intimacy with God through prayer.

Another reason I believe that Jesus took time to pray in the midst of a busy life was so that He could be reminded of the wisdom of heaven.

I remember learning how to ride a bicycle. The back of our house set before a large warehouse, the blacktop in front of which sloped down to the bays where the semi-trailers offloaded and reloaded their cargo.

During the days, lots of trucks would back up to and drive away from the warehouse. But after 5:00, all was quiet. Just a few semi-trailers typically sat in front of the bays each night, allowing for an otherwise huge, though sloping, expanse of blacktop on which I and a lot of the neighborhood kids could perfect our bicycle-riding skills.

Before I tackled the warehouse's blacktopped surface though, Dad made sure that I became proficient on my twenty-two incher on the sidewalk in front of our house. I got pretty good at it, too, remembering to keep my balance, swerving to avoid pedestrians and others riding bikes, trikes, or pedal cars, and braking when I came to the end of the sidewalk. Finally, after a period of practice, Dad thought that I was ready for the warehouse blacktop. I was excited!

But I have to tell you that the first time I took this ride in the big leagues of bike-riding, it was as though I'd forgotten everything my dad had taught me. When I hit the downward slope of the blacktop toward the warehouse bays, I heard my dad yelling, "Brake, Mark! Brake! Hit the brakes!" I couldn't remember how to hit the brakes and BAM!, my front tire slammed into the brick of the building, separating my bicycle and me and giving me a few strawberries.

When life gets hectic, we don't always have time to think. We simply must act and react. It's in those circumstances that we hope that the wise and appropriate things are so ingrained in us that we automatically do them, rather than the dumb stuff that panic can induce us to do.

In the New Testament book of James, it says, "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, Who gives to all generously and ungrudginly, and it will be given you." (James 1:5)

If Jesus, truly God and truly human, spent time in prayer partly to be reminded of the wisdom of heaven, I think it's certain that we need to seek wisdom for our lives, too.

Why should we take time for prayer--earnest conversation with God--each day? For at least three reasons.

To remain close to the Father;

To ask God to work in our lives;

To seek God's wisdom when life gets busy or overwhelming.

Take it from someone who's tried to go through his days with and without regular prayer, prayer is the better way to go.

[To read more, see:
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 1
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 2
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 3
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 4]

More from Mark Roberts Worth Reading

Mark D. Roberts has completed a wonderful series of blog articles called, All Things New. As is usual when it comes to almost everything that Mark writes, it's informative and helpful!

Tsunami Relief: Keep on Keeping On!

The work of tsunami relief has just begun. Please consider making generous contributions to aid in this work through one of the following reputable agencies:

Lutheran World Relief
American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services
World Vision

Monday, January 10, 2005

Foreign Policy Over Burritos and Tacos

It all started when my wife said that she was going to get a bucket of fried chicken from the local grocery store deli. She, our daughter, and our daughter's fiance were craving chicken. Our son and I don't care for poultry of any kind. "You might want to go pick something else up," my wife suggested.

My mouth started watering. Our twenty-three year old son and I have become obsessed with Chipotle. So, there we were, the two of us, finishing up our meal when he, recently graduated with degrees in both History and Philosophy, asked me what I thought of Lincoln as president. We talked about that for a time.

I said, "Of course, I think that all of our Presidents dim by comparison with Washington." He agreed.

Thinking of Washington set my mind's gears moving in a different direction. "You know," I told him, "I was thinking last week about this. Through the history of the country, there have been three major ways of thinking about foreign policy."

I explained that, as I saw it, the first way was that of the realists. This was George Washington's and Alexander Hamilton's mode of thought. Later practitioners would include Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger, and Brett Scowcroft.

This group has always held that nations tend to act in their own self-interest. When, in his Farewell Address, drafted by Alexander Hamilton, Washington warned against "entangling alliances," he wasn't commending isolationism. He was rather offering a realistic warning that other nations--including republican France which people like Thomas Jefferson naively wanted the US to unstintingly support over against the still-powerful Great Britain--would act in their own interests, forming temporary friendships that advanced their national aims. But, the original George W and other realists would say, US foreign policy ought to be shaped by what is in the best interests of the country.

A second tradition in US foreign policy is represented by what I would call the impositionists. This group has been exemplified by Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and of late perhaps, George W. Bush.

Whether by military force, through support of other kinds, or simply in their thinking about foreign policy issues, these leaders have believed in the imposition of the American template on other countries. Jefferson read his own version of the American Revolution (to which he was more of a spectator than participant) into the French Revolution and concluded that America must lend its hand to republican France. Wilson adventured in Mexico and then entered World War One to "make the world safe for democracy." Kennedy and Johnson got us into Vietnam. James K. Polk can, to some extent, be put in this category as well.

Most impositionists have been Democrats and have operated from a kind of semi-religious zeal. (Republican William McKinley, who employed the language of religious zealotry, displayed this tendency, as did his successor, Republican Theodore Roosevelt. But both did so more for economic or global political reasons than for others. )

Impositionists seem to see it as the function of American government to spread democracy, by force if necessary. Their approach to military force has been analogous, perhaps, to their big government solutions to domestic policies.

The current president, with his adoption of neo-conservative ideas on foreign policy may be in this camp. His evangelistic zeal to spread democracy in the Middle East, even, some would say, through the barrel of a gun, is reminiscent of Wilsonian approaches to the world. The current President's policies bear little resemblance, for example, to the approaches taken by his own father, who was much more in the realist camp.

A third group has been the isolationists. One stream of isolationists might be associated with William Jennings Bryan, the prarie populist and three-time Democratic Party nominee. He viewed the outside world as evil over against the pristine purity of America.

Another stream of isolationism came to the fore in the wake of World War One. Tired of the adventurism of the Wilson presidency, Republicans called the country to "return to normalcy " in the 1920 election. Later, they fought any US involvement in the Second World War, even as an armorer to Great Britain, until the attack on Pearl Harbor changed everybody's tune. But the Republican isolationism of the 1920s and 30s was surprisingly congruent with that of the Bryan Democrats: Time Magazine, I'm told, didn't have a section for foreign news in its early days. That section was simply labeled, "Power Politics." If true, the clear implication would be that those folks "over there" were dirty while we were pure.

After our conversation, we had been home for several hours, when my son handed me a copy of the November/December, 2004 issue of Foreign Policy. An article by Jack Snyder, Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international relations at Columbia University, delineates three major streams in foreign policy thinking, not just in the US, but globally.

While the three strands identified by Belfer in "One World, Rival Theories" are not identical to the three I identified over a Burrito Bol and three hard tacos, they are close. Snyder speaks of: Realism, Liberalism, and Idealism.

His realism and mine are almost identical. He identifies both Kissinger and Scowcroft as practitioners, overlooking the too-often underestimated Washington, while also naming Otto von Bismarck.

His liberalism is largely akin to what I identify as impositionism. According to Snyder, President Bush would fall into this category with the caveat that, unlike predecessors in this camp, he may be less interested in having the US work in tandem with allies or international organizations. (This, for some, is a debatable point, of course.)

Snyder points out that the biggest argument this group has going for them is that democracies don't attack democracies. That's true. Hence, US policymakers and thinkers of this ilk say that it's in America's interest to foster the development of democracy elsewhere, a notion which President Bush strongly upholds.

But, Snyder says:
"...the theory has some very important corollaries, which the Bush administration glosses over as it draws upon the democracy-promotion element of liberal thought. Columbia University political scientist Michael W. Doyle's articles on democratic peace warned that, though democracies never fight each other, they are prone to launch messianic struggles against warlike authoritarian regimes to 'make the world safe for democracy.' It was precisely American democracy's tendency to oscillate between self-righteous crusading and jaded isolationism that prompted early Cold War realists' call for a more calculated, prudent foreign policy."
(That "calculated, prudent foreign policy," it should be pointed out, allowed Eisenhower to end the war in Korea within six months of taking over from Harry Truman as President and then presiding over seven-and-a-half years of peace during perhaps the highest tensions of the Cold War.)

Snyder's idealism differs from my categories. (And he also leaves out my separate category for isolationism.) But his categorizations give interesting insights into what prompts the beliefs and actions of those who see foreign policy as an engine for religious or semi-religious ends. Shockingly perhaps, Snyder makes bedfellows of Mahatma Gandhi, Osam bin Laden, and the Antiglobalization Movement in explaining this category.

Who knows what my son and I will talk about the next time we share dinner?

Several Terrific Articles in 'Smithsonian Magazine'

In addition to an article adapted from Joseph Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington, the latest issue of Smithsonian Magazine has two really interesting articles.

One deals with the implications of recent archaeological finds at Jamestown. Some are suggesting that the finds reveal a different picture of the one we were taught in school. This usual portrayal has it that the original Jamestown settlers were lazy opportunists, uninterested in and unaccustomed to working the land or fishing in nearby waters for food. We were taught that the settlers were so interested in finding gold that they neglected to take care of basic needs.

On the contrary, the archaelogical digs, it's said, show an industrious group of people who, in spite of their hard work, settled during one of the worst drought periods in history.

Another article profiles James Boswell, best known for his biography of Samuel Johnson. He was, as they probably would have said in his time, a complete cad. But with little apparent self-consciousness, he is credited for inventing the modern biography, as well as several other literary genres. It's interesting reading.

Let's Not Let Our Guard Down: Keep Helping with Tsunami Relief

As President Bush noted today, the attention of the world is likely to stray from the intense needs of those hit with the tsunami of December 26. Let's not allow that to be the case for us. Below, once again, are the links to four different very reputable relief agencies to which you can send your contributions and play a part in bringing help to those in need. Give what you can!

Lutheran World Relief
American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services
World Vision

Bloggers and the Rather Report

Radio host, author, major blogger, and blogging acquaintance Hugh Hewitt is concerned that the response of the blogging world, the very group of people who first uncovered what's come to be called Rathergate, has lacked the ferocity he expected and apparently wanted. He says that the "Heisenberg Principle" is at work.

In essence, what this principle says is that the act of observing alters the thing being observed. In this situation, according to Hugh, bloggers, anxious to maintain their newly-earned credibility, are holding their fire against what Hugh regards as a "whitewash" in the Thornburgh report on Rathergate.

But I have a different, less elaborate theory. Bloggers are holding their fire because, whether they agree with every particular in the Thornburgh report, they see it as being essentially fair, just, and cleansing.

No matter the biases that exist in the Mainstream Media, Richard Thornburgh and his team can hardly be credibly accused of a whitewash!

Nor do I think there is good reason to criticize CBS's response to the report. People have lost their jobs and new procedures are being put in place to see to it that Rathergate isn't repeated.

In fact, when coupled with the way Tribune Media Services handled Armstrong Williams' unfortunate foray into checkbook punditry, I would say that the Mainstream Media has given a good accounting of itself over the past few days.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the Mainstream Media. It is intrinsically biased toward the negative and the sensational, for example. Many journalistic practitioners are biased to the left, I think. But all of us also ought to be willing to give applause when applause is due. Perhaps not as many heads rolled as a result of the Rather investigation as some would like. But on balance, I think fairness has been served.

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 4

The chorus of an old song by the Rolling Stones says that "you can't always get what you want," though sometimes, "you get what you need."

But in one of the most famous and frequently-quoted passages from the New Testament portion of the Bible, Jesus seems to hold out more expansive possibilities to those who pray:
"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened..." [Luke 11:9-10]
That's wonderful and I believe the words are true. But let's be honest...
Many funerals are attended tearfully by widows, widowers, family members, and friends who asked God to bring their loved ones healing instead of death.

There are people who leave divorce courts or who feel trapped in rotten marriages even though with faith and desperation, they've sought God's help in bringing healing or reconciliation.

Many a situation has blown up in people's faces in spite of knocking on the doors of heaven for help and wisdom.
Jesus' commendation of prayer that asks, searches, and knocks in the assurance that God will hear our prayers and answer them can, for people going through life's worst, seem like mockery.

I don't have all the answers, by any stretch of the imagination, but let me share a few thoughts with you on unanswered prayer.

First of all: Not even Jesus got everything He asked for in prayer. One of Jesus' most famous prayers occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He was arrested. Subsequently, He would be tried, scourged, crucified, and killed. Jesus knew that this was the plan for His life. He knew that it was only through His death that He could take our punishment for sin and by way of death, He could rise again to offer life to all with faith in Him.

But, as He prayed in the garden that night, He understandably wanted to avoid suffering. That's why He called out to God the Father:
"Father, if You are willing, remove this cup [suffering and death] from Me..." [Luke 22:42]
To this prayer, God the Father said, "No."

It may provide some comfort to us when the heartfelt prayers we offer for ourselves and others are given the answer of "No," for us to realize that Jesus was given the same answer. He understands not only what it is to go through adversity, pain, and death, He also understands what it feels like to sense the iron gates of heaven close to us.

Maybe the most poignant and gut-wrenching prayer in history was that cried out by Jesus on the executioner's cross, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" [Matthew 27:46]

Second: When we pray, we submit to God's will, surrendering the doing of our own. This, in fact, was what Jesus prayed for immediately after asking the Father to take the cup of suffering and death away. Take it from Me, Jesus pleads, "yet not My will, but Yours be done." [Luke 22:42]

A dying man once told me, "Even though I don't understand why this is happening to me, if I don't mean it when I tell God, 'Your will be done,' right now, then I've never meant it."

Third: God's will for us is to give us what we need, not what we want. (Who knew that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were such good theologians?) It's interesting that when Jesus gave His first followers and us a template prayer, what's called the Lord's Prayer, He didn't commend to us "name-it-claim-it" petitions. In fact, the central petition of the prayer and its overarching theme seems to be, "Give us each day our daily bread."

Underlying this petition of the prayer is the experience of the ancient Israelites. While wandering through the wilderness under their often-frustrated leader, Moses, God fed them on a substance like bread, called manna. Each day, for five days of the week, God gave them precisely what they needed for that day. On the sixth day, God gave them double what they needed so that on the day of rest (sabbath), they would have sufficient provision without working for it. Some of the Israelites decided that they would take an extra portion so that they could lay more provisions aside. But when they took more than their "daily bread," they found the stuff had rotted.

A friend of mine worked for a millionnaire who'd come from humble beginnings. One day, as they worked together on sheltering his income from taxes, the millionnaire commented, "When I didn't have anything, I used to think that if I only had a little more, I could relax. But now that I have a lot, I worry more about money than I ever did before."

Just as surely as there will always be poor people, there will also always be people who have a lot. Some people seem especially gifted at making money and there is no reason for guilt about that.

But the happiest people on the planet are those who live on what they need from day to day and are generous in giving to family, friends, and others, sharing God's blessings. They're the ones who live in the certainty that God has a plan for their lives and that, whether we live or die, we always belong to the God made plain in Jesus Christ. [Romans 8:31-39]

Fourth: The fact that I have seen God give the answer of "Yes," to many prayers, along with the fact that Jesus has experienced everything you and I experience in life, incites me to keep trusting God with my prayers.

Speaking of Jesus as our great high priest, the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews says, "...we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses..." [Hebrews 4:15] The reality of suffering and of seemingly unanswered prayer must be a part of God's plan. Until God's reasons are made clear, maybe only in eternity, we can take comfort and hope from the God Who has been there and knows what it's like to be human.

A widower once told me, "After my wife died, I wanted to die myself. I remember one night, the pain was so great that I threw myself down on the floor and cried. I just asked God to help me. And you know, ever since then, He has."

Fifth: Remember that, "No" is as much as an answer to prayer as, "Yes." In fact, according to Bill Hybels in his book, Too Busy Not to Pray, there are at least four different answers God can give to our prayers.

God can say not only Yes or No, but also Wait or Maybe. The purpose of these latter two answers, as with the first two, will be to bring us greater blessings. Among those blessings might be to help us mature in our faith and our gratitude for God's gifts.

My family and I were called to the Cincinnati area to start a new congregation back in August, 1990. But it wasn't until Christmas Eve, 2002 that we had our first worship service in our church's own building. In the intervening years, we'd worshiped in an elementary school gym. People of any church who have spent time worshiping in temporary facilities without access to permanent storage, offices, or weekday facilities will understand what it was like for us to be a church without a home all those years. Both the congregation and I--along with friends--prayed through that whole period for a place of our own. There were several times when we thought we might have one, only to find our dreams dashed by circumstances.

Do you know what? Finally getting a building was sweeter for the wait! The unmistakable conclusion we've drawn from all those years of waiting and praying is that the building is a gift from God that we're to share generously with others. We might not have realized that if God had said, "Yes" too soon.

When I go to God and ask for what I want, I don't like being told, "Because I love you, I'm going to give you what I need." But part of acknowledging God as God is recognizing His absolute authority over our lives. That's what it means to call God, Lord.

So, go ahead and be bold in your praying---ask, seek, knock. But to the God Who is more than a kewpie doll, genie, or ATM, we also pray, "Your will be done." From that God, we can receive comfort and through the risen Jesus, hope that can't die!

[To read more on this subject, check out:
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 1
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 2
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 3]

What Do We Say to the Ones Who Still Haven't Found What They're Looking For?

I hadn't read Tod Bolsinger's excellent little challenge here when I wrote about how much I love the new U2 CD. But what do unchurched Christians like Bono tell us about the Church? About the Church's authenticity? About the all-too common alignment of many churches with partisan political agendas? I suspect they tell us a lot to which we should be paying heed. Good stuff, Tod!

A Grammatical Point

As a footnote to his interesting exploration of China's response to the recent tsunami, Paul Musgrave at In the Agora makes the comment that the recent disaster was a single tsunami, not multiple tsunamis. As one who made this grammatical error early on, I can only say that Musgrave is correct and, "Mea culpa!"

The only explanation I can offer for my mistake is that a disaster so massive is almost incomprehensible as a single, cataclysmic event. But it was one event, a single tsunami.

Another Window onto Paralyzing Partisanship

Tom at Daddypundit has an interesting post on the strange decision by Senator Boxer and others to challenge Ohio's vote in November's Presidential election.

I see it as one more example of the hyper-partisanship coming from both Republicans and Democrats, to which Tom adds further interesting comments.

Nearly Addicted to U2 CD

Our son presented me with How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2 as a belated birthday gift less than one week after it was released. Since then, it has seldom been out of my CD rack. I love this CD. I've even considered doing a blogging series on each track. This is a five-star, thumbs -all-the-way-up effort!

Lutheran Chaplain Returns from Persian Gulf

The people of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd of the Kenwood area in Cincinnati are celebrating the return of one of their pastors from extended service as an Army chaplain in Qatar. May all serving in the Persian Gulf region be home soon!

These Folks Make Me 'Red' with Envy

I'm a big Reds fan. Have been since I was fifteen.

My kid brother is an even bigger Reds fan and put me onto a site, a message board for people who share our allegiance. It's called RedsZone.

Since joining up, I have to tell you that I've been completely intimidated and, in a way, sort of envious of the knowledge so many folks seem to have of all the particulars of not just the Reds, but of baseball generally. I'm getting a real education from reading their posts.

Steroids Grand Jury Testimony: How Did It Get Out?

Last year's grand jury testimony on steroid use by Jason Giambi got onto the pages of a San Francsico newspaper a few weeks ago. Of course, it got national play.

Apart from the understandable furor over the issue of baseball players' steroid use, I wondered, "How did grand jury testimony get into the newspapers?" I served on a grand jury once and know that the substantive proceedings of such a body, deliberations for which are necessarily a bit freewheeling, are to be kept confidential. (I even wrote a note to lawyer Mark Sides of Sidesspot, asking how this could be.)

Today, Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit links to some interesting stuff on that very topic.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Who God Loves

Acts 10:34-43
(a message shared with the people of Friendship Church, January 9, 2005)

My wife and I had been married just a short time and we were hanging out with married friends we'd known since our junior and senior high school days.

The man looked at my wife and with a smile said, “I used to hate you in junior high school.” When he explained himself, it turned out to be a story we'd heard before. “All the teachers loved you,” the guy said. My wife was a teacher’s pet.

Being the favorite can be a burden. It was for my wife. Others can misunderstand you and call you a “suck-up.”

But some can think of themselves as being the favored ones in life and not suck up, but be stuck-up. It was the fortieth anniversary of Saint Ann’s Roman Catholic Parish in Frankfort, Michigan. My young family and I were on seminary internship in that community. Saint Ann’s priest, Father Seavey Joyce was a wonderful guy who had retired from a lifetime of teaching economics at Catholic institutions and ultimately, from the presidency of Boston College. He had invited other clergy, including the Lutheran seminary student, to the anniversary Mass and subsequent party. Preaching that day was Saint Ann’s founding pastor, a priest in his eighties who stood erect and spoke clearly.

“Imagine,” this retired priest said about a third of the way through his homily--a fancy word for sermon or message, “all the truth necessary for salvation and relationship with God can be found in the Roman Catholic Church and nowhere else.” He seemed to be looking at all the Protestant pastors who were sitting together in the front row as he said that.

Father Joyce, a great man I came to love and respect, was mortified. Immediately following the Mass, he made a beeline toward all of us and apologized profusely. “That’s okay,” one the Protestants assured him, “we’ve got people who would embarrass us pretty badly if a bunch of you guys worshiped with us.”

Does God have favorites? All of Jesus’ early followers, of course, were Jews. That’s because, starting with their ancient ancestor, Abraham, God called the Jewish people into being. His purpose was to cultivate a relationship with them so that the world could understand that there is one God, a God not like the petty tyrants that others in the world worshiped, but a God of love Who would forever transform the lives of those who surrendered to Him.

The Jewish people were to be the maternity ward from which Jesus, the Savior of all the world, was to come.

They were to be, according to the Old Testament portion of the Bible, a “light to the nations.”

But instead of seeing them as the recipients of God’s charity, as beggars fed on God’s love and blessings through no merit of their own, it seemed that most of God’s people saw themselves as being better than others. Better than Samaritans. Better than all Gentiles, non-Jews. And certainly better than the Romans who occupied their land.

Peter certainly thought that his people were God’s favorites. But Peter underwent a change of heart. Today, observing the faith in Jesus Christ he sees in a Roman soldier, Cornelius, and his family and friends, Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.”

Now, there are three things about our Bible lesson that I want to point out, things that have relevance for us as we begin the Year 2005.

First, as we’ve already pointed out, God has no favorites. No one has the inside track on God or the gifts God gives.

Second, Peter says that anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. What does that mean? Peter explains what it means at the end of our Bible lesson. He says, “All the prophets testify about Him [Jesus] that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His Name.”

And this is the third thing I want to point to (and it’s the most important): The work of the Christian is to believe in Christ. That means, to trust Him. To put Christ first in our lives. To turn from sin and death and to turn back, day in and day out, to Jesus Christ and the life that only He can give. In a sermon he preached back in 1540, Martin Luther said that this was the nub and the central point of Peter’s words in our Bible lesson, that the work of a Christian is to believe in Christ.

There is no way of overestimating how stunning an insight this would have been for Peter. For the first time in his life, Peter truly understood that God is willing to have an everlasting relationship with anyone who trusts Jesus with their lives.

Being part of God’s family has nothing to do with all the religious stuff that some think goes into being a follower of Jesus Christ. Being in God’s family boils down simply to trusting Jesus as our God and Savior.

And that tells us something about the mission of Christ’s Church, about the mission of Friendship Church. We Lutherans, you know, have a basic set of confessions that are collected in something called The Book of Concord. (That’s not a book about grapes, but a lengthy series of statements about Biblical faith to which we all agree.)

One of my favorite statements contained in The Book of Concord comes in a document called The Augsburg Confession, written in 1530. Those of you who have seen the movie, Luther, may remember its climactic scene. Luther is walking with his wife, Katherine von Bora when they hear approaching hoofbeats coming over the crest of a nearby hill. Luther is certain that it means his doom, that the Holy Roman Empire would at last make good on its threat to take his life. He turns to Katy and thanks her for loving him and kisses her. Then, a friend calls out--I take it to be his Wittenberg University colleague, Phillipp Melancthon--that the princes of Germany have held firm. They have written a statement of faith in defiance of the Empire. That statement was The Augsburg Confession.

At the risk of putting you to sleep, I want you to listen carefully to this portion of that document:
“ is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church [notice it says Christian church, not Lutheran church] that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments [those are Holy Baptism and Holy Communion] be administered in accordance with...[God’s] Word. [Now pay close attention here.] It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places...”
The point is this. For most of his life, when Peter thought of someone converting to belief in God he thought that meant becoming good, practicing Jews. It meant that the males would be circumcised. It meant observing Jewish dietary laws. It meant doing worship in the synagogue in a certain way. But when Peter saw that God’s only expectation was that we turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ, his eyes were open to just how big and available God’s love is!

We need to have our eyes opened sometimes too.

God doesn’t love just Lutherans.

And being a Lutheran, according to our confessions, isn’t about traditional or contemporary or blended worship styles.

It isn’t about whether the pastor wears a collar or a robe.

It isn’t, as some of my high church friends would put it, about “smells and bells.”

You see, it’s very possible for people to become good Lutherans, in love with all the traditional trappings of Lutheranism, and still not know Jesus Christ.

Being a Lutheran, as is true of Christians of other denominations or of no denomination, is about being a follower of Jesus Christ.

It’s about understanding that God has no favorites. He loves us all and He wants us all. It's also about letting others get a clear view of Jesus, not our preferred habits.

Here at Friendship, we see it as our mission to tear down the walls of religious tradition that sometimes keep people from seeing Jesus and to lift Him high.

As we start this new year, I want to ask you to do two things:

(1) Make it your business each and every day, to tell God that in the power of Jesus, you want to turn from your sin and let Jesus be Your King.

(2) Make it your business to let others know that, truly, God has no favorites, that anyone who will trust Jesus with their lives will live with God forever. Period.

These are rooted in the two central truths that Peter came to understand that day with Cornelius.

God holds out those two same truths to us today and frankly, even though we preachers can muddy things up, I don’t know how to make the message of our Bible lesson more complicated than that. This year, you and I need to: Turn to Jesus and let others know that they can too.

Will you commit yourself to those two things? If you will, I can guarantee that there are going to be a lot of Peters and Corneliuses in our neighborhood in 2005!

[The general direction of this message--dealing with God's favor--was inspired by a sermon written by Pastor Michael Foss of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Burnsville, Minnesota.]