Saturday, February 26, 2005

Christian Compromise, Civil Unions, Christian Marriage

Rob Asghar has some interesting thoughts on The Art & Dilemma of Moral Compromise.

It includes a quote from Jim Wallis, evangelical Christian and social activist. Wallis suggests, basically, that the Church not worry about what the State does when it comes to "civil unions," heterosexual or homosexual. As the quote in Rob's piece has it:
"You go down to the city hall, and you have a civil union in the court. That's the government's responsibility. Then if you're a Christian you go down to the church and have it blessed and have the spiritual ceremony. That's a marriage, and what you do in the city hall is a civil union."
This is essentially, my position. As a pastor for the past twenty years, in addition to providing couples getting married with a Christian ceremony, I have also "solemnized" their marriages, something I'm authorized to do by the secretary of state, under the laws of the State of Ohio.

But I really don't care one way or another about that. As a Christian and a pastor, I feel that it is far more important that couples be married in the eyes of God and with a commitment to pursue their relationships God's way than it is for them to be "legal." I've told the story before of the couple who, in the craziness surrounding their wedding preparations and pressures at their respective jobs, had forgotten to get their marriage license before their wedding day. I did the ceremony anyway. I cared little about whether the state regarded them as being married and everything about God seeing them in this way.

I see marriage in God's eyes as being a different institution from the marriage instituted by the state, though they can be coterminous.

Rob poses this provocative question:
When Christian conservatives demand a constitutional amendment protecting their definition of marriage...I begin to ask: How does this show less of a desire on the part of conservatives than liberals to have "salvation" delivered by Caesar?
I personally am not threatened by proposals to institute civil homosexual unions, although I understand the legal mess it could create. As a pastor, should such proposals be accepted, I would still only preside over the marriages of heterosexuals and let the state government do what it will.

Your Ideal Church?

One of my favorite bloggers, Tod Bolsinger, has an interesting post that asks the question, "What would your ideal church be like?" It's engendered some good discussion already.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Condoleezza Rice for President?

Ann Althouse, a fine thinker, writes about this possibility in her role as guest blogger at Because President Bush is already, to some extent, a lame duck, pundits, bloggers, and other political addicts (like me) are already speculating about who will be the 2008 nominees for President.

I don't think that Condoleezza Rice will be nominated for President and here's why:

First, because she's secretary of state. In the early history of our country, that was a more overtly domestic political office and secretaries of state were seen as natural presidential timber. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams all were secretaries of state before going to the White House.

But the nature of the job was quite different in those days. America was a stay-at-home country. The primary function of US diplomacy was to give the country the breathing room to establish its nationhood, expand across the continent unencumbered by foreign impediments, and remain free from the thicket of what Washington called "entangling alliances." (Even Jefferson, for all his pronounced prejudice for France, pursued this Washingtonian policy both as the first president's secretary of state and as President.)

Secretaries of state didn't trot the globe. That wasn't just because of crude transportation systems. It was because the "stay at home" country didn't require a lot of globe-trotting from its chief diplomat.

This in turn, left secretaries of state more time and opportunity to do the things contenders for the presidency must do for the three years prior to an actual campaign: campaign.

Today, a secretary of state's most valuable contacts reside in Baghdad and Moscow, not Boise and Manhattan. Contemporary secretaries of state must accept that, if they want to be President, they will enter the fray with a decided disadvantage.

A second reason that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Condi Rice to become a presidential nominee is that she's secretary of state.

In this case, that means that she has spent her lifetime in academia and foreign affairs. What she does is vitally important and she may very well prove to be good at it. But both academia and diplomacy can be arcane stuff and each has developed a specialized vocabulary.

It's difficult to imagine Rice talking about bread and butter issues in Scranton or Peoria, isn't it? Even if she did, it would be difficult for her to not sound like a wifty, inaccessible wonk. State-speak may be even more impenetrable than the Senate-speak that many feel hurt John Kerry last year.

A third reason I suspect Rice can't be nominated for the presidency is that she's a secretary of state who's never held elective political office.

We may occasionally elect a general to the presidency without the benefit of elective political experience. Think: Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. But we have never elected a former secretary of state to the presidency who hadn't first been an elective office holder.

We may argue with that seeming prejudice. But it's there nonetheless. Americans like their presidents to be people of action. Whether it's unfair or not, diplomats are not seen as people of action, no matter how esteemed they may be.

There may be some historical warrant for this. John Quincy Adams did serve in elective political offices, first in the Massachusetts state senate and later in the US Senate, prior to becoming President. But his tenures in both legislative bodies were disastrous. He showed the same petulance in those gigs as he later would show in the White House. He served for one term in the White House. (Adams served long in the US House of Representatives after his presidential term. Though celebrated for his stance on slavery today, he was largely ineffectual.)

But as a diplomat and secretary of state, Adams felt less constrained to stubbornly dig in. For him, diplomacy was primarily an academic discipline, which suited him intellectually and tempermentally. (It's interesting to note that when, as secretary of state, Adams made his most important policy pronouncement, he did so wearing academic regalia.) He is considered by many to have been our finest secretary of state. That didn't serve him well as president.

Generally speaking, for all of our disdain for politics, we like our Presidents to be accomplished politicians. Secretaries of state without elective political experience are not seen as politicians, even if they are advanced practitioners of the political arts.

Those are the three reasons I believe Rice won't be a nominee for President in 2008.

The two things that I don't think hurt Rice's prospects of being a nominee for President are that she is a woman and that she is African-American. I believe that this country would willingly elect an African-American woman to be president at this time. I just doubt that it will be Condi Rice. But I could be wrong; regular readers of this blog know that I am a notoriously poor prognosticator!

Of course, we are early in Rice's time at the State Department. With her travels, she's barely had time in her office chair. Who knows what the passing of time and unforseen events will do to her stock as a presidential contender?

But this part of the quadrennial cycle leading up to our presidential elections is a bit like spring training before baseball season; everyone is a viable contender. That includes Condoleezza Rice.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Of the Tiger, Terri Schiavo, and True Freedom

Yesterday, a tiger roaming the southern California hills for much of the past two weeks was killed by a team of trackers from the US Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services and California's Fish and Game department.

Later, officials felt compelled to explain that the killing was necessary. The tiger was dangerously close to ball fields in a Simi Valley residential area and was also walking near a highway. A tranquilizer dart would have taken five to ten minutes to bring down the 495-pound cat. By that time, it could have run onto the highway or attacked someone.

There are two elements to this story that hit me like a freight train.

One is represented by two questions I pondered after I'd learned of it. First: What on earth was anybody doing with a dangerous carnivore as a pet?

Second: Why would anyone fail to report that their tiger was missing, especially when the information the owner could provide might spare the lives of many people and maybe, the life of the tiger?

A second element of this story hit me. The network news account which I watched last evening included "people on the street" interviews with several area residents. Each lamented the loss of the tiger's life. That's understandable. But one woman said that she was mourning.

Perhaps unfairly, I couldn't help wondering if this same woman would have mourned the killing of the cat had it mauled or killed a loved-one before officials took the only action they could take.

I wondered too, if she was mourning the possible death by starvation of Terri Schiavo. She is the apparently brain-dead woman, still allegedly open to stimuli, who has been the subject of so much controversy over the past few years. Recently, a judge stayed the decision to allow her to, in essence, be put to death by withholding food from her. Right now, it's unclear what the courts will ultimately decide about Schiavo. She's like a Death Row resident whose life or death depends on a last-minute commutation.

The difference of course, is that Terri Schiavo's only crime is that her continued living is inconvenient.

And unlike that tiger who had to be killed, she is a human being, representative of a species of life that I regard as being more important than big cats. Also unlike the tiger, Terri Schiavo menaces nobody, although she should perhaps menace our consciences.

Two strands of thought:

A person who keeps a tiger for a pet and then lets his neighbors be endangered by failing to report it as missing; and

a portion of our society that mourns a dead tiger but pays little heed to the impending death of an innocent human being.

These two strands represent two dots, if you will, and I believe that there is a line connecting them. It's this: a false notion of freedom.

The owner of the cat would argue that he or she shouldn't have their freedom infringed upon. No one, they would say, should tell them whether they should own a dangerous carnivore or not.

The advocates of Terri Schiavo's death would say that it's time to turn the page, to set Schiavo free, to set her husband free, and even to set her parents, who oppose taking her life, free.

Freedom without responsibility and accountability is license. It makes our species no better than a dumb cat.

According to the Bible, a man named Cain took a disliking to his brother, Abel. So, he killed him. When God confronted Cain, he tried to fend God's queries off by asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

The answer, of course, is that we all are our brother's and sister's keepers. Unless we surrender our lives to the God revealed in the Bible--and ultimately in the Person of Jesus Christ, we will continue to go the way of Cain. We'll continue to live by the law of the jungle and in the end, all of us will be endangered, spiritually as well as physically.

But we can have our humanity restored and see changes in our society when we simply and humbly call on Jesus Christ to save us from ourselves and help us to experience true freedom, the freedom that causes us to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbors as ourselves; freedom that gives to each person the opportunity to live in peace, without fear.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Prayer and Pressure Key to Gaining Freedom in Iran

Can bloggers advance the cause of freedom in Iran? Maybe if we are incessant enough, we can help raise the world's consciousness of the oppression there and foment the kinds of prayer and political and economic pressure that brought the collapse of Soviet Communism and South African apartheid in recent memory.

The independent-minded Jerry Brown, now mayor of Oakland, today posted an article on his blog in which he called for freedom for Iranian journalist Arash Sigarchi who has been imprisoned for criticizing the Iranian regime on his blog. Sigarchi has been sentenced to a fourteen year prison term. Brown also endorsed the Committee to Protect Bloggers. (By the way, when was the last time you heard of a political figure quote Schopehauer as Brown did in today's post? That would almost qualify him for the line Michael J. Fox uses of Michael Douglas's character in The American President: "He's got everybody looking up the word erudite.")

Hugh Hewitt, on his blog and apparently on his radio show today, also pressed the case for Sigarchi and another Iranian dissident blogger, Mojtaba Saminejad. He too has suggested that bloggers in the States uphold the efforts of the Iranian Committee to Protect Bloggers.

Clearly, what's going on in Iran has nothing to do with whether one is conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. It's about the Golden Rule and being our brother's and sister's keepers.

Free Sigarchi! Free Saminejad! Pray and pressure. Pray and pressure.

(By the way, this should not be interpreted as an endorsement of war with Iran. It's not!)

Kevin Kennedy Conveys What Spring is Like for Ball Players

Fox baseball analyst and former big leaguer Kevin Kennedy has an absolutely terrific piece here on spring training. He delves into it history and its feel. I really love what he's written!

Who's the Godfather of Blogging?

The death of Hunter S. Thompson has kicked off a discussion over the suggestion that the father of "gonzo journalism" was really the godfather of the blog. Ambivablog talks about it. In the comments section, I gave my own candidates for the honor. Here's what I wrote:

Who is the godfather of blogging?

One could easily make an argument for Saint Paul. His letters, many of which appear in the New Testament portion of the Bible, were occasioned by
specific situations, engaged conflicting opinions, and were relatively short in
length, characteristics shared by the very best blog posts today. His letters
weren't meant to be treatises like those appearing in scholarly volumes, but
down-to-earth communication, the application of Christian faith to pressing
questions surfaced by everyday living.

One could argue that Martin Luther is the godfather of blogging. Luther was, by common consenus, the first media superstar, his work, long and short,
scholarly and popular, cranked out with prolific ferocity, and mediated by the
blog of its day, the printing press. Mr. Gutenberg's machine was relatively new
and just gaining currency in Europe, representing a happy confluence of
technology with Luther's reforming message, each feeding off of each other,
bringing greater success to each.

An argument could be made also for Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin as the godfathers of blogging. Paine's Common Sense, that classic pamphlet advocating American revolution, was hugely important. To inspire and to underscore the reason they were at war, Washington had Common Sense read to his army in its entirety. It's estimated that 2-million people lived in the thirteen original states when Common Sense was published. Something like 500,000 copies were sold!

Franklin, of course, like the best bloggers of today, had a knack for phrasing that people enjoyed and that wormed its way into people's consciousness.

Every accomplished essayist since Montaigne is in the blogging world's family tree, as are newspaper columnists and radio and TV commentators.

Historically though, the group of people who most remind me of the vast
throng of us engaged in blogging today, is the loosely-federated group called
the Committees of Correspondence. They operated mostly under the radar of accepted popular culture, growing in stature and importance as they
surreptitiously passed along the virus of freedom to all the thirteen colonies
that became the United States.

Brown Mourns Thompson's Passing

The man once called 'Governor Moonbeam' has written a eulogy for the creator of "gonzo journalism," Hunter Thompson, complete with Latin phrases and translations.

Judge Orders Stay in Schiavo Execution

A judge has ordered a stay in the deliberate starvation of a woman whose crime is that her living is inconvenient.

One-Word Answer for Theological Justification of Mr. Wead and His Secret Taping

Hugh Hewitt, notes that the person who surreptitiously taped telephone conversations with then-Governor George W. Bush, was not only supposed to be Mr. Bush's friend, but a member of the clergy. Hewitt asks if there can be any good theological reason for such a "friend" to secretly tape their phone calls.

My answer as a pastor of twenty years, a student of the Bible, and the holder of a Master's of Divinity degree, is "No." I can think of no good reason for what Mr. Wead did.

Nonetheless, I agree with Ann Althouse that Mr. Bush is cast in a postive light by the tapes.

CHECK OUT: My original post on this subject here.

UPDATE: Smart Christian Blog has linked to this article. Thank you so much! UPDATE: Smart Christian Blog has linked to the fully updated version of this article (scroll down to see). Thanks to all for your interest in this post.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt has also linked to this article. Thanks a lot!

WHILE WE'RE AT IT: Thanks to all the bloggers who regularly link to this site. I'm especially grateful to those who are so encouraging. That list includes, but is not confined to: Rob Asghar, Tod Bolsinger, Mark D. Roberts, Craig Williams, Tom Parsons, Mark Sides, Deborah White, and my kid brother, the comedian Marty Daniels.

LATEST UPDATE: Doug Wead has expressed public regrets and apologies for secretly taping conversations with then-Governor George W. Bush and for making them public. He's to be commended for this. I agree with Hugh Hewitt that this statement by Wead deserves as much public comment as the actions which led to it.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Blogger Paul Hogue has also linked to this post. Thank you, Paul! In his post on the subject, he expresses concern over the long-term effects of incidents like that surrounding Mr. Wead and his tapes on the witness of Christians.

After Paul kindly wrote to say that he had linked this post to his site, I wrote the following email to him:

Thanks so much for linking to my post and for taking the time to write to me about it. I was taken aback when Hugh Hewitt linked to my blog. As you can imagine, it's made for a lot of traffic. He did that one other time, last year when he was vacationing. For three days, there were a bunch of hits. The guy has incredible influence.

As to the Wead case, we all are sinners, of course...forgiven and otherwise. Because Mr. Wead chose to be so public with this act of betrayal, it was only appropriate for him to express his repentance publicly. To his credit, he has done that. From the standpoint of heaven and his fellow Christians, the case is closed. But that can't be said, of course, of a largely irreligious American public who will see Mr. Wead's surreptitious taping and subsequent release of his conversations with Mr. Bush as confirmation of the hypocrisy and worthlessness of Christian faith.

God bless!


Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Links to All Five Parts of 'Goal-Setting, A Christian Approach'

Part 1Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Goal-Setting, A Christian Approach, Part 5

In this final installment on goal-setting from a Christian perspective, I have a simple bit of advice: Sin boldly.

The words are from Christian reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther offered them as advice to those wrestling with decisions.

The advice will make no sense unless one is a follower of Jesus Christ. That's because Luther's not really commending doing things contrary to God's will. Instead, it's tongue-in-cheek counsel to those grateful for the free gift of forgiveness and life that comes to all who believe in Jesus.

Basically, the Christian who "sins boldly" in establishing their goals in life goes through the following steps:
(1) Puts a relationship with Christ first in their life.

(2) Remembers the five basic purposes for all of our lives, as revealed in the Bible and summarized in Rick Warrren's book, The Purpose Driven Life:

  • to worship God with our whole lives (this begins with a relationship with Christ)
  • to fellowship with other believers in Jesus Christ
  • to grow into becoming more like Christ
  • to serve others in Christ's Name (at home, at work, at play, in the community, and even in church)
  • to pass on the Good News of God's free gifts of forgiveness and eternal life for all with faith in Jesus Christ

(3) Fulfills duties to family members, employers, clients, friends, and neighbors.

(4) Looks for ways to best use talents and abilities to pursue the five purposes.

(5) Becomes familiar with God's Word to better know the mind of the One Who designed us in the first place and Who therefore, knows how our lives can function optimally.

(6) Prays

(7) Seeks the counsel of wise believers who both know God and the person seeking counsel.

(8) Finally, Luther would say, if our intentions are to do God's will and we still aren't sure what the right thing might be, we should do the next thing that seems needing to be done. If our intentions are right, Luther suggests, God is loving and gracious. He will make the most of the decisions and goals we adopt even if, as imperfect people, we might take the wrong step.
The Christian is both the freest person on the planet and the greatest servant. We are called by Jesus to be servants of God and neighbor, as the One we know as God and Savior has served us. [Luke 9:46-48; John 13:12-17] We live in voluntary submission to the purposes of God knowing that He has designed us and has good plans for us. [Jeremiah 29:11] We feel completely free to adopt the lifestyle of loving servants of God and others because we know we belong to God forever.

The thing I notice about Christians--and here I'm talking about the absolutely radically committed Christians--is how free they feel to be utterly idiosyncratic. Their relationship with the God they know through Jesus causes them to be fearless about trying their hands at a million different things.

Business consultant Laurie Beth Jones, in her book, Jesus, Life Coach, writes:
I don't know how anyone attempting to follow Jesus could ever be bored. As author Annie Dillard says, if we truly knew who we were worshiping, we'd all be wearing hard hats in church.

Jesus came not to reinforce your comfort zone, but to set your old small-minded ways on fire.
No grouping of people I know of feels as much personal security about being themselves as Christians on fire for Christ:
  • Desmond Tutu has fearlessly spoken out for human rights in a clerical collar while dancing the traditional dances of his black African people.
  • Jimmy Carter witnesses for Christ at a summit meeting with Leonid Brezhnev and after losing his re-election bid, becomes the most unique ex-President in US history.
  • The members of MXPX and POD festoon their bodies with tattoos, play thrashing music that makes its way onto mainstream music charts, and still maintain their Christian integrity, even when featured on MTV.
  • Bono may be an "unchurched Christian," but he is in closer community with people from around the world, including the destitute poor and innocent victims of AIDS of Africa, acting as their advocates even in the counsel of prime ministers and presidents.
  • The late Mother Teresa and the millions she's inspired feel free to not worry about where their next pennies may come from and have simply taken care of the dying others pass by.
I have witnessed this fearless weirdness not just in the famous, but in the everyday people who populate my world. They are unabashed about carrying their faith, witness for Christ, and Christian sensibilities into their daily lives, having decided to end the bifurcation of their lives between "sacred" and "secular." (For a great discussion of integrating Christian faith into daily living, read D. Michael Bennethum's little book, Listen! God is Calling!: Luther Speaks of Vocation, Faith, and Work.)

Christians feel free to sin boldly and risk getting it wrong because they believe--I believe--the words of the New Testament, where it says:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose. [Romans 8:28]
God wants you to have a fantastic life of significance and meaning. In order to enjoy that life, I invite you to:
Turn from sin and ask God for forgiveness. Sin is the thing that prevents us from enjoying life as God meant for us to live it. Sin is the condition of heart, mind, and will that rebels against God, the One Who designed us in the first place. (Mark 1:15)

Trust (or believe) in Jesus, God the Son, Who took our punishment for sin on a cross and rose again in order to open up eternity with God to us. (John 3:16; Romans 6:23)

Ask God to guide you through your life, including being part of a faith community where you'll be supported, encouraged, and challenged in living faithfully and authentically. (Luke 11:9-10; Romans 12:12-26)

Sin boldly, knowing that God will make the most of your best efforts to live life His way! [Romans 8:28]

It's Time to Dethrone Romance

The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile
I've had enough of romantic love
I'd give it up, yeah, I'd give it up
For a miracle, a miracle drug, a miracle drug
-U2, from their song, Miracle Drug

I'm a sucker for chick flicks and have been since the prime time of Doris Day. In my prepubescent imagination, as I watched her and suitors like Rock Hudson--and who knew how great an actor he was?--in their cinematic romances, no prospect seemed more wonderful to me than finding the right girl, falling in love, and living "happily ever after."

It's a story that's been told time and again, sometimes well (ie, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in both Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail) and sometimes poorly (ie, anything with Jennifer Lopez).

Knowing my weakness for romance movies, my twenty-something daughter often invites me to view them with her. That happened a few weeks ago, when she excitedly asked me to watch The Notebook, a chick flick based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks. I loved the movie adaptation of an earlier Sparks novel, A Walk to Remember. And while I considered his A Bend in the Road predictable to the point of my knowing how it would turn out almost from the first page, I decided to watch The Notebook. Mostly, I did so because I was intrigued to learn how James Garner, another one of Day's co-stars, figured in the movie.

If you haven't yet seen The Notebook and don't want me to ruin it, you might want to skip the next paragraph or so.

The movie begins with an elderly man (played by Garner) and an elderly woman (played by director Nick Cassavetes' mother, Gina Rowlands), each residents of a nursing home. She is suffering from dementia and he seems as spry as a thirty year old. From a notebook, the man reads the story of a young love, capably portrayed by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.

As the two stories--that of the young couple's love and that of these two nursing home residents sharing the contents of a notebook--unfold, we learn, predictably, that the main characters in each are the same. The woman, now aged, is occasionally "brought back" from her dementia by hearing the story of how she and her husband of many years fell in love.

It's in such a moment of lucidity at the end of the film that Rowlands' character asks Garner's if he believes that their love is so strong that it can make anything possible. With credal certainty, he affirms that as his belief. They lie down in each other's arms and are found later, both of them dead, by an attending nurse. Somehow, their love for one another was such that they beat Alzheimer's and left this world together.

It was a good little flick, I guess. Harmless probably.

Yet, for me, The Notebook caused something to snap. For generations, our popular culture has fed us on the Gospel of Romance, making an idol of the notion that two people may have such a fiery, inevitable, and eternal attraction for one another that their love can weather any storm and conquer any obstacle, even death.

Truth be told, this Gospel of Romance is applied to more than just romantic or erotic love. There is in our culture a widespread Man of LaMancha-notion that, deep down, we all are pure, wise, and good and that the whole world should bend to our ideals, ideas, and wills.

It's romance straight out of the Enlightenment, each of us seen as basically good beings who can be gods unto ourselves, make our own choices irrespective of others, and let the rest of the world be hanged.

The problem with the Gospel of Romance, of course, is that it's all rot. Sometime after the honeymoon, she wakes up and sees that the man of her dreams drools on his pillow, leaves his empties to make water-rings on the end table, and doesn't have a clue as to how to fix a radiator. He notes that her hair looks like a dried-out and matted wash cloth in the morning, she crunches her corn flakes way too loudly, and she only stops nagging him long enough to remind him of his latest failures.

None of these flaws should be grounds for divorce, of course. At a rational level, we all know that we are human beings. But what happens to a culture subliminally schooled by the idea that she should be Reese Witherspoon or Paris Hilton and he should be Ben Affleck or Brad Pitt?

How do these same adherents to the Gospel of Romance react when real problems develop? When his stubborn streak makes him hard to be around? When she can't seem to handle the pressures of life? When a job is lost and the finances go down the tubes? When the difficulties of life, to which we're all susceptible, come along?

If the statistics on divorce are any indication, people just bug out.

The Gospel of Romance, the doggedly deathless notion that we can live "happily ever after" with ourselves and "that special someone," is a terrible set-up. Its adherents place expectations on life and on others that nothing on this planet can possibly deliver to us! It's not only unrealistic, it's unfair to lovers, family members, friends, and neighbors!

And after the Gospel of Romance proves to be a lie, more awful things often happen. Few experiences are worse for we human beings than learning that a long-worshiped god--romance, money, sex, power, popularity, looks, perks, stuff, the great job--doesn't cause us to live happily ever after. We still have to take out the trash. The lawn still needs to be mowed. And if we're to share our lives with one another, we'll need to compromise.

After the disillusionment that comes from discovering that the Gospel of Romance is rot, many people buy into an alternative idol and ideology. They become cynics, adopting an attitude that says, "There's no such thing as love. My life is just about using you and throwing you away. I'm all about me." It's the prevailing ideology of rap music and sadly, a good portion of contemporary youth culture. (But who can blame the kids? Many of them have never seen a marriage in which two people actually care for one another through thick and thin. Lots of them are products of marriages in which the partners decided to end their unions when they hit rough patches, making a mockery of the vow, "till death does us part.")

This past weekend, while perusing the magazines and books at the local Target store, I was surprised to see that Sylvester Stallone, now fifty-eight years old, has put his name (and repeatedly, his face and body) to a new magazine, humbly titled, Sly. It's an absolute paean to "being good to yourself" and includes an interview with a porn star, advice on how to get her to do what you want sexually, and tips on how to get your wife to agree to making that big purchase you want. Sly is the expression of total cynical selfishness that takes over for many people when one has found the Gospel of Romance to be wanting. While I expect Stallone's magazine to go the way of Rosie, it no doubt expresses a huge thread of thought in our culture.

So, am I saying that romance is altogether bad? Not at all. I agree with C.S. Lewis who said that romance is a great way to get the engine of love started and it ought to be present throughout a relationship between a man and a woman. But, as I've pointed out before, after you've started the engine of a car, you don't usually turn the key again.

The love that sustains relationships isn't necessarily pretty. It may entail cleaning up after your beloved when they've become ill. It can mean doing the tough work of compromising and resolving conflicts that arise. It means forgiving and moving on. That doesn't make for a good movie plot line. But it can make for a wonderful life.

In the New Testament portion of the Bible, there's this description of love:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or
rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all
things, believes all things, endures all things. [First Corinthians 13:4-7]

Whenever I read that passage, I have two reactions. First, I think, that is what real love is like--tough and charitable, resilient and forgiving. Love like that can be the fuel for keeping a love going. In fact, I feel certain that love like that is essential if our relationships, whether with spouses, friends, children, or colleagues, are going to work.

The next thing I think is, I am incapable of loving like that. I know myself well enough to know that I can be impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, rude, and all the rest.

For the past twenty-five years or so, I've been an importer. I've been importing the love of which I'm incapable from an outside source: the tough, resilient love of God granted to all with faith in Jesus Christ.

The Bible's word for God's love in the New Testament Greek is agape. It's a love commitment so great that one is willing to die for the beloved. It's that sort of love we need. It's that sort of love that we are incapable of mustering on our own. That's why I import that kind of love from God.

Sometimes, I don't import nearly enough. I forget to pray. I forget to take time to soak up God's counsel as found in His Word, the Bible. I fail to shut up and ask God for His guidance.

The result is predictable. I begin to operate on "E" or more dangerously, on my own finite capacities for love (or even good judgment). That's when I blow up over small nuisances, say things I later regret, or develop amnesia over how much I've been blessed.

But when by faith, I download the love God makes available to us through Christ, God fuels me to new heights of love, real love, the kind of love that incorporates not only the primary people in my life, but the world.

Love is less something that you fall into than something that you will to give and to share. Love is a decision; but we cannot make that decision stick when we rely only on ourselves.

When we let Christ into the center of our lives, we can make good on the love we will to share with others.

God I need your help tonight
Beneath the noise
Below the din
I hear a voice
It's whispering
In science and in medicine
"I was a stranger
"You took me in"

The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile
I've had enough of romantic love
I'd give it up, yeah, I'd give it up
For a miracle drug...
--U2, Miracle Drug

The word, gospel, means good news. The Gospel of Romance can't fill us with a love that vaults even past death. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can do that. It's time to dethrone romance, put it in its proper place, and let Christ reign in our lives.

[If you haven't yet heard the new U2 LP, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, from which the song, Miracle Drug, comes, go out and buy it right now. It's fantastic...great music and full of thought-provoking lyrics!]

Monday, February 21, 2005

Where's the Rest of Me?

Four was a good enough number for the Beatles and U-2. They didn't feel the need to add more members to their ensembles.

Four is good enough for the numbers of seasons.

But for some people, ten is the only sufficient number for compiling lists. They may have a case. After all, David Letterman presents nightly top-10s, not top-4s. And then there's the precedent of the Ten Commandments.

So, for those who read my earlier post containing my choices for the top-four Presidents of our history, and who, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan in King's Row, wonder where the rest of the list is, here goes. (I'd love to know your choices, be they in a list of the top-four or the top-ten.)

5. Theodore Roosevelt

6. Harry Truman

7. Andrew Jackson

8. Woodrow Wilson

9. John Adams

10. Chester Alan Arthur

Like the rest of the human race, each of these presidents had their failings and blind spots. Their tenures were not unqualified successes. But, whether appreciated by their fellow citizens or not, they met and surpassed the challenges of their times.

A few other observations:

1. Beyond judgments about his time as president, Jimmy Carter was and is a great man. His term was not without its successes (ie, the Mideast Peace accords, recognition of China). But it is as an ex-President activist and author who exploited opportunities to advance peace, disease eradication, and faith in Jesus Christ that he has had his greatest achievements.

2. While I give Ronald Reagan high marks for his handling of the PATCO strike, it is far too early to suggest his name for any list of greatest presidents. Only time, with its opportunities for cool-eyed assessments of an as-yet incomplete picture of his administration, will allow such judgments.

3. The most overrated presidents of our history, I believe, have been Thomas Jefferson and John Kennedy. Jefferson, indeed, is an overrated man, the result of his assiduous courting of history. Kennedy's accomplishments were even more scant than the list of things he tried to accomplish during his thousand days in office. His death, of course, was a devastating tragedy.

4. Among the most underrated presidents are Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and Chester Alan Arthur.

5. My list of terrible presidents (in no particular order) would include: Herbert Hoover, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon, Ulysses S. Grant, James Polk, and James Buchanan.

Again, I'd be interested in the opinions of readers.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Prayers Needed

The wife of University of Tennessee law professor and blogger Glenn Reynolds is undergoing surgery early tomorrow morning. Her name is Helen. Please pray that the surgery goes well and that her recovery is rapid and complete. Thanks!

'Better Living' Growing in Readership...Thanks!

In the past week, Better Living has climbed about four-hundred places in the most widely-acknowledged ranking of blog sites. As of today, Better Living is ranked as the 1055th.-most popular web log, moving in The Truth Laid Bear's ecosystem from a "marauding marsupial" to a "large mammal."

Thanks to the many faithful readers of Better Living for making this blog a regular part of your daily diet of reading. Thanks also to all who encourage me in this endeavor. And thanks to all of the bloggers who have urged others to read this site.

Make sure that you tell your web-browsing friends about this site as a place where they can receive some inspiration, some information, and fair-minded reflections on daily living!

Evangelical Bloggers Listed Again

As I've mentioned before, Joe Carter of Evangelical Outpost is initiator and steward of the list of evangelical Christian bloggers you see below. Many seem are more conservative in their outlook and it should be pointed out that Christian equals neither conservative or Republican. Neither does evangelical equal conservative or Republican. Christian ought to only equal Christian.

There are a lot interesting sites here and a lot of sites on which you'll often find interesting things. I salute Joe for his initiative. Here then, is the updated list of evangelical bloggers from him. Check them out.

18. (1167)
19. the evangelical outpost (1165)
28. La Shawn Barber's Corner (1019)
32. ScrappleFace (951)
40. World Magazine Blog (912)
64. Parableman (716)
109. Le Sabot Post-Moderne (518)
116. Adrian Warnock's UK Evangelical Blog (506)
149. Patriot Paradox (428)
157. In the Agora (419)
178. Wittenberg Gate (394)
191. SmartChristian Blog
209. Blue Goldfish (361)
227. Evangelical Underground (343)
253. Sidesspot (323)
296. (290)
298. Broken Masterpieces (287)
302. Blogdom of God (285)
314. King of Fools (280)
318. Ogre's Politics & Views
326. Logicus bLogicus (274)
341. CoffeeSwirls (267)
345. Spreading Understanding
369. Philosophical Poetry
372. Wallo World (258)
403. Daddypundit
428.TulipGirl (237)
438. Cadmusings
439. A Physicist's Perspective (235)
447.Sounding the Trumpet (232)
452. Vox Popoli
452. Pajama Hadin
456. 21st Century Reformation
467. Ales Rarus
468. The Dawn Treader
478. Uncle Sam's Cabin (223)
524. (208)
540. Back of the Envelope
545. Challies Dot Com
561. Philosophical Poetry
652. The Minor Prophet
681. Daddy Pundit
682. The Dawn Treader
750. Rebecca Writes
882. Semicolon
923. Reverend Mike's House of Homiletic Hash
1079. Darn Floor
1106. New Covenant
1131. Damascus Road
1153. Proverbial Wife
1153. The Great Seperation
1203. Allthings2all
1239. Every Thought Captive
1242. Marriages Restored
1277. Wesley Blog (119)
1293. Every Thought Captive
1302. Crossroads
1314. Joe Missionary
1356. doubletoothpicks: worldviews behind the news (113)
1383. notes from the front lines
1422. Pete's Journal
1423. the outer...
1430. Antioch Road
1467. Weapons of Warfare
1480. Deep Calls to Deep
1500. a ticking time blog
1593. Fallible
1597. SteelerDirtFreak :: A 21st Century Missional Redneck Geek
1630. Ex Nihilo
1717. Mark Byron (83)
1720. Through a Glass Darkly
1730. prosthesis
1758. Imperfect but Forgiven
1795. The Rooftop Blog
1962. The Wardrobe Door
2121. JivinJehoshaphat
2166. He Lives
2181. Grapevine
2360. Darn Floor
2364. View from the Pew
2422. Church of the Acronym
2452. Stand Up and Walk
2562. The Regulator
2624. Bird of Paradise
2662. Now I don't want to get off on a rant here...
2672. The Happy Husband
2794. Dr. John Mark Reynolds (43)
2969. Wittingshire
2970. Amy's Humble Musings
3156. espresso roast (36)
3441. XBIP
3643. Feeble Knees
3731. It Take A Church…
4607. Eternal Perspectives
4695. AnotherThink
4702. Better Living: Thoughts from Mark Daniels
4840. Off the top
5279. Hill Country Views
5307. TheDuke's Domain
5516. Abide in the Word
5752. lawreligionculturereview
6488. Confessions of a Jesus Phreak
6599. Much (of a which of a) Wind
7404. TRUTH BE TOLD (8)
7441. Happy Mills (8)
7450. Media Culpa
7727. personal trainer (7)
8029. Midwestern Mugwump (mw)2
8108. Revenge of Mr Dumpling
8634. Dunker Journal
8715. The 'Grub Street' Plumber
8910. Pete the Elder
9081. The Wardrobe Door
10151. DM'S Loose Ends
10921. Blogcorner preacher (3)
10991. Proverbs Daily
11228. Tim Thompson . . . Reflections
11555. On An Azure Field of Gratuitous Advice
12365. Sonspot (2)
12578. Procrastinators of the world- Unite! (Later)
14641. Reed's Blogged Ateries
17080. ??? ???
18153. Itsara
NR - Mentor Mark Memoirs
NR - secundum Christum
NR - ChristianHillsblog
NR - Grace Notes 4 Teens
NR - Peacful Chaos
NR - C.H.U.R.C.H.
NR - The Greatest Pursuits
NR - Be Bold, Be Gentle
NR - Foundations
NR - For the Joy
NR - Sarcasmagorica
NR - Jeff Blogworthy
NR - A Simple Desultory Dangling Conversation
NR - Run To Win
NR - Marginal Comments
NR - Northern 'burbs blog
NR - The Grey Shadow
NR - Penguin Ploddings
NR - Blog on the Lillypad2
NR- sprucegoose
NR -- Mere-Orthodoxy
NR -- worship naked
NR -- Jim Street
NR -- RealGodseekers
NR -- Just Thinking
NR -- His Wonderful Gift
NR -- defiant lamb
NR -- All Things Possible
NR -- Bear Witness
NR -- Thought Crime
NR -- A Bellandean! God, Country, Heritage
NR -- Living Hope
NR -- Menorah
NR -- Dappled Things
NR -- Random Responses
NR -- Dispatches from Outland
NR -- Fr. Greg's Anglican Blog
NR -- Red Letters Blog
NR -- The Conservative Citizen Weblog
NR --

Implications of Revelation of Surreptitiously-Taped Bush Conversations?

The personal lives of public leaders can, I believe, be relevant to discussions of their qualifications for office. This is the case, it seems to me, when:
  • the figure is guilty of criminal behavior
  • the figure continues addictive behaviors that could impair judgment
  • habitual behaviors raise questions about trustworthiness
Unfortunately though, a society which increasingly has no standards for public behavior has made every aspect of public figures' private lives fair game for public airing. When you don't know what's right or wrong and when celebrities are viewed as commodities like sausage or computers, every aspect of public figures' lives are susceptible to display in the media, mainstream and otherwise.

Persons catering, for whatever reason, to this voyeuristic culture, are likelier than not to find an audience.

I bring this up because of the revelation of conversations that then-Governor George W. Bush thought were private and were taped without his knowledge or consent. The Bloomberg account of this story notes:
"Then-governor Bush was having casual conversations with someone he thought was a friend,'' White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in an e-mailed statement last night.
It's tough to have friends when the opportunity for notoriety and cash makes betrayal so alluring.

One must wonder what the future of our public life holds if our elected leaders no longer feel safe in seeking counsel, testing ideas, or letting their hair down in what are meant to be private discussions.

Schroeder's Future Prospects Clouded, But Neo-Fascists Repudiated

Contrary to indications from recent polling, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats lost control of the state parliament in Schleswig-Holstein today. The state has among the highest unemployment in Germany, which has recently posted the highest jobless number since the Second World War.

What concerns me is that the continued sluggishnes of the German economy creates opportunities for neo-Nazi groups exploiting people's suffering to push their poisonous ideology. Fortunately that group did not do well in the election today.

The elections in Schleswig-Holstein were considered an early indicator of Schroeder's prospects in national elections next year also.

Meeting Our Questions with Reassurance

John 3:1-18
[message shared with the people of Friendship Church, February 20, 2005]

The old general had suffered a series of strokes. He was growing weaker by the moment and he knew that it was only a matter of time before death claimed him. But he had questions, big questions. What, he wondered, would happen to him after he died? He hoped that he would go to heaven to be with God.

Many people, even the most faithful, when facing their own deaths with such immediacy, have questions about their eternal futures. The prospect of death should make us honest, if nothing else does. I'll never forget sitting next to the hospital bed of a deeply faithful woman from my former church and hearing her say, "Pastor, I'm such a terrible sinner." "That may be," I told her, "but God's grace is bigger than our sins."

So, this general had questions about his salvation, too. He asked his family to summon a prominent preacher. The preacher arrived at his bedside and listened as the general asked, How could he be certain that he was going to heaven?

The preacher asked him if he believed that Jesus Christ came into the world to die for his sins and that he rose again so that he could give him everlasting life.

The general affirmed that, yes, he believed that with all his heart.

Then, the preacher told him, you will be with God in heaven forever.

At that, the general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, thirty-fourth president of the United States, flashed that winning Ike smile of his and through a mist of tears, thanked the preacher, Billy Graham, for the reassurance he’d needed. He was ready to die.

The fact is that all of us, whether this world regards us as mighty or lowly, have our questions. And all of us need to be reassured that we are loved and accepted by the God Who made us.

Nicodemus was a man who had questions and needed reassurance. It’s doubtful that most of his countrymen would have thought this of him. Surely, they would have thought, Nicodemus had it all together. He was a member of that sect of Judaism known as the Pharisees, people so confident of their goodness and their conformity to God’s laws that they seemed never to doubt their places in God’s kingdom. On top of that, Nicodemus was a member of the religious elite. Our Bible lesson for today describes him as a “ruler of the Jews.”

Yet, like Dwight Eisenhower lying on his death bed at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Nicodemus sought comfort in the face of life’s uncertainties and mysteries.

Our lesson tells us that he visited Jesus by night. I was always taught (and have even taught others) that the reason for Nicodemus’ visit at night was that he couldn’t afford to be seen with Jesus in broad daylight. Already, early in Jesus’ earthly ministry, powerful men were beginning to conspire against Him, plotting ways to trip Him up or kill Him. In fact, Nicodemus had apparently gone to Jesus in part, to warn Him of this fact.

But one student of this passage whose thinking I consulted while preparing for today, said that he didn’t think Nicodemus was afraid of being seen with Jesus. He said that even these days, rabbis have their meatiest theological discussions at night. I hadn't realized that and as I considered it, I wondered why that may be. Perhaps it goes back to the fact that historically, rabbis have had to work at other full-time jobs; the night would have been the only time they could get together for lengthy discussions of the things of God. Another might be that historically, Jews have regarded sunset and not sunrise, as the beginning of a new day. Getting together in the evening might be a way of saying, symbolically, "We put God first in our days and in our lives."

Be that as it may, this penchant for nocturnal theological debate suggests a different reason for Nicodemus visiting Jesus in the evening hours. Maybe Nicodemus genuinely respected Jesus and finding himself attracted by Jesus’ ministry, went to Him during rabbinic prime time with his questions.

You know, there are two questions I routinely ask the members of our congregation’s new members classes, like the one that wrapped up this past week:

How did you happen to come to Friendship?

What made you stay?
There are a few recurring themes that have run through the responses of class members over the years. They’ve said things like:

“People were so welcoming and friendly.”

“We weren’t made to feel like outsiders. We still can’t find any inside clique group.”

“The congregation seemed to be focused outwardly, not inwardly.”

“I wasn’t made to feel stupid for not having my spiritual life completely together.”
My hope and prayer is that for as long as God allows me to be the pastor of Friendship Church, I’ll hear that kind of feedback. At Friendship, we want to be welcoming to people who have questions and to people who need assurance of God’s love and provision for them.

Our model for this is Jesus. Jesus welcomed Nicodemus and all of his questions. And in the course of their conversation, Jesus uttered the most reassuring two sentences ever spoken in human history, sentences that can give us assurance today, if we let them:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”
God is not our enemy. God is our friend.

God isn’t waiting to trip us up in our sins. Instead, He’s done everything necessary--taking the punishment we deserve for sin on a cross and then, rising from death--to open up eternity with God for us.

All He asks is that we believe in Him. That means, entrusting our whole life--our past sins, our future destiny, our present life, our ambitions, our worries, our relationships, our everything--in His care.

I can’t imagine any message that could provide any more comfort and reassurance, whether to a dying general, a ruler of the Jews, or ordinary people like you and me.

And even when life presents us with questions we can’t answer for as long as we live on this earth, the Good News of a God so desperately in love with us that He opens heaven’s gates to all with faith in Jesus will give us the comfort, power, confidence, and reassurance to face each day.

The problem of course, is that in a world that is often tough, it can be hard to remember that. This is why Jesus created the Church. Here, in a family of believers, we remind one another, we pray for one another, we worship and serve together, and we work together to share Christ with others. And through our life together, God reminds us again and again of the simple, life-changing message that Jesus gave to Nicodemus that night.

This spring, shortly after Easter, from April 9 through May 22, we will have a campaign of spiritual renewal at Friendship called Forty Days of Purpose. As I’ve explained before (and will keep on explaining), our goal is, at the very least, for every member of this congregation to get involved with Forty Days of Purpose.

Through our involvement with it, we will have many of our questions about life, particularly our questions about what our lives are meant to be about, answered. We will also grow in our assurance of God’s good intentions for us.

Forty Days of Purpose will also help us to grow in our security about welcoming the Nicodemuses who may come to us by night or day: people who have questions and who need to know that God wants them with Him.

Don’t let the wonderful opportunity this spiritual campaign gives you to have your questions answered and to live life confident of God’s love for you even when you don't have all the answers.

Read The Purpose Driven Life.

Get involved with a small group.

Volunteer when we have our Purpose-Driven ministry fair.

And pray like you’ve never prayed before in your life that God will use Forty Days of Purpose to draw us and our community closer to Jesus Christ!
I believe that this congregation and our community need all that God can bring through Forty Days of Purpose.

Let me tell you why I think the spiritual renewal at which Forty Days of Purpose is aimed is so critically important. One of the most well-known passages in the New Testament portion of the Bible is Revelation 3:20, historically thought to be written by the same John who wrote the Gospel book from which today's Bible lesson comes.

Revelation 3:20 is from a section of the book in which John shares messages from the risen and ascended Jesus for seven different first-century churches. This passage is often used in evangelistic messages in which preachers call unbelieving, spiritually-disconnected people to come to faith in Christ. There's nothing wrong with using the passage in that way, of course.

But notice that it was originally addressed to people, Christians, who supposedly had already let Him into the center of their lives. This congregation at Laodicea, it turns out, was lukewarm in its faith, neither excited about their relationship with Christ or overtly hostile to Him. They were on spiritual cruise control.

Folks, let me tell you something: A church like that is already dead. The members have gotten so caught up in doing all the churchy stuff that they simply don't know they're dead yet.

Jesus doesn't want His churches to be like that. He was so disgusted with the lukewarm, moribund, go-through-the-motions faith of the church at Laodicea that He told them, "I'm getting ready to spit you out." Literally, the original Greek of the text says, that He was preparing to vomit them right out of His kingdom.

May God grant that we never become a moribund, lukewarm church. May we always be on fire with the love and goodness of Jesus Christ!

May we avoid the slippery slope of spiritual irrelevance that leads to hell!

Pastor Gerald Mann says he’s sometimes asked, “How can I be sure that I’m not going to hell?” “Well,” he answers, “the fact that you don’t want to go to hell indicates that you won’t go there. You want God because you know that life here and in eternity is better with Him. The only people who go to hell are the ones who choose to do so.” The desire for God, folks, is the beginning and the evidence of faith, belief, and trust in the God we know through Jesus Christ.

God cares about us. When we allow Jesus Christ to meet our sin with His forgiveness and love by trusting Jesus with our lives, the gift of eternity with God is ours.

Even now, two-thousand years after Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, that comes as very happy, reassuring, good news. It's news upon which to build a whole eternal life!

[This message, along with the insight about Nicodemus' motivation for visiting Jesus by night, has been inspired by one by Pastor Mike Foss, senior pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Burnsville, Minnesota.

[The paraphrased story about Dwight Eisenhower and Billy Graham is one I know to be true, but which I have been able to find in the books through which I've rummaged over the past several days. Graham doesn't mention the incident in his autobiography. In the one-volume biography of Eisenhower by Stephen Ambrose, the author simply says that Graham dropped by Walter Reed Army Hospital during Ike's final illness to discuss "spiritual things." If readers of this blog can turn me to the sources in which I have read this true story, I'd appreciate it.

[The Q-and-A involving Gerald Mann is something to which I have heard Mann refer many times in audiotapes of his messages delivered during worship at River Bend Church in Austin, Texas.]