Saturday, March 05, 2005

Mount Kilimanjaro Report

Friends Nancy Beck, Jim Ball, and a group of fellow Cincinnatians have returned from their climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. This blog presents some of their reflections on this life-changing journey, along with some pictures.

Keeping Sudan on the Front Burner

For keeping informed on Sudan, this remains a great web resource.

A Gem Extracted from the Mother Lode of Pain

Gordon Atkinson is one of the best writers on the web. His piece, A Fate Worse Than Death is a moving recounting of a painful experience for him and his family. Followers of Jesus Christ aren't exempt from the heartache that can come in this life and sometimes, honesty must compel us to admit, faith is hard to hang onto through the tears. Thank you, Gordon, for another beautiful and thought-provoking bit of writing, a sharing of your heart, soul, and life!

Genius Loves Listening

Tonight, good friends presented a copy of the late Ray Charles' CD, Genius Loves Company, recently honored with a Grammy. I'm already listening to it and enjoying it. The pairings with a disparate group of singers, including Nora Jones, Diana Krall, James Taylor, and Bonnie Raitt, is really interesting. The arrangements are stunning, flat-out stunning. Ray wasn't probably in his best voice, but his soulful inflections are terrific. Ray Charles never sang a song, he inhabited it, lived it. This is a good collection!

Thanks, Tony and Barb!

UPDATE: So far, I'm particularly keen on the cuts featuring B.B. King, Gladys Knight, and Diana Krall.

THOUGHT: I wonder if Diana Krall and husband Elvis Costello sing duets when they're driving to the grocery store? That would be cool to hear.

Who is Ed Chen? And Could He Be Reading 'Better Living'?

Earlier this evening, I was reading the transcript of last evening's edition of Jim Lehrer's weekly conversation with David Brooks and Mark Shields on PBS. I was interested to see this:
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree [with] Ed Chen of the L.A. Times that the president has intentionally kept this vague, that he's trying to avoid what happened to the Clinton health care plan?
I don't know who Ed Chen is and I don't read the L.A. Times. But I do wonder if he's read this blog because the point that Lehrer attributes to Chen is one that I made here.

Coincidence? Almost certainly, of course. I'm not enough of a blogotist to think otherwise. But it is interesting.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Submitting to Another?

What might it mean for our lives to willingly be submissive to others? It's certainly a countercultural notion and one that Tod Bolsinger tackles capably here.

What I Do When I Feel Blue

This is being written on the fly, in blogger and columnist James Lileks' Daily Bleat style. If punctuation, spelling, or grammatical errors show up, I'll ask for your indulgence.

I just got off the phone with my wife. She suggested that I be honest enough to post a blog about our topic of conversation. As she put it, "Lots of people feel what you're feeling, Mark. Tell them that it's okay to have down-times and also how you get out of them."

At the risk of seeming to invite you to my pity party, it's true, I am in a blue mood right now.

I have little right to feel this way. Any examination of the circumstances of my life will show that I am a blessed person.

My son has completed his undergraduate career, is gainfully employed, and has a relationship with a wonderful young woman.

My daughter is in college and engaged to a fine young man who both my wife and I like a lot.

My wife is extremely supportive of me.

I've got great friends and positive relationships with my extended family.

Our home is wonderful.

The church I pastor couldn't be more considerate of me. And great things are happening in the congregation.

But the "blue dog" (a slighter version of Churchill's "black dog") still comes to haunt me from time to time.

There are numerous reasons for this latest assault:

I went for my annual physical on Tuesday. Yesterday, the doctor's assistant called to say that my cholesterol level was slightly elevated and, by the way, I need to lose thirty pounds. The weight thing came as no surprise, really. For months now, I've been unable to fit into 90% of my pants, but have put off actually dealing with the fact, thinking to myself, "Eventually, I'll take it off through diet and exercise, and be able to fit into them again." So far, eventually hasn't happened.

Helping two kids pay off their college loans. Maintaining a household we now share with two twenty-somethings. Home mortgage. HELOC. Car repairs. Taxes. Upcoming wedding. Sometimes, I feel like we're hemorrhaging money.

A few other misclellaneous items are thrown in--like shrimps on the barbie, to create this "blue dog." Among them, is this blog.

I love to write. I get positive feedback for my writing. As I've written here before, nobody writes hoping to get a small audience. Some days, the audiences for my blog are tremendous. Other days, the numbers are in the toilet. There seems to be no consistency in audience numbers, making me wonder if anything I write really helps people, the ultimate measure of any writing worth the space it takes on a computer screen or a page.

Frankly, too, I would love to get some of my stuff actually published. But, in spite of the affirmation--even from people who write well and are published themselves--it doesn't happen. It's frustrating.

A final ingredient in my blue dog stew is that I'm simply exhausted right now. All the elements of my schedule recently have left me feeling spent.

Now, if you've read up to this point, you may want to smack me and tell me, as Cher told Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck, "Snap out of it!"

Here, at my wife's suggestion, is how I do snap out of it when the blue dog comes for a visit. If it helps you, that's great.

The first thing I do is pray. Don't skip ahead to the next item. I mean it. I pray, really pray. The God Who shows Himself through Jesus Christ cares about every thing that we're feeling and thinking and going through.

The Bible records that God is even willing to listen when our sadness or anger are unwarranted.

God gave a man named Jonah a mission. Jonah was to go to a city called Nineveh and tell the people there that God was so upset with their sins that He was getting set to destroy the whole town.

Jonah hated the Ninevites. He also knew God's character. He knew that if, after hearing about their impending doom, the Ninevites repudiated their sin and asked God to help them follow Him and to live their lives God's way, God might change His mind about His plans for Nineveh. Jonah didn't want the Ninevites to be touched by God's forgiveness, he wanted them to be torched by God's wrath.

So, Jonah ran away from Nineveh. He hopped onto a ship on the Mediterranean.

You know what happened. God got angry with Jonah and created a storm. Jonah at least had the integrity to tell his shipmates that God wasn't upset with any of them, but with him.

"Throw me overboard," Jonah tells them. They do. The sea grows calm. Jonah treads water...Until a giant fish swallows him.

For three days, Jonah is in that belly, praying for God's mercy and glorifying God. Then, the fish vomits Jonah onto dry land.

Now, Jonah, probably looking and smelling wonderful, goes to Nineveh. He tells the Ninevites, "In a few days, you're all going to be toast because God is upset with your sinfulness." That's all Jonah says.

His worst fears come to pass: The Ninevites repent.

Now Jonah is really angry. He fumes and pouts and spews forth anger and juvenile accusations at God. He takes respite under a shade tree and directs his fist-shaking prayers heavenward.

The shade tree had been put there for Jonah's benefit. But the shade doesn't last long. God sends a worm to bring it down.

Now, Jonah is upset again. "That was my shade tree!" he whines.

"Yep," God tells him. "It was your shade tree. Not now. It's gone. But think about this, Jonah. You get upset over the loss of a shade tree. Imagine how I feel when people I love walk away from Me and decide that they'd rather die than have the life I give. Imagine how I would have felt had I let Nineveh live with the consequences of its sin. If you've got the right to love a shade tree and to mourn its loss, haven't I got the right to refrain from punishing a group of people who are sorry for their sins and willing to walk with Me again?"

At the end of Jonah's book, Jonah is still fuming. Still mad at God. And still talking with God.

That's the point. Sometimes we have this notion that our prayers need to be flowery eloquence and impeccable, unquestioning faith.

I always tell people that prayer is nothing other than heartfelt conversation with God. You don't have to sanitize your prayers for God. God knows what you're feeling and thinking. David, who turned to God after his double sins of adultery and murder, told God that he realized that God would never despise someone who is truthful with Him.

Whether it's admitting our sin, our anger, or our blue dog moods, God still desires truth in the inward heart.

So, when I go through the blue dog, I pray.

I also talk it over with people who care about me. Like my wife. Sometimes, they tell me to, "Snap out of it!" And rightly so.

But other times, they listen. Sometimes, they sympathize. Occasionally, they offer helpful suggestions.

We are God's gifts to each other and, as the old saw puts it, we reduce the weight of our burdens when we share them with others.

I get moving, physically and otherwise. I take a walk, go to the gym, saunter through a mall, read the Bible or another book. Getting the body moving physically or getting the mind focused outside of oneself isn't denial, it's something else. I'm not suggesting that we run away from our problems, but take a vacation from them. (I know it sounds like Richard Dreyfus' advice to Bill Murray in one of the early scenes in What About Bob?, but hear--or read--me out.)

For one thing, moving the body is a time-proven psychological boost.

Reading or thinking about something else is a mental vacation. As happens whenever we go on our yearly vacations, these short mental or physical excursions allow me to come back to whatever problems I may be dealing with at any given time with renewed energy and new inspiration.

You know the story of Eli Whitney and his invention of the sewing machine, I'll bet. He'd been working on it for some time and was getting nowhere fast.

So, frustrated, he went to bed. That night he had a dream. He was in some primitive part of the world and taken captive by cannibals. At one point, he looked at their spears and noticed something peculiar: The spears were like giant needles with the eyelets on the bottom rather than the top. That turned out to be the solution for which Whitney had been looking. If he put the eyelets of his needles on the bottom rather than the top, he could make his sewing machine work.

That's what taking a mental vacation can do for you.

Another thing I do when the blue dog hits me is get my gaze off my own navel. I think of somebody else.

I pray for them.

I call them up to find out how they're doing and not let on that I've been in a funk, just being solicitous of them and their well-being.

I do something for someone else. In fact, that's what I'm doing in this post. I'm hoping that someone out there will read this and that it will help them. Maybe it will make you or some other reader feel that you're not alone, that you're not the only person who has ever been down in spite of all the good things happening in your life.

If my first and next piece of advice reflect ways of loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, the first part of Jesus' Great Commandment, doing something for others reflects the second part of that commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.

One of the key ingredients in successful support groups is that they make participants feel that they're not alone in whatever challenges they face in life, be it alcoholism, parenting, or looking for a job.

God made us for each other. The temptation when I'm blue is to crawl inside myself and look for solutions in the dark interior places of my soul.

But looking inside of oneself too long always leads to greater depression. (This is why so many of the self-help gurus, with their advice to look inside ourselves, are so wrong.) The foundational key to happiness and recovery from problems that aren't physiologically-based is in looking up to God and looking out to others.

Finally, I put things in God's hands. This isn't quite the same as my first bit of advice, where I commended prayer. There, I was really talking about venting to God, telling God about what's going on.

When we put things in God's hands, we're releasing our problems, our challenges, our needs, and our lives to Him.

When I put things in God's hands, I'll tell God something like, "God, I don't know what to do, but You do. I put this in Your hands. As I work and think, I ask You to show me what to do and how to solve things. Give me insights I wouldn't have on my own. Fill me with Your Holy Spirit for that purpose."

You know what I've found? God always answers that prayer. Always.

A few weeks ago, I rushed through a busy schedule, completing my Sunday message on a Thursday afternoon in anticipation of a crazy Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Saturday night at about 11:30, I went to my computer to print off the Sunday message I'd written earlier. Even though I was tired, I decided to read it again. It was awful!

Then, I realized that I had been in such a hurry that while I had done all the translation and background study work (what's called exegesis) that goes into writing a Sunday message, I hadn't really prayed about. I hadn't put my efforts in God's hands.

Predictably, as happens any time I rely on myself alone, the result was a lousy sermon.

So, I told God, "Lord, it's late and I'm tired. But I owe it to You and I owe it to the people who will be in worship tomorrow to come up with something better. I have no idea what to write. But, please help me."

I stared for a few moments at the screen and went back over my notes. Then, an idea hit me and I began to do my usual three-finger pecking at the computer keyboard. By 12:45, I had something.

It was a message about which I got quite a few positive comments from people saying they found it helpful.

That wouldn't have happened if I hadn't put the whole project where it belonged, in God's hands.

I feel a lot better than I did when I first sat down at the computer a few moments ago. I hope that, if you were fighting the blue dog, you feel a little better now, too.

UPDATE: Thanks to Rob Asghar of Dimestore Guru, for linking to this piece and coupling it with a dynamite quote from Martha Graham. Thanks also to those who have sent emails or who have commented here commending this piece. I've an idea that it's not just God Who is attracted to us when we demonstrate truth in our inward hearts. (cf. Psalm 51)

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Join a Church with Those Pesky Humans

The Jolly Blogger has posted an interesting piece on the importance of being part of Christian fellowships composed of real-life, enfleshed, sometimes annoying human beings. I found it by way of Adrian Warnock's site.

The Promise and the Perils of Democracy, Part 1

We've witnessed some extraordinary things in the past few weeks!

The people of Ukraine have broken with their despotic past, overruled a return to Soviet-style statism, and held free elections, selecting a true democrat to be that country's leader.

Iraqis, despite deadly threats and deadly acts by insurgents and terrorists, bravely forged ahead with elections in late January.

Saudi Arabia has conducted little-noted municipal elections.

Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, has announced that he now wants to open up his country's life.

A former prime minister was assassinated in Lebanon, uniting Christians and Muslims to demonstrate for freedom and effectively ousting the Syrian-backed government they assume was behind the act. As I write this, thousands of Lebanese demonstrators are clogging the streets of Beirut, demanding that Syria withdraw its military from their country.

Clearly, democracy is on the march!

While this moment is filled with the promise of democracy, there are also perils to be negotiated.

Peril one: The notorious sluggishness of democracy. "It has been said that democracy," Winston Churchill famously noted, "is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Despotic regimes are neat and tidy, controlling everything. They make decisions and those decisions are quickly enacted...or else. (At least until everybody gets sick of the despotic order and opposition reaches a critical mass, bringing about the end of dictatorial rule.)

But democracy is messy. It requires that leaders be persuaders, not tyrants. Democracy entails things like compromise, consensus, committees, redrafts, and accountability. This beautiful frumpiness is why democracies are at an initial disadvantage when attacked or threatened by despots. But this same sluggishness also earns democracies the loyalty of their citizens, meaning that once assaulted, democrats are fierce in fighting for their freedom.

While I believe that democracy in some form is good for every nation, irrespective of culture or background, getting the hang of it can be difficult. The colonies that came to form the United States, for example, were well-suited to democracy. Removed from Great Britain by an ocean, they had voter-installed institutions exercising an amazing degree of sovereignty long before the first cache of tea was dumped into Boston Harbor. But America's initial crack at establishing a framework of national government and law, the Articles of Confederation, was so tilted toward notions of freedom and so heedless of creating a nation that it constrained the development of the country.

If it was difficult for the United States, with its tradition of democratic institutions, to learn to function as a democracy, consider places like Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, whose citizens have no democratic history at all.

Russia's people and leaders, with their tsarist and Soviet histories, are particularly interesting to consider. When Russians run into patches of economic difficulty, they conclude that something is inherently wrong with people having freedom. Their inclination is to give more authority to the government. Many Russians seem willing to give up their freedom, pining nostalgically for the clarity of dictatorship. Vladimir Putin, Russian president, is happy to acquiesce to these impulses.

The messiness of democracy is apt to come as a real shock to people unaccustomed to it. Like recovering alcoholics, folks in newly-emerging democracies are likely to backslide occasionally, embracing authoritarianism for a season or two.

Our appreciation of freedom's global march is warranted. But we might want to keep the champagne on ice a little while longer. There's a lot of hard work to be done before these democracies take hold.

UPDATE: Thanks to Adrian Warnock for linking to this piece.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Thanks to John Schroeder for linking to this piece as well.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Reflections on Realizing That People Actually Read What I Write

Everyone who writes, whether they write songs, novels, magazine columns, screenplays, poetry, news analysis, or blogs, have one thing in common: They want what they write to be read.

They may be driven by hubris, insecurity, a desire to inform, the hope to transform, or a combination of these and other motives. But nobody who writes, unless they're simply jotting notes in personal diaries, writes thinking, "I sure hope nobody reads this."

As I write the entries on this blog each day, I hope, even pray, that more readers will find it today than did yesterday. That's why I check the "hit count" with great interest several times a day.

In recent weeks, the audience for Better Living has been growing and that's gratifying and exciting.

But it's also jarring and genuinely humbling.

Earlier today, I was chatting with an impressive young man I've come to know in recent months. He's the president of our county's OSU Alumni Association. He'd returned a phone message I'd left with him, apologizing that I had missed a meeting in which potential scholarship recipients from our area were interviewed. This blog came up in the conversation and he mentioned that because of a reference in my recent series on goal-setting from a Christian perspective, he'd bought a copy of Gerald Sittser's book on "the will of God as a way of life."

This evening, during a Bible study at our church's building, a young woman mentioned a story I had told in that same series of blog posts.

As a writer, I hope and pray that I have things worth reading, things that people find helpful or meaningful or informative or even entertaining. But somehow, actually running into folks who affirm that what I've written actually fufills one or all of those hopes and prayers takes me aback.

And it humbles me because I can honestly say that whatever good readers find in these posts doesn't come from me. The good in these pieces, as is true of me as a human being, is a God thing, completely and totally. Jesus once told His disciples, "Without Me, you can do nothing." Over the years, I have learned that's true of me in spades. The instant I forget that is also the instant that this blog slips into worthlessness.

To the growing group of people who frequent this blog and who tell their friends about it, thank you. I hope that it continues to be helpful to you and others for as long as God lets me write it!

I Was a Good Influence...

on my brother, comedian Marty Daniels. Born almost three years after the Beatles' first appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Marty is more than thirteen years my junior. Yet, maybe because he couldn't avoid hearing the steady stream of Beatles tunes flowing from my stereo when he was a kid, Beatlemania still rages inside of him. He writes in his blog today about how he secures high-quality background music when he's goofing off...I mean, working.

(PS: Write Marty and ask him about the night he met Pete Best.)

Lileks at Lunch Again

Because I fasted for a physical examination that happened earlier today, I'm taking a late, micro-length lunch, mostly emailing work stuff. (Food fare: A slice of wheat bread with jelly.) But I took a quick look at Lileks' bleat for today. The guy is about as prolific as I am! For all his verbosity though, he also writes very well.

But...I can't understand why he should be critical of Chirac for meeting with Assad.

Sometimes, for the greater good, democrats have to meet with despots. It worked for Nixon to meet with Mao and Chou, not to mention with Leonid.

I don't know what may have transpired between Chirac and Assad. But I see no reason to summarily dismiss such meetings.

By the way: I loved the cartoon sound.

PS: Did you see the little feature on Lileks' matchbooks in the latest issue of American Heritage?

Jerry Brown Still Thinks Oakland Needs a Curfew

Check out his latest blog entry.

I Tell Her She's a Hipster...

but Ann Althouse says that neither the Oscars or American Idol are particularly hip. That only makes me feel more out of it.

I didn't watch the Oscars because I hadn't seen any of the movies nominated this year and I have never seen American Idol.

Two-or-Three Provides Evidence of Reliability of New Testament Accounts of Jesus

Two-or-Three(.net) presents an excellent summary of information from a Lee Strobel book, The Case for Christ, in upholding the historicity of the New Testament's accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is definitely worth a read!

Check Out the Thoughtful Work of Deborah White

Deborah White is a liberal Democrat, an evangelical Christian, a blogger, a fine writer, and a regular visitor to Better Living. She's now also the editor/guide for's US Liberalism page. No matter what your politics, go check out what Deborah has to say. She will make you think. (By the way, whether she realizes it or not, she also possesses the spiritual gift of encouragement.)

Monday, February 28, 2005

Goal-Setting, A Christian Approach, An Unexpected Part 6

Recently, I completed a five-part series on Goal-Setting from a Christian Perspective on this blog. But in the past few days, it's struck me that at least one piece is missing.

Maybe it's hit me with particular force because of my experiences today. I woke with a particular game plan, certain specific goals. But it's been a day of constant interruptions.

In the fifth post, I addressed the theology of interruptions. I spoke of how important faith in the God we know through Jesus Christ in dealing with obstructions that seem to be in between us and our goals.

I didn't mention another essential ingredient however.

This ingredient will help you deal with "interruptions" and keep your sanity.

The New Testament book of James says:
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ [James 4:13-15]
Frankly, I imagine James writing those words with a smile on his face, even though he was making a serious point.

I think that he would agree with Father Myke, the martyred New York Fire Department chaplain of September 11, 2001. It's reported that he routinely told people, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans for tomorrow."

Any time our meticulously-laid plans are interrupted, we can blow up inside or we can roll with the punches...and laugh.

Before I became a pastor twenty years ago, I worked at lots of different full- and part-time jobs. I've worked on factory assembly lines, loading docks, and highway repair crews. I've been a fast food cook, a janitor, a substitute teacher, and a professional fund-raiser. I've been a paint store clerk, a supervisor at the Ohio House of Representatives, and a retail inventory-taker. I worked cash registers at a Sears store and kept a corporation's headquarters flush with office supplies, like Office Max's Rubberband Man. I did some of those jobs well and some of them poorly.

But, there are two things I noticed repeatedly:

(1) The people who accomplish the most in the long run pursue goals, but they do it with a sense of humor. When things don't go exactly as they think they should, they laugh, pick up the pieces, and go on.

These folks have reminded me of something that water did when, as a kid, my buddies and I built curbside dams after rainstorms. We'd gather up sticks, leaves, cardboard, paper, and stones, obstructing the streams of water heading for the nearest sewer traps, next to the curbs. For a short while, we'd stop the water.

But soon, one of two things happened. Either the dam gave way and the stream of water rushed over it or, the water went around our dam, flowing onto the sewer trap.

Those with faith in Jesus Christ can smile when confronted with challenges to the goals they've forged from their relationship with God. They realize that they have little power to stem the flow of outside events. They know a truth I've taught twenty years-worth of Catechism students:

Either God gets His way or God gets His way

(2) The second thing I've noticed is that those who confront obstructions in their paths without faith or humor sometimes achieve their goals. But they don't have very much fun doing it.

There's a reason they don't have much fun. Years ago, I heard a true story told by Bill Hybels. It was about a fabulously successful man who, for all the wealth and security he was able to provide to his wife and family, was nonetheless losing them. His wife gave him an ultimatum: Give up your workaholic ways or the kids and I will be gone.

This hard-driving guy realized that he was addicted to work and success. He loved his wife and children and knew that his 80-plus-hour work weeks weren't what he needed to adequately take care of his family. He worked so much out of a warped psychological need to measure his value with dollar signs and possessions. So, he quit his job and found some land next to a beautiful lake in northern Michigan.

His family was excited by the man's plan to build a home and a little marina on the lake. It was a business that wouldn't demand long hours and be something they could all work at together in the warm months. In the winter, they could relax, living off the money he'd piled up through the years in business.

But it didn't take long for the man's old hard-charging ways to reappear. He was bent on turning the marina into a year-round operation that included things like condos, a hotel, restaurants, and other bells and whistles. The greater his success, the more the man worked, and the greater his alienation from wife and family.

One evening, he came home to discover that his family was gone. His wife filed for a divorce. The man realized that there was nothing he could do to patch things up, so he acquiesced to his wife's desires. He realized that, in his way, he was a chronic adulterer and one unwilling to change his ways. His mistress had been success and achieving his goals. That relationship left no room for anyone else.

Some months later, he was entertaining a few prominent people who had come to stay at the tourist destination he'd created. He was out on a large boat with them when one member of the party pointed to the complex he'd built on the lake shore and commented, "When you look at all that, it must make you proud." The man thought for some time and confessed, "It makes me sick to my stomach." A few weeks later, he died unexpectedly.

You may achieve goals in life without faith or humor. But it won't mean much.

We human beings are communal creatures. We were made for relationship with God and with others. We need those relationships to understand both our potentials and our limitations, to see ourselves aright, to live with balance and equanimity. When we make goals our gods, we walk away from God and everybody else.

The foundational truth of the universe is this: God is God and we're not. As finite people, we can pretend to be God. Sometimes, we may come close to pulling off the ruse, deceiving ourselves above all. But the happiest people are those who can laugh at their own pretensions, honor God as being bigger than themselves and able to help them even in their imperfections, and face each day they're given with a prayer for God's help as they do their very best.

They're also the people who, in the end, have the greatest achievements. Faith, humor, and relationships: They go together and they're all part of really living!

Here are links to the first five parts:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Who's the President's Anti-Model When It Comes to Social Security Reform?

Politicians are as likely to operate from anti-models as they from models.

For example, Ronald W. Reagan is a model for George W. Bush. He tries to portray himself as an optimist and as a man of the land, as prone to "clearing brush" as Reagan was. Bush understands, as Reagan understood from observing his major model for political leadership, Franklin Roosevelt, that Americans like optimistic leaders who blow "certain trumpets."

But the President's father probably also represents an anti-model for him. Bush the Younger, as a loyal operative for his dad, saw the utility of maintaining a tight relationship with the then-emerging Christian Right, something the elder Bush was slow in realizing. George W. Bush also saw the mistake his father made in underestimating the degree to which Americans value presidential sensitivity to downturns in their economic positions. The President has been intent on avoiding the pitfalls that ambushed his father, denying the elder Bush a second term.

In the discussion over possible Social Security reform, the President appears to be deriving lessons from another presidential antimodel. But it's not clear whether that will be an asset to him or not.

The President made it clear in his first post-election press conference that he intended to use his political "capital" to advance Social Security reform in his second term.

There has, however, been something missing in this discussion: Mr. Bush has advanced no specifics.

He points out that there is an impending crisis in the Social Security system (a thesis disputed by some), declares that all current recipients will be guaranteed their current benefits no matter what reforms are promulgated, and states that personal accounts should be part of the mix of reforms. He's also said that he's totally open to various possible reform proposals, including taxing those making $90,000.00 a year or more. But that's it.

To me, it appears that the President is trying to avoid the mistakes of Bill Clinton when he tackled a nearly-analogous issue.

Early in his first term, Mr. Clinton made health care reform a signature issue of his presidency. First Lady Hillary Clinton was put in charge of a task force that was to formulate and then usher a very specific proposal through the Congress. Who can forget Mr. Clinton's State of the Union message in which he brandished a Health Care Security card and enumerated elements of his proposal?

The Clinton Health Care proposal, with all its details, aroused a lot of different interest groups, making it tough to pass. What he got was a mere shadow of his original ambitious program.

With Social Security reform, Mr. Bush is taking on an even bigger issue than health care reform. Social Security, of course, is known as the third rail of American politics, bringing certain political death to any who would dare mess with it.

It's always been deemed particularly deadly for Republicans. The party opposed it back in the days of Franklin Roosevelt, incurring disdain. Barry Goldwater demonstrated just how sacred the federal pension system is when he lost spectactularly to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, after some of his rhetoric about the program allowed the Johnson campaign to convince many that Goldwater would dismantle it.

While the President has been trying to put Social Security on the front-burner and has talked up personal retirement accounts, I believe that his general avoidance of specifics is designed to help him get something passed, no matter how modest. For that, it would seem, he hopes to derive credit without spending too much of his political capital.

But this approach is running into problems.

The first is the nothing ventured, nothing gained element of presidential leadership. Only with great risk and boldness is the President apt to get anything worthy of the label "Social Security reform" through the Congress. It will take genuine use of his vaunted political capital to get Social Security reform passed.

And he must do it this year or forget about it. Given the accelerated shelf life of presidential second terms in this era of the perpetual campaign, a mid-term obsessed Congress in 2006 and one that will be obsessed with the presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008, it's now or never for Mr. Bush to get Social Security reform passed.

The President won't get any reform through short of putting everything on the line. Mr. Bush has been known for this in the past. His reluctance to go full-tilt on this issue is hurting his cause.

So far, although deserving of high marks for even bringing the subject up, the President hasn't said, "I stake my presidency on this," something he can afford to do as a second-termer.

A second reason the President is having problems is the reluctance of the Republican Congress to touch the third rail.

Whether justified or not, members of the House and Senate are hearing negative comments from constituents, especially seniors, who regard Social Security sacrosanct. Today's seniors, who are vastly more likely than previous generations of retirees to carry large debt loads, are not likely to go along with any changes in a system on which they rely so heavily.

The third problem is that it's difficult to get agreement to any individual component of a reform package or even about what constitutes reform.
Even those who advocate individual retirement accounts say that their establishment may be irrelevant to the long-range solvency of Social Security.

Proposals to tax larger incomes get shot down, as they were recently by conservative members of the House and Senate, after the President suggested he might be open to them. (Currently, Social Security is funded by a 12.4 percent tax, which is shared equally by employers and employees, on the first $90,000 of annual wages. Income above that level is not taxed. While conservatives like Tom DeLay vehemently rejected this idea when the President recently opened the door to it, it should be said that Rick Santorum, himself an ardent conservative and the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, said today that he was open to the idea.)

There's great hesitation about raising the minimum retirement age by one year every decade, putting the system more in line, say its adherents, with increasing life expectancy. Many see this as a way of taking away benefits that workers have earned.

And former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's proposal to have the federal government deposit $2000.00 annually in accounts for every citizen until they're eighteen has been greeted with interest by some, rejection by others.
The point is that the President is confronted with a Catch-22:
  • Without some proposal on the table, he's likely to get just a bunch of people saying, "No," killing Social Security reform by a million little cuts.
  • But a specific plan is likely to get the Clinton Health Care treatment.
The President now has no choice but to slog it out, showing flexibility on specifics, almost negotiating legislation in public. Perhaps in displaying flexibility, he'll avoid being wounded either by the Democrats or his fellow Republicans.

But it won't be easy and no matter how things turn out, you have to give Bush credit for tampering with the third rail of American politics.

The only problem is that in order to get the job done, he may have to do a lot more than tamper. Shy of going all-out, he's likely to end with a worst-case scenario from his perspective: no reform coupled with loss of power to get an already-rebellious Congress to do what he wants to do with other possible legislation.

If the President loses this fight, it may very well be because he chose the wrong anti-model in Bill Clinton.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Music Born with Elvis? Or Did It Die with Him?

The cover story of the March, 2005 issue of American Heritage magazine commemorates the seventieth anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth.

Of course, Elvis has been covered from so many angles, one would expect a new story to look for a new slant or two. Will Friedewald, jazz reviewer for the New York Sun, manages to do so. I have no quarrel with his first. But I have real reservations about the second one of his slants.

The first is that while Presley is undeniably important in the introduction and popularization of rock and roll, the bulk of his corpus represents more of a culmination of previous trends and elements of American popular music rather than the introduction of anything revolutionary. Writes Friedewalde:
He [Presley] comes out of a very clear tradition of great male singers of the great American songbook, especially Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Billy Eckstine, Dean Martin, and, to an extent, Frank Sinatra--as well as the leading crooners of the idioms of the blues, like Louis Jordan, and of country, Eddie Arnold...He has almost nothing in common, vocally, with later rock stars.
I do agree with this. But, pardon my rudeness, I have to say simply, "Well, duh." (For observations like this, Friedewalde gets paid!)

innovator invents anything completely new. All are dependent on those who have gone before them. It's not for nothing that the wisest person who ever lived, Solomon, said that there's nothing new under the sun. (Even when that "sun" is Sun Records.) A superficial listen to Presley will lead the listener to a clear understanding of Presley's dependence on those who went before him and his place in the American tradition of crooning. He is a lot more like Bing Crosby than Jim Morrison.

I agree with this obvious "insight" from Friedwalde.

A second major slant of this piece riffs off of a hyperbolic quote from John Lennon. Opined Lennon, "before Elvis, there was nothing." Friedewalde makes much of this; I believe, without warrant.

Lennon loved to portray himself as a rock and roll bad boy and to buttress that fiction, a defamer of other musical traditions. The Beatles Anthology demonstrates what any listener to that band's music knows: That, like Presley, the group drew on a multiplicity of influences and fused them refreshingly. Even Bing Crosby, who Friedewalde and I both esteem, was among the influences on the Beatles, including Lennon, who once attributed the lyrical idea behind Please, Please Me to a Crosby song.

Lennon was also, to put it delicately, less than honest. Like generations of Liverpudlians, he wasn't one to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

He told interviewers that he and his fellow Beatles accepted their MBEs from the Queen after smoking grass in Buckingham Palace. The other three Beatles have laughed this off, seeing it as another episode in Lennon's catalog of prevarications and exagerrations.

Lennon was fond of picturing his Beatle collaborator Paul McCartney as an innocent balladeer, while playing himself as the raw rocker. He said this in spite of the fact that the Beatles' music presents a more complicated picture.

So, in presenting a tribute to Elvis, the man who even McCartney described as "the messiah" of music, Lennon said that there was no music before Elvis.

That's silly. But Friedewalde adds to the silliness when he comes to the end of his analysis of Presley's career and his assertion that the King belongs more to pop music before rock than to rock itself, when he writes:
John Lennon had it the wrong way around: After Elvis, there was nothing.
Nothing would include the Beatles, U2, Bruce Cockburn, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, the Eagles, the Supremes, Simon and Garfunkel, the Temptations, Switchfoot, Prince, Sting, and dozens of other popular musicians who, in many cases, have also managed to be great artists. (No matter what one may think of their messages or their lifestyles.)

Clearly, both before and after Elvis, there has been something when it comes to the popular music scene. And no matter how vacuous and vapid pop music may sometimes get, it's likely that there always will be.

Is NASA Press for Launch Squeezing Out Safety Concerns?

I'm a huge fan of space exploration. But is NASA so anxious to make the May 15 launch of the shuttle Discovery a go, that it's lax on inspections? Shuttle commander Karen Collins says so. This is too important for the world and for the well-being of the individual astronaust for NASA to slide into a "forge-ahead-at-any-cost" mentality.


for Pope John Paul II's well-being and for that of the Roman Catholic Church.

Positive Coverage of Pastor's Work in Sri Lanka Worth a Listen

The mainstream media, sometimes referred to by bloggers euphemistically as the MSM, is often accused of being biased against Christian faith. Probably some elements of the mainstream media are biased against Christians. You see this especially in the standard Hollywood portrayals of people of faith as judgmental hypocrites or intellectual buffoons.

My observation of most news outlets' coverage of the Church and of Christians is that "they don't get it," usually failing to understand what Christians are saying or believe.

In part, this is attributable to we Christians: We act as though we still live in "Christendom," rather than the post-Christian West in which we, in fact, live. It's important that we find ways, as did the early Church, of communicating the truth about God, the hope of Christ, and the things that we believe, that connect with the people of this time. Too often we're like arrogant speakers of a language who refuse to translate our secret code for the benefit of others.

This morning, while I was getting ready for Sunday School and worship, I listened, as I usually do, to NPR's Weekend Edition.

They carried an enjoyable profile of an American pastor working as a missionary in a village of Sri Lanka. It described the changed opinions of the villagers since the tsunami of December 26, 2004. At first, he said the villagers were hostile to him and the message of Christ. But since the tsunami, with his church offering medical help and other sorts of aid to those truly hurt by the tsunami, no matter what their religious beliefs, he's experienced greater acceptance. It was just a cool, feel-good story. Take a listen.

You might want to send NPR an email, commending them for their balanced, fair-minded profile of this pastor sharing God's love in tough circumstances.

The Miracle of Reconciliation...and How It Happens

[Today, I shared a four-part set of mini-messages with the people of Friendship Church. It's based on John 4:5-42.]

Part One
John 4:5-15
A few weeks ago, I read the story of Albert Sydney Johnston. He was a Confederate general during the Civil War. At the Battle of Shiloh, Johnston was hit in the knee by a stray bullet. Supposing that the wound was fatal, Johnston sent the division surgeon away to look after other wounded men. He ultimately bled to death.

But it hadn’t been inevitable. It was later determined that had Johnston or somebody else applied a tourniquet to his wound, the bleeding would have stopped, and he would have survived. The irony is that Johnston had a tourniquet in his pocket when he died.

Our Bible lesson for today tells the true story of what happened one afternoon when Jesus and His disciples passed through a Samaritan village. While the disciples went into town to buy food, Jesus sat down next to the well outside of town. A woman came to get water, a curious thing to happen under the noontime sun. In those days, women always got their water in the early mornings and again, after sundown, precisely to avoid the heat of the day.

Jesus asks this woman for water and she’s taken aback for two reasons. First, because in those days, Jews never spoke to Samaritans if they could avoid it. Second, because men and women weren’t supposed to speak in public.

Jesus tells her, “If you knew the gift of God, and Who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would given you living water.’”

Jesus is offering the woman a brand new start on life, a life with God that lasts forever. Like Albert Sydney Johnston, who had the capacity to save his earthly life in his pocket, this woman is being given the possibility of a fresh start by the unexpected presence of God-in-the-flesh right next to her!

If you feel far from God and Jesus seems distant to you, let me assure you this morning, that has nothing to do with Jesus. As the saying puts it, "If you don't feel God is close to you, remember that it wasn't because He moved away."

Through Jesus Christ, God has entered your life. He’s next to you right now. He offers you living water, a relationship with Christ, that will keep bubbling with newness and vitality for all eternity. You simply have to take the life He offers!

Part Two
John 4:16-26
The word rapture literally means to be carried beyond oneself. I don’t know if people are going to be raptured as they drive their cars and then be carried to heaven at the end of time, as some Christians insist. But I do know that the experience of rapture, of being freed from the prison of selfishness and sin and loneliness and being ushered into the presence of God, is something that every follower of Jesus can experience. In fact, one of the ongoing themes of the Gospel of John, from which out Bible less for today is taken, is that we can experience reconciliation with God and eternal life today.

In one of his books, the late missionary, evangelist, and author E. Stanley Jones, friend and confidante of Mahatma Gandhi, talks about three different women of his acquaintance who had experienced rapture.

The first was a forty-five year old, whose marriage had ended and whose life was a mess. Then, she came to believe in Jesus Christ. New hope came to her. She became so certain of the new possiblities that life with Christ brought her, that she enrolled as a student at a local university, paying her way through school by working as a full-time secretary. She graduated cum laude with her Bachelor’s degree. She then went on to graduate school, where she received all A’s. She later wrote to Jones:
Wasn’t God amazing? I don’t know why any Christian should discard miracles. I believe in miracles. [Jesus] healed me. What could be more miraculous than the forgiveness of sins? Or the taking away of all bitterness, all resentment? And the peace and joy that follow are indescribable. The laughter that comes bubbling up at most unexpected times, in me who thought a few years ago that I would never laugh rises from a well of living water that will never cease. I am grateful beyond words.
Jones also quotes a young college woman who told him after she’d come to faith in Christ, “I feel as though I’ve swallowed sunshine.” (I love that!)

And another, while watching a sunrise told him, “That’s the way I feel inside.”

The Samaritan woman must have felt very like these three women when she encountered Jesus. After verbally sparring with Him for a time, this woman who had been passed along from one man to another, forced to come to the town well in midday in order to avoid the putdowns of the other women who condemned her immorality, she began to see that Jesus might be the hope she’d been looking for all her life.

She realized that new life and hope and fresh starts and forgiveness of sin don’t come from the things we do. And she saw too that those blessings don’t come by fixing our hopes on earthly relationships. They only come from a faith relationship with Jesus Christ.

When Jesus affirmed to the woman that He was the Messiah, the world’s Savior, her new life began. Rapture carried her to a new place with God, the certainty of eternity. We can have the same experience if we will allow ourselves to take Jesus' offered hand!

Part Three
John 4:27-30
At the beginning of one chapter in her latest book, Jesus, Life Coach, author and business consultant Laurie Beth Jones, writes:
I don’t know how anyone attempting to follow Jesus could ever be bored. As author Anne 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.

He doesn’t ask you to just take a step here or there–He asks you to leap tall buildings in a single bound. His requests will cause you to leave behind maybe everything that you thought you knew. [emphasis mine]
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great Lutheran theologian and pastor, killed by a Nazi firing squad sixty years ago this April. Bonhoeffer once wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

As it dawned on the Samaritan woman Who Jesus was and what he was offering to her, she was given new life.

But she also underwent some deaths. She knew that Jesus would kill the addicting power of her sins and that she must leave them to leap into His forgiving arms. She knew that she must let go of her shame in order to embrace her new and unlikely role, one that she undertakes with zest and enthusiasm: She becomes an evangelist, telling the very townspeople she had been trying so hard to avoid, “This Man has changed my life. Could He be the Messiah-Savior for Whom we’ve been waiting.”

The disciples had need of hard hats that day themselves! Jesus was calling them to die, too.

Their old worlds were crashing down around them. By speaking to and reaching out to this Samaritan woman, Jesus was telling them to let their old prejudices and religious arrogance die. Instead, they were to embrace a new humility that included a humble submission to God and a humble acceptance of the potential for change and transformation even in people we hate.

And hate too, must be killed, replaced with a new love for all people. As you have been loved, Jesus was telling them, so you must love not just God, but every child of God.

Are you ready to put on your hard hats and follow Jesus? Jesus has work for us to do. He calls us to die to our old sins and our old comfortable, selfish ways of living so that He can begin constructing the new and better people God wants to make of us all.

Part Four
John 4:39-42
Margaret Meade, the famous anthropologist, once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” [emphasis mine]

Jesus came into our world in order to change our lives.

He came to change us from sinners heading for hell to sinners who are forgiven and given heaven.

He came to change us from people wounded by the world to people healed by His love and goodness.

Jesus spoke to crowds, of course. But He did His most important work with small groups of people. And sometimes, as with the woman at the well, He gave His greatest attention to just one person.

Why? Because one person and one group of persons, however small the group, set on fire with the Good News that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that all who believe in Him will live with God forever, that one small group, that one person, can change the world.

Light, when focused by a magnifying glass, as Pastor Rick Warren points out, can burn paper or leaves. When focused still more, as a laser beam, light can bore through steel.

Jesus used a single life, that of a Samaritan woman whose neighbors formerly derided as a lowlife (or worse), to take His good news to her hometown.

Our Bible lesson tells us that many believed in Jesus because of what she said. Others, having encountered Jesus, were able to say, “We see for ourselves. He is our Savior.”

Today, I ask you to ask God to use you and Friendship Church as a laser beam that bores through the layers of resistance, sin, and hopelessness we encounter each day.

As we approach Forty Days of Purpose, coming up April 9 through May 22, ask God to fill us all with the life-changing power of Jesus Christ so that, as individuals and as a congregation, we become agents by whom God changes our world.

I ask you to commit yourself to the following:

  • Agree to serve on a team when one of our team leaders calls you this week.
  • Agree to read one chapter of The Purpose Driven Life throughout each day of our campaign for spiritual renewal.
  • Participate each week of the campaign in a small group.
  • Host a small group to which members of Friendship and our non-churchgoing neighbors will be invited during the campaign.
  • Prayerfully ask God how you can live out His five major purposes for your life.

God wants to use us to spread the light of His love in our community. In prayer, let’s tell God that He’s free to do just that!

Lest You Think I'm Some Outrageous Liberal

Check out my response to the task force on sexuality of my own denomination. I bring this up lest people derive the wrong impression about what I say about civil unions here.