Thursday, March 17, 2005

Wonderful News!

I have written in the past about the good work done by the Boys and Girls Club here in our community. (See here and here.)

This past Saturday, we had a gala dinner and auction designed to raise operating funds for our clubs.

Today I learned that thanks to a lot of people working hard and God answering many prayers, the event was a huge success. About 350 people were in attendance and $75,000.00 was raised.

Who knows how many young people's lives will be positively effected by this? I am really happy!

Althouse and Noonan Offer Insights on Smith-Nichols Encounter

One of my favorite bloggers, Ann Althouse, quotes New York Times columnist (and one-time Reagan speech writer) Peggy Noonan and offers her own reaction to the encounter between Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols.

The Yearning to Live Life on Purpose

[The following piece is the latest edition of a column I write for a local chain of suburban Cincinnati newspapers.]

Ashley Smith knew what it was like to have the law after you. She'd had more than a few contacts with the criminal justice system in her twenty-six years and not because she'd been a model citizen, either.

She also knew what it was like to have one's life upended in a moment of violence. Three-and-a-half years before, she'd been widowed when her "good old boy" husband was stabbed to death.

Those facts alone probably qualified Smith to clearly understand what was going on in Brian Nichols' mind when, as she moved into a new apartment, Nichols took her hostage. Just a few hours before Nichols followed Smith into her apartment, Nichols had gone on a murderous rampage in an Atlanta courtroom and fled, setting off a desperate manhunt.

Smith's experiences could have added to her terror, but she seems to have been calm throughout an ordeal that lasted seven hours.

Incredibly, Smith's calm demeanor pacified Nichols. He put his guns under Smith's bed and listened as she spoke to him about her desire to live in order to raise her young daughter. Later, she prepared breakfast for her hostage-taker and she read from the Bible to him.

She also read and re-read sections from chapter 33 of Rick Warren's extraordinary book, The Purpose Driven Life to the interested Nichols.

That chapter begins with the succinct insight, "We serve God by serving others." Somehow, Brian Nichols was touched by those words, telling Smith that he too, wanted to be a servant.

Because of her demeanor and the sharing of herself and her faith, Smith led police to her captor. My guess is that Brian Nichols was relieved to be taken into custody. He probably will lose his life now, but he may well use what life he has left serving the God Who went to a cross in order to serve us all.

Brian Nichols could do with the rest of his life on this earth what so very few of us ever do: Live our lives according to God's purposes.

Based on the Bible, Rick Warren identifies five basic purposes for all of us: bringing pleasure to God; being part of God's family, the Church; spending our lives becoming more like Jesus; serving God; and sharing the Good News of Jesus with others.

Ironically, right now our congregation is preparing for a special time of personal renewal called 'Forty Days of Purpose,' beginning on April 7. During this time, groups of people will read and discuss Warren’s book. Our worship celebrations and some special events will be built around understanding and living God's five purposes for our lives.

We're offering this opportunity for personal renewal to everyone in our community. We're not out to fatten our membership roster or take anybody's money.

If you live in the Cincinnati area and would like to participate, we'll give you a copy of Rick Warren's book free.

We'll also get you in touch with a small group where you can discuss what you're reading in a friendly and no-pressure atmosphere.

My guess is that there are thousands of people in our community who want to understand the purpose for their lives. Why not set aside forty days to do that?

For more information on how you can participate in 'Forty Days of Purpose,' contact the Friendship Church via email at

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

"Built on a Rock, the Church shall stand..."

The Church is people. Buildings are only the places where churches gather to worship God, hear His Word, and be empowered for service in Jesus' Name. Church buildings are launching pads for God's people, sending them on their missions of loving God and loving neighbor. But it's always sad when churches lose their buildings.

Ann Althouse links to an article about a church in Madison, Wisconsin that has lost its building. Pray that God will help this cathedral to be rebuilt soon, please.

The Promise and the Perils of Democracy, Part 3

"Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby's head."
-U2 in Miracle Drug

Political, social, and economic freedom or their prospect bring euphoria. We've seen that in recent years as the wall came down in Berlin, Ukrainians demonstrated for their Orange Revolution, and Christians and Muslims take to the streets in Lebanon.

It's exciting and heady stuff! As a person who lives in a country that takes political, social, and economic freedom for granted, I can identify with the euphoria felt by the advocates of democracy in lands that have never experienced it before. Particularly as political, social, and economic freedom blossom, it's so new and exciting.

In the first two installments of this series, I've addressed two perils that democracies face:

1. The disappointment we may feel over democracy's sluggish decision-making.

2. The disappointment we may also feel when democracy doesn't prove to be a panacea for all our ills.

Neither of these disappointments are warrant for throwing out democracy as a bad idea. It's this temptation that now confronts the people of Russia, it seems, and which Vladimir Putin may be willing to encourage in order to consolidate his power.

The privilege of democracy is worth the pain. But here is a phenomenon that can imperil the success of democracy: Putting too much faith in the freedom that it offers.

One of my privileges as a pastor is being able to teach sixth through eighth graders in Catechism classes, preparing them to become adult members of the Church. Occasionally, I'll say something like, "There are people in prison for life who are more free than multimillionaires who can do almost anything." Sometimes, the kids will snicker at the absurdity of that statement. But it's true!

True freedom must mean the permission to become our best selves. This is what I call our God-selves, the people God made us to be. I believe that we're only really free to pursue being that person when we have a relationship with the God Who made us.

Stick with me on this for a few moments, please. If you disagree with what I say, you can rave about that in the "Comments" section; that's why it's there.

Think about this for a moment. You buy a new lawn mower at Sears. It's got a sophisticated mulching system, unique engine requiring a particular mixture of fuel, and you have to assemble it all yourself. Now, maybe if you're a man, you'll try to assemble the thing without a look at the instructions. But if you're a member of the rest of the human race, you'll probably study those instructions for a time.

Why? Because the manufacturer spent thought on the engineering of your new mower. There are particular ways this piece of machinery can be operated optimally. That's why they also spent time documenting how to operate it optimally.

Human beings operate optimally when they strive to live in accordance with God's will. None of us achieve this fully. We all fall short of God's intentions for us. That's when we can thank God for the forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ and ask God for new beginnings as well as for help in paying attention to His will, revealed in His instruction manual, the Bible.

Fact is, we have an intrinsic desire to link up with God and His will for our lives. Anthropologists affirm that we human beings are inherently religious creatures. Absent a relationship with the true God Who sets us free to be our true selves, we will establish our own "gods," false deities that we believe will set us free. Just as history abhors a vacuum, we abhor a "Vacancy" sign on the hole in our souls meant to be filled by God.

Without the one true God in their lives, primitive peoples will worship a plethora of gods, superstitiously hoping to placate the gods' anger to get things like rain, sun, crops, a good hunt, and so forth.

More sophisticated people can worship themselves, thinking that they make their own good fortune; their own minds; their physical prowess; wealth; sex; power; good times; alcohol; or a thousand other things.

Whatever our deities may be, we follow them in order to be free in some way or another. The alcoholic or drug addict worships the object of their addictions because they feel, however fleetingly, that these things set them free from their pain, their disappointments, or their boredom with life.

Yet each of these gods will ultimately enslave us. Only the God made clear through Jesus Christ frees us of our dependencies on the finite, death-fated little gods we're tempted to worship.

Jesus says, "If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." [John 8:31-32]

The third peril of democracy is that it can delude us with the penultimate versions of freedom it offers. We may think that because we can live where we want, vote for our leaders, enter the professions of our choice, dissent from governmental action, make a lot of money, move to a big house, etc., etc., etc., that we can have true freedom without God.

That's why a prisoner who's turned from sin and let God into the center of his life might be freer than the wealthy guy. The prisoner may be totally dialed into making the most of each moment, loving God, loving neighbor, living in the moment, savoring the wonder of life and sharing that with others. The wealthy guy, thinking that freedom comes from his investment portfolio, is likely to live in constant fear, turned in on himself, unable to live for anyone but himself and his money god.

Over time, democracies are really good in creating middle classes and enhancing the general well-being of their citizens. That's all to the good.

But they can lull us into accepting less freedom than God intended for us. They can cause us to settle for less freedom in this life and absolute slavery to evil in the life to come. The fatherly words of John in the New Testament are good for those of us who live in the world's most prosperous democracy to consider:
"I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know Him Who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. Do not love the world or the things of the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world--the desire of the flesh [not sexual desire only, by the way, but every desire that makes us dependent on things earmarked for death], the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches--comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever." [First John 2:14-17]
And what is the will of God? Simply that we entrust our lives to the One Who made us and can set us free to move toward becoming our best selves. That happens through God the Son, Jesus. Jesus says of Himself, "...if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36)

Democracy and the political, economic. and social freedom it affords are all wonderful. But democracy imperils our lives when we allow it to lure us into accepting less than all the freedom God has in mind for each one of us. Following Jesus Christ is the way to real freedom.

[If you'd like to read the first two installments of this series, you can find them here and here.]

Monday, March 14, 2005


As Glenn Reynolds would say, "Heh."

Of Ashley, 'the Angel,' and God's Message for Us All

The story of Ashley Smith, the hostage held by Brian Nichols following a killing spree that began in an Atlanta court room last week, is truly extraordinary.

While honestly owning her desire to live to Nichols, she also showed great grace and courage, attributes, it appears, nurtured by her faith.

I was particularly struck by this statement by Smith in The Chicago Tribune's account of her experience with Nichols:
"He just wanted some normalness in his life right then," she said. "He said he thought I was an angel sent from God. And that he was lost and God led him right to me."
The New Testament word for angel, angelos, literally means messenger. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew equivalent of the word is often used of the very presence of God come to earth. The angel of God with whom the scheming Jacob wrestled in Genesis 32:22-32 is God Himself. The same is true of the angel of God met by Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18.

Most other Old Testament occurrences of the term are more like those we see, in the New Testament in, for example, the angelic appearances to Mary or to the shepherds. These are messengers sent from God, sort of like heavenly email.

Of course, all human beings who follow Jesus are called to be messengers of God, who, whatever our jobs or circumstances have a single, fundamental mission in life: To love and serve our neighbors as though they were God. (Matthew 25:31-46)

It is this that Ashley Smith appears to have done. Although fully aware of who Bruce Nichols was and fully acknowledging her fear, she calmly won his trust, related to him, cooked breakfast for him, and read Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life to him.

What Nichols has done is monstrous beyond description. Civil justice must and undoubtedly, will be done. Prosecutors have the moral and legal obligation to prosecute him to the full extent of the law.

But I also believe that no matter how monstrous we may be, God doesn't give up on redeeming us for eternity. He does that by sending His messengers, angelic and otherwise, to remind us that we matter to Him, that we can turn from our monstrosities.

Who knows how many such messengers God sent to Bruce Nichols before he erupted in that Atlanta court room last week? It's tragic he wasn't listening then.

God has a simple message for all of us:
16‘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. 17‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. [John 3:16-18]
Let's not tune Him out!

[The best book on angels that I've read is Angels: God's Secret Agents by Billy Graham.

[A great discussion of Christian 'vocation,' how we live our lives in the everyday world is found in D. Michael Bennethum's new book, Listen! God is Calling: Luther Speaks of Vocation, Faith, and Work.]

Operation Smile

My brother, comedian Marty Daniels, has posted an interesting and short piece on 'Operation Smile,' a not-for-profit organization that helps provide surgical procedures for children suffering from facial deformities. Marty also has a link to the organization on his site.

Dave Barry on Parental Incompetence

Dave Barry lifts up yet another example of parental incompetence detailed in a New York Times article on parents who get "coaches" to help them learn how to discipline their kids. I love Barry's quick quip on this one!

I talked about parental reluctance to parent, in a post last week. It's here.

Just One Major Injustice in NCAA Brackets, I Think

From an article in this morning's Cincinnati Enquirer:
OXFORD- The Miami Redhawks, at no. 39, had the best Ratings Percentage Index ranking of any team not to receive a bid to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament and were one of just three teams with ratings in the top 50 on not to get in.
Every year, of course, there are complaints about who wasn't invited into March Madness. But the snub of Miami of Ohio is particularly egregious. As the Enquirer article, written by Mark Curnutte, points out:
"Miami is believed to have the highest RPI of any team not invited to the NCAA Tournament since No. 33 Oklahoma in 1994."
Since 65 teams are invited to the Big Dance, you can understand the dismay of Miami fans.

Miami's chances were no doubt hurt by two major factors:
(1) The loss of four of their six last games.

(2) Playing in the Mid-American Conference (MAC), considered a "mid-major."
However, in a year when the level of play in a few major conferences has been lower than usual, there should have been some room among the 35 at-large bids for a mid-major that appears to be the thirty-ninth best team in the country.

I'm a Big Ten guy, for example, but the conference simply didn't deserve to place five teams in the tournament. I expect several of them to be knocked off very early.

Conference USA, a mediocre conference this year, has several teams invited to March Madness.

Teams garnering at-large bids that have lower RPIs than that of Miami are also in the tournament.

For the most part, I think that the tournament invitation committee did a terrific job. I was pleased that Saint Mary's was invited, for example.

But it's too bad that Miami won't have a chance to vie, however fleetingly, for the national title. They deserve that.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Hope Meets Despair

Ezekiel 37:1-14
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, March 13, 2005)

In his book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins, tells about his interview with Admiral James Stockdale. I’ve told this before, I think. But it bears repeating.

Stockdale, unfortunately, got tagged with the reputation of being something of an oaf after his 1992 run as Ross Perot’s vice presidential running mate. It’s an undeserved reputation because he is a truly brilliant and great person.

While being held as the the highest-ranking US officer in the so-called Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp, where he was tortured more than twenty times in eight years, Stockdale applied his brilliance and self-discipline and courage to survive that horrific experience and to help others do the same.

A few years ago, Collins had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Stockdale. The Admiral was doing some studies in the field of Philosophy at Stanford University and Collins taught there. In preparation for their meeting, Collins read Stockdale’s memoirs of his POW experiences.

“As I moved through the book,” writes Collins, “I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak.” Then he reflected on the fact that he was reading about Stockdale’s experience of brutality and torture as he himself sat in a comfortable setting with a window looking out onto a beautiful college campus. And then he thought, “If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?

When Collins met Stockdale, he asked the admiral about that. “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he replied. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Collins let that astounding statement sink in for awhile and then asked Stockdale who, of his fellow prisoners, didn’t make it out. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

That seemed to contradict what Stockdale had just said about never doubting the end of the story. Confessing his confusion, Collins asked Stockdale to explain. Said the admiral:
“The optimists...They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Writes Collins:
“Another long pause...Then he turned to me and said, ‘This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end--which you can never afford to lose--with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.’”
I’m going to repeat that last sentence: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end--which you can never afford to lose--with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

The primary privilege and the primary responsibility of every person who claims to follow Jesus Christ is to hope.

God has come into our lives in the Person of Jesus Christ, shared human life with us, gone to a cross where He took the rap for our sins, and then rose from the dead, promising that all who repudiate and walk away from their sin and hold onto Him as their only God and Savior will live in joy with Him forever. Following Jesus brings hope because we know how the story ends.

But we aren’t called to be what Stockdale called optimists. In my nearly thirty years as a Christian and over twenty as a pastor, I’ve seen those kinds of Christians, the optimists, come and go. They’re like firecrackers. When a firecracker is first lit, it’s a beautiful thing. The colors and the noise and the spectacle are dazzling. And you think, “Wow!” But firecrackers always burn out as quickly as they light.

The Christian version of firecrackers are those people who get all excited about having God in their lives and love the warm and fuzzy feelings they get as they first fall in love with Jesus. They feel like they could climb the highest mountains without rest stops.

But then they hit snags. The snags can be as small as “not getting anything out of worship today,” as though that’s what worship is about...because worship is about our praising God, not God or the preacher or anybody else entertaining us.

Or the snags can be the tragedies to which all of us who live in this imperfect world are subject.

Authentic Jesus-Followers are more like the fire in our winter fireplaces. They may burn with varied intensity over time and they may sometimes need to be stoked. But unlike the firecracker Christians who, like rah-rah, team! optimists, act as the source of their own flames, the fireplace Christians know that it is Jesus Christ Who sets their faith on fire and keeps it going.

The Christians who keep on living with the hope that is the right of every follower of Jesus are the ones who understand that life on this planet may sometimes be brutal, but we know how the story ends. It ends with the followers of Jesus being with God in a forever kingdom of peace.

Our Bible lesson for today records a vision God gave to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel’s ministry as a prophet took place from 597 to 571 B.C. Long before Ezekiel was born, God’s nation of Israel had torn in two. The northern kingdom, called Israel or also Samaria, for its capital city, had long ago been conquered by the Babylonians, a people who lived in what is today Iraq.

Then, in about 587 B.C., the nation of Judea, the southern kingdom, with its capital city of Jerusalem, and the nation from which Jesus would come many centuries later, was also conquered by the Babylonians. The common practice in those days was that a conquering nation would capture the conquered country’s ablest and most prominent citizens and send them back to the conquering nation to be slaves. This is what happened to Ezekiel.

It’s difficult for us to imagine how shattering this experience was for the people of Judea. Judea was more than just their homeland. It was also the center of their worship. They always believed that God’s presence on earth was to be found in the Holy of Holies tabernacle at the Temple in Jerusalem. When they prayed to God, they did so facing that tabernacle wherever they were in Judea or in their synagogues.

Now that the Temple was all-but-destroyed and they were far from it in an unholy land, could God hear their cries?

Did God care what happened to them?

Was God out of their lives forever?

Could God reach out to them with His compassion and power?

The optimists of Ezekiel’s day all died of broken hearts. They didn’t remember that they belonged to the God Who has charge and always has had charge of the ends of our stories.

Like us, the people of Ezekiel’s day needed to be reminded of that. So, God showed Ezekiel a vision.

In a valley (or maybe on a plain, because it can be translated either way), God put Ezekiel in the midst of dead, dry bones. “Okay, Zeke,” God said, “start reminding these people of how the story ends for people with faith in Me. Remind them that death and humiliation are not the ends for those who follow Me. Proclaim My Word of hope to them!” You know how the story ends: “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” sprang to life again.

Which brings us to the second and final point of today’s message. The first was that it is the first privilege and responsibility of every follower of Jesus Christ to live in hope because we know how our stories end. Our second privilege and responsibility is this: to use our lives, our words, and our actions to give that same hope to others.

Through Pastor Steve Goodier, I recently learned of this true story from author Sherman Rogers. During his college years, Rogers spent a summer in an Idaho logging camp. When the superintendent had to leave for a few days, this nineteen year old college student was put in charge. He worried that the men wouldn’t take his orders. The superintendent said if that happened, he should fire them.

But then, as if reading Rogers’ mind, he said not to be too hasty in firing the one guy nobody liked. This one person had the lousiest attitude in the camp. He was an Italian immigrant named Tony. The superintendent conceded that Tony was a grumpy grouch who was negative and surly. But, the superintendent said, “Tony is the most reliable worker I’ve ever had...he comes in first and leaves last. There has not been an accident for eight years on the hill where he works.”

When Rogers took over the next day, he approached Tony and revealed that it had been his intention to fire him the first chance he got. But now, he said, he wasn’t going to do it. He then told Tony what the superintendent had said about Tony's work ethic and reliability. Tony dropped his shovel and tears streamed down his face. “Why he no tell me dat eight years ago?” That day Tony worked harder than he ever had and actually had a smile on his face.

Years later, Rogers ran into Tony in California, where he had become a great success in the mining business. Rogers asked him how it happened. “If it not be for the one minute you talk to me back in Idaho, I keel somebody someday. One minute, she change my whole life.”

Ezekiel found that one minute spent sharing the God we know through Jesus Christ can bring people new lives.

Please, this week, take some minutes to call your friends.

Tell them about our upcoming Forty Days of Purpose campiagn of spiritual renewal here at Friendship.

Invite them to participate.

Help them know the God Who, through us, can speak His Word of love and hope to people and make those who feel like dead, dry bones alive again.

Tell them to come join us as we all get to better know the God Who, through Jesus, has given us reason to hope because in Him, we know how the story is going to end!