Saturday, March 26, 2005

Do the Smiths and Joneses Stand a Chance Against American Royalty?

It's been a few days since I last wrote about the impending race for Congressman Rob Portman's second congressional district seat. Portman will soon be vacating his post to take a spot in President Bush's administration, as US fair trade representative.

Several probable frontrunners have taken themselves out of the race. Phil Heimlich is to be the candidate for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Ohio's attorney general, Jim Petro, when the latter runs for governor in 2006. Former state senator and one-time state senate president, Doug White, currently a member of Ohio Governor Bob Taft's administration, has opted out of the special congressional election.

Several others are looking at it. But we suddenly have two frontrunners. One is Hamilton County commissioner, Pat DeWine, son of Ohio's senior senator, Mike DeWine.

The other, we now have learned, is one of DeWine's law partners, Bill Keating, Jr., whose father, one-time publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer, formerly served in Congress, in this very seat. Keating has never run for or served in political office.

Keating and DeWine may in fact be qualified for this post. Each may do a great job if elected.

But one can't help but wonder if either of them would get a second look if their last names were Smith or Jones or if they didn't have money or connections to money.

Sometimes, it seems we are ruled by royalty in America, right down to the local level.

Here in southwestern Ohio, for example, Cincinnati has a Democratic mayor named Luken whose father was a congressman and major political figure.

Ohio's governor comes from a venerable Cincinnati family of Republicans, the Tafts. The current governor is the great-grandson of a President (also a Supreme Court Chief Justice); grandson of a Republican Senate leader and presidential candidate; and son of a former at-large congressman and Senator.

At the national level, our President is the grandson of a Senator and the son of a President. In the 2000 election campaign, he was pitted against the son of a Senator. In the most recent election, his opponent was able to tap into some of the fortune left behind by his wife's first husband, scion of the Heinz family fortune and a Senator himself.

Again, nothing says that these people with politically famous or otherwise prominent names lack qualifications for public office. It's very likely that political affairs and public policy were topics of discussion in their homes as they were growing up. They were raised with politics as a core topic of conversation and so, politics may come more naturally to them than to others. Because of their family backgrounds, they may have thought about public affairs more than the rest of us.

But from time to time, it would be nice to see a few Smiths and Joneses without political names or lots of cash get a shot at serving in Congress. It might even be good for the country.

Thinking About Last Night's Good Friday Worship

Last night's Good Friday worship at our church was among the most moving and meaningful I've ever experienced.

It wasn't that much different from anything we've done before. We did have new prayers for Jesus' seven last words; our reading of the Passion account was from The Message version of the Gospel of John, chapters 18 and 19, whereas in the past, we've used the New Revised Standard Version; and Kathy, our music director, sang a beautiful song, Your Grace Still Amazes Me as we sat in the then-nearly dark sanctuary. Yet, none of these constitute anything especially earth-shaking.

But God was clearly there and I felt myself drawn to Jesus once again.

It's such an incredible thing to be part of a church family where we get to share Jesus together!

This thought can at times, make me feel incredibly guilty and small when I take Christ and the Church--including this congregation--for granted.

But the truly amazing attribute of God's grace--literally, His charity--is that He willingly takes rebels and ingrates like me and keeps showering us with love. It's humbling!

I feel like the Prodigal Son in Jesus' parable, from whom, the theologian Helmut Thelicke once said, the father squeezed out a confession of sin with a bear hug of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. In spite of our rebellion, God's love precedes, accompanies, and is the sweet aftertaste of our confessions of sin. God never forces Himself on us, but He waits with baited breath for us to turn to Him. God's grace is amazing!

It's also humbling for me to consider what makes a time of worship meaningful. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I love words. I'm a communicator. Because of that, the part of my job as a pastor that I like the most is preaching.

But last night, there was no preaching, no pulpit humor, no witty aphorisms, or emphatically-delivered words of wisdom.

Some congregational songs, some prayers, a responsive reading from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a soloist singing praise to God, two chapters from John's account of Jesus' crucifixion, and all of us leaving in silence.

That's it.

No balm for my ego, but something more important: an opportunity to take the focus off of me and to put it onto God, where it belongs; a chance to remember with people I care about how desperately God loves us all...enough to go to a cross; a time to sing thankfully to God of His incredible love.

I saw again what a waste of time it can be to try to be "clever" in one's preaching. The story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection--all of which comprise the gospel, the good news that God is for us and offers new life to all who turn from sin and turn to Christ--is all we really need!

None of this is to say that preachers shouldn't work at their craft, delving into Biblical scholarship, striving to connect the Bible's truths with everyday life, and to do all of this in ways that make Christ accessible to people. But I do think that I personally, anyway, need to work and pray toward the goal of getting out of God's way and letting the wonderful message of Christ reach people through me without calling attention to myself.

It seemed to me as I read Eugene Peterson's wonderful paraphrase of John's Passion account last night that neither he, as the writer, or I, as the reader, got between the Bible and the people. Somehow, each person was with Jesus. And that's a lot better than their being with me.

But when we can all be with Jesus together, that is a taste of heaven!

Friday, March 25, 2005

It's Time to Get Mad About Ohio's School Funding Crisis

[This is the latest installment of a column I write for a local chain of suburban Cincinnati newspapers.]

My wife takes care of the bill-paying at our house and this morning, she wrote a check for our property taxes. We’ve been hit with a $55.00-increase, attributable partly to the school levy for which we voted last year.

In the meantime, our school system, the West Clermont district, is being forced to make cuts, some of which will result in worsening student-to-teacher ratios.

Parents who have gotten wind of this are upset, understandably so.

Personally, I want people all over Ohio to be mad. But, our local school boards or district administrations shouldn't be the objects of our ire.

The fault is a byzantine school funding formula which has been judged unconstitutional four different times by the state supreme court.

That formula is a shell game that robs our schools and kids of money that voters authorize the schools to have. And nobody seems to know where that money goes.

Fundamental to getting a handle on Ohio's school funding mess is remembering that Ohio schools are financed mostly by local property taxes. In a sensible world, Ohio would follow a simple formula in obeying the state constitution’s provision that all our kids will receive the same educational opportunities. It might look like this in a Simulated District:
(a X b= c) = (d + e)

(a) State-Set Per Student Cost of Educating Student

(b) # of students

(c) Total Cost in Simulated District

(d) locally-generated property tax revenue

(e) state additions or reductions to local revenues insuring that the "revenue" side equals the "need" side.
But, Ohio’s school funding formula isn’t sensible!

It goes back to a law called House Bill 920. HB 920 was passed in 1976, a time of high inflation. Under the law, increases in property valuations (rooted in inflation), would not result in massive influxes of funds into school treasuries.

In fact, irrespective of increases in property values or authorized tax millages, HB 920 caps the amount of tax revenue that can be received by a school district on those properties.

The complicated system now in place is a confusing maze. Two of its confusing components:
Phantom revenue: The difference between what the state appears to be committed to providing students and what is actually provided.

Capped Property Valuation Revenue: As property values increase, school districts might be expected to receive greater revenues, thus enabling them to keep pace with inflation. But in fact, except for newly constructed housing, the revenues from already existing housing is capped. This is one reason why school districts are forced to go back to voters for levies of various kinds with such frequency.
In the past, these injustices were somewhat lessened by a “cost of doing business” allowance. It accounted for different community economic conditions. A ream of paper might cost more in Batavia than in Boardman, for example, thus effecting per-pupil educational expenses. But in his latest biennial budget, Governor Taft proposes doing away with this equalizing provision.

There are proposals on the table to rectify the state’s school funding mess, one of which I’ll discuss in my next column.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Maundy Thursday Reflections

John 13:1-17, 31-35
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, March 24, 2005)

In a small town in Russia, legend says, there was a rabbi who disappeared each Friday morning for several hours. His devoted students, young and old, boasted that during those times, their rabbi went up to heaven and talked to God!

A stranger moved into that village and was skeptical about these claims. So, he decided to check things out for himself. He hid himself somewhere in the rabbi's house late one Thursday night and watched.

He saw the rabbi get up, say his prayers, and then dress in peasant clothing. Then, the rabbi grabbed an ax, went off to a nearby woods, and cut some firewood, which he then carried to a shack on the outskirts of the village. There, an old woman and her sick son lived. The rabbi left the wood, enough to last a week, and then sneaked back home.

Having seen the rabbi’s actions, the newcomer stayed on and he too, became a student--a disciple--of the rabbi. Whenever he heard one of the villagers brag, “On Friday morning our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven,” the newcomer would add quietly, “Maybe he ascends even higher.”

On the first Maundy Thursday, some two-thousand years ago, another rabbi (a title that means teacher), a rabbi Who also claimed to be the visible, physical, tangible, human incarnation of God Himself, served others.

On that night before His arrest and subsequent execution, Jesus took off his outer garment and crawling on His hands and knees, bent over the dirty feet of His disciples and washed each one.

At first, Simon Peter, the most vocal of His disciples demurred. This was the work of a servant, Peter thought, not of the Savior of the world.

Jesus, in effect, told Peter that the Savior is a servant. The human race could only be saved from the sin that otherwise kills us by a Savior so humble that He is willing to serve the lowest of the low and take the fall for the worst sinner who ever lived.

After washing the feet of all twelve of His closest followers, even the one He knew would soon betray Him to the Jewish temple police and the Roman soldiers, Jesus put His outer garment back on, resumed His place at supper, and with eyes locked on Him, spoke:
“Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord---and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet...”
Jesus is saying that His followers are closest to heaven and to Him when, like Him, we serve others.

Last year, you know, I began to serve on the corporate board for the Boys and Girls Club of Clermont County. It’s one of the most gratifying things of which I’ve ever been a part because I know that the clubs in New Richmond and Amelia--and one day, this will be true in every part of our county--have such a positive impact on the lives of the kids. Just playing the small part God allows me to play in this endeavor moves me more than I can say!

But there’s been another wonderful aspect of my service on the board. Most of the other members could, financially, buy and sell me many times over. There are occasions when that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, although not a single soul has ever lorded that fact over me. It's my hang-up entirely.

But I’ll tell you why I ultimately have grown to feel comfortable and like I'm part of things. It’s this: At the beginning of almost every meeting, one of the board members, a guy with cash and connections, grabs the glasses and pitchers of water set out on the table around which we meet, and pours water for each of us. He does it without ceremony or self-consciousness. In a small, yet meaningful way, he serves us and perhaps without knowing it, signals, “We’re all in this together, folks. We’re all part of the same team.”

Jesus says that when we serve others in His Name, we do more than make them feel comfortable. We give them a glimpse of heaven. We let them see the Servant-Savior we follow and Who lives in those who believe in Him. He then says, “Do this. Be a servant like me.”

Tonight, followers of Jesus from around the world celebrate Maundy Thursday. Maundy is an Old English derivative from the Latin word, mandatum, which means mandate or commandment. On that first Maundy Thursday, after washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus gave them a new commandment. He told them to love each other.

I think that there's a reason Jesus linked servanthood and love the way He did that night. Servanthood in Jesus' Name is powerful because it's the most profound, meaningful, and practical way we can fulfill His command to love others.

And God knows that the events of this past week demonstrate how desperately we need to love each other.

Earlier today, I was reading the New York Times' story about Jeff Wiese, the troubled sixteen year old who, this past Monday, killed his grandfather, his lover, a security guard at his school, a teacher, and several of his classmates. It enumerated one troubling fact and event after another in this kid's life. Yet nobody had seemed able to muster the love required to turn him in or get him the help he needed. The love of Jesus, lived in the guts of everyday life, might have made a difference in his life and saved it and nine other lives!

And as we meet here tonight, Terri Schiavo is dying in Florida hospice center. I don't know what your opinion may be of that and my purpose in mentioning her situation isn't to get on a soapbox. My purpose though, is to deplore the utter lovelessness with which the debate over her fate is sometimes waged. There are people claiming to be followers of Jesus who are, at the same time, advancing their opinions on whether Terri Schaivo should live or not, in an utterly vicious, condescending, and loveless way.

Jesus says that it's the love we show and the service we render to others that demonstrates His presence in our lives.

I wish that I were as creative about loving and serving in Jesus' Name as a friend of mine is. A few years ago, you know, it was common for sanctimonious Christians to haunt the entrances to abortion clinics, hurling epithets and directing the messages of derisive placards toward the staff and others who entered them. It's doubtful that these demonstrators changed too many minds about following Jesus with their tactics.

That's why my friend took groups of people from his church to serve refreshments to all who entered an abortion-providing facility, no strings attached and no questions asked. He and his church weren't expressing an opinion about abortion when they did this; they were simply sharing the love of Christ and being servants to people that others might revile. What do you think that the recipients of their loving service learned about Jesus?

They later did the same thing outside a topless night club that "decent folks" were protesting. They even provided babysitting for some of the dancers.

But to tell the truth, even in more conventional settings, servanthood has never come easily to me. I suppose that’s true for all of us.

We’d rather get bumped up to first class when we fly.

We’d prefer that someone else cleaned the toilets.

We like it when our table is called first to go through the banquet buffet line.

But something terrible happens to us when we always think of ourselves first: We build walls between ourselves and God, between ourselves and others. We can begin to think that we’re somehow entitled to being first. And when the world refuses to bend to our wills and preferences, we become angry and bitter.

Our lives make a lot more sense once we embrace the simple insight that the world doesn’t revolve around us, but around God.

When we dare to serve others as Jesus has served us, we give Him an opening that He fills with His love and grace.

It is the servants who follow Jesus who show us all what heaven is like.

Just as amazingly, like that rabbi who sneaked away on Friday mornings to serve without recognition, those who serve others in the Name of the God made known through Jesus, get to feel what heaven is like themselves!

Speaking for myself, I’m praying this Maundy Thursday that God will keep making war on my ego and that as I surrender my life to Him, Jesus will make a willing servant out of me because I love experiencing what heaven is like and I love sharing it with others!

[The story about the rabbi is adapted from the telling of a Russian legend by author Saul Bellow. I found it in Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion (Barrett, David P., ed., Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2002)]

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Ohio's Second Congressional District Seat Race Now Without Frontrunner

Readers who dropped by earlier today saw a post containing my speculation that Doug White, former Ohio state senate president, had become the frontrunner to replace Representative Rob Portman, recently nominated by President Bush to become US fair trade ambassador, in the upcoming special election for Ohio's Second Congressional District seat. That was because yesterday, Hamilton County commissioner Phil Heimlich, one of the presumptive frontrunners, was presented by Ohio's attorney general, Jim Petro, running for governor in 2006, as his lieutenant governor ticket mate.

Unbeknownst to me, White issued a press release yesterday, announcing that he would not make the congressional race.

That leaves the thing wide open with no strong candidates yet in the mix. We're in for some interesting weeks ahead.

Bookmark Bolsinger's Lenten Posts

Tod Bolsinger, one of my favorite bloggers, has been writing about Lent, its meaning, and how celebrating it can help us to grow as people throughout this Lenten season. If you haven't been reading these wonderful pieces, you might want to bookmark them and save them for reading next year during Lent.

Why Am I Shouting?

We've become a nation of shouters. Even those who speak softly wield opinions which shout at us.

And we shout in other ways too. The kid who went on the shooting spree in a Minnesota high school this week was shouting in a tragically violent way and ten people gave their lives for it.

The producers of television programming, whether they churn out the reality shows that blare on MTV or the cable news network's "political debates" that almost always pit "conservatives" and "liberals," love shouting matches.

Moderation, whether in one's views on political and social issues or in how they're presented, is put down in contemporary America.

Some accuse moderates of being "unprincipled."

Others dismiss moderate folk as anal, disengaged, and dangerously dispassionate.

All of which, I think, is a bunch of hooey!

For discourse in democracy to be helpful, we need a lot less shouting. We need a lot more people willing to say, "I don't know about that subject" and then, listen.

I've come to respect blogger Ann Althouse very much. But today, my respect for her has truly escalated. In the face of people nagging her to take a hard stand on the Terri Schiavo case, she's refused to offer her opinion of the underlying guts of the matter.

She has spoken on aspects of the situation, especially on those aspects where she has some expertise as a professor of law conversant in the issues of federalism surfaced by the Schiavo legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President days ago. But she doesn't feel bound to have an opinion about everything and indeed, my respect for her would be diminished if she did speak on every issue that comes along.

I especially love two paragraphs in the post in which she explains herself:
I'm not going to fill up my blog with speculation about what has really motivated the husband and parents of Terri Schiavo over the years. There are all kinds of horrible things one could say about them. It's easy to think of those things and to write them down. As to end of life decisions and the hard realities of death and dying, thousands of painful dramas play out every day. I don't have general pronouncements to make about how these should be resolved. Terri Schiavo's drama was enacted in public because of the bitterly hardened dispute between the husband and the parents. The dispute made an occasion for people with strong moral beliefs to argue their positions in high media profile.

I am not one of those people who have fixed beliefs about "the culture of life" or "the right to die," so I don't have an automatic side to take and the desire to fight it out. I think these are difficult matters, and I maybe I should write about them here and increase the proportion of moderate writing. But I pick my subjects here. When I choose to write about something serious, it's usually because I think I have something different to say or some extra value to bring to the table. When I'm silent about something, you can speculate about what I might think, but you don't know. You can try to goad me to write on a subject by emailing me your speculations about what I think (and feel), and maybe I will reveal it, but maybe I'm really quite committed to my silence.
I love that! It's a principled stand and it's one filled with honesty and integrity.

It's also shrewd, when you think about it, although I doubt that shrewdness enters Althouse's calculations. By restraining herself from speaking up about everything, the impact of her opinions on those subjects she knows or feels strongly about is only enhanced. There's a lesson in that for all of us.

So the next time somebody tells you that they don't have an opinion or that they don't believe that the people with whom they disagree are the devil-incarnate, don't dismiss them as unprincipled or disengaged. Instead, you might want to ask yourself a few questions:
Why do I have the opinion I hold? (This is the, Why am I shouting? question.)

Do I, as a general rule, have more opinions than knowledge of the facts?

Have I embraced what Canadian composer-singer Bruce Cockburn calls the "idolatry of ideology"?

If the answer to the last question is, "Yes," what am I going to do about it?
And to keep being fair-minded and open, read Ann Althouse's blog! It's one of the best on the web...even when you disagree with her.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Go Ahead...Fool Everyone by Being Yourself!

Last night, my wife and I had dinner with friends. Afterwards, we trekked to a nearby Target store so that she could pick up a sale item she'd had her eye on for awhile.

I actually enjoy shopping, which is not something most men can say, I know. But the form of shopping my wife and I do is pretty harmless, especially at Target.

Whenever we go there, the first department we hit is the Dollar Spot. We always scan the clearance end caps interspersed throughout the store, occasionally finding a few real bargains. Sometimes, I like to go through the housewares with my wife. And always, as she looks elsewhere, I go to the books, magazines, CDs, and DVDs. Usually, we walk out empty-handed.

While looking through the media area last evening though, I found a rack of $9.99 CDs, including a "greatest hits" collection by David Bowie and Dark Side of the Moon, the 1973 release by Pink Floyd.

I own some vinyl LPs (or as a college freshman from our church once described them, "those big black disks with holes in the middle") by Bowie and had in an earlier time, owned Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on (I'm not making this up) an eight track tape. But I'd long wanted to buttress my CD collection with some of his work.

Dark Side of the Moon came out the year I turned twenty. At the time, I worked on the loading dock for Lazarus department store in Columbus and was able to use my discount on new LP purchases. (New LPs usually cost $4.27. With my discount, they were $3.87 apiece.) I'd heard the album played on the local AOR station and loved it. But I'd never gotten around to buying it. For thirty-two years, it'd been on my mental, "someday I'll get that" list.

Last evening, I snapped up both LPs and carried them, along with my wife's purchases, to the check-out line.

As the teller, a thirty-something man named Paul, scanned our items, I was distracted by something else, but became aware of his stopping the procedure to stare at me for a second, my new Pink Floyd LP in his hand. I turned to him and asked, "What's the matter?"

"You don't look like the type to buy something like this," he said.

Had my purchase been polka-dotted boxer shorts, Paris Hilton's autobiography, or the latest issue of Teen Vogue, I might have understood the guy's mystification. But I was dumbfounded by it. I guess my Oxford shirt, khakis, SAS shoes, and Steve and Barry's lined Ohio State windbreaker didn't seem like appropriate attire for a Pink Floyd fan.

I smiled at him and asked, "What do people look like who buy something like that?" Before he could answer what was admittedly a rhetorical question, I pointed out that this CD which had come out in my twentieth year was probably as old as him or older.

"Besides," my wife told him, maybe hoping to take the edge off my semi-confrontational tone, "so much of the music from that period is timeless."

It's amazing the stereotypical categories into which we can place people with just the slightest impressions. I'm as guilty of it as the clerk at Target, who didn't offend me, but did amuse me. We stuff people in boxes and so, sometimes avoid the messy and rewarding enterprise of getting to know them as they are.

What I have learned is that no matter how much the demographers with their stratified public opinion surveys may think they know about individual people, there's always some intriguing iconoclasm in each person that confounds and amazes us.

This past Friday and Saturday, I attended a meeting of the Ohio and Michigan councils of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. (I'm on the board of our local club.) There were many intriguing people on hand. But among the most interesting was a seventy-seven year old, semi-retired businessman who has served on the board of his town's Boys and Girls Club for fifty-two years. I watched and listened to him in many of our small group sessions, saw him interacting with others, and had a few conversations with him myself.

The stereotype of a seventy-seven year old is of a sour and disengaged person. But not this guy! He asked questions of people and was genuinely interested in their answers. You could tell that he was out to learn new things that he could bring back to his local club which, in turn, would help the club positively impact the lives of the children it served. As I was getting ready to leave, I looked at this man and told somebody, "I hope that I live with that much joy when I hit seventy-seven."

I hope that I'm still listening to Pink Floyd too! I hope that I keep roaming outside the straight jackets of personal stereotypes others sometimes try to hang on me.

About three years ago, my wife and our daughter, then seventeen, were at a water park. Suddenly and unexpectedly, our daughter found herself face-to-face with rapper John Reuben.

"I can't believe I'm meeting you," she said, "my dad loves your music!"

Reuben was taken aback. "Your dad loves my music? How old is your dad?"

"He's forty-eight. Could you give me your autograph for him?"

For better and worse, we're all individuals. I agree with Rick Warren when he writes that God sets us free to do and be lots of things in this life so long as those things don't involve sin--hurting God or others--in the process.

Today, why not make it your goal to do one thing that expresses an aspect of your God-given personality that you may be suppressing. Chances are, expressing your uniqueness will be an act of praise to your Maker...and it will provide the extra benefit of mystifying others the way my purchase of Dark Side of the Moon confounded Paul.

Hope and Beauty in a Difficult Holy Week

This Holy Week, when we remember Jesus' death on the cross so that He could accept punishment for our sin and His resurrection when He opened up eternity to all who follow Him, the world is beclouded by sadness. From the horrible killings in Minnesota to the killing of Terri Schiavo in Florida, people are wrestling with the bleak realities of our fallen world.

But there is also hope and there is beauty.

Read this message from pastor who posts her messages on a blog. Very nice...Jesus brings freedom!

Read this wonderful meditation on the pain and joy of parenting from Gordon Atkinson. It's painful to watch our children go through difficult times. But when one considers the horrors that happened in a Minnesota school this week, the normal turmoil of adolescence seems almost sweet and safe!

'The Incredibles'

I saw The Incredibles for the first time this past week. (Our son bought the DVD.) While I thought it ran a bit long, I liked it. Its emphasis on our being who we're meant to be was healthy, I think, and the computer animation, particularly in two scenes--one in a jungle and the other set in the ocean--was stunning.

The film demonstrates why it's so important that once Michael Eisner steps down, Disney make nice with Steve Jobs and the folks at Pixar.

A Few Reflections on David Brooks' Profile of 'Sleazemasters'

David Brooks, conservative columnist and commentator, presents a devastating--and well-documented--portrait of people he identifies as sleazy lobbyists and activists, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, and others. These "upstanding" spokespeople for "morality" are perfectly willing, says Brooks, to diverge from their principles, get in bed with murderers, thugs, and proponents of other unsavory acts in order to pocket cash. We're talking tens and tens of millions of dollars. Read this:

Back in 1995, when Republicans took over Congress, a new cadre of daring
and original thinkers arose. These bold innovators had a key insight: that you
no longer had to choose between being an activist and a lobbyist. You could be
both. You could harness the power of K Street to promote the goals of Goldwater,
Reagan and Gingrich. And best of all, you could get rich while doing it!

Before long, ringleader Grover Norquist and his buddies were signing
lobbying deals with the Seychelles and the Northern Mariana Islands and talking
up their interests at weekly conservative strategy sessions - what could be more
vital to the future of freedom than the commercial interests of these two fine

Before long, folks like Norquist and Abramoff were talking up the virtues
of international sons of liberty like Angola's Jonas Savimbi and Congo's
dictator Mobutu Sese Seko - all while receiving compensation from these
upstanding gentlemen, according to The Legal Times. Only a reactionary could
have been so discomfited by Savimbi's little cannibalism problem as to think
this was not a daring contribution to the cause of Reaganism.

Soon the creative revolutionaries were blending the high-toned forms of the
think tank with the low-toned scams of the buckraker. Ed Buckham, Tom DeLay's
former chief of staff, helped run the U.S. Family Network, which supported the
American family by accepting large donations and leasing skyboxes at the MCI
Center, according to Roll Call. Michael Scanlon, DeLay's former spokesman,
organized a think tank called the American International Center, located in a
house in Rehoboth Beach, Del., which was occupied, according to Andrew
Ferguson's devastating compendium in The Weekly Standard, by a former "lifeguard
of the year" and a former yoga instructor.

Ralph Reed, meanwhile, smashed the tired old categories that used to
separate social conservatives from corporate consultants. Reed signed on with
Channel One, Verizon, Enron and Microsoft to shore up the moral foundations of
our great nation. Reed so strongly opposes gambling as a matter of principle
that he bravely accepted $4 million through Abramoff from casino-rich Indian
tribes to gin up a grass-roots campaign.

As time went by, the spectacular devolution of morals accelerated.

Read Brooks' entire column here. (Registration required.)

A few observations:

(1) A person can become so accustomed to possessing and using power that he or she thinks they deserve it. Any power that comes our way is only ours on loan. People who corrupt our government and distort its policies for the sake of the almighty buck often get thoroughly corrupted even though they continue seeing themselves as people of moral rectitude.
This unfortunately, is what can happen to members of families, parties, or movements who've grown accustomed to being part of the "in" group.

(2) People who presume that the policies they advocate are morally right because they are morally right are a danger to the country. Even when such people slide down moral slopes to advocate policies at odds with their own morality, they likely can't see it, because they still see themselves as moral people. "What I'm lobbying for can't be wrong," they tell themselves, "because I'm lobbying for it."

This was precisely the attitude of the upright Woodrow Wilson who, while not personally corrupt, immolated all his good policies on the bonfire of sanctimony.

Everybody, repeat after me: "I might be wrong. I might be wrong. I might be wrong."

"All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," the Bible says. All is an inclusive term. It means everybody. When I begin with the assumption that I might be wrong, good things can happen. Pride, on the other hand--again as the Bible reminds--is the starting point of all falls from grace, power, and morality.

(3) Money is morally neutral. But it is the most powerful drug, the most alluring aphrodesiac, and the most attractive god on this planet. It's not for nothing that the New Testament says, "The love of money is the root of all evil."

Quaker theologian Richard Foster, in his book Money, Sex, and Power, says that we will either own our money or it will own us.

Sleazy operators no doubt feel very much in control because of all the millions they acquire through unprincipled political prostitution. But they come to be controlled by their cash. It's the tail wagging the dog.

There is nothing more pathetic than people who've enslaved themselves to one thing or another, nonetheless protesting how free they are. They're like Jesus' fellow Judeans, as recorded in a conversation in the Gospel of John (chapter 6) who, when Jesus offers them true freedom, protest that they've never been slaves to anyone, even though their whole history was one of enslavement to one empire after another, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Roman.

UPDATE: I'm always humbled when the terrific Rob Asghar links posts from this web log on his. He has done so with this reflective piece here. Thank you, Rob! Make sure you check out the rest of Rob's blog. It's one of the best ones around!

ANOTHER UPDATE: We've been engaging in an interesting "comment button conversation" on this post at Rob Asghar's web site linked above. Check it out!

Monday, March 21, 2005

One Voice from Medical Community on Schiavo's Brain

Code Blue Blog, written by a physician, presents one doctor's view of what's going on with Terri Schiavo's brain, based on a 1996 scan. In the most stunning passage, which discusses the damage to Schiavo's cortex, a key element in arguments for allowing her to be starved to death, we read:
First of all, the University of Miami's appellation for this scan is inaccurate. "Cortical regions" are not and can not be filled with spinal fluid. The sulci (spaces between cortical ribbons) are enlarged secondary to cortical atrophy and these sulci are filled with cerbrospinal fluid.

The most alarming thing about this image, however, is that there certainly is cortex left. Granted, it is severely thinned, especially for Terri's age, but I would be nonplussed if you told me that this was a 75 year old female who was somewhat senile but fully functional, and I defy a radiologist anywhere to contest that.


The worrisome, no alarming thing, for me, was that I heard a bioethicist and several important figures on the major media describe Terri's brain as MUCH WORSE. One "expert" said that she had a "bag of water" in her head. Several experts described her as a "brain stem preparation"

These statements are wholly inaccurate. This is an atrophied brain, yes, but there is cortex remaining, and where there's cortex (?life) there's hope.

If you starve this woman to death it would be, in my professional and experienced medical opinion, the equivalent of starving to death a 75-85 year old person. I would take that to the witness stand.
That intrigues me. I'd like to hear from other doctors. Please use the Comment button below, if you will.

Did Congress and President Uphold Federalism with Schiavo Bill?

Could it be that Congress and the President have actually upheld federalism with the Terri Schiavo bill? Ann Althouse raises that intriguing thought here:
One more thing about federalism: the democratic branches of the state government had a conception of the rights of Terri Schiavo that the state court trumped, relying on state constitutional law. Arguments about federalism need to take account of the fact that the state is not a monolithic entity. Congress is now aligning with the position taken by the state legislature and the state governor. One could say that the new federal statute embodies federalism values, because it attempts to restore the choice made by the democratic branches of state government and to remove the obstacle set up by the state court.
In another post, Althouse makes her skepticism about the validity of the complaint now in federal court. Read here.

I like the fact that Althouse is an even-handed dealer in facts. Hers is one of the best blogs out there!

Asghar Raises Important Issue

Rob Asghar, one of the very best writers blogging today, recently put a link to a column he wrote a few years back. In it, this former Muslim who has become a follower of Jesus, records his feelings that George Bush, a man for whom he voted in 2000, has co-opted his "hero," Jesus Christ. It's thought-provoking stuff, calling Christians away from triumphalism and towards the sort of discipleship that happens when Jesus-Followers strive to live like Jesus Himself.

Considering the Terri Schiavo Case from Three Angles of Vision

This morning, I'm looking at the situation surrounding Terri Schiavo from several angles of vision. Maybe you are as well. Feel free to tell me what you're thinking, using the Comment button below.

First, I'm looking at it as a person who strives to be compassionate. I would describe myself as pro-life. I think that government and more importantly, societies and individuals, should be committed to preserving, nurturing, celebrating, and adding quality to human life.

When I ran for the Ohio House of Representatives last year, I did so with the endorsement of all the pro-life groups.

But I also believe that there are times when it's appropriate to let a person die.

Years ago, I was pastor to a man whose cancer had been in remission for many years and then came back with a vengeance. His hospital stay came to an end when doctors and family decided to let him go home to die, where he would be treated by family and people from hospice.

Several times after that, he had nearly died. But each time, he had been "brought back" by his sister, a person proficient in several emergency procedures. Each time, his condition worsened and it was clear that he would die soon.

An entire community prayed for this man. We wanted a miracle. But we also submitted to God's will.

One day, I visited him, although he was no longer able to communicate with us, and with his family. While I was there, all his vitals plunged and it was clear that barring more heroics, he would die. As we all stood around his bed, there came a decision-point. The sister asked the wife, "Should I do anything?"

Later, the sister told me that, from the corner of her eye, she saw me slightly shake my head, "No," to that question. Although I was completely unaware of it at the time and I'm thankful that no one else noticed me at that moment, that involuntary gesture reflected my inner feelings. This man had suffered much for years. By all the usual definitions of life, he had died some days before. Numerous past heroics had not changed either his condition or his prognosis. Faithful people had prayed for him. It seemed time to let him pass away.

I relate all this by way of saying, I appreciate the agony of Terri Schiavo's husband. I think that we all should.

One of the commandments God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai says, "You shall not bear false witness." Martin Luther, the founder of the Christian movement of which I am a part, says that commandment isn't just God telling us to avoid telling outright untruths about others. It's also about putting "the most charitable construction" on the actions of others. I believe that we owe that to Michael Schiavo.

I don't believe that Mr. Schiavo is a monster. He needs our prayers as much as Terri Schiavo or her parents and other family members do. And I'm not talking about sanctimonious prayers in which we instruct God to smite him or instruct him, but prayers that reflect true compassion for all that he's been through for the past ten years. (Truth is, I'm as worthy of smiting and instruction as any other member of the human race!)

This leads me to the second angle of vision from which I view this situation, as a person of faith who strives to look at and live life according to God's will.

This viewpoint tells me: There is a marked difference between letting someone die and causing someone to die.

When my family made the decision some twenty-nine years ago to let my grandfather, who had suffered from a massive cerebral hemorrhage nineteen days earlier, die, nothing was done to engineer his passing. He was kept comfortable, including being nourished intravenously. But no "heroics" were undertaken and he ultimately died quietly, still in a comatose state.

In my mind at the time, letting him die meant doing nothing to artificially prolong my grandfather's life. There was a recognition that absent certain machinery, medication, and procedures, he would not be breathing and his heart would not be beating. Our decision was to allow his body to shut down in as comfortable a manner as possible.

Since then, I've come to believe that, while I wouldn't change the decision we made, the distinctions I made then between artificial and normal prolongation of life may not be so easily drawn.

After all, every medical procedure or prescription can be seen as an artificial prolongment of life, health, or well-being. An aspirin administered at the outset of a heart attack, as the Bayer people like to remind us, can mitigate the effects of the attack and perhaps save a life. This has really always been the goal of medical science, to extend the quantity and the quality of life for those who absent medical intervention would die.

Yet, it seems to me that what has been proposed for Terri Schiavo is not to let her die, but to cause her to die. Proponents of her death would withhold nutrients from her. In effect, they want to starve her to death, whether that's their intent or not.

In an appearance on Saturday's edition of Good Morning, America, which I caught as I was preparing for a weekend meeting, Michael Schiavo's attorney said that those who objected to denying Terri Schiavo of nutrients needed to know that her death would not be painful. To me, that's irrelevant. Whether a person is kept comfortable as they die or not, they're just as dead when the killing is done.

To me, it would be an act of unspeakable barbarism for Terri Schiavo to be disposed of in this way.

Finally, I'm looking at this matter from the perspective of an American citizen and a student of politics.

Seen in this way, the legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President this morning confirms what has been increasingly obvious in the past four years: Conservatism, as the core philosophy of the Republican Party, is now, if not dead, completely moribund.

Conservatives have always believed in limited government, balanced budgets, foreign policy realism that took the interests of the nation as its basic principle, states' rights, federalism, and a government that avoids what has been called "social engineering" and "judicial activism."

Granted, these values have not always been at home in the Republican Party. Historically, going back to Lincoln and the GOP's Whig roots, the party stood for the Union over against the states, advocating--in the spirit of Washington and Hamilton--a robust federal government that would forge and safeguard a single national unity, with uniform laws and an integrated economy. Theodore Roosevelt was also an advocate of this form of conservatism.

Generally speaking, the advocates of states' rights and judicial restraint have also been members of the party on the outside of power, employing these doctrines at least in part, as convenient tools for restraining the incumbents from doing what the party on the outs opposed.

During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age when the Republican Party dominated US politics, it was the Democrats who appealed to these ideas.

In the South, Democrats were the fiercest advocates of states' rights as a means of forestalling the advancement of civil rights for African-Americans.

It was during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, inclined to welcome African-Americans into the Democratic Party's coalition of dispossessed aspirants for inclusion in America's life and a party confident of its hold on the federal govenment, that the two parties began to flip-flop on states' rights and federalism.

Ultimately, it was the Democrats who took up the advocacy of federal ascendance as a means of advancing people's rights and the Republicans, tired of being on the outs, who, with Richard Nixon, forged a new majority that included Southerners, like Strom Thurmond, the one-time States' Rights Party nominee, in railing against big government.

During the current Bush Administration however, Republicans, as confident as the FDR Democrats once were, have departed from conservatism.

The President presents budget after budget that is in deficit and has yet to veto the pork-fattened appropriations the Republican Congress has sent for his signature.

Republicans, once advocates of "strict constructionism" in its judicial appointees and stewardship of the Justice Department, now seem accepting of more expansive and intrusive federal power when used for their ends.

Mr. Bush, owing in part to his commitment to an idealistic foreign policy, executed a war in Iraq that it is difficult to imagine his father or any other previous Republican president, with their foreign policy realism, pursuing.

Last night and this morning, the Republican executive and legislative branches emphatically and perhaps definitively, parted from their conservative past and decided to define the Republican Party in different terms than those used in previous generations.

In taking jurisdiction over Terri Schiavo's case from the state courts, where conservative Republicans would have previously said it belonged, and handing it to federal judges, the Republican Party arrogated to the federal government breathtaking new powers that would have made Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan wince.

I'm not saying that this is bad or good. An argument is to be made that states are vestiges of the past, the appendices of the American body politic, remnants of the Colonial Era with which the Constitutional framers were forced to compromise in order to "form a more perfect union." In a nation as socially and legally integrated as America is today and in light of the receding importance of geography and place in the American mind, states may make little sense. Perhaps it's appropriate for the Republicans to be advocates of preeminent federal power over against states' rights and all the other things the party faithful are now advocating.

Be that as it may, things are different now. The Republicans are not conservatives when it comes to politics, the courts, or foreign policy. Neither are the Democrats. In that sense, there is no conservative presence in American politics today. The conservatives voted themselves out of existence early this morning.

UPDATE: John Schroeder of Blogotional has linked to this piece and has a round-up of some other ideas about the Terri Schiavo case. Read what he has to offer here. Thanks for the link, John!

ANOTHER UPDATE: Aaron at Two or Three (.net) has also linked to this posting and shares some interesting (and, as he describes them, "conflicted") thoughts about the intervention of Congress and President Bush in Terri Schiavo's situation. Read his post here. Thanks so much for the link, Aaron!

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Via Rob Asghar, I've learned that Andrew Sullivan sees that American conservatism has now entered a moribund state during the Bush II years. As Sullivan sees it, the Democrats are the party advocating big, solvent government and Republicans are the ones wanting bigger, insolvent government. Whatever the case they may be, it is clear that the Republican Party of today bears almost no resemblance to the Republican Party of Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan. The exigencies of history may have demanded this change, but it's a bit of a fantasy to pretend otherwise.

AND ANOTHER UPDATE: Brad of 21st. Century Reformation has also linked to this piece and offered some other insights and ideas. You can read what Brad thinks here. Thanks for linking, Brad!

ANOTHER ONE: Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has linked to this article, evoking much response below. Thanks, Glenn! By the way, Glenn's article, A Conservative Crackup? is interesting reading.

CLARIFICATION: From some of the comments coming in, it appears that I have created a misimpression of my views on this matter. I am pro-life. I want Terri Schiavo to live. In the third part of my reaction to the case, I was simply pointing out that the actions of a Republican Congress and President are part of a larger pattern of repudiating previous conservative orthodoxy. Is that legitimate? I didn't express an opinion on that. I reserve the right not to have an opinion sometimes.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

An Odd Year Congressional Race in the Offing

Congressman Rob Portman, a particular favorite of the Bush family and representative of Ohio's Second Congressional District where I live, has long been the subject of much political speculation (see here).

But there's new speculation in these parts now that President Bush has decided to nominate Portman for Senate approval as US trade representative.

The procedures that will be set off once Portman is confirmed (it's considered a slam dunk), are particularly susceptible to such speculating. As I understand it, a non-partisan special election will happen. The two top vote-getters in that election will then run off against each other to decide who will serve out Portman's unexpired term.

This district is so prohibitively Republican I believe that even if seven or eight Republicans and only one Democrat run in the initial election, the top two vote-recipients will still likely be from the GOP.

The district is composed of a chunk of Hamilton County (Cincinnati) and several other southwestern Ohio counties.

The two names being most commonly mentioned seem to be:
Hamilton County commissioner and former Cincinnati City Council member Phil Heimlich. I've only met Heimlich once, but I hear good things about him.

Former State Senate President Doug White. People I respect a lot are backing him and urging him to make the run.
Others are looking at the run. But I believe that these are the two most credible candidates with the best chances to run credible campaigns. As always, I must add the caveat that I am a notoriously poor prognosticator. (You should see my NCAA brackets!)

It will be really interesting to see how this campaign unfolds.

Freedom Comes Our Way

Matthew 21:1-11
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, March 20, 2005)

An efficiency expert spoke to a group of managers and was well received. “Whatever you do though,” he said near the end of his presentation, “don’t try this at home.” “Why not?” somebody asked.

He explained, “I used to watch my wife prepare breakfast in the morning and wondered why she took so many trips to the table, carrying just one item. One day I asked her, ‘Wouldn’t it be quicker and more efficient if you organized yourself to carry several things to the table at once?’” One of the managers asked the expert, “Did it work?”

“Yes,” he said. “It worked. It used to take my wife twenty minutes to prepare breakfast. Now I do it in seven.”

The point is that you and I may sometimes observe others living their lives and figure we could live them a lot better. It seems that we’re all experts at living other people’s lives. When Jesus lived His earthly life, people even thought they knew better how to be Savior of the world than He did!

Our Bible lesson for today is one of four accounts found in the New Testament telling us about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just before the last Passover holiday He spent on earth. We call this Palm Sunday, although only one of the four accounts, the one in the Gospel of John, mentions palms.

In our lesson today, we’re told that as Jesus entered Jerusalem, crowds welcomed Him with shouts of, Hosanna!, which means, God save us!

They also took off their outer garments and broke branches off of nearby trees, strewing both in Jesus’ path as He came into town. This was reminiscent of the welcome given to two ancient kings of Israel just before their coronations: King Solomon, the wisest person who ever lived, and King Jehu. (There really was a Jehu! And to think that all these years you only thought it was the nickname of the fellow who cut you off in traffic.)

The crowds who greeted Jesus saw Him as a conquering hero. They were people like the crowds we’ve recently seen pouring onto the streets of places like Kiev in Ukraine, Beirut in Lebanon, and elsewhere. Jesus’ fellow Judeans were an imprisoned people, their land occupied by the Roman Empire. They wanted what these modern demonstrators have wanted: They wanted freedom.

It is true that Jesus has come to set us free. “If you continue in my truth,” Jesus once said, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free!” Jesus sets all who follow Him free from sin and death and futility.

But the crowds who welcomed Jesus on that first Palm Sunday—like, I fear, many among the crowds in places like Beirut and Kiev today—weren’t looking for Jesus’ brand of freedom.

They wanted the freedom of the ballot box, the freedom of the pocket book. Those sorts of freedoms are wonderful; but they end at the grave. They become meaningless when you and I breathe our last and take our first steps into eternity.

The freedom Jesus offers is bigger than those vaulted freedoms and vastly more important. Jesus gives us the freedom to become our best selves. Jesus offers us the freedom to live like human beings were meant to live, forever. And beginning the moment we turn from sin and follow Him, Jesus gives us the freedom to live with purpose and meaning.

I believe that we all hunger for that kind of freedom! I know that I do and even though I also know that Jesus gives it, I find it so easy to fall into enslavement to the world's ways of doing and seeing things. That's why I keep needing to be reminded and keep needing to experience the freedom Jesus brings over and over again.

In anticipation of our upcoming Forty Days of Purpose, I've been re-reading the Rick Warren book, The Purpose Driven Life. Something struck me as I read chapter nine again this past week. It came at a place where, sounding like Martin Luther when he wrote about the priesthood of all believers, Warren noted that anything that you and I may do in life, other than sin, can glorify God.

Through Christ, we're set free to express everything about our God-given personalities---whether it's playing guitar barefooted or wearing a suit and tie to eat at McDonald's. In fact, Warren says (and I think rightly) that when we fail to give expression to our God-given personalities, we're really showing contempt for the God Who went to a cross in order to set us free!

I have been a people-pleaser my whole life. Maybe that comes from being an oldest child. Whatever the reason, the upshot has always been that in order to please others, I have masked elements of my personality. What I'm beginning to learn is that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died and rose for me so that I am free, in my own unique, God-designed ways, to praise and honor God with my whole life! The same is true for you. Isn't that an awesome thought?

Like many of you, I was interested this past week to read about the encounter between Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols. For seven hours, Smith was held hostage by Nichols, the man accused of rape who flew into a rage in an Atlanta courtroom and killed at least three people before escaping and setting off a desperate manhunt. I’ve been astounded to read about how Smith handled being held hostage.

Her calm demeanor pacified Nichols. He put his guns under Smith's bed and listened as Smith 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 a chapter of The Purpose Driven Life that begins with this simple insight, "We serve God by serving others."

Somehow, Brian Nichols was touched by those words and told Smith that he too, wanted to be a servant of God.

Because of her demeanor and the sharing of herself and her faith, Ashley Smith led police to her captor.

My guess is that Brian Nichols was relieved to be taken into custody. He probably will lose his earthly 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.

Wonder of wonders, Brian Nichols might do with the rest of his life on this earth what so very few of us ever do: Experience the freedom of living our lives according to God's purposes, according to the specifications of the One Who made us and wants to liberate us to be our best selves.

The incredible thing about the God we know through Jesus Christ is that even people behind bars or sitting on Death Row can live in that freedom.

Within days of welcoming Jesus as their king, the crowds in Jerusalem screamed themselves hoarse, begging for His death.

They didn’t want the freedom that Jesus offered.

They didn’t want to live life God’s way.

They wanted Jesus dead.

I’ve often wondered how these people felt in the days and years following the events of that first Palm Sunday.

Only about five hundred people, people who had believed in Jesus as God and Savior before His death, saw Him after He rose again. The vast majority of the Jerusalem crowds didn’t know about Jesus' resurrection and would have simply assumed that He was dead and gone forever. They probably went on with their lives as though nothing had happened.

Their lives proceeded as they looked for freedom by all the means people usually use to seek it: money, power, political liberation, sex, possessions, or status. But in all their seeking, they never would have found freedom. How hollow their lives appear after coming so close to the forever freedom that Jesus offers and then, refusing to experience it!

The crowds who welcomed Jesus on the first Palm Sunday thought they knew best how Jesus should go about being Savior of the world. But Jesus knew that He could be successful at driving out the Romans, reigning over a powerful kingdom, and providing people with all kinds of luxuries and still not fulfill His purpose in life.

Jesus knew that to set us free to be all that God made us to be, He would have to suffer for us, die for us, and then rise for us.

Only through His death could Jesus set us free from the punishment we deserve for sin.

Only through His resurrection could He set us free to fulfill our highest purposes!

Forty Days of Purpose at Friendship will begin on April 10. Through daily readings of The Purpose Driven Life, along with small groups, some special events, and worship celebrations in which our focus will be living life according to God’s five major purposes for our lives, we and the folks from our community who choose to join us on this journey, will be helped in knowing God better and encouraged to living our lives in the freedom God has in mind for us.

In spite of his being a murderer, God cared enough about Brian Nichols that he sent him into Ashley Smith’s apartment last week.

God wants all of us to experience the freedom of being His child at deeper and deeper levels throughout our lives. It’s for this that God is sending Forty Days of Purpose to all of us and to our community right now.

Don’t miss out on it!

[The story about the efficiency expert comes from a recent article by Pastor Steve Goodier. To subscribe to Steve's outstanding emailed inspirations and to find out about his books, go to his web site: Life Support System.]