Thursday, April 07, 2005

Fasting from Prayer?, Part Two

I began this series of posts because of an interesting piece written by Rob Asghar on his blog (the cleverly-titled, Dimestore Guru). In it, Rob revealed that he was fasting from what he called "gimme, gimme" prayers, under which he included prayers of intercession for others.

(By the way, in a post today, Rob revealed that he broke that fast in order to pray for the health of a friend's family.)

It may have surprised Rob that I didn't condemn him for engaging in such a "fast" or, horror of horrors, actually mentioning it publicly. But I honestly believe that there can be sound spiritual reasons for not praying.

For one thing, our prayers can become perfunctory and less than genuine. We can go through the motions or even worse, pretend to be going through the motions, of prayer with the idea of impressing others. I take prayers offered under these conditions to be as disingenuine, faithless, and ineffective as the long-winded prayers of religious leaders condemned by Jesus.

It's easy for even the most devout of people to fall into perfunctory praying for others or into the pretense of prayer for others. Once you get a reputation for being a pray-er, I've found that everybody asks you to pray. Often, the requesters are people who never pray themselves, viewing prayer as the arcane discipline of the terminally weird or of people who are into religion or spiritual stuff.

Whether the weird among us are asked to pray for the relief of Aunt Polly's bunions, Joe's performance on the CPA exam, the fairness of an election in a nation shaking off dictatorship, or a cure for a brother's cancer, these pray-ers, if they're as honest as Rob Asghar, are likely to not always welcome the requests, but to go through different attitudinal seasons about being the resident prayer freak. The pray-ers may have (but rarely, if ever, utter) one of the following sentiments:

1. "I'm happy to pray for people."

2. "Do they really want me to pray or, because they know that I'm religious, do they just think it's the polite thing to ask of me?"

3. "Do they really want me to pray or are they trying to impress me with how religious they are? "

4. "Why can't you pray about this yourself, goombah?"

5. "Does my Volvo need an oil change?"

There are good times to knock off intercessory prayer, I think. I'd list two major ones here:

(1) C.S. Lewis wrote of the phenomenon of "spiritual undulation," the ups and downs in one's faith life, which has periods of spiritual zeal interspersed with periods of "dryness" and uninspired living. The five reactions catalogued above--and countless others we might mention--reflect a similar and attendant undulation in our prayer lives. There are times when, for whatever reasons, some intentional and some not, that all pray-ers engage in fasting from prayer. Indeed, during times of spiritual dryness, I find that I'm almost incapable of praying anything other than, "God, help!" (By the way, God has always answered that prayer.)

I admit that while, for the most part, I enjoy prayer, I sometimes get tired of or distracted from my intercessory praying. My mind wanders as I pray and I ask myself, "Am I really praying or am I just going through the motions?" It seems to me that the most responsible thing for me to do then is to stop "praying" the way I've been doing it (which is to day, praying without actually praying) and honestly tell God what I'm thinking and feeling, asking him to help me to pray rightly. (Check out Psalm 51:17.)

Getting real with God is a great way to recalibrate our prayer lives and our lives, generally.

(2) Another good time to call a halt to our intercessory prayers occurs when we find ourselves actually lying about praying. Lying may be too strong aword. Fibbing might be more correct. But no matter what you call it, it describes a kind of dishonesty about prayer.

At times, I unintentionally fib when people ask me to pray and I tell them that of course, I will. The fib part is that I don't always pray and the unintentional part is that I sometimes just forget.
One reason for the forgetting is that people usually ask me to pray when I'm rushing to do something else or when I'm without a pen or a piece of paper so that I can write down the requests. Particularly as I get older (I'm fifty-one), the very best way for me to remember prayer requests is for people to send them to me via email or to call me on the telephone, allowing me to jot the requests down.

But I'm not really addressing honest forgetting here.

There are times when, feeling like a prayer factory churningout widgets--er, prayers, I've grown tired. I have a list before me and I work through it with all the joy that Ebenezer Scrooge must have had as he trudged home from the counting house on that Christmas Eve before his transformation.

I suddenly realize that while I may be uttering Aunt Polly's name, asking for relief for her bunions, and even asking in Jesus' Name, I'm more like a tape recorder than a man of faith talking to the living God. I'm not condemning a lack of emotion in prayer, mind you. While my faith in Christ can surely engage my emotions, neither my faithor my prayers should be held hostage to my feelings. God is still God whetherI get goosebumps when I pray or not. No, I'm talking about engagement. If Aunt Polly's plight doesn't engage me, I'm probably not praying as I should.

It's then that I tell God, "Lord, I'm putting all these people in Your care, trusting You. Your will be done" and I close the books on those particular requests. I suppose that constitutes a kind of "fast" from prayer, although I've always regarded it as a release for other praying.

Like Rob, I do fast from perfunctory praying then, prayer that's become more like the recitation of a year's worth of lottery numbers than genuine seeking of God's intervention in people's lives.

But I do keep interceding for people--and it appears that Rob does as well--for a simple reason. Richard Foster, the Quaker theologian who has written several wonderful books, asserts that there are good things that are going to happen because we pray for them and good things that won't happen because we don't pray for them. That seems a frightful thing and almost a denial of God's sovereignty and omnipotence. But I believe Foster is right.

Do you remember the story in Genesis of when God and two angels (or, according to Saint Augustine, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) paid a visit to Abraham and Sarah before their son, Isaac, was born? After Sarah and Abrahamserved the Lord dinner, He and the angels were off for Sodom. God had heard how awful the town was and was intent on destroying it.

There began this amazing story of Abraham negotiating with God. Lord, he starts out, if there are fifty people devoted to you in Sodom, would You please not wipe it out? God agrees.

And so it goes, Abraham bargaining with the Lord of the universe as though they were buyer and seller in some ancient bazaar, trying to arrive at a mutually-agreeable price. Finally, God agrees to Abraham's request that Sodom not be destroyed if there are ten righteous people left in the city. Maybe Abraham figures that he's pressed his luck as far as possible: he ends the negotiations there.

It turns out that there weren't ten righteous people in Sodom and God destroyed the city.

The haunting question with which we're left at the end of Sodom's story is this: What might have happened had Abraham simply asked God to spare Sodom? What if he'd just said, "God, I know about Sodom's unrighteousness. But I ask You to spare it anyway."?

We don't know what the outcome would have been, of course. And yes, any student of the Bible must eventually conclude that the loving God of the universe has established certain boundaries around our behavior. Whether on earth or in eternity, there will be consequences in the lives of those who unrepentantly violate God's will.

During this lifetime, there are often consequences which issue from our actions, consequences that the Old Testament labels wrath, like the consequences meeting a person who decides, just for the fun of it, to stick a wet finger into an electrical outlet. The citizens of Sodom may have been breaching the boundaries God had set around them for some time and wrath was the rightful consequence of their rebellion.

But the Bible says that Abraham was a righteous man. That doesn't mean that he was perfect, far from it. Genesis recounts more than a few of Abraham's sins. But he was a repentant sinner. And the thing that made this repentant sinner righteous was that he believed in God and in the promises of God. (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4)

It's a funny thing about the prayers of people who believe in God and are therefore, right with God. God hears their prayers. "The prayer of the righteous ispowerful and effective." (James 5:16)

Abraham might well have changed the fate of Sodom through his prayers, not because a puny human can manipulate Almighty God. Rather, because in prayer we open our hearts, wills, and minds to God, we allow ourselvesto become conduits for His goodness to come into the world.

God may have structured the world to mete out consequences for both the evil that we commit and the evil that's simply resident in our imperfect world. But through Jesus Christ, we see that God wants to overcome that sorry system.

There is, in Lewis' wonderful phrase found in The Chronicles of Narnia, a deeper magic at work in this universe. Jesus overcame evil and death through His cross and empty tomb. All who believe in Jesus are God's agents, holding up the torn, suffering, or even evil people and places on this planet and asking God to bring healing, or hope, or even more time for the unrighteous to come to know Him and His forgiveness. Through Christ, God enlists those who believe in Him to become co-conspirators with Him in the transformation of the world and when we call Him, He will come to help.

However one decides to do it and whether we must fast from it for a time for whatever reasons, intercessory prayer, even by those not "gifted" for it, is a pretty important component in the life of faith. So, after my times of fasting from intercessory prayer, I get back on that horse and ride. I don't understand why prayer works or how. I just decide that today, I'll offer up my prayers for others and then see what God will do.

Tomorrow, God willing, I'll tackle the question about "abiding in Christ" that Derek raised in his comment earlier today.

Dirty Little Secret: Sometimes We Christians Fail to Forgive As We've Been Forgiven

That appears to be behind the grudge of some in the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia toward the Roman Catholic Church. Check out the story from today's New York Times here.

One other comment: The charge of the Church from Christ is to "make disciples," to actively help people know Jesus Christ so that they too can become His followers. (Matthew 28:16-20) I should think that the Orthodox leaders in Russia would rejoice when people who hadn't known Christ come to follow Him through the ministries of the Roman Church. Those of us in the Church--whatever our denominational flavor--are, after all, on the same team.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Is the Media Biased Against Christian Faith? Where Does That Come From?

By way of amplification of my email to Hugh Hewitt, here are some comments I shared with blogger Rob Asghar this week, triggered by his post here. [Again, in brackets, you'll find some explanatory notes not in my original note.]
My own take is that Christians engender the hostility of the MSM [mainstream media] by immediately assuming that it is a monolithic group and that it is intrinsically opposed to religious faith, particularly Christian faith.

My own limited experience tells me that when Christians present their faith in the spirit of Saint Peter, "with gentleness and reverence," and with humility, the media will pay attention.

The fact is that like the rest of our culture, most members of the MSM simply don't know that much about Christian faith. Like the rest of our culture, they've been put off by the legalism and sanctimony with which some of the most vocal spokespeople for Christian faith present their witness to the world.

What we need are followers of Jesus who will, with humility, openness, and patience, present Christ in the public square.

And I'm talking about the real Christ, the Christ Who is charitable to outcasts and sinners, Who reserved His most scornful condemnation not for the sinners who didn't know any better, but for the religious folks who should have remembered that all of us are sinners saved only by the grace of God.

When I look at the declining importance that faith seems to play in the life of Americans, the blame must be assigned in part to those who view those who don't agree with every particular of their brand of Christianity as an enemy to be condemned rather than a person in need of the love and grace of Christ.

Is the MSM hostile to Christian faith? Increasingly, the answer is yes. And the reason for that is that we Christians have decided to turn our backs on faith in Christ, instead embracing political coercion as the means for enforcing our ideas about God's will.

We [who identify ourselves as Christians] need to do as Jesus commands us to do, gently wooing our neighbors into Christ's kingdom through our acceptance, compassion, giving, loving, humility, prayers, and witnessing for Christ, the hope that is in us.

When we Christians grab for power, we become powerless. Real power resides in Christ alone! As Saint Paul put it, "when I am weak" (ie, dependent on Christ), "then I am strong." The Church of today needs fewer Pharisees and more humble servants. (And yes, I point the finger at myself in all of this as well.)

Why the Future of the Roman Catholic Church is So Important...for All Christians and the World

Author, radio host, and blogger Hugh Hewitt writes that he's taken some heat over the past several days for writing a good bit on his blog and using quite a lot of his program addressing the death of John Paul II and the future direction of the Roman Catholic Church. The latter topic is triggered by the fact that later this week, the conclave of the College of Cardinals, resulting in the selection of a new pope, will take place.

Writes Hugh:
I have heard from a few people that my posting seems too narrow these past few days as it has focused almost exclusively on John Paul II and the coming conclave. I admit to being pretty much unconcerned with the momentousness of a John Cornyn speech on the floor of the Senate, or Nancy Pelosi's and Tom Delay's travel schedules and reimbursements.

This is because of the immense stakes involved in the selection of the next pope for every issue of consequence in the moral debate, and not a few that pierce the geopolitical world at all. Non-believers may think it all beside-the-point, and non-Catholics may be confused by the process (as a former Catholic I may have some advantage in understanding the vast scope of the Church), but to repeat myself, the stakes are beyond measuring.
I felt moved to write a note of encouragement to Hugh on this score. [I've added a few amplifying comments in brackets.]:

I think you should ignore what people tell you about 'narrowblogging' on the Pope and attendant speculation regarding his successor and the future of the Roman Catholic Church.

Because of the manner in which the Enemy [that's Satan, folks, and yes, I believe that Satan really exists] and many in the world are opposed to Christ [an enmity which I believe has often been fostered by Christians being hostile to those who may not agree with them on every jot and tittle of their faith], the Gospel, and the Church in these times, no follower of Christ can ignore what's going on in every part of the Body of Christ [that's one of the Bible's terms for the Church.]. Indeed, what happens at the Conclave to come should be the subject of many Christian prayers, irrespective of denomination or theology. We need to pray that for all the admitted doctrinal differences between various parts of the Church Universal, we all find ways to present a loving witness for Christ together. Who the next pope is will be critically important in that!

Having pointed out the enmity that exists and seems to be growing toward Christ, the Gospel, and the Church, I want to underscore what I have shared with you before. We must meet the world with openness, love, humility, and persevering compassion. We know that all people need Jesus Christ, but He isn't our weapon to use on unbelieving people; He's our Savior to share with others. Learning to turn the other cheek while standing our ground for Christ and His absolute Lordship is and will remain the extraordinary challenge for all believers around the world in the forseeable future. As I think I've mentioned to you before, the book of the Bible I believe that all Christians should be poring over incessantly these days is First Peter.

Blessings in Christ,

Pick the Thoughts On Which You Obsess Wisely...

...That's the good advice that comes through from the devotional thought sent out by my colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot of Faith Lutheran Church, Springfield, Illinois today. (It's advice I wish that I remembered every day!)

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Thought for the Day

Watch our thoughts, they become words.
Watch our words, they become actions.
Watch our actions, they become habits.
Watch our habits, they become character.
Watch our character, they become our destiny.

Author unknown

Philippians 4:8

Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true,
pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. Don't ever stop
thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.

Contemporary English Version

Lord, help me daily to develop a godly character. Amen.


If you'd like to subscribe to Glen's daily emailed inspirations, send an email his way and tell him so. His addres is:

Fasting from Prayer?, Part One

One of my favorite writers and soon-to-be syndicated columnist, Rob Asghar, says on his web site, "I am fasting from prayer, at least from the 'gimme, gimme' kind, or the 'clean up this mess' kind. For now, I am content to see God moving in the world without attempting to force the hand of Providence."

This might be seen as a provocative statement coming from someone like Asghar, who is a Christian and who evidences a real commitment to authentically living his faith in Christ. But he has his reasons and I think I understand them. To the extent that I do understand them, they seem to have a lot more to do with belief, than with doubt.

One reason for Asghar's prayer fast is hinted at in his mention of "gimme, gimme" prayers. It's true, I think, that our most ardent prayers are often "Hail Mary" desperation plays. We or the people we pray for move through our lives with little or no thought of God or of God's will and then, BAM!, trouble hits and we all become the most pious, believing people on the face of the planet.

The wonderfully crazy thing about God is that He's willing to hear prayers from people who have spent lifetimes being heedless of Him, who in the horrors of personal crisis suddenly see their need of God and cry out to Him. It's simply a matter of connecting with the God Who reaches out to us through Jesus Christ.

Jesus promises, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." [John 15:7]

But there's the rub, and it may explain one reason that Rob has decided to fast from praying for awhile. Authentic prayer, prayer that moves beyond a "gimme, gimme" attitude, even if we're asking for something for ourselves, starts with abiding in--some translations might put it, remaining in--Jesus. Jesus explains the meaning of abiding in Him by saying, "I am the true are the branches." [John 15:1-5]

Prayer devoid of relationship with the God--or dependency on the God--we know through Jesus Christ isn't prayer at all. It's God as cosmic sugar daddy, God as heavenly ATM, God as distant rich uncle.

Authentic prayer involves having a relationship with God. It isn't that God is hesitant to say, "Yes" to our prayers, it's that when we cultivate a relationship with Him, it will change what we ask God to "gimme, gimme." "Take delight in the Lord," Psalm 37:4 says, "and He will give you the desires of your heart."

A relationship with God will transform our prayers, making them more selfless, more attuned to what our Lover God wants for us and the world and less enslaved to our whims of the moment.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a praying person asking for something from God. When we have a relationship with God, we're willing to let God tell us, "No," or "Later," or "Wait," as well as "Yes." That's what we mean when we tell God, "Your will be done."

But I think that Rob Asghar is onto something. Maybe more folks beside him should fast from "gimme, gimme" praying for a time and simply focus on getting to know God better. A good place to start that process would be to read two different books in the New Testament: John and Romans.

I'll try to post more thoughts on Rob's prayer fast tomorrow.

A Word to the World on How We Americans "View" You

Over a raclette meal in Germany nearly four years ago, a man was interested in learning about America, Americans, and our view of the world.

I had to admit that when it came to our perceptions of the world, we Americans are a bit like the hippopotami occupying the baby's inflatable pool. In our minds, we take up so much space that there's little room for the rest of the world. We generally only see ourselves and so, we hardly notice Not-America.

I know, I know. We Americans wrote checks for the victims of the tsunami. We've done a lot of great things. I don't buy the argument that Americans are chintzy or cheap.

But let's be honest, the average American doesn't know the difference between Mogadishu and Mannheim. Some Americans' only notion of sound foreign policy is to hate the French.

But even conceding that the average American ignores the world, I told my dinner companion, one reason behind this indifference is that Americans are peeved, legitimately hacked-off, at being derided even by our friends.

Recalling circumstances in which the Europeans first wanted us to refrain from military intervention and then complained that we hadn't sent troops, I said, "We feel damned if we do and damned if we don't. We feel like the husband or wife whose spouse is never pleased by any of our actions, who gets criticized for doing one thing and then gets criticized for doing the opposite. It's enough to make some Americans want to throw up their hands and say, 'We'll just keep to ourselves.'"

Catching wildly changeable criticism is clearly something that any major power must endure. The millionaire's heir is always surrounded by a hundred people who condescendingly figure that they're more deserving and would use the fortune more wisely. Among the Lilliputians there certainly must have been some who wished that they were gigantic and thought that they would be better at it.

Of course the corollary to this giant-envy is that a giant can get awfully arrogant and near-sighted. For many Americans, the world is and ought to be an American playground.

Though all we Americans are pretty much the witless heirs of divine blessings, worldly circumstances, and the achievements of our forebears, we tend to see the comfortable life styles most of us in the US enjoy as our due, as something for which we worked.

Speaking for myself, I don't even understand things as simple as how electricity gets to my house or what makes a nuclear weapon do what it does. I am the undeserving beneficiary of God's blessings and the work and sacrifices of generations of brave and clever people.

But if it makes my international readers feel any better, I will tell you that in spite of appearances, we Americans temporize about the use of our power, too. Sometimes the hippopotami notice that the pool is not an American lake and wonder how best to use--or not use--our power. Sometimes, we are our own inner-spouse, giving ourselves the business, first condemning ourselves for one course of action, then lambasting ourselves for taking the opposite approach to things. I even sense that President Bush gets introspective on this score from time to time.

I just thought that you might like to know that.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Althouse and Gandelman Present Cautionary Notes on Anti-Judicial Demagoguery

Once again, Ann Althouse, University of Wisconsin law professor, has words of wisdom on her blog. These words are directed at those politicos and members of the public inclined to string up the numerous federal and state judges whose various rulings allowed the death of Terri Schaivo. I agree with those who have said that what happened in the Schaivo case was legally correct, but morally wrong, and that what we really need is changes in the law.

Says Althouse:
It is really a shame how little people understand of the reasons judges decide cases the way they do. DeLay and Cornyn, like many others, signal to the public to think that the judges are simply out of control and the cases are inexplicable as the serious work of deeply thoughtful persons steeped in the legal tradition. It wouldn't be wise just to assume that judges are unerring oracles of law, but to leap to the opposite conclusion and decide they are frauds is even more foolish. And for a public figure even to hint at violence as a solution is completely unacceptable.
In trolling for votes and financial support, pols have become proficient at selling themselves and their causes of the moment to the public, or at least to their bases of support. The federal judiciary, anyway, insulated from fleeting fads by the constitutional nomination and confirmation process and by lifetime appointments to the bench, has never developed such PR skills. The Founders never could have anticipated how media-saturated our country has become and how susceptible to demagoguery. In many ways, the courts are an easy target for pols on the make; judges can't duke it out on Hardball with demagogic member of Congress.

Congressman Tom Delay's attacks on judges, for one, could not be more inappropriate or inaccurate, especially considering that many of the judges who ruled to allow Terri Schaivo's death were conservative Republicans. These judges made their rulings on sound Constitutional principles like federalism, separation of powers, and strict constructionism as well as on actual statutes and case law.

I agree with President Bush that the laws of our country ought to have a decided preference for life. That's consistent with our traditions and principles, which includes things like allowing people to have "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." At present, our laws on end-of-life issues don't fully embody those principles.

But you can't blame judges for doing the thing that they are sworn to do--upholding the Constitution and the rule of law as they see it--simply because some in the Congress support a different course of action.

Even more outrageous than Delay's salvos at the judiciary have been the words of Senator John Cornyn, who on the Senate floor seemed to suggest that violence perpetrated against judges was somehow explained by what he calls "activist" judges. I seriously doubt that the violence that happened recently in an Atlanta courtroom or the murder of a Chicago judge's husband and mother had anything to do with the respective murderers' opposition to judicial activism. (For a good explanation of this story, go to Joe Gandelman's blog, The Moderate Voice here.) Cornyn's words were a cheap, demagogic shot.

Joe Gandelman is right: Democrats and Republicans alike need to redraw the line on appropriate debate, particularly when it comes to judicial confirmation debate and commenting on the rulings of federal courts. They could all learn a lesson fron Dwight Eisenhower. Ike was hopelessly mired in the nineteenth century when it came to understanding the call for civil rights. But when the Supreme Court and other federal courts rendered their historic rulings on desegregation during his term, he enforced the Constitution and the laws of the land as interpreted by the judiciary. Congress has a similar obligation to abide by the law, to uphold the Constitution, and to support the separation of powers and our system of government.

Demagoguery is deadly to democracy!

President Faces Critical Time for Social Security Reform

Some time during his arduous presidency, Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

For a man like Lincoln, who had climbed from the depths of poverty to wealth and who when aggrieved once consoled himself with the wifty certainties of Euclidean mathematics, this represented a massive concession.

It also represented realism. The only thing about our lives that we control is what we do, think, and say in this fleeting moment.

On Friday, President Bush will be attending the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Come Monday, the President will probably be confronted with a few fleeting moments critical for the future of his presidency and for what concerns all second-term presidents, his place in history.

At a press conference on the day after his re-election, the President framed what his second term would be about: Social Security reform. While some argue that there are other more critical, long-term issues confronting the country, the President is certainly right in arguing for the need to fix Social Security. Over the long haul, the system confronts an insolvency crisis which could bring the whole thing down like a house of cards.

But the President has been largely unsuccessful in advancing reform in the days since his election win. The foremost factor behind this perhaps, has been events. Events have a way of overtaking the agendas even of presidents with solid mandates and plenty of political capital.

In his book, Megatrends, author John Naisbitt talked about one of the methods used by intelligence functionaries during World War Two. They combed local newspapers in enemy nations. For one reason, doing so gave the intelligence community a ground-eye view of what was happening in communities all across Germany, Japan, and Italy. The combination of these smaller pieces of information created a larger picture of such things as troop movements, industrial production, and morale.

Another reason the intelligence folks did this, the reason relevant to the topic at hand, issues from the fact that the front page of a newspaper, the place where editors put the most important stories and ones most relevant to people's lives, has a finite number of column inches. At any given time, the public can only focus on so many news events or public policy questions. When a President falls off the front page or away from the first five to ten minutes on the evening television news, he cannot successfully advance his agenda.

Events have forced President Bush and his campaign for Social Security reform off the front page in spite of his far-flung travels, lobbying of Congress, and many public statements.

Of course, there is no guarantee that come Monday, events will magically cooperate with the President. But he now must try with renewed energy and probably new strategies, knowing that the clock is ticking on Social Security reform.

Second term presidents are especially susceptible to having their agendas overtaken by the clock. That's because, thanks to the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution, presidents are limited to two terms or, in the case of vice presidents who succeed to the office, not more than ten years in office.

The practical implication of this, especially in the overtly superheated presidential politics of today, is that the moment a president is re-elected, he (and someday, she) is a lame duck, their pronouncements and initiatives, except in emergency circumstances, becoming increasingly irrelevant. (I say overtly because machinations for attaining the presidency have always been 365/24/7 pursuits. But the process was mostly unseen by the general public. Not so any longer, creating intense pressure on modern presidents to get things done early.)

Just look at the Republican landscape alone right now. Rudy Giuliani, George Pataky, John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Sam Brownback, and others are all being touted for the presidency in 2008. (Most are touting themselves, too.) The Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, and others are also soaking up the attention of press and politicos.

When one adds the press of events like tsunamis and the death of a beloved pope, it becomes very difficult for a second-term president to rouse a distracted public to support the reform of a retirement system the crisis in which is not immediate, but long-term.

So, what should the President do?

First and foremost, I think he needs to get specific. The White House still has only identified the problem--insolvency--and hinted at one possible solution for it--individual accounts, the relevance of which to the problem many Republicans don't see. The President needs to put a proposal on the table. The momentum for Social Security reform is bleeding to death from a thousand little cuts administered by folks opposed to this President or wary of offending seniors. And all these cuts come from attacks on what is an as-yet non-existent Social Security reform proposal.

As I've written here before, the President chose what appears to be a risk-averse approach to this issue. The outlines of his strategy seem to have been:
  1. Raise the need for reform; and
  2. Prompt a Republican Congress to fall into line, offering the tough proposals needed to get it passed, allowing the President to take the credit; and
  3. Above all, leave things vague enough so that the President won't get tarred with the charge that Republicans have always dreaded of wanting to destroy the Social Security system.
But the cause of reform has languished. Events have overtaken it. So has the reticence of Republican legislators to walk a plank for the President. And Democrats, seemingly on life-support following last November's election, have used the issue to rouse their base.

This President has always, rightly or wrongly, been characterized by boldness. After the disputed election of 2000, he rightly forged ahead with his administration and agenda, never doubting that he was the President in full. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, he inspired a nation and the world. More controversially, he forged ahead with the invasion of Iraq.

He needs to display that kind of boldness now. He needs to come out with a specific set of bullet-points on Social Security reform. He can say, "As always, I'm open to the input of others. But these are the elements I believe must be part of Social Security reform and here's why."

Absent such boldness and specificity, I don't think that the President can get an increasingly distracted Congress, with the 2006 elections just around the corner, to pass any Social Security reform. And frankly, given the attention-sucking power of the 2008 presidential election and Mr. Bush's lame duck status, I think that the next few weeks represent the President's last chance to get Social Security reform, whatever its shape, passed during his presidency.

If it doesn't happen now, events are apt to overtake us.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Fearless Predictor Engages in More Prognostication (Even Though I Should Know Better)

Illinois' Fighting Illini men's basketball team fought hard to come back from a thirteen-point halftime deficit, but in the end the North Carolina Tarheels won the national collegiate championship game tonight.

My brackets are an absolute mess as I failed to pick the right winners game after game not just at the outset, but even as March Madness progressed. But I retain some shred of dignity in that I did predict that North Carolina would win the national championship.

As an Ohio State and Big Ten fan, I was happy that Illinois was joined by Michigan State in the Final Four. That finish by two teams from a Big Ten Conference whose RPI was down the line this year was especially gratifying. While it would have administered complete decimation to my tournament picks, I was pulling for an all-Big Ten final. But that wasn't to be.

Throughout this tournament, Illinois surprised me because, while I knew that they were a good team, I hadn't realized how good. Their three-guard, furious motion offense has been one of the great stories of college basketball this year.

As readers of this blog can testify, my predictive abilities are always suspect. But I did rightly predict that the Tar Heels would win the national championship and, friends and family will tell you, I also correctly predicted an earlier Illinois loss this year. Three weeks before the last regular season game of the Big Ten schedule, I said that my beloved Buckeyes would beat the Illini. That happened on a buzzer shot in Columbus, in what was Illinois' only other loss of the season.

Congratulations to a really good North Carolina team!

Congratulations to Illinois for a tremendous season!

And one more prediction: Next year, The Ohio State University Buckeyes, under second-year coach Thad Matta, will be Big Ten champions. (That trophy will look really good next to the national championship hardware I expect the football team to collect this coming season.. But that's another blog entry for another day.)

A Truly Good Life or 'The Good Life'?

[The eighty-four year old grandmother of a member of our congregation passed away on Friday. This is a memorial message I've prepared for a prayer service happening during this evening's visitation. Myrtle was confined to a wheelchair and had endured a lot in her life.]

I suspect that if you asked the average person today what makes a life a good one, they would say, a life in which they had the full use of all their faculties with no disabilities.

In fact, just this past week, I spoke with a guy in his fifties who told me that he hoped if he ever were as much as confined to a wheelchair his family would find a way to take his life.

Maybe we’ve forgotten that there is a profound difference between “the good life,” on the one hand, and “a truly good life” on the other.

From all I’ve heard, Myrtle knew that difference and she lived that difference. Her life wasn’t always easy. But that didn’t keep her from living her life to the full. Nor did it rob her life of its significance.

You see, to the person with faith in Jesus Christ, suffering, difficulty, or disabilities don’t have the final word over their lives!

One of the most important people in the New Testament portion of the Bible was a man named Paul. From the moment he came to follow Jesus Christ and started traveling the Mediterranean basin to tell others about Christ, Paul’s life became a lot less than a picnic.

To some friends at a church in Corinth who seemed to think that life ought to always be easy and who admired egotistical preachers who told them the same thing, Paul reviewed some of what he’d been through because he followed the God we know through Jesus:
“I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times,,,, beaten by the Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day...I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes...I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by cold, naked to the weather.”
Now would you say that was a good life? Paul would have said so because, like Myrtle, I suspect, he tells us that life with Christ is infinitely better than life without Him. Why is that so?

First, because to know Jesus Christ is to know the only One Who can give us life with God. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Jesus said of Himself. “No one can come to the Father except through Me.” The privilege of that caused Paul, who had once occupied a place of privilege in his country, to say:
“...whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Jesus is the way we know God.

A second reason that life with Christ is better than life without Him is that life on this planet--even one that lasts eighty-four years--is really a small portion of our total lives. God has created us for eternity. We will either spend that life with God or without Him. Myrtle would tell you that we must see any suffering we may endure during our short time on earth within the context of all the joy that will be ours in eternity with God. Another passage of the Bible says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Believers in Jesus Who keep on following Him no matter what their circumstances know that life on this earth is just a prelude to eternity; so they practice their faith through adversity here as a way of preparing to live that faith face to face with Christ in eternity.

A third reason that life with Christ is better than life without Him, even when we suffer, is that God can use adversity to teach us to depend on Christ, magnifying the significance of our lives. I don’t know about you, but my past successes and the conveniences I have in my life can sometimes delude me into thinking that I deserve easy living. But speaking for me, I know that I don’t. I’m an ordinary, garden variety sinning human being who certainly doesn’t deserve God’s blessings.

But to those who turn to Jesus Christ and rely on Him for the power to live lives that matter, God gives that power. In another part of the New Testament, Paul says, after talking about having experienced times in his life when he was flush with cash and others when he was destitute, he had learned, “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.”

In another place, Paul talked about some undefined suffering which God had not taken away in spite of his prayers. He said that he sensed God had told him that the answer to his prayers was No to keep Paul from becoming too full of himself, to teach him to rely on God to live and work and achieve the goals he’d set for himself. God told him, Paul said, “My grace [My charity] is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And so, Paul said, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

Aaron has told us about the many times he found his grandmother praying. That’s an awesome thing when you think about. Here was an elderly woman, seemingly powerless, devoid of many of the things that the world claims goes with a good life, who regularly called down the very power of heaven into the lives of the people she cared about. You can bet that God heard every prayer! Is there any person more powerful than Myrtle was when she prayed? Is there any person more powerful than the praying follower of Jesus Christ?

There’s a lot of loose talk these days about what gives a person “quality of life.” Of course, all of us would like to have lives of ease. We’d all prefer not to burden others. But what Myrtle’s life seems to tell us is that if we will dare to follow Jesus Christ, God will give us the power to live lives of purpose and joy here, no matter what our circumstances.

He also will give us eternity. As Jesus Himself puts it:
“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.”
As all of you remember Myrtle and her family today, this is the most important lesson you should draw from her life: That life lived with the God we know through Jesus Christ is good...forever.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Bowie and 'Meaning It'

My post on John Paul II here, may have given people the wrong impression that I dislike David Bowie. Not so.

I would, in fact, describe myself as a lower-level Bowie fan. His over-the-top vocals, clever arrangements, and outrageous lyrics have always entertained me. In fact, he so entertains me that sometimes when I listen to him on songs like, Little China Girl or Let's Dance, I laugh out loud with delight.

My only point in contrasting Bowie, to whose CD my wife and I listened yesterday, and John Paul II, who died yesterday, was that Bowie, with his overblown theatricality, represented much of the contemporary world's notion of passion. That view sees passion as non-existent or nothing other than our selfish promptings. Contemporary culture derides any notion of real passion--a commitment to a person or cause so intense that the committed one is willing to give one's life--as passe, stupid, or false. John Paul II, on the other hand, was understated, yet genuinely passionate in his commitment to Christ and to the powerless of the world. In fact, his passion was amplified by his understated style of communication and later, by his frailty.

Bowie is one whose cynical tongue is firmly fixed in his cheek. In a way, he represents the spirit of this present age. John Paul, on the other hand, was never a cynic.

My favorite Bowie song though, is one that departs from his usual modus operandi. It has great guitar licks, throbbing bass, and thumping drum, to be sure, all elements which have come to be associated with David Bowie. But his great song, Fame, co-composed with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar, may be unlike any other Bowie song. It's actually about something, its lyrics presenting flashcard impressions of the pitfalls, dangers, and addictiveness of fame. Usually, Bowie's songs give us a hazy picture of late-twentieth century narcissism. One can't tell whether Bowie is endorsing it, lamenting it, or just exploiting it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a trip my son and I took to Washington, DC, mentioning a stop at the Freer Gallery, where we saw several paintings and an entire room created by the artist, James Abbot McNeill Whistler. Whistler was a proponent of "art for art's sake." Art, he and others insisted, didn't have to be about anything, as earlier artists and patrons of the arts, like the Church, insisted it must. For Whistler, this often meant creating gauzy portrayals of stormy seas or human forms. Whistler attempted to foster feelings and impressions, apart from beliefs, morals, or "points."

Oscar Wilde was one of the writers who took up this same cause, believing that even the written word need not convey a "point" or a "moral," that art could and should stand by itself apart from "meaning." (Although it should be pointed out that Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey conveys some pretty powerful messages and meanings.)

Whistler anticipated the cubist painters and other more abstract artists.

Bowie is a kind of "art for art's sake" musician (some would say a "product for money's sake" musician) and, as surely as Whistler or his heirs of the canvas, he has his place.

But people like Bowie never ultimately touch the hearts of most people. To do that, you have to mean what you say. John Paul did.

[Speaking of "fame," you might be interested in this piece I wrote on the effects of fame on the famous.]

Surprised Good While Ordering Take Out

Tonight, my future son-in-law and I were hungry and decided to hit the local Mexican take-out.

"Wait a minute," he says, "I need to get my wallet."

"No, you don't," I tell him and we drive to the take-out.

We order our meals and watch them get bagged. The cashier rings up our order and I hand her my Discover card. Ordinarily, I'd use my MasterCard, but just this past Friday, some cyberscammer may have gotten my card number, a possibility that had caused me to close it out and secure a new card with a new number.

"I'm sorry," the cashier tells me, "we don't take Discover here."

I look into my wallet and find a grand total of six bucks, about half of what I need. Obviously, my future son-in-law can't help me: at my prompting, he left his wallet behind. I start to say, "I'm sorry. I guess we'll have to skip it...," when the cashier turns and asks for the manager. "Just a minute," she tells me.

The cashier explains my plight and the manager looks me over with a smile. "You seem like the trustworthy type," he tells me. "Just pay us back later."

We are incredulous. Later, I savor each bite.

Sometimes, I get caught up in the old syndrome of lamenting how rotten the world has gotten and then, like tonight at the Mexican take-out, the world surprises me good.

Tomorrow, I intend to go back to the Mexican place, not to order more take-out, but to pay. After all, they trusted me and I want to be worthy of that trust.

Unlock the Doors and Live!

John 20:19-31
(a message shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 3, 2005)

My family and I lived in rural northwestern Ohio for six years. In that time, we city people developed a very rural habit: We never locked the doors of our house unless we were planning on being away for a week or so.

I remember precisely when I realized how rural we had become. We were getting ready for vacation and I had to search the house high and low for a door key to lock the place. It had been months since I had even seen it!

Why do we lock our doors here in the suburbs? Common sense would be a good answer.

But the answer behind that one is the real answer, I think. We lock our doors out of fear. Legitimately, we’re afraid that people might steal our property or worse yet, come into our homes and do us harm. We lock our doors out of fear. I know that’s why I do.

Sometimes, we not only lock the doors of our houses, we also lock the doors of our hearts. And for the same reason: fear.

A man I know has been through the wrenching ends of two marriages and several serious relationships. He made a vow after those two experiences. Never again, he told me, would he let himself be hurt by letting another woman into his heart and his life. “If you don’t let them in, they can’t leave you,” he said. He stuck to his vow for many years. But then he met Susan. It took some patience on her part, but eventually my friend let her in. They’ve been married many years now.

Sometimes, in order to live, a person has to let down their guard and unlock their doors, fear and safety be hanged!

Our Bible lesson today is set on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection, the first Easter. His closest followers have received word that Jesus has risen. But they’re not sure. So, they've gathered to pray in a locked room.

The story’s told of a missionary and a professional man he befriended. After their friendship had deepened, the businessman asked what it was that allowed the missionary to face his life with such hope and equanimity. The missionary told him the Good News of Jesus Christ. He told the man that Jesus was both God and Human, that Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead to give all with faith in Him the erasure of all their shame and second chances at life forever with God. “That can’t be,” the professional man replied, shaking his head in disbelief. “I would have heard wonderful news like that before now.”

That was how Jesus’ closest followers—the disciples—felt as they huddled behind locked doors on Easter Sunday evening. There had been reports of people brought back from the dead. It had happened in the Old Testament. Some of these disciples themselves had seen Jesus bring Lazarus out of his tomb, days after Lazarus’ body had started to rot. But who besides Jesus or some Old Testament prophet could pull off a resurrection? And with Jesus dead, the disciples reasoned, who would bring Him back to life?

And so, our Bible lesson tells us that the disciples sat behind these locked doors afraid that their fellow Jews would kill them as they, along with the Roman Empire, had killed Jesus.

A really wonderful Presbyterian preacher, M. Craig Barnes, suggests that there was some other reason behind the disciples’ fear of the Jews. It wasn’t just a fear of being killed. They were, he says, ashamed.

They were ashamed that for all their brave talk, they had been unable to protect Jesus.

They were ashamed that at the moment Jesus was arrested, they had—at least the men had—scattered to the four winds.

They were ashamed that the Man they had acclaimed as the Messiah had been the victim of execution reserved for the lowest of the lowlives of that society.

They were ashamed and so, they were afraid to show their faces in public. That’s why they locked the doors.

The fear of being shamed can cause us to lock our doors, too. In his book Whatever Became of Sin?, the late eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger tells the story of two men walking down a street in the Chicago Loop and seeing a plainly-dressed man who pointed at passing pedestrians and said softly, “Guilty.” One of the pedestrians to whom the man pointed, a businessman, turned to his lunch companion and asked, “How did he know?”

You see, we can become quite facile in wearing masks, facades so effective that we sometimes even fool ourselves.

We pretend to be confident when we’re not,
humble when we’re arrogant,
innocent when we’re sinful,
loving when we teem with resentments.

Truth be told, you and I suffer from the same fear that caused the disciples to lock themselves in that room. We’re afraid that we might be found out. Craig Barnes, in a message on this Bible passage, quotes humorist Garrison Keillor: “We always have a backstage view of ourselves.” And it’s a view we don’t want anyone else to see.

Sometimes, I apologize to people for something I've said and they'll look at me with mystification. "You don't need to apologize," they'll tell me, "you didn't say anything hurtful." I'll reply, "You just say that because you don't know what I know. I know the nastiness that lay behind my supposedly innocent statement." (We passive-aggressives are so good at hiding our unkindnesses behind a veneer of conviviality that sometimes people can't detect the cruelty in our words. We can get so good at it that sometimes, we're not aware of it ourselves!)

So, what’s the answer? Should we book ourselves on The Maury Povich Show and do an hour-long program on all our faults and wrongdoing, all our evil thoughts and sinful actions?

No, God has no desire for us to be humiliated. Through Jesus, we know the God described in the Old Testament is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

And God doesn’t want us to do penance, either. God isn’t a heavenly Santa Claus, “making a list, checking it twice,” demanding that we say five Hail Marys or clean the neighbor’s toilet in order to earn His forgiveness. We can’t earn forgiveness, release from our shame. That is a gift from a God Who went to a cross and rose from a tomb long before we knew that we were sinners earmarked for hell without His loving intervention. Your sins and my sins may require us to repair relationships we’ve torn or harmed by our sin. Our sins may have done damage to our bodies or our souls which will need attending. But whatever our sins, the God we know through Jesus Christ, wants to forgive them and destroy their power to block His love from your life right this very instant!

On that first Easter Sunday evening, Jesus just showed up in that locked room. He showed up because however haltingly or incompletely, these disciples were the people who wanted to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, that He really was the Master of eternity. Christ is so charitable to us that He even counts our desire to believe as true belief in Him!

John, the writer of our Bible lesson, doesn't bother taking the time to describe how Jesus showed up despite the locks, any more than He bothered describing the mechanics of Jesus' resurrection. Jesus didn’t pick the locks, crash through the doors, or climb in through the windows. He simply came to those fearful, shame-plagued disciples who had been calling out to heaven and said (in the Daniels paraphrase for this morning):
“Peace. I give you peace. You don’t need to wallow here in fear or shame anymore. I need for you to go out into the world and tell the world my Good News, that I give forgiven sin and fresh starts and forever sunrises to all with faith in Me. Now, get out of here and let everyone else know about this new life free of fear and full of hope!”
Have there been rooms of your soul that you’ve locked, hoping that Jesus couldn’t see? Could you be in need of the freedom from fear that Jesus wants us all to have?

Yesterday, the world lost and heaven gained a great saint, Pope John Paul II. Several commentators have pointed out that the Pope's first words to the world on his ascendancy to the papacy were these: "Do not be afraid." Throughout his twenty-six year pontificate, John Paul lived those words. Undeterred by assassin's bullets, Parkinson's Disease, or growing frailty, he faced life and death not with fear, but with the peace that is God's gift to every follower of Jesus Christ!

I want to invite you this morning to let Jesus into every part of your life. Maybe you can use the Forty Days of Purpose campaign which begins next Sunday to do that.

Use this special time of spiritual renewal to tell Jesus, “I’m tired of being afraid, Lord. I’m opening up the doors of every room in my heart and life. Come and sweep them clean. Take away my shame. Take away my fear. Let me live in your peace today and always!”

Let Jesus in and then, get out of the locked rooms of your life and live in His peace with everyone you meet! It can happen. Just call out to God the way the disciples did. When we do that, the risen Jesus will show up in our lives.

NOTE: Today's edition of Daily Dig from Bruderhof, has this quote from Martin Buber:
“Where is the dwelling of God?” This was the question with which the Rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of his glory?” Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever people let him in.”
ANOTHER NOTE: Check out the words of the song composed and performed by Lost and Found, Cling to the Cross, here.