Saturday, July 02, 2005

Fourth of July Weekend Reading

I've gone through my archives and picked a few posts you might want to read during this Fourth of July weekend. Here are the links:

What is the American Dream?

Our Best Presidents?
The Rest of the List

Some Thoughts on George Washington
On Alexander Hamilton

Habits of the Heart:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

What is the Gospel? Where is God's Kingdom?

Tod Bolsinger has some good answers to those questions.

Standards for Journalists? Are Bloggers Journalists?

Columnist and blogger Rob Asghar, one of my daily must-clicks on the Internet, wrote me last week to pose two questions:
I cogitated on those two issues for awhile and responded in this way (with a few subsequent corrections):
Those are two interesting questions.

(1) As regards a Hippocratic Oath for journalists, I suppose that some sort of an oath would be appropriate for all people as they embark on professions, journalists included. I was given a series of charges at the time of my ordination, charges that were analogous to the Hippocratic Oath. Persons who enter government service, including the military, take oaths.

Other than examples like these, oaths are a rarity these days. Ask the average person today and I'm sure they would tell you, in one way or another, that oaths are anachronistic, just words.

That's because we don't imbue words with the kind of power that those in Biblical and other times did. The poignant scene of Isaac, deceived into giving the blessing to Jacob meant for Esau and because of words' power, being unable to reverse himself, exemplifies this.

But, in spite of our post-modern disdain oaths, a formal commitment on the part of journalists to a certain set of common principles and standards might not be a bad idea.

But two points:

(a) Those who dismiss oaths as being "just words" do have a point, even from a Biblical, Christian perspective. Quakers have often refused to take oaths, claiming to obey Jesus' admonition never to swear by anything, to so speak the truth that our answers will always boil down to Yes or No. (I couldn't help but think of that today when I heard some pol in Washington responding to a simple Yes or No question with a convoluted, non-response response.) The taking of an oath is meaningless if there is no intent to abide by its words.

(b) A difficulty associated with establishing some sort of oath for journalists is hinted at by your second question. That difficulty can be summed up in this way: We don't have a clear definition of what a journalist is. Is a pundit a journalist? How about a television talk show host who makes jokes about current events? A satirist on The Daily Show? A blogger? A DJ at a small town radio station who reads the news? A columnist?

Maybe in any oath that's established, the term journalist should be defined broadly in it, allowing those who have passed some professional exam to decide whether they consider themselves journalists who will abide by it or not. Information-consumers could then decide whether persons so credentialed have credibility in their eyes.

(2) There are so many different kinds of blogs and bloggers. Hugh Hewitt says that the average blogger is a teenage girl who uses it to talk about her day. For most people, blogs are nothing other than diaries or journals, a perfectly legitimate use of the medium.

There are lots of other kinds of blogs, of course. But, for example, I don't consider myself a journalist, only a preacher who likes to write. I wouldn't say that even people like Hewitt, Kos, or Glenn Reynolds are journalists.

But, here's the deal: I can't tell you with certainty why I say that. We disseminate information, although usually in a highly-repackaged and opinion-drenched form. Yet, we do have a responsibility to be truthful and factual, I think.

In a nutshell: My gut tells me that bloggers aren't journalists. But I could be persuaded that I'm wrong in that judgment.
I hope this helps.

God bless!

Rob is working on a column on these subjects, so be sure to check out what he writes either here or in your local newspaper. Rob is one of the best writers around!

Ironic Who Advocates Changing Constitution Regarding Supreme Court and Other Federal Judgeships

One ironic aspect of the discussions about possible election of federal judges and limiting their tenures is that both ideas are usually pushed by my fellow Republicans, mostly from disapproval of what they regard as courts rendering liberal judgments, legislating from the bench, or disregarding what they see as the Framers' "original intent." They're also bothered by their perceptions that individual justices have changed their views on some subjects over time and barring impeachment and removal from office, they can't be removed from office.

These Republicans would tell you that they want to "preserve" the Constitution. But if that's the intent of these proposed changes, then surely the answer is not to perform major surgery on key provisions of the document, ones that preserve the integrity and independence of the federal judiciary.

We need to remember the lessons of term limits, proposals also once pushed by Republicans, then from frustration over Democrats being entrenched in elective offices.

At the federal level, it resulted in a Constitutional amendment which has prevented two overwhelmingly popular GOP presidents, Eisenhower and Reagan, from seeking third terms they most certainly would have won. More significant for the country, it denied us the services of able public servants who were prevented from seeking office again.

At the state level, at least here in Ohio, it has resulted in giving more sway to entrenched bureuacracies and office-holders who bring blind ideology unseasoned by experience or the wisdom afforded by it to their jobs. For more on this subject, read here.

Amending the Constitution, which would be required in order to enact the election of federal judges or to limit their tenures, should be done with great circumspection anyway. While it's clear that the Framers compromised on slavery to make the union stronger than it had been under the Articles of Confederation, no such compromising with right effected their work when they created the delicate balance of power among the three branches of government found in the Constitution. It reflects not only the genius of people like James Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution, but also all their experiences with the uses and abuses of power and the wisdom of the ages.

No to Electing Federal Judges or Limiting Their Tenures

A new book by a Brigham Young University professor of Political Science advocates electing Supreme Court justices. Ann Althouse reviews it for the New York Times.

This proposal, along with one favoring limiting the tenures of federal judges, gets pushed forward a lot these days. But I personally have always been opposed to both ideas. That's because the provisions surrounding the Supreme Court are definitely among the many things the Framers got precisely right, I think.

In spite of the "politicization" of the confirmation process that seems to have gained momentum in recent decades, the Constitution does allow for the justices to be somewhat insulated from politics and public opinion.

(It's naive to think that the selection of judges hasn't always been a political process. But today, the confirmation process, like everything else in our world is more overt and more subject to public scrutiny. This heightens the political component of the nomination/confirmation process.)

The Framers intended for there to be some degree of separation between the justices and the shifts in executive and legislative power and in public opinion. This was wise. The last thing we need are courts pandering to public opinion, something we see a lot at local levels, often to the detriment of anything like justice.

Lifetime appointments also allow justices to mature, grow, and change in their perspectives. Some don't like this. They hate it that people like Earl Warren grew more liberal and Byron White grew more conservative during their times on the Court. But, I see this as a good thing: The only people who never change are the dead or the functionally dead.

(I don't see O'Connor as exemplifying the ilk of justices who've undergone significant shifts in judicial philosophy over time, by the way. She came to the Court as a Goldwater conservative: one skeptical of big government, committed to states' rights, of a more libertarian bent when it comes to individual rights, a strict constructionist who looks at each case on its own. Those remained her North Stars throughout her twenty-four years on the Court.)

If it were up to me, every state and locality would adopt the approach the Framers used in the federal Constitution, a process whereby executives and legislative bodies would nominate and confirm, respectively, judges for life tenures.

Barring that preferable scenario, I'll be happy simply to conserve the system, however modifiied by custom, that we enjoy today.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Choose Love!

I was stunned a few years ago when, in a televised interview, Beatles record producer George Martin gave an unexpected answer to this question: Did any one of the Beatles exercise veto power over what the band recorded or how songs were arranged?

Yes, Martin answered without hesitation, "If Ringo didn't like it, they didn't do it."

It's not that Ringo Starr was the leader of the Beatles, of course. Nor was it because he was a creative power house. He was neither of these things.

But he was an accomplished player on the Liverpool music scene before the rest of the Beatles were. They respected him for that. His standards were also such that, unlike his bandmates who seemed so smitten with their unprecedented success that they couldn't see deficiencies in their robotic performances before screaming audiences, Starr became convinced of the need for the band to get off the road for a time just to ensure quality. (Unfortunately, the move spelled the end of the Beatles as a road band.)

Starr was also, by all accounts, the most good-natured of the group, the least egotistical. His affability no doubt added to his credibility with his bandmates.

So, Martin's revelation is understandable.

Amazingly, in the first several years after the break-up of the Beatles, Starr was the best selling solo artist of the bunch. This is probably attributable to his not taking himself too seriously, his wise collaborations with everyone from Harry Nillson to producer Richard Perry, and the composition and selection of material that suited his limited vocal range. But even those caveats indicate that the judgment ascribed to him by Martin and the other Beatles served him well as he sailed out into the Beatles-less night.

While Starr projects since the 80s have not been top-sellers and have largely escaped notice by the public and critics alike, I've enjoyed his releases through the years.

They're not great art, of course. And Ringo isn't Bono or, for that matter, Phil Collins, to name another drummer, as a front man.

But his releases have been reliably fun. And there's something to be said for that.

Something else: Through the years, Starr's songs, irrespective of his collaborators, show a maturing man, becoming more comfortable in his skin and willing, in lyrics that are less than eloquent, yet true, to convey some of the hard-won truths he's discovered about life, himself, relationships, and even fame.

He's got a new CD out, a double-sided affair called, Choose Love. (Yes, Starr has refused to give up on the notion that All You Need is Love. One senses that it's more than a marketing ploy for him, that he really believes it.) One side of Choose Love is a conventional CD. The flip side has a short "documentary" on the creation of the collection and a few other features.

The sound is a little more stripped-down than on past Ringo LPs, not as elaborately produced. Usually, the cuts are just your standard drums, guitar, bass, rhythm guitar, and occasionally, organs and pianos, along with background vocals.

In addition, it seems that producer Mark Hudson is more willing this time out--he's been Starr's collaborator, co-producer, and musical director for several years now--to let Starr's vocals stand on their own. In the past, the ploy has often been to "compensate for" or "cover up" Starr's admittedly limited vocal ability. Frankly, even with the additional burden of carrying the songs with this new approach, he turns in his best vocal performance ever.

In addition, Starr is the only drummer and percussionist throughout the whole collection. On previous projects, talented studio side man Jim Keltner or others have been brought in to "fatten" the drums on Starr releases. But, it seems, the judgment has been made that Starr's drumming is more than sufficient. I think that's a good choice. He remains my favorite drummer because Ringo Starr has always understood that the drum is not meant to be a solo instrument. He knows that providing the back beat is a big job. And nobody does it better than he does!

The songs are mostly rockers, with some terrific riffs and guitar solos along the way.

No Ringo CD would be complete without allusions to "that band I used to be in," and Choose Love is no exception, although it doesn't overwhelm you with them. Lyrically, my favorite Beatles allusion is composed of a fragment where Starr sings, "The long and winding road is more than a song/Tomorrow never knows what goes one." Three Beatles titles in two little lines!

On the song, 'Choose Love,' he also recycles lines from 'It Don't Come Easy': "Got to pay our dues, if you want to sing the blues."

In Hudson, Starr seems to have found the perfect collaborator. The Beatles-nut who gained fame in the 1970s when he and his brothers, sounding like less-talented clones of the Fab Four, had a few hits and a forgettable variety show, understands Ringo's persona, is a talented musician and arranger, and seems able to bring out the best in Starr and their band. On past Starr-Hudson efforts, I felt that Mark Hudson shone a bit too brightly. But things seem to be in their proper order here and Starr comes through strong, happy, attractive, and fun!

Billy Preston and Chrissie Hynde make guest appearances here. Preston is impressive. And I love Hynde so much that I wish they'd made greater use of her than they did. But that's quibbling.

So, here's my recommendation: Before you have your next party, Choose Love. It'll be the perfect soundtrack for that...or for your commute to work and back home again.

Europe's Future Can Be Seen in...


On Shields, Cruise, Psychiatry, and Prescriptions

As a pastor, I've known several women who have suffered from postpartum depression at various levels.

This phenomenon is triggered by the rapid reduction of estrogen and progesterone levels that occurs in women after they have delivered their children. Postpartum depression doesn't happen in every woman and some are more effected by it than others, but it does happen.

In spite of that well-known expert on the history of psychiatry, Tom Cruise, many women, their husbands, and their friends and family will testify also that certain drugs, usually accompanied by counseling, have been appropriate treatment regimens for counteracting postpartum depression.

In today's New York Times, Brooke Shields, whose experience of postpartum depression and subsequent recovery occasioned actor Cruise's pronouncements on psychiatry, drugs, vitamin, and the alleged glibness of Matt Lauer, talks about her experience and the controversy created by Cruise:
While Mr. Cruise says that Mr. Lauer and I do not "understand the history of psychiatry," I'm going to take a wild guess and say that Mr. Cruise has never suffered from postpartum depression...

...comments like those made by Tom Cruise are a disservice to mothers everywhere. To suggest that I was wrong to take drugs to deal with my depression, and that instead I should have taken vitamins and exercised shows an utter lack of understanding about postpartum depression and childbirth in general...

...In a strange way, it was comforting to me when my obstetrician told me that my feelings of extreme despair and my suicidal thoughts were directly tied to a biochemical shift in my body. Once we admit that postpartum is a serious medical condition, then the treatment becomes more available and socially acceptable. With a doctor's care, I have since tapered off the medication, but without it, I wouldn't have become the loving parent I am today.
As a friend who provides alcohol and drug treatment counseling pointed out to me recently, it's probably true that too many drugs are being prescribed by physicians for various psychological and emotional issues without the benefit of consultation with psychotherapists. To the extent that Tom Cruise's rants on this subject alert us to this reality, he's rendered a public servic.

It's probably also true that there is good reason to be critical of some schools of psychiatry for being as prescription-happy as some physicians are surgery-happy.

But Cruise really has no reason to be dismissive of an entire discipline of science, one that has proven helpful to many people.

From a Christian perspective, I have observed in people I have referred to competent counselors, some of whom have been helped by the prescription of medications for problems ranging from depression to chemical imbalances, that the disciplines of psychiatry and psychology are among the good gifts God grants to bring healing and wholeness to people's lives.

I'm glad that Brooke Shields is pointing this out to us.

The President Could Avoid a Train Wreck on This One

President Bush may try to have it both ways in appointing Sandra Day O'Connor's replacement on the US Supreme Court: He may strive to both play to his base and nominate a moderate, or at least, one acceptable to moderates in the Senate.

He could do that by nominating a senator, someone trusted by his or her colleagues, even if of more conservative bent.

The Senate's Democratic leader, Harry Reid, floated the names of three Republican senators recently, including that of Mike DeWine from Ohio, who he deemed acceptable to Democrats.

And while some GOPers may not like DeWine's participation in the Gang of Fourteen, he is both conservative and an experienced lawyer and prosecutor.

Another name the President could send up that would please everybody, I think, is Orrin Hatch.

The President, if he has any desire to establish a legacy that will, at the least, help secure the election of a Republican successor, has got to start to make some deals. (A Republican successor, by the way, will almost ensure a Republican Supreme Court for decades to come.) He needs to make a deal on Social Security, for example. He's got to develop some sort of new consensus on the war in Iraq. (That, after all, is why he delivered the major speech on Iraq of this past week.)

The President, at this point, may decide that he can ill-afford to shake another hornet's nest.

His religious right base isn't going anywhere, he may calculate. He can afford to take them a bit for granted by not nominating one of their preferred number, but someone who will be acceptable to them.

Whether the President will see this or act on it, I can't say, of course: He hasn't called me yet to indicate his intentions or ask for my advice.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 6)

[I'm trying to read the Gospel's accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection with fresh eyes to get to know Jesus better. The "fresh eyes" I'm using is The Message paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson. As you join me on this journey of getting acquainted with Jesus one chapter at a time, I invite you to use a translation of the Bible with which you're not so familiar. Doing so may help you to see and understand things you haven't before. Among my favorite translations are: The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), The New International Version (TNIV), and the Good News Bible (Today's English Version).]

Matthew 4:13-25

The writer of the first of the four gospels which open the New Testament is constantly demonstrating the many ways in which Jesus fulfilled God's work toward saving humanity from sin and death. Jesus, as Matthew tells it, doesn't bring any new teachings, He is simply the ultimate revelation of God's character, will, and work.

In this section of chapter 4, we see that Jesus extends and completes the work that His earthly cousin, John the Baptizer, has undertaken. John's mission was to prepare the world for the coming of the Savior-Messiah. (Matthew 3:3)

And what was John's message? This:
"Change your life. God's Kingdom is here."
Or, in the New Revised Standard Version's rendering:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
Interestingly, after John's arrest, Jesus withdraws from public view for a time and then re-emerges. And what is His central message?
"Change your life. God's kingdom is here."
Or, in the New Revised Standard Version's rendering:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
In other words, there is a complete consonance between the ministries and proclamations of John the Baptizer and Jesus. What makes Jesus unique isn't His teaching, much of which can be found in the teaching of other religious figures and philosophers. What makes Jesus unique is Who He is and the role He plays.

Matthew teaches that Jesus is not just a man, but God; that His death is rendered by Him voluntarily in acceptance of the punishment for sin you and I deserve; and that He rose from death to open eternal life to us all.

John the Baptizer, with His message pointing to Jesus and the need for repentance, was, in a sense, the first Christian.

To repent, as the Peterson paraphrase faithfully reflects, means to change directions. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word translated as repent is metanoia.

That's a compound word, the first two syllables of which are familiar to us in the English language. Meta means change. (Metamorphosis, for example, means change of body.) Metanoia means that we change our minds.

When we repent, we ask God to help us think differently. We ask God to help us not to think selfishly, but with an attitude of love and humility toward God and others. This is what Paul is talking about when he quotes what's believed to be an ancient hymn of the Church in Philippians:

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:4-11)
A lifestyle of repentance is one in which we continuously turn to God away from our sinful impulses. To make our turnings "stick," Jesus is more than a good example. The world is full of good examples. But those good examples can't change our impulses or our actions.

Jesus is also the risen and living Savior, Who gives the repentant the power to help us keep turning to Him. That's why Paul writes of the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection for us--what we call the Gospel or God's good news:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith." (Romans 1:16-17)
In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the word for repent conveys the notion of a physical turning. To repent means then, to turn back from the course away from God and to turn toward God.

Jesus is the One Who makes it possible for us to find the welcoming arms of God when we do turn from sin, as experienced by the Prodigal Son in Jesus' wonderful story. That story goes on to show the grim future we choose when we refuse to turn toward God's welcome also.

Beginning at Matthew 4:18, we see Jesus gathering the group of His twelve closest disciples. Disciple translates the Greek New Testament word mathetes. This has the meaning of student or follower. Jesus was a peripatetic (a word transliterated from the Greek, by the way) rabbi or teacher, who took his students with Him so that they could learn how to carry on His ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing.

The first four disciples Jesus calls are fishermen by profession. Fishermen were usually wealthy folks. (To underscore this, another of the Gospels tells us that Zebedee, the father of James and John, had servants.) Fishermen had to pay the Romans for rights to fish. They therefore had to start out with some capital and because they enjoyed fairly exclusive privileges for fishing rights in a society and culture that basically feared the water anyway, they usually reaped big profits for their troubles.

The fishermen had a special hatred for the extortionists who served as franchise-owning tax collectors for the Romans, making the gathering of representatives from both of these groups among Jesus' closest followers remarkable.

What's more remarkable is the ways in which these wealthy men, who in following Jesus, were leaving a lot behind, just did it, no questions asked.

Some scholars today believe that the fishermen didn't completely leave their trades behind, that they would return to their fishing boats from time to time after their mission forays with Jesus had run their courses. I'm inclined to agree with that picture of things. It doesn't make the following any less remarkable, though. These guys were wealthy folks with lots to lose from going off with this marginal, poor itinerant preacher. They followed anyway.

What was it that they saw in Jesus that pulled them to Him?

Confessions of a Recovering Snob

It's not as though I never read fiction. People who come to this blog know of my frequent re-reading of The Chronicles of Narnia. Or my love of Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael mysteries. Or my fondness for the Sherlock Holmes stories and the fact that I actually read Nicholas Sparks' A Bend in the Road last year. (I thought it was mediocre, at best.)

Some thirty years ago, after graduating from college, working in a factory and searching for my career, I decided to dig into novels, something I'd never really done before. In my typically obsessive fashion, rather than hopscotching over books that looked interesting to me, I dug into the bodies of work of several authors, including Hermann Hesse and Kurt Vonnegut.

But I have to confess that most of my reading over the years has been of non-fiction. I've read hundreds and hundreds of books of history, theology, Biblical scholarship, and current affairs. Part of the reason I love non-fiction is that I'm afflicted with what my family calls, "The Cliff Claven Gene."

Like the Cheers mail carrier, I like facts and figures. (Unlike him, I hope, all my facts and figures are true.) When I was a kid, I spent nights before falling off to sleep and Saturday mornings reading from the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedias that lined my headboard. Instead of reading Treasure Island, I read about World War Two and politicians.

As I grew into my teens, the world still living in the afterglow of the Camelot mythology created by Jackie Kennedy and popularized by Theodore White, I adopted JFK's favorite poem, I Have a Rendezvous with Death, as my favorite poem and told my friends who were reading novels that like the late president, I felt that life was too short for me to spend time reading fiction. It was only later that I realized the guy had a death fetish and that there's more truth in the average novel than you're likely to find in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.' s A Thousand Days. (At least the average novel engages in less myth-making than either Schlesinger's or Sorenson's books about the Kennedy Administration did.)

Today, I'm beginning to realize how much I've missed through the years by not reading more fiction.

I'm realizing something else, too: This failure is part of a deeper character deficiency in me. In short, I'm something of a snob. And, I've discovered I probably am for a reason, a pathetic one.

Last night, my wife, son, a boyhood friend of his, and I met some good friends for ice cream. The conversation turned to movies and TV shows. I said something about the old Seinfeld sitcom and one of my friends quickly informed me that I was incorrect. I explained that I'd based my erroneous assertion on something I'd read about the show. "But," I admitted, "I've never seen Seinfeld."

Our friends could hardly believe it and my wife smiled knowingly--yes, truly and authentically so--and said, "Oh, he wears that like a badge of honor."

I laughed. But I knew she'd gotten me. Consider my snobbery: "I don't read fiction. No time." "I've never seen Seinfeld or Friends, like the rest of you pedestrian mortals." Blah, blah, blah, blah. What an insufferable, party-pooping snob!

It's a wonder my family and friends haven't tarred and feathered me many times over. But, like true family and friends, they accept me as I am and by that acceptance, incite me to want to be better than I am. (And I'm not deliberately paraphrasing Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, which I have seen. They really do have this effect on me.)

As I considered this fact about myself last night, I asked, "Why? Why do I act like such a snob?"

Here's the pathetic answer, one that shames me: To be noticed. To set myself apart from the crowd.

Why would a man who knows that he's been loved, accepted, forgiven, and granted new life by God feel the need to be noticed, to set himself apart as the busy intellectual who disdains the things that others love?

The only answer I can give is that the old Mark resides within me the way Smeagol kept living in, tormenting, and obstructing Gollum in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. (Which I'm only now listening to on CD. I've never read it.)

The Bible says that as long as we live on this earth, our old selves will battle for supremacy over the new people God is making of the followers of Jesus.

This morning, I padded down the stairs and told my wife, "I'm sorry that I'm such a snob. I've asked God to help me to be a better person in the future."

She looked at me, smiling, and said, "I don't think you're very different from the rest of us, Mark." I felt pretty good. I had, so to speak, named my demon and asked God to cast it out.

But several hours later, my wife gave me something else to consider about my character. "Stop worrying so much about what I think," she told me. I feel another evening of introspection coming on.

[Mark Roberts, one of the best blogging pastors around, has linked to this post. Thanks, Mark!]

Some Thoughts on Prayer

Last night, I received an email from a person in our community who I've met once, but with whom I've corresponded several times, on some occasions about the Bible studies she's leading at her church for thirty-somethings (she is, as you'll see presently, a grandmother) and on others, my columns that appear in a local chain of suburban newspapers.

She asked for prayers for her grandson's wife who, after giving birth a few weeks ago, learned that she has leukemia. I assured her that I would pray for Kendra and then asked if I could share the request for prayer with the people of our church. She said that those prayers would be welcomed.

Some of you know that I send prayer needs to our congregation via email all the time. Today, as I sent out my request for Kendra, I felt moved to talk a little bit about prayer, what it is, what it does, and what makes it effective. I hope that you find it helpful:
Recently, I've been reading another book by Larry Dossey. Dossey is the physician, researcher, and writer who, almost against his will, became convinced of the effectiveness of prayer in dealing with disease and has since written several books about the growing body of scientific research proving that point. He cites hundreds of studies that have been done at eminent medical research institutions.

Prayer is a powerful weapon. In it, we who are helpless enough to admit our need of help and faithful enough--Jesus says that our faith need only be the size of a tiny mustard seed, that what matters isn't the size of our faith but the size of our God--can call the power of heaven into our earthbound lives.

That doesn't mean, of course, that God always answers our prayers the way we want them answered. There are still many confounding and painful mysteries in life. And one important element of prayer completely missed by the "name it and claim it" crowd who pervert Christian faith, is that every Christian prayer should be marked by the humility and surrender denoted by the simple phrase, "Your will be done." But I have seen enough of "coincidences" involving prayer requests and desired results to convince me that when you and I pray, God pays attention.

Please keep all of the people on our weekly prayer lists in your prayers. It's one more way in which Jesus Christ has deputized you and me to make a positive difference in the world.

[You can find Larry Dossey's books on prayer at Amazon here.]

[This is the best book on prayer I have ever read, period.]

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Baby Boomer Crowned Heirs Ready to Throw Mama (and Papa) Off the Train?

I'm feeling a little cranky this morning. Some may dismiss my mood as being the result of my advancing age. (I'm fifty-one years old, after all.) But I hope that you won't do that in my presence; I'm apt to go medieval on you.

It's the morning after the US Supreme Court's final session of the 2004-2005 term as I write this and there are people who are disturbed that William Rehnquist, the eighty year old chief justice hasn't announced his resignation from the Court. Others appear chagrined that associate justice Sandra Day O'Connor, age 75, hasn't also stepped down. After all, pundits and pols reason, they're old. O'Connor has had past health problems and Rehnquist is suffering from cancer while evidencing increasing physical frailty.

This morning, I read that University of Wisconsin law professor and blogger Ann Althouse was invited to appear on a public radio program to discuss "the legacy" of Rehnquist as though his resignation (and presumably, rapidly impending departure from this life) were done deals. I wrote:
That raises a concern I've had ever since the Chief Justice's announcement last fall of his cancer.

I have been thoroughly creeped out by the ways in which pols and pundits alike have assumed the imminence of Rehnquist's resignation. Often, it's been accompanied by discussions of his health, painting his death as imminent. It's seemed altogether too much like the behavior of prospective heirs of a wealthy frail person in some Grade B movie. In fact, a good bit of the judicial filibuster folderol was a kind of "death watch." All these discussions disregard Rehnquist's humanity completely; which is ironic in light of the fact that at least half of those engaged in the death watch describe themselves as pro-life.

This creepiness has extended of late to other people. The other day, I went to an otherwise fine group blog written by those of a Christian perspective. There, I found a mid-year review of one blogger's January 1 predictions. I had missed the original posted projections. But among its predictions, apparently, was a list of people he thought would die in 2005, a list running to something like fifteen names.

The blogger seemed almost disappointed that only one of those he thought would die had actually expired--Pope John Paul II--and pointed out that another entrant, Billy Graham, was actually preaching in New York City last week.

Mind you, the blogger wasn't rooting for these persons' deaths. He was just predicting them. But, it seemed crass beyond words and I told the guy so.

Similarly, the entire approach to coverage and discussion of Rehnquist's illness and possible resignation have lacked class, compassion, or any consideration of this Chief Justice also being a person. Or so it has seemed to me.

Am I overreacting?
Frankly, I don't think that I am. We Baby Boomers--and Busters and GenXers--act like narcissistic playboys (and playgirls) whose every whim has been indulged and now, like some crown prince, lusting for the throne, feel it our divine right to throw mama and papa off the train.

Is there one iota of evidence to support the notion that, for whatever physical ailments may afflict them, Rehnquist or O'Connor are contributing any less to the functioning of the Court than they ever have?

No! In fact, in Rehnquist's case, the evidence, as recounted by one Court-watcher on this morning's Diane Rehm Show, is that the Chief Justice continues to effectively guide discussions of upcoming cases and rulings among his colleagues, as well as presiding actively over the entire Judicial Branch and the major renovations to the Supreme Court building going on in D.C. right now.

Much of the speculation about Rehnquist and O'Connor reflect a disdain of the elderly that is profoundly disturbing.

I was just beginning to cool off when I went back to the Stones Cry Out, where a blogger referred to evangelist Billy Graham's joke after he was introduced at his New York City mission by former President Bill Clinton. The blogger, a fine writer, Jim Jewell, wrote:
Billy Graham’s last crusade in New York City has become a media love fest, and it is really great to see the admiration for Dr Graham and the way the Crusade is pulling together the Christian church in the city. But please don’t pay attention to anything Dr. Graham says these days, except in his prepared sermon. He has lost his political discretion, but it’s OK. He deserves a little senility late in life. Don’t condemn him, as some have. Just smile when it sounds as though he’s endorsing Hillary Clinton for president (when Bill Clinton joined him on stage, Graham "quipp[ed] that the former president should become an evangelist and allow 'his wife to run the country'”). This wasn’t politics; just a good-natured quip at an evangelistic crusade. We need to read in the discretion the grand old man of evangelicalism is now lacking.
I was appalled and responded:
This is absurdly and offensively condescending toward Billy Graham. His quip in no way could be read as an endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president, except for those listening with intensely partisan ears.

In fact, in his statesmanship and his refusal to say that one political party or philosophy is more righteous than another, Graham is not being senile. He's being Christian. He's showing an awareness that political isms are ultimately arguments over how to decorate a building marked for the wrecking ball. He refuses to be snagged by politics or to engage in any idolatry of ideology because he has a greater, more eternal cause.

His comments then, don't require our indulgence as though he were some witless oaf. I should think that the world's recent experience with Pope John Paul II, whose mind and work remained vital and relevant even as his life ebbed away, would keep us from dismissing those with whom we may disagree simply because they've attained a certain age.

Graham deserves our attention. He is showing how we ought to be the Church, that is, ambassadors of Jesus Christ, not emissaries of the Republican National Committee!

We Christians seek to win to Christ not just those who agree with our politics, but all people. Billy Graham knows this...even if he is eighty-six years old.
Apparently, some would prefer to ignore the wisdom that older people, including elderly Christian leaders, have to offer. They'd rather elbow them aside and dismiss them as being out of touch with reality.

As a Christian, I find this offensive for the same reason that I find abortion or euthanasia offensive. In each case, people who don't meet up to someone's specifications for acceptable humanity---whether the requirements are physical, mental, or philosophical--are marginalized and deemed ignorable or worthy of death.

What lessons are we Baby Boomers teaching our children by the way we treat and discuss our elders? Of what wisdom are we robbing ourselves because of our ideologies and prejudices?

UPDATE: Rob Asghar has linked to this piece. Thanks, Rob!

ANOTHER UPDATE: This post is one of many articles by many different people that you'll find at this week's Christian Carnival at ChristWeb.

"We should be at least as creative in addressing crime as thieves are."

So says Nicholas Kristof in an interesting op-ed piece in today's New York Times. He advocates measures that will not only prevent crime, but reduce it, and points to some interesting examples of creative approaches that do just that.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Christians Should Welcome Court Rulings on Commandments

As a Christian and an American, I welcome the two rulings issued by the US Supreme Court today regarding displays of the Ten Commandments on public property. As a New York Times account points out:

In a pair of 5-to-4 rulings, the court said the display of the Ten Commandments in a 22-acre park at the Texas State Capitol was proper, but that the displays of the Commandments in two county courthouses in Kentucky were so overtly religious as to be impermissible.

The rulings, the first by the court in a quarter-century on the emotional issue of the proper place of the Commandments in American life, conveyed the message that disputes over such religious displays must be decided case by case, and that the specific facts are all important.
As a purely spiritual matter, I believe that the display of the Ten Commandments on public property may be:

(1) Contrary to God's will;

(2) Destructive of a positive witness for Christ.

The cause to which every Christian is called to be committed--sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection and their power to give new life to all who follow Him--is not something that we are to "farm out" to the government. Each follower of Christ is to embrace this as part of their personal mission.

For we Christians to insist that tax dollars be used in what often is an act of proselytization not only violates constitutional principles, but Biblical ones as well. It smacks of coercion, of using one's status in a community to force our views on others. Scour the Bible from cover to cover and you won't find God ever sanctioning the coercive imposition of our faith on others. In fact, we're called upon to share our faith with compassion, with humility, and with respect for those with whom we differ.

I emphatically disagree with those who feel that these rulings prohibit the free expression of faith in Christ. I'm still saying that Jesus Christ is Lord and that the Ten Commandments are a terrific summary of God's will for the human race.

These rulings, it should be noted, allow for government entities to acknowledge the significance of the Ten Commandments as part of the common heritage of America, as the court apparently felt was true of the display in Texas in favor of which they ruled.

But they disallow the use of public monies and public properties to uphold a specific religious perspective (for example, Jewish or Christian) out of deference to the establishment clause, the provisions of which they deemed violated by the Kentucky displays.

This is why I feel these rulings should be welcomed by Christians. The government entity which today can give preferential treatment to Christians can, quite conceivably, give preference to other religions in the future. Better a society in which all are given equal opportunity for expression than one which sides with a specific religion or sect.

In a free interchange of ideas, devoid of preferential treatment, I am convinced that the Savior Jesus will win people's hearts and wills every time. We Christians don't need coercion to win others to Christ. We have two powerful weapons without governmental endorsement: common sense (because I believe that the Good News of Jesus makes plain sense) and the Holy Spirit (the great, loving persuader of the skeptical).

[For further reading on related topics, you might want to check out:

Trusting What You Can't See

Three Attributes I Hope Always to Be Part of Christians' Sharing of Faith

The Ten Commandments Controversy]

UPDATE: Joe Gandelman, moderate blogger, has linked to this post and provides some other interesting links on the subject.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Ann Althouse, law professor at the University of Wisconsin, evaluates Justice O'Connor's reasons for voting against publicly-sanctioned displays of the Ten Commandments in both cases.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds has linked to this post. Thanks, Glenn.

STILL ANOTHER UPDATE: Elephant in Exile, a site of which I hadn't previously been aware, linked to this post with a really funny comment. Thanks!

HAVE ANOTHER UPDATE: Cafe Oregano, one of the best names for a blog around, also links to this post. Thanks!

ONE MORE: Instafilter has also linked to this piece as part of a general round-up of Supreme Court ruling analyses, reporting, and ranting. Thank you!

HERE'S ANOTHER: Balloon Juice links to this piece and declares, "the sweet and tasty savor of sanity." Just as a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut, I guess a preacher periodically says something that makes sense to people. Thanks for the link!

I CAN'T FORGET CHIP: Chip Taylor links to this piece and adds an interesting observation.

CHECK THIS ONE OUT: Short Attention Span links to this piece amid a really good analytical post on the rulings.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

What ball game? Oh, you mean the loud reality show and nine-inning commercial for which the game is the background setting?

Writes Richard Lawrence Cohen:

"Love this game? Worship this game? When you really love doing something, you don’t need a loudspeaker telling you that you do. Corporate America has come to seem like an anxious, oversolicitous parent, throwing every possible game and toy and overblown enrichment at its children in the desperate hope that they won’t get bored and rebel."

Amen to This!

Sometimes, it is necessary to state the obvious.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Welcoming as We've Been Welcomed

Matthew 10:40-42
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, June 26, 2005)

It was uncommonly warm that October day. My family and I had arrived in our area less than two months before, brought here to start a new congregation. I was going door-to-door, eliciting interest in this adventure of faith. On this particular day, I was knocking on doors, ringing doorbells, and running from dogs in the neighborhood that sets across Clough Pike from Amelia High School. I came up the driveway of a woman who was weeding her flower bed.

I introduced myself to the woman and we chatted for awhile. “It’s awfully hot out here today,” she observed. “Would you like a drink of water?” I responded enthusiastically: “That would be great!”

Later, Sabrina, a person a few of you here this morning will remember and who has since moved, told me that as she prepared the glass of ice water for me, she remembered the words of Jesus that are our Bible lesson for this morning:
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the One Who sent Me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple--truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Sabrina believed that by welcoming me in Jesus’ Name, she was welcoming Jesus Himself.

Hospitality--for all people--is at the core of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. It begins with God’s welcome of us. We know that we’re like the prodigal son in Jesus’ famous story. We’ve tried to make our way in the world and even when we’ve achieved success, we’ve experienced an emptiness that can only be filled by the God we know in Jesus. Like the father in that same story, God has welcomed us back.

This theme of hospitality is then, Jesus says, to be replicated in our own lives as we welcome others. The New Testament book of Hebrews, tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

The passage remembers an incident from the Old Testament when Abraham, the father of all with faith in God, had pitched his tent amid some oak trees and received strange visitors. It turned out that the three men were God and two of His angelic servants. (Saint Augustine believed that they were God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But that’s another story.)

The point is that our every encounter with others might well be divinely-orchestrated appointments. Why? Because it’s God’s passionate desire to welcome into His kingdom others in the same way He’s welcomed you and me.

Pastor Mike Foss, whose work helping others live out their faith in Christ has come to mean so much to me, tells the story of a woman who had joined his congregation some time before:
“I came to this church when I was at a crossroads in my life, Pastor Mike. My marriage had failed, I was between jobs, and struggling to find myself. And when I came [here], the first thing I noticed was how warm it felt, how close to Jesus it brought me. But the best thing was that, when I looked for a place to serve and belong, I found [several] right away...[I got involved with several small groups.] This church not only gave me a sense of the nearness of God, but by welcoming me into ministry, by making room for a stranger, I could belong.” Foss says that the woman then looked at him for a moment and said, “Pastor Mike, this church gave me the strength to believe in God and myself again. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for the people of [this congregation].”
More than a few of you, I know, would tell similar stories about the life of Friendship Church: How, at pivotal moments, in your life you too were welcomed to turn from sin, to follow Jesus Christ, and to get engaged in those five purposes for living that animates the lives of Jesus’ followers---worshiping God with our whole lives, engaging in deep fellowship with God’s people, taking on ministries to the Church, serving and loving the spiritually-disconnected in Jesus’ Name, and sharing Christ with others.

The hospitality you’ve experienced from individuals of Friendship and from the congregation as a whole have changed your life for the better and forever. When we welcome others, we are most clearly doing Jesus’ will for our lives!

And this ministry of welcome isn’t something that we’re called upon to extend just to strangers.

The late priest, Henri Nouwen, was an amazing writer and one who spent a good portion of his life living with and caring for the mentally retarded. Toward the end of his life, he ministered to gays and lesbians dying of AIDS and wept as he said that it broke his heart to see these people literally dying for the love and acceptance that the world had withheld from them.

In one of his books, Nouwen wrote about the family and observed that in those households where love prevailed and children thrived, there was a common thread: Parents treated their children as guests sent to them from God. That isn’t to say that the parents didn’t provide loving discipline. But these parents, Nouwen observed, never lost sight of the fact that their children were gifts sent to them from God, whose time in their parents' homes were fleeting. (This is fact to which I've become very sensible with the recent wedding of our daughter.)

How might our lives be changed if we regarded every person we encountered as though they were a very special guest: Jesus?

What consideration might we show them?

Would we quench their thirst for hope and kindness?

Jesus says that when we afford others the same hospitality and welcome He has given us, we hold on tightly to the free gifts of forgiveness and life He gives to all who follow Him.

Today, as we close this five-week series on growing in our faith in Christ by growing in our welcome of God and others into our lives, I want to issue again the challenge I gave to all of us a few weeks ago. Let’s make it our goal to invite at least one spiritually-disconnected person to worship with us, to be involved in one of the small groups that are going to be an ongoing feature of Friendship’s life, or just to know and follow Jesus every month for the rest of our lives.

Let’s extend the loving welcome of Jesus to those who need Him. For a world thirsting for love and truth, hope and God, we can be a cup of cool water that quenches them forever.