Saturday, July 23, 2005

Scarlet Letter, a Gloomy But Interesting Tale

I finally finished re-reading The Scarlet Letter, a novel penned by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I first read it more than thirty-five years ago, when I was a student in high school and wanted to look at it again.

Apart from TSL, Hawthorne's greatest claim to fame is probably that he was a friend of Franklin Pierce. They were roommates while students at Harvard. Hawthorne's campaign biography probably was a big factor in helping to get Pierce elected president.

Gloom seems to have adhered to the two friends, individually and together.

While on his way to be inauguated president, the train on which Pierce rode stopped for a break. During this stop, the President-elect's son was run over by a train car. He, his wife, and his administration were understandably under a pall from that point forward.

Several years later, Hawthorne was accompanying Pierce on a trip when he took ill and died.

TSL is considered by many to be the first great American novel and among the first to explore psychological themes, albeit in a markedly melodramatic manner. It is, as one might expect, as gloomy as its author.

In it, Hester Prynne is forced by the Puritan community of seventeenth-century Boston to wear a red "A" on her breast in token of her adultery, a sin which resulted in her giving birth to a baby girl named Pearl.

Hester refuses to name her fellow sinner. Unbeknownst to the adoring and respectful townspeople, her lover had been the saintly minister, Reverend Dimmesdale. In the second-to-last chapter's penultimate scene, Dimmesdale reveals his guilt.

Such may not have happened had it not been for the evil influence of Roger Chillingworth, who, also unbeknownst to the town, is Hester's estranged husband, a man she never loved, who allows his righteous indignation to work subtle unkindnesses on the guilt-racked clergyman.

It's a strange tale, one that presents a bizarre version of Christianity that takes hold whenever believers forget that the God we meet on the pages of both the Old and New Testaments--and especially in the person of Jesus of Nazareth--is a God of grace, quick to forgive the repentant, and anxious to extend wholeness and love to us.

I had forgotten how long the book's opening essay, in which Hawthorne claims to give the basis for the story he's about to share. It's full of witty ruminations on government service and what he claims to be its ennervating effects. For all his gloominess, I bet that Hawthorne would have been a witty conversationalist.

Why Isn't There More Coverage of This Story?, Reynolds Wonders

Glenn Reynolds links to a story about Muslims staging an anti-terror rally. This does deserve big coverage!

Joe Gandelman Insists, "I'm a Moderate"...

...and seems almost radical about it. Joe's thoughtful examinations of many different points of view makes his site a must-read blog for me. His perspective belies allegations that moderates are people who don't know what they stand for. In fact, as exemplified by Gandelman, one sees that moderates are people who know what they stand for and refuse to be human cliches, as so many hard-right and hard-left ideologues can be. If you read Gandelman, bring your brain. (Ambivablog links to the Gandelman piece.)

People Still Really Are Able to Enjoy London

Adrian Warnock has a nice post on the day he and his wife spent in London for their "tenth and one day" wedding anniversary. He gives advice on the best ways to see London and includes links to some of the great sites.

It makes me wish I could back again soon. London really is a wonderful place...I'm keeping it and all of Great Britain in my prayers right now!

This is Exactly the Aim of Terrorists

Terrorists compensate for deficiencies in their ideologies and numbers by aiming to sow fear and dis-ease among the public, law enforcement, and military and intelligence professionals.

Never knowing where terrorists may strike and always trying to outguess them, terrified law enforcement personnel can act with dangerous impetuosity. I don't say this in judgment; I hardly know what I might do under similar circumstances, even if I were a trained law enforcement professional. But I'm sure that bin Laden and his band of murderers view the death of a man who had no apparent connection with the recent terror bombings as proof that their strategy of creating confusion and terror in service to Islamofascism is working.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Explosions in Egypt: What is Going On from a Religious Perspective?

Seven explosions have been set off at an Egyptian resort, killing at least 36 people and injuring 100 more. What is going on? What lay behind this global fit of insanity?

I have pointed out that the war on terrorism is not in a war on Islam. Muslims the world over are as victimized and repulsed by the spasm of violence and bloodshed that his been unleashed by radicals acting in the name of their religion as the rest of the world. Islamofascists like Osama bin Laden are not friends of the Islamic faith. They are perverters of it.

But it's also true that there are components of Muslim belief that lend themselves peculiarly to the kinds of radicalism we are seeing right now. I want to make particular mention of three of them here.

For one thing, Islam is intensely legalistic. In contrast with the Judeo-Christian tradition from which it sprang, Islam doesn't believe in salvation by grace. Salvation by grace (or, by God's charity), a fundamental tenet of both Judaism and Christianity, holds that we cannot earn a place in God's kingdom. That is a gift God grants to those with faith in Him. Of Abraham, the father of all three faiths, for example, the Old Testament book of Genesis says (and the New Testament book of Romans reiterates) that he "believed," that is, entrusted himself to God, "and God reckoned it to him as righteousness." God counted Abraham right with Himself not because Abraham adhered to a set of rules, but because he believed in God.

This theme is carried through into the New Testament. The most famous passage there finds Jesus telling a teacher of Jewish law that God so loved the human race that He gave His Son--Jesus--so that all who believes in Him won't perish, but live with God forever. (John 3:16)

Islam is a religion of rigid rules. They don't commend violence as a means of salvation, to be sure. But whenever salvation becomes a product of performance, its adherents or would-be adherents become potentially susceptible to the legalistic prodding of persuasive imams who tell them, "Do this and a special place in heaven is yours." It's been widely reported that the September 11 hijackers were promised special places in heaven with many subserviet wives if they would kill.

Islam also puts much stock in God revealing Himself to single individuals. Both Judaism and Christianity are intensely community-oriented faiths. While the Biblical tradition finds God revealing Himself to individuals, such revelations are always to be confirmed by the community of believers. Absent that confirmation and the affirmation of the Biblical witness, claims that one has received some revelation from God is suspect.

Islam, by contrast, is, like Mormonism, the result of what's thought to be God's self-disclosure to a single individual. In Islam's case, the entire faith is thought to have been revealed whole cloth only to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, over a twenty-three year period. The Bible, by contrast, has many human authors inspired by God, the inspiration of whom over a period of centuries has been continuously tested and affirmed by the Jewish and Christian communities. With Islam's "lone ranger" tradition in its background, it has been susceptible to firebrand religionists who claim that they too, have a particular individual revelation of God's will, even ones that advocate cowardly violence. This is why we hear of individual firebrand imams issuing edicts of war and condemnation against those with whom they disagree.

Yet another tenet of conventional Islam that gets misused by the Islamofascists stems from the Muslim view of prayer to and communion with God. In the Christian faith, God accepts our inarticulate sighs, even when we have no idea what to pray, as legitimate prayer. (Romans 8:26-29) But in Islam, only prayer during its five commanded daily times of prayer which is offered with the exact words given in the Koran--and only in Arabic--is acceptable to Allah. (What a contrast to the God we Christians meet through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, we learn that God is big enough and compassionate enough to reach down to us and hear us in our languages, even when our words and our minds are jumbled.)

This Muslim teaching works against the religion's adherents integrating with larger communities. And this, in turn, is one reason that many Muslim communities in Europe have become almost countries within countries, breeding grounds for self-righteous religious superiority, resentments, hatred, and the teaching of hate.

The violence perpretrated by Christians against Muslims in the Balkans in recent years, the sectarian violence between Christian bodies that long afflicted Northern Ireland, and the reprehensible history of the Crusades are just a few examples demonstrating that Christianity, as much as any religion, can be perverted and turned into a tool of violence by misinformed or malevolent people.

And Islam in its pure forms does not condone or in any way justify the horrors perpetreated by terrorists today.

But these three factors--legalism, the Islamic view of God's self-disclosure, and the penchant toward isolation--have played a part in making Islam a hotbed for radicalization.

When one adds legitimate reasons for Islamic anger with the democratic West to these illegitimate perversions of Islam, one finds an explosive formula for the creation of radicalism.

[For posts on related subjects, click below:

Can Democracy Take Root in the Muslim World? (August, 2004)

My Take on 'Imperial Hubris' (November, 2004)

Reactions to Newsweek Koran Story (May, 2005)

Chilling Incident (September, 2004)

Christmas, Eid, and Holiday Stamps (November, 2004)

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 1 (December, 2004)]

So, Explain How Lance Was in 43rd. Today, But Still is in First

I'm glad that I'm not the only one who doesn't get this. Read Paul Daugherty's column.

Coalition of the Chillin' Takes on Roberts Nomination

As a proud member of the Coalition of the Chillin', a group of Republican bloggers who thought that the judicial filibuster deal forged by fourteen US Senators was a good thing, I had every intention of participating in their Carnival of posts on the nomination of John Roberts for the Supreme Court. But, life got in the way. Between my professional work and work around the house--like Judge Roberts, I mow my own lawn, for example--I didn't get a piece written by the 9:00 P.M., Tuesday, deadline.

But my fellow CoCers have written a bunch of pieces that I intend to read in the next few days. You might want to do so as well. Here's the link.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 4

[Our Tuesdays with Markie look at the book of Genesis that I'm undertaking with people from Friendship Church is lurching along somewhat fitfully. We've met several times since my daughter's wedding last month. But a session last week got cut short when, unexpectedly I became discombobulated--or at least, more than usual--from what turned out to be a sinus infection. I'm feeling fine now. What follows are notes from several sessions on Genesis, chapters 7 through 12:3.]

1. The depths of Noah's faith is emphasized in Genesis 7:1-5. Until God tells him that a flood is about to take place, Noah has had no idea why he was building this large ark. (God's intentions are made known to the reader earlier, but to not to Noah.) Verse 5 tells us all that we need to know about Noah:
"And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him."
In spite of Noah's exemplary faith and obedience to God, we're going to find that he is far from perfect.

2. Genesis 7:11 contains striking specificity. It's this specificity that lends the narrative its power and accessibility. To see what I mean, consider the difference between two sentences describing something mundane: Sentence one, "The room smelled like air freshener." Sentence two, "As I approached the dark mahogany archway that marked the entry into the sitting room, the strong scent of PineSol filled my head."

Specificity also lends credibility, even to a tale we, with our post-modern sensibilities, might deem fantastic.

3. God shuts the male and female of all flesh in the ark. Obviously, God has plans for His creation to continue in some renewed form after the flood has ended.

4. The flood brings near total destruction to a creation which has been filled with the consequences of human sin. (Genesis 7:17-24)

5. The dove Noah sends out to see if the waters have subsided sufficiently for his passengers and him to leave eventually returns to the ark with an olive leaf in its beak. (Genesis 8:11) This was a sure indication that there was dry land and that plant life was springing up.

The dove's return also indicated that there was now peace between God and His creation and thereafter, the dove with the olive branch, became a symbol of peace.

6. The animals emerged from the ark by families, indicating that those pairs first shut into the ark had been busy during their nearly half-year as passengers. (Genesis 8:19)

7. Genesis 8:20-22 demonstrate that in spite of the flood and the destruction of those human beings who refused to live under God's authority, nothing had really changed about the human heart. It's a sign of God's grace and goodness that instead of wiping us out, He lovingly reaches out to us, remembers that we're imperfect, and is quick to forgive the repentant.

8. To understand Genesis 9:1-7, it's important to remember how the ancient Hebrew viewed blood. In a sense, it's not so very different from how we view it. Blood made life possible. It was so powerful that it very nearly had a life of its own. To shed another's blood was to deny them life, something only God could do.

That's why, after Cain killed his brother Abel, God tells Cain that Abel's blood cried out to Him.

That's why later, in the book of Exodus, God institutes Passover. While enslaved in Egypt, God tells His people to paint lamb's blood on their doorposts. That way, the angel of death He was sending to take the firstborn of Egypt, would pass over. The blood of lambs would appeal to and communicate with the angel, allowing life to continue for the firstborns of that household.

Later still, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (At-One-Ment), would be instituted for God's people. On that day, at the Temple in Jerusalem, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sacrifice the perfect, unblemished sacrificial lamb. Later, dipping a branch into the blood of the sacrificed lamb, the priest would sprinkle the amassed worshipers with it. Their sins from the previous year would now be atoned for, the lamb having borne their sins and its blood imparting new life to them.

Many centuries later, Jesus' earthly cousin, John the Baptist, would describe Jesus as "the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world." And, the New Testament book of Hebrews tells us, Jesus accomplished our "at-one-ment" with God, the forgiveness of our sins and our reconciliation with God, "once and for all." No longer would a priest have to make yearly sacrifices. The shed blood of Jesus had worked that miracle forever for all with faith in Him! (The tearing of the curtain which had formerly concealed the Holy of Holies at the moment of Jesus' death symbolizes the reconciliation Jesus' giving of Himself brings.)

Just before His death on the cross, Jesus also instituted Holy Communion. "This is My body," He said as He gave His disciples bread. "This is My blood," He also said as He gave them wine.

The blood that coarses through our veins is life from God; we aren't to take it from others. The blood that Jesus shed for us gives us new life.

9. Genesis 9:8-17. I remember vividly the spring day when my great-grandmother told me the story of Noah and the promise of the rainbow. A sudden rainstorm had passed over, the sun had shone forth, and she and I were walking on her front sidewalk when a rainbow could be seen to our southeast. That's why even today, some forty-five years later, the rainbow remains a symbol of hope for me, a reminder that God gives forgiveness and second-chances to me even when I mess up.

10. Genesis 9:20-29 is likely not a story you read in Sunday School as a kid. There are various interpretations of it.

Some read it quite literally and surmise that Ham simply saw his father's nakedness. This was thought inappropriate. But the virulence of Noah's reaction and his condemnation of Ham for "what he had done" seems "over the top" for what may seem in an involuntary accident.

Other interpretations I've seen deem this a more sinister act, believing that "seeing" Noah's nakedness actually euphemistically expresses the idea that this was a homosexual rape. In some ancient cultures, males would express their dominion over other males by subjecting them to such acts.

Be that as it may, Noah and the other sons clearly felt that Ham had violated his father in some way.

One of the early points I made in this study was that the Bible is interested in answering two pressing questions: Why? and Who? In this disturbing story, we find an explanation of why there was enmity between God's people, the Hebrews (or Israelites) and the Canannites.

11. Genesis 11:1-9 tells the familiar story of the Tower of Babel. As with Adam and Eve, the problem with their descendants in this ancient city was that they wanted to "be like God." God confuses their language to prevent them from being too high and mighty and to spare them the consequences of such an attitude. The simple fact is that when we "get too big for our britches," we are less open to the open arms of God. We think that we can get along on our own and therefore ignore God.

In a way, this story reiterates the story of Adam and Eve. After their rebellion against God, they were banished from the garden and access to the tree of life. Although God wants to give us everlasting life, if the first two humans had eaten of this tree, they would have this gift without the internal reconstruction and the reconciliation with God that He wants to effect within us. Sometimes, what seems like God being cruel is really God protecting us from the consequences of our rotten decisions. That's what God did for the people of Babel.

By the way, most church lectionaries (plans for Bible readings) usually link the story of Babel to the story of the first Pentecost from the book of Acts. In the latter incident, which took place fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead and ten days after His ascension, God's Holy Spirit empowered praying followers of Jesus Christ to hit the streets of Jerusalem and tell others about Jesus in the many languages of religious pilgrims there. Pentecost, in a sense, was a reversal of Babel.

12. Once again, in Genesis 12:1-2, we find some people--Abram and Sarai, residents of an area set in what is modern-day Iraq--challenged to trust God. They're told to trust God to take them to some unnamed destination, that they are going to become ancestors of a people set apart for God, and that God will protect them and bless them to be a blessing to others.

[Here are links to the first three installments of this series:

Random Notes #1

Random Notes #2

Random Notes #3

You'll find some points repeated in the posts. There are two reasons for that: (1) Not all the same people participate in every session and so I talk about some of the same things again; (2) There are recurring themes in Genesis.]

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Bush Nomination of Roberts Example of Pattern

Ann Althouse points out that by not nominating a woman to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court, President Bush was breaking with a precedent from his father. Says Althouse:
George H.W. Bush replaced the first black Justice, Thurgood Marshall, with the second black Justice, Clarence Thomas. He nevertheless insisted that he'd picked "the best person for the job" -- something few people believed. (And I'm not trying to disrespect Thomas. I think he's a fine Justice.) The elder Bush not only created a designated seat and resorted to making hard-to-believe assertions about his action, he also undermined his ability to oppose affirmative action, because the Thomas pick was so widely perceived as affirmative action.

The younger Bush has now chosen not to replace the first woman Justice with another woman. So unlike his father, he is not creating a designated seat on the Court. And in picking Roberts, he actually picked someone about whom it can be said convincingly: He was the best person for the job. And he has not limited what he can plausibly say about affirmative action.
I believe that Althouse has rightly identified a definite pattern in the younger Bush's presidency. I commented in response to her observation:
In spite of the respect that the younger Bush clearly has for his father, I agree with you that he's demonstrated a marked penchant for desiring to distinguish himself from George H.W. Bush.

This can be seen for example, in the pains he always takes to say that he understands the difficulties incurred by some in the economy. This contrasts with what seemed to some indifference to some people's economic hardships on the part of his father, a perceived indifference that gave rise to the Carville mantra for Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, "It's the economy, stupid."

In the realm of foreign policy, George W. Bush has clearly stepped away from the "realism" of his father (and of the Republican Party tradition, generally) to embrace neocon activism. The elder Bush felt no desire to move beyond what had been authorized by Congress and agreed to by the United Nations--expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The younger Bush initiated a war to expel Saddam from Iraq itself.

The Roberts nomination, as you say, also shows that the younger Bush is intent or content (or both) to be his own person.

The relationship between these father and son presidents is, it seems, more complicated than that which existed between John and John Quincy Adams. In the latter relationship, the son's admiration was complete and insusceptible to the sort of respectfully critical evaluations that the younger Bush, once a political enforcer for his father, seems to have made. This may also explain why the younger Adams shared his father's fate as a one-term president, while the younger Bush found a way to be re-elected.

Like you, I think, Bush is to be saluted for not feeling compelled to view O'Connor's successor as the holder of "the woman's seat." To some extent, Bill Clinton probably gave him some cover by appointing the Court's second woman in Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But I still think that without Ginsburg on the Court, there's a good chance that Bush would have nominated Roberts, for the reasons you cite.

A Word to Hollywood

We drove by a multiplex theater today, interested in what films were playing there. In the eighteen theaters, twelve movies were showing. I ran down the list and counted seven remakes of old films or TV shows.

Apparently worried about declining theater sales, major Hollywood filmmakers seem intent on playing it safe, recycling old properties they think will have built-in audiences. They seem to feel that it's only by churning out new versions of the tried and true that they'll lure people out of their homes and away from their DVD players. When you add sequels to the remakes that compose Hollywood's annual film output, the picture one gets is of an industry virtually devoid of creativity and paralyzed by fear.

It isn't that remakes and sequels can't be good or even original in their treatments of old stories. Within the past week, my son has shared Oceans 11, the 2001 remake of the old Frank Sinatra/Rat Pack flick, and Oceans 12, its sequel, with me. The first George Clooney et al version stands well on its own even if it is a remake and the sequel was very different, although it revolved around the same cast of characters.

But usually, remakes are worse than the originals, sometimes by virtue of being crasser and coarser, opting to titillate us rather than entertain.

So, Hollywood, listen up: Do you want to get us back to the theaters? Have an original idea and lure us not by using juvenile humor pretending to be sophistication, but by really thoughtful stories, characters, and situations. There's nothing like going to the theater to see a movie, if the movie is worth seeing!

Authenticity and Trust (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 9)

Matthew 6

I'm an admirer of Billy Graham. The reason for this is simple: Graham makes no pretense of being perfect. In short, he's authentic in saying that he trusts a Savior Who gives him the "blessed assurance" of an everlasting relationship with God not because Billy Graham is good, but because the Savior is good. "I'm a sinner," I've heard Graham say of himself more than once.

In that simple statement, Graham is owning his humanity. Quoting a string of Old Testament passages in the New Testament book of Romans, the first-century preacher Paul writes:
There's nobody living right, not even one,
nobody who knows the score, nobody alert for God.
They've all taken the wrong turn;
they've all wandered down blind alleys.
No one's living right;
I can't find a single one...(Romans 3:10-12, The Message)
But, whether in the Old Testament time period when God established His own people through a man named Abraham or in the New Testament, through the God-Man Jesus, God has always been the friend of sinners. God's object has always been to effect reconcilation between Himself and all of us. That reconciliation only comes about in those who come to the end of themselves and humbly admit their need of God. After committing adultery and murder, the Old Testament's King David cried out poignantly:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:1-12)

Authenticity opens the door to relationship with God. This is what lay behind Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6:1-18.

In verses 1 to 4, Jesus says to be authentic in our faith. "Playacting" doesn't prove anything to anybody, especially not to God.

In verses 5 to 18, Jesus talks about authentic prayer. When you pray, Jesus says, "Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense His grace." Grace is the charitable regard God extends to those honest enough to admit their sin and their need of Him.

You may want to think of what Jesus is saying here in this way. Imagine a hermetically-sealed room with no oxygen in it. Imagine further that you are in that room. Religious pretense and going-through-the-motions spirituality will keep that room sealed. But the moment we admit that we need God's help and quit pretending to be better than we are, God cracks open the room in which we've been hiding, allowing His grace, His charitable and empowering love to give us new life. Until we pray to God with that kind of desperation and trust, we aren't really praying.

In the balance of the chapter, Jesus gives several rapid-fire teachings about giving priority to our relationship with God in our lives:

6:19-21 Be charitable to others as God has been to us. Treasure your relationship with God, Who lives and can give to us forever, more than you do money, whose run ends when our lives here end.

6:22-23 Be careful of the perspective with which you look at life. What you focus on in your life will eventually take control of you. Keep your focus on the God Who wants what's best for you.

6:24 You can't walk in two directions at once. You've either got to allow God or your money define you.

6:25-34 Trust God, no matter what. He is absolutely trustworthy.

This isn't easy stuff. But if you think you'd like to take Jesus up on this offer, be authentic with Him. Tell Him you're not sure about entrusting yourself completely to Him, but that you'd like to do that. Through Jesus, I've learned that God likes authenticity.

Lesson from a Canceled Trip

This past week, public radio re-ran The Prairie Home Companion's 2005 rendition of its annual "joke night." Among my favorites: A control freak's Knock-Knock joke. The freak says, "Knock, knock. Okay now, you say, 'Who's there?'"

A control freak would be driven to distraction by what's happened to my family and me this morning, I suppose. We had plans to fly to New York City for a day trip and return later today. After a short night's sleep, we woke at 4:15. My son-in-law, one of two family members whose employment with an airline makes these little trips possible, checked our flights again and discovered that the one we were going to take back home had been canceled. We needed to take this plane back in order to accommodate his work schedule. So, we won't be going to the Big Apple today.

Life sometimes throws us curveballs, many of them far more consequential than getting a day trip scrubbed by circumstances beyond our control. At times, those "curveballs" can bring us tragedy or pain.

Good baseball hitters learn how to hit a curveball. They know that sometimes, it's better to smack a single to the short field than to "go for the fences" on a pitch they're not likely to hit that far. Good hitters make the best of adverse circumstances. Learning to do the same thing in life is a fine art I haven't yet mastered. But God is starting to teach it to me.

In one of my favorite passages in the New Testament, James, the earthly brother of Jesus, writes:
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money." Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast of your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)
One of the great things taught to me by the people of the first congregation I served as pastor, in northwestern Ohio, was the importance of "going with the curveball." In fact, this past Sunday, in an aside during my message to the congregation I currently serve, I mentioned that almost to a person, the folks from my former parish I witnessed going through all sorts of difficulties did so with patience, fortitude, and cheerfulness.

I'm not saying that they were fatalists who resigned themselves to life's worst. Instead, they were people of serene and trusting faith who knew that even in downright tragic circumstances, God is still God, Jesus is still risen, and theere is still everlasting hope for the Jesus-Follower. Jesus, Who died and rose for us, was the reason these wonderful people could live through the curveballs of life with that patience, fortitude, and cheerfulness I saw in them.

In a nutshell, they had hope! This is what another of the early apostles, a guy named Paul, was talking about in the book of Romans when he wrote:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith [we have a right relationship with God by virtue only of our humble trust in Jesus], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
I'm not comparing a canceled flight with learning that your child has died in combat or being told you have cancer. But it's certain that if you can't handle a canceled flight, you're not going to do very well dealing with the tougher issues in life. Or with all the circumstances over which, in spite of all human pretense, we have no control.

I have learned that those who know the art of placing themselves in the hands of the God we meet in Jesus Christ can handle anything. They live with another truth that Paul writes about in his letter to the first-century church at Rome:

"If God is for us, who is against us?" (Romans 8:31)
I'm going to take a nap now.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The War on Terrorism is Not a War on Islam!

A few years back, a newly-married couple invited me to visit with them. She was a devoted Christian, one who'd grown up in the Church. He was not only "unchurched," as the label puts it, but had never even set foot in a church.

We went through the initial pleasantries as people do when first getting to know one another. Then the wife told me that in all honesty, her husband had some real problems with the Church.

"So do I," I told him. "You give me your list first."

"I don't like the way the Church goes around bombing abortion clinics," he told me.

The perception of this otherwise intelligent man was that all Christians lit fuses to blow up abortion clinics.

It seems to me that this kind of religious ignorance is what lay behind the inflammatory comments of Congressman Tom Tancredo and the responses of those Americans likely to support them and the young Muslims around the world apt to see Tancredo's comments as confirmation of their worst feelings about America. Most Muslims in the world don't know Christians and most Christians don't know Muslims; so, they become prey for caricatures.

Americans who support Tancredo's irresponsible comments show that they've been suckered into Osama bin Laden's lies. In spite of repeated repudiation of him from responsible Muslim clerics the world over, bin Laden has called his campaign of terror an Islamic holy war. But he no more represents Islam than abortion clinic bombers represent Christians or the IRA represents Roman Catholicism.

The multifaceted effort to crush what has been called Islamofascism--a weird philosophy that uses a great world religion as an excuse to advance nihilism and dictatorship--is not a religious war. The United States is, after all, a multicultural nation whose population includes many peace-loving, freedom-loving Muslims who daily make contributions to the common good, including those serving in our military. The war on terrorism is a war on a demonic ideology, akin to Hitler's Nazi movement.

As a Christian, I freely admit that I would like the whole world to know and follow Jesus Christ. But that can never happen by coercion--military or otherwise. What I want and what I believe America at its best has always stood for, is a world at such peace and enjoying such freedom that all are free to choose their own spiritual paths.

Bin Laden wouldn't agree with this, of course; but he doesn't speak for world Islam.

With his comments, Tom Tancredo has given bin Laden a ton more recruits, young Muslims who believe that America really is hostile to Islam. In so doing, the congressman has damaged the war on terrorism, given aid and comfort to the enemy, and endangered every American soldier, sailor, and Marine.

'1776' Underscores Washington's Greatness

Owing to my penchant for reading more than one book at a time, I just finished David McCullough's 1776 last night. His "close to the ground" portrayal of the first year of the US fight for independence from Great Britain is, as you would expect from McCullough, fantastic!

For me, the book above all underscores George Washington's greatness, a greatness that didn't stem from any native ability or genius. A bit from the end of McCullough's book underscores this:
Of all the officers who had taken part in the siege of Boston [at the end of 1775], only two were still serving at the time of the British surrender at Yorktown [in 1783], Washington and [Nathanael] Greene...

Financial support from France and the Netherlands, and military support from the French army and navy, would play a large part in the outcome. But in the last analysis it was Washington and the army that won the war of American independence. The fate of the war and the revolution rested on the army...And it was Washington who held the army together and gave it "spirit" through the most desperate of times.

He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.
In an interview with Charlie Rose recently, McCullough pointed out that Washington was a "political general" in the best sense of the term. He never forgot that he was a commander subordinate to elected political leaders and that the cause of America was the fight for political freedom. He saw the cause of liberty as being bigger than himself. And he ultimately was, as historian Garry Wills has said, the greatest political leader in human history.

Washington was, of course, an imperfect human being. While later in life, he would see slavery as both a wrong and a doomed institution, he didn't free his slaves during his lifetime, waiting to do so in his will. (Something which Thomas Jefferson, the supposed advocate of freedom, didn't do. This is just one of many of a catalog of Jefferson hypocrisies, all of which add up to his being the most overrated of the Founders, so far as I'm concerned.)

In addition to showing us what the war was like for ordinary soldiers in that first critical year of America's fight for freedom, McCullough also helps us to see why Washington, their leader, deserves to be much more studied and emulated by our school children, citizens, soldiers, and politicians today.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Explicating the Beatitudes...and More (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 8)

Matthew 5:13-48

[I'm personally using the paraphrase of Eugene Peterson, The Message, as the primary text for this series of posts designed to look at Jesus with fresh eyes. The translated cited on the link above is from the New Revised Standard Version.]

An easy--and inaccurate--way of looking at the Old and New Testaments, the two great components of the Bible as recognized by Christians, is to see them as distinctly different. According to this caricature, the Old Testament sees God as vengeful, demanding law-giver and the New Testament sees God, as revealed in Jesus, as an indulgent grace-giver. As Jesus speaks in the balance of Matthew 5 and on into chapters 6 and 7, we see that this way of portraying the Bible is simply not true.

God's demands for holiness, as embodied in the Ten Commandments, remain the same in both the Old and New Testaments, as surely as Jesus Christ, God enfleshed, is, as the New Testament book of Hebrews points out "the same yesterday, today, and forever."

But neither portion of the Bible asserts that any human being, afflicted as we are by the condition of sin (Psalm 51:5), is capable of keeping God's laws. In the Old Testament, we're told that a compassionate God looks upon sinful humanity and remembers that we are dust, finite creatures whose whole race has fallen into the snare of sin. That's why the Old Testament says that God "is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" toward the human race.

In the Old Testament, an imperfect man named Abraham became the patriarch of God's chosen people, the Jews, not because he possessed some special virtues. Instead, Genesis says that Abraham believed in God and His promises and God "reckoned" that belief as "righteousness." In other words, Abraham moved from the natural inborn human state of enmity toward God to being a friend of God, one who was in a right relationship with God, by faith in God.

When the Old Testament's promised Savior came into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ, He extended this divine modus operandi beyond just the Jews to include all people. "For God so loved the world," Jesus told a respected teacher of the Old Testament, Nicodemus, "that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life." (John 3:16) In other words, the whole human race may move from our natural inborn state of enmity toward God to being friends of God, people who have a right relationship with God, by faith in God as revealed to all of us in Jesus.

In this section of Matthew, Jesus does three things:
(1) Emphasizes the utterly subversive way of life to which God calls all followers of Jesus, a way of life that is foreign to a world bound and determined to exult the human ego, rather than God;

(2) Underscores the continuities between the Old Testament views of both law and grace, showing that Jesus is the fulfillment and perfecter of all that the Old Testament teaches and points toward;

(3) Focuses less on the letter of God's law than its underlying meaning. Jesus excoriates the religious legalists who always want to confine the working of God's power to certain rules over which they can preside. God's law is meant to be a road map, not manacles. This is why Jesus says:
"Don't suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures--either God's Law or the Prophets [writings that appear in the Old Testament]. I'm not here to demolish but complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God's law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after the stars burn out and earth wears out, God's Law will be alive and working."
Jesus lived a life in perfect conformity to God's Law and then, in history's greatest irony, died under punishment for everybody else's inability and unwillingness to obey that law. By doing so, He won the right to give rightness with God to all who simply believe in--or, trust--Him.

But this is no license to ignore God's law. That would be contemptuous of Christ and His cross. Rather, it's the freedom to rely on God's power to live in "daily repentance and renewal," daily turning to Christ for the capacity to live as human beings were meant to live, right with God. This is the way of life Jesus talks about in these chapters of Matthew. A little bit about what the Christ-life is like:

*We're to be salt. Salt was used in ritual sacrifice in Old Testament times. It was also a preservative. It was also a seasoning. Jesus no doubt had all these meanings in mind. We're to give ourselves in service to God and neighbor, to preserve what's good and holy, and we're to be the seasoning that calls attention not to ourselves, but to the God we follow and serve.

*We're to be light, letting others see the goodness and greatness of God.

*We're to be life-givers. Murder starts in our hearts when we hate or disdain others or when we fail to forgive. We give life when love, forgive, and speak well of others, even those with whom we disagree.

*Adultery begins in the mind. We need to ask God to first keep our thoughts pure.

*Oath-taking may be the first sign of insincerity. If our word is true, we don't need to prop it up with vows. Just say yes and no and don't adorn it with any crutches.

*Most subversively of all, Jesus tells us, "Love your enemies."

"In a word," Jesus tells us, "what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you."

[For the next installment, you might want to read Matthew 6.]

Here are links to the first seven installments of this series:

Long-Awaited Savior

Scholars from the East

The Freedom to Be Weird

This is a Test

Trusting What You Can't See

The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression


Lifehouse...Super-Preliminary Thoughts

Lifehouse [Bonus Tracks] - cover art

I'm only about four months behind the times, but I bought the latest release by Lifehouse last night. It's cleverly titled Lifehouse, odd since this is the band's third project.

I'll probably do a review later. But a few quick comments:

(1) Unlike many apparently, I enjoyed not only the band's first release, but their much less well-received second release, sometimes cited as evidence of the continuing existence of a sophomore jinx for recording artists.

(2) I like what I hear on Lifehouse, but I wish that they'd rock out more. (I'd say the same thing about Coldplay, even though I like them.)

I do enjoy Lifehouse so far. More later...

What Was This Congressman Thinking?

Hugh Hewitt rightly says that everyone who got exercised over Dick Durbin's comments comparing the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo to the actions of the Nazis under Hitler or Pol Pot's Cambodia, should also be upset with Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo. He's right! During a radio interview, Tacredo allowed himself to be enticed into speculation about bombing Muslim holy sites, such as those in Mecca.

What on earth was the congressman thinking?

No matter how hypothetical Tancredo thought his outrageous comments were, in the eyes of the world, he's an official of the US government, even if he's not in the executive branch.

If the sophisticates who lead the government in China can't understand the distinction between the branches of our government and therefore feel compelled to lecture Congress to lay off the proposed UnoCal deal, how do you suppose young Muslims who have never experienced democracy are likely to interpret Tancredo's remarks?

Like most people in the world, they'll see it as an American threatening them. It's therefore an unnecessarily provocative statement.

As Hewitt writes:

Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo's speculation about using nukes on Mecca following an act of nuclear terrorism in the United States is the most irresponsible statement any American official can make. It will be on al-Jazeera within the hour, and it will be used by jihadists against us. Such speculations send the message that we are at war with all of Islam. We are not. We are at war with a slice of Islam that is radical and violent. Statements like Tancredo's invite all of Islam to think they are our enemy.

What Do You Call a Person Who Bombs Abortion Clinics?

Lots of things, maybe, but pro-life or anything vaguely Christian wouldn't be among them. Eric Rudolph obviously doesn't cherish life or he wouldn't have engaged in or defended his acts of murder and terrorism.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Brooks' Column Interesting, But Flawed

David Brooks today talks about "courage" politicians, specifically enumerating Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani. Riffing off a new book by Fred Siegel, Brooks says that "courage politicians" have what is peculiarly needed in these times: The capacity to focus on major wrongs and break the ideological logjams into which prevent conventional politics from dealing with them.

So far, so accurate, historically, I think. But then, Brooks makes this strange assertion:

The courage politicians speak of character, not morality. That is to say, they are more comfortable talking in the language of the classical virtues - duty, honor, service, patriotism, honesty and fortitude - than in the language of what you might call the Christian virtues - love, compassion and charity. It's not that they don't value these private things. It's just that they are stoical by nature and are more comfortable publicly with matters of the gut than with matters of the heart.
That may be true of some courage politicians, but not of two of the figures Brooks cites, Theodore Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy.

The 1912 Progressive Party convention at which former President Roosevelt was nominated for the White House was practically a Christian revival meeting, complete with the singing of hymns. During the succeeding campaign, TR himself spoke repeatedly about the morality of the Progressive cause and of the immorality of the non-progressive forces in American society. He clearly saw and couched his campaign as one favoring Christian-tinged morality.

And Robert Kennedy, as indifferent as he seemed to be about his brother's personal behavior, was always a moral crusader, whether against labor racketeers in the 1950s, against the opponents of civil rights for African-Americans during his tenure as attorney general, or against the war in Vietnam as a senator and presidential candidate. The Kennedy who most deeply imbibed the Catholic spirituality of his mother and who, in his younger days, many thought would become a priest, saw almost all political issues in moral terms, especially after his brother had been assassinated and he was liberated to become his own political man.

Indeed, historically, much of what has motivated the US's courage politicians has included strong doses of morality rooted in the belief that every soul is important and that even in the affairs of government, we are called to love our neighbor.

Nonetheless, Brooks' central argument is an interesting one. Courage politicians tend to have little patience with ideology and refuse to be married to it. They tend to be fearlessly pragmatic. While remaining essentially a conservative, for example, Theodore Roosevelt was able to embrace many progressive policies. Robert Kennedy was, of course, a liberal, yet he also was the author and main mover behind a number of private-public partnerships in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York City, believing that government couldn't do everything in addressing poverty.

Courage politicians, which surely include people like McCain and Giuliani, find it difficult to gain ascendancy within their political parties, as Brooks asserts. Parties tend not to be very creative. Like old generals fighting the last wars, political professionals tend to offer old policies for new problems and challenges. Courage politicians demand that the system speak and act in ways that are relevant to contemporary realities, striking fear both in those with stakes in the status quo and unadventurous pols who prefer selling last year's model. But it is usually only such politicians who force the body politic to wake up and live in the new day.

Kristoff on How to Bring 'Dear Leader' Around: Send Overweight US Businessmen to North Korea

Nicholas Kristoff has interesting insights from his trip into the nearly-hermetically-sealed North Korea.

A few samples:
The central paradox of North Korea is this: No government in the world today is more brutal or has failed its people more abjectly, yet it appears to be in solid control and may even have substantial popular support...

If the American policy premise about North Korea - that it is near collapse - is highly dubious, our essential policy approach is even more so. The West should be trying to break that hermetic seal, to increase interactions with North Korea and to infiltrate into North Korea the most effective subversive agents we have: overweight Western business executives.

Instead, we maintain sanctions, isolate North Korea and wait indefinitely for the regime to collapse. I'm afraid we're helping the Dear Leader [Kim Jong Il] stay in power.

Kristoff's approach is reminiscent of Henry Kissinger's and Richard Nixon's to China and the late Soviet Union: Create so many ties between the West and North Korea that constituencies for peace in both places become so great that war becomes unthinkable. Read the whole thing.

Hope for the Hard Times

Romans 8:18-25
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 17, 2005)

Shortly after my wife and I were married, her father told her and me about a relative who had just passed away and what funeral arrangements had been made. He looked at her with that matter-of-fact smile he sometimes affected and said, “These are things that happen in life. It’s part of being a grown-up.”

There are unpleasant truths from which the adult world may try to shield us when we’re young. But facts, as someone has said, are stubborn things.

As followers of Jesus Christ, you and I are called to childlike faith. “Let the little children come to Me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Jesus tells His disciples. "Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it," He says.

But repeatedly, Jesus and the Bible also call His followers to grow up and mature in their faith. After His followers failed to get an important point for the umpteenth time, Jesus sighed with exasperation and asked, “How much longer must I put up with you?” In the New Testament book of Hebrews, the preacher complains to believers that they haven't grown up in their faith:
...though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. [Hebrews 5:12-14]
As I’ve said before, the call to childlike faith is not a call to childish faith. We’re called to trust God, not to view Him as a Sugar Daddy.

Being a follower of Jesus Christ is the most wonderful thing any of us can be. When we turn from our sin and receive Jesus’ forgiveness and lordship over our lives, we become part of God’s kingdom. We have a hope and a joy that nothing can destroy.

But Christian faith is more than Christmas and Easter. There are certain unpleasant truths that must be faced and accepted. We must all grow up. If we refuse to do that, our faith won’t stand the tests of this world. At the first signs of suffering, difficulty, adversity, or pain, we’ll stomp off in a temper tantrum, shaking our fist at God, and turning our backs on the only One Who can give us comfort, help, or hope.

(It isn't, of course, that God can't take our complaints. The lament Psalms in the Old Testament are full of faithful people railing against God. But after we've had our tantrums, we need God or we won't make it through the tough times!)

Today’s Bible lesson, written by a man who knew far more suffering than any of us have either experienced or are likely to be able to imagine, acknowledges some unpleasant truths about our lives. In fact, just before the beginning of our lesson, Paul says that followers of Jesus are children of God and “heirs with Christ—if in fact, we suffer with Him so that we may be glorified with Him.” (Romans 8:17)

You see, the follower of Jesus Christ is called to suffer in at least two ways. First, we’re called to suffer the death of our old lives apart from Jesus. Paul says in Romans 6, that in Baptism, the old sinful self—the self born into this world—is drowned and the new self rises to live with Christ. After that, from the moment we’re capable of understanding what God finds pleasing and displeasing, what’s right and what’s wrong, we’re to renew our relationship with God in what Martin Luther called, “daily repentance and renewal.” Luther even suggests that when we confess our sins to God and ask Him to kill off the many vestiges of our old sinful selves, we should make the sign of the cross, remembering what God accomplished in our Baptism. We’re to suffer the death of our old selves, which clings to life as long as we still live on this earth.

But there is a second kind of suffering to which we’re called. That’s what Paul was talking about in the verse I just quoted and our lesson for today really unpacks the sort of suffering he’s talking about. We are to suffer with Christ.

But what does that mean? Jesus suffered because the whole human race, including you and me, don’t want to have a boss. We want to be our own bosses. We want to be gods unto ourselves. I include myself in that indictment. I am, after all, an American: John Wayne and Thomas Jefferson, baby. I want to do what I want to do when I want to do it. Never mind that 6-billion little gods roaming around the planet is a nightmare that will never work. Never mind that I can’t even control myself, let alone the rest of the world.

When Jesus came into this sin-plagued world and told all of us little gods that it was time for us to surrender to Him and enter His kingdom of love, we—all of us, because our sins were already in the mix—nailed Him to a cross. But after He suffered, Jesus rose again gloriously.

Paul is saying that unless we’re willing to share in Christ’s sufferings—willing to patiently go through the rejection of others and the senseless pain that is the common lot of all humanity, be it from disease or aging or whatever—unless we are willing to bear that with Christ, we cannot experience the glory of His resurrection. There is no Easter without Good glory without a cross. But then, Paul writes [I’m going to read it now in The Message paraphrase]:
I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.

All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.
Right now, Jody, a member of our congregation, is sitting, rather bored, at the hospital. She’s had a tough pregnancy with more than the normal difficulties. She may still undergo labor if she can carry her son to full term. But the funny thing is, he’s not here yet: She and Eric are already/not yet parents.

That’s the way it is for us as Christians. We already belong to Jesus Christ for all eternity. But His Kingdom, which will be fully ushered in at the end of time, hasn’t gotten here yet. In the meantime, we will suffer, Paul says. All of creation, which operates under the burden of human sin, will suffer. But these are just the birth pangs of the eternal Kingdom that will one day give way to Jesus’ never-ending kingdom.

I’ve told the story before of a man named Arnold from my former congregation. He was a wonderful man who loved his wife and family, his friends and his garden and flowers. Some years before I knew him, he’d suffered a major heart attack and he knew that he could die at any time. That never dampened his spirits or quelled his faith. One summer day, in his yard inspecting his flowers, he collapsed from another massive heart attack. I ran to the hospital ER to see him. I grabbed his hand. “Pastor,” he asked, “how are you?” “Arnold, the more important question,” I told him, “is how are you?” He smiled. “Well,” he said, “I’ve felt better.” We prayed together. Moments later, he died.

You see, Arnold understood the hard—and ultimately wonderful—truths to which Paul points us today, truths that Christ calls us to grow up and accept. Here they are in a nutshell:

First: The hope that we have as followers of Jesus is bigger than our suffering because the Jesus is bigger than every adversity we face, including death.

Second: When we willingly suffer with Jesus by our sides, we share not only His suffering, but His everlasting glory.

Third: When, not if, we suffer, we can do so with patience; we know how the story of those who belong to Christ ends.

Fourth: When we, like Jesus, willingly suffer with and help others, we make it possible for them to experience the same miracle of hope and life we’ve received. The Kingdom can be born in them, too.

Arnold could smile on that hospital gurney because He knew He belonged to the Savior Who makes all things—even us—brand new. May we live with that same hope of ultimate glory through all the moments, good and bad, that come our way.