Friday, July 29, 2005

Frist Shift: Whatever You Believe, the Guy Deserves Credit

I'm just beginning to learn about stem cell research and the potential they have for bringing relief for a variety of diseases. There are moral issues that I haven't worked out in my mind.

But, apart from the merits of the issue, I am impressed with Senator Bill Frist's announcement that, contrary to the position of the President who threatens a veto, he supports a House bill which would expand the numbers of embryonic stem cells that could be used in research. Frist, a physician who is pro-life, has thus aligned himself with other Republican senators like Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter, who seem intent on voting in favor of the House bill or some variation of it.

Many will question Frist's motives, saying that his break with President Bush is all about the Tennessee senator's run for the presidency in 2008. That may be. But if so, it's a calculation apt to backfire on him. The voters in Republican primaries and caucuses tend to be far more conservative than the country as a whole. Frist's position on this issue will be seen by many of these voters as liberal or centrist, lessening the prospect of their voting for him, even if his shift could help him in a general election contest. Should he fail to win the nomination, that will be a moot point.

But there could be another explanation for Frist's change of heart. Hugh Hewitt puts it this way:

Senator Frist's position on stem cell research hurts him with the evangelical base he was said by the left to be playing to throughout the past year and especially during the Schiavo tragedy. Frist is hardly a frontrunner in need of a Sister Souljah moment. Perhaps he is what is so rare for the left to understand: A man of principle who reasons to positions and then defends them.
Ignoring Hugh's obligatory polemic against liberals, he nonetheless makes a good point: Frist may have arrived at his change of heart by reasoning his way there. Given that his prospects for receiving the Republican nomination for President may have been dealt a fatal blow by his shift and because, as Senate majority leader he knows how to count, it seems likely that Frist really believes this is the right course, irrespective of the political costs to him.

Whether he's right or wrong, I think he deserves credit for trying to do the right thing.

Fatwa Demonstrates World is at War with Fascists, Not Muslims

Underscoring the fact that the war on terrorism is not a war against Islam, eighteen prominent North American Islamic scholars, their statement endorsed by 120 mosques, organizations, and leaders stated that their religion is opposed to terrorism and that Muslims who engage in it are perpetrating a sin.

The statement, called a fatwa, is, under Islamic teaching, considered a binding edict for Islamic believers. As pointed out in this article, a similar fatwa has been issued by Muslim leaders in Great Britain.
The Fatwa cites the Quran and other Islamic texts to demonstrate that making targets of innocent people is forbidden (Haram) and that those who commit such violence are “criminals” and not “martyrs,” as supporters of suicide bombers have often claimed.

In a joint statement, scholars representing various Muslim sects and schools of thoughts declared: “We have consistently condemned terrorism and extremism in all forms and under all circumstances, and we reiterate this unequivocal position. Islam strictly condemns religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives.”

“We issue this Fatwa following the guidance of our scripture the Quran and the teachings of our Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). We urge all people to resolve all conflicts in just and peaceful manners.

“We pray for the defeat of extremism and terrorism. We pray for the safety and security of our country United States and its people. We pray for the safety and security of all inhabitants of this globe. We pray that interfaith harmony and cooperation prevail both in the United States and every where in the world.”
I'm particularly pleased that Islamic leaders from this part of the world have chosen to issue their fatwa at this time. In the wake of Congressman Tom Tancredo's irresponsible comments about bombing the strategically-irrelevant Mecca, the preeminent holy site for Muslims, and the affirmation the congressman received from persons who have been duped by Osama bin Laden into seeing this worldwide conflict as a war of religions, the fatwa comes as a clarifying dose of reality.

America is not at war with Islam. The whole world, including the overwhelming majority of Muslims, are at war with and are being victimized by fascists who use Islam to justify their ideology of nihilism and dictatorship. In these two edicts, Muslim leaders in two regions of the world have told al Qaeda that terrorism isn't a thing in which Muslims should engage.

UPDATE: Per Richard Lawrence Cohen's suggestion in the comments below, I checked out Ambivablog's thorough consideration of this matter. Read the whole thing.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Rick at Stones Cry Out has linked to this piece. Thanks!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Some Thoughts on Coldplay's 'X and Y'

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Because tomorrow old friends we haven't seen for about eight years are coming by for a visit, I've been dusting and vacuuming the house while my wife was away at her part-time job. As is my usual practice when doing housecleaning, I've been listening to music...loud. Tonight's bill of fare: X &Y, the latest release from Coldplay.

This Brit band has obviously ascended to a pretty high place in the rock stratosphere. One piece of evidence is that just as this LP was released, they appeared in a concert special on VH-1 where they performed a number of the songs on X & Y. (I was impressed by their musicianship and harmonies, involving all four members of the band, especially on the song 'Fix You.')

But of even more significance in proving Coldplay's ascendancy in the musical universe is that the sports jocks on the radio stations I listen to, who love to pepper their shows with comments on reality TV, movies, and music, seem to universally hate the band. The acquisition of detractors is an almost certain sign that artists have attained success. Only those who have are resented by others.

X & Y is Coldplay's third release. I liked the first two and I like this one. But, to my mind, it's not great music. This isn't the kind of CD you pop into a player and tell your friends, "Hey, you gotta listen to this!" Instead, it's the CD you play more softly in the background when you want to talk with your friends, or that you play quietly as you read a good book, or to accompany you on a long drive. This is good CD, maybe even a great one at one level. But it's not great music.

Try as I might, I can't make much sense of most of the lyrics on X & Y. But that's probably beside the point. There's a story that John Lennon told in his famous 'Rolling Stone' interview with Jann Wenner. According to Lennon, he was with Bob Dylan, listening to one of Dylan's songs. "Listen to the words," Dylan kept telling Lennon. Lennon insisted that one shouldn't listen to a song that way, that the total feel is what's important.

One thing that's very clear from X & Y is that Coldplay, like Jars of Clay, whose members actually majored in popular music, has at least informally "gone to college" in rock music. While I would never hang the label of derivative on them, their influences often show. The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, and the Alan Parsons Project immediately suggest themselves. But other influences can be heard as well. The song, 'What If' sounds a lot like Paul McCartney's 'Golden Slumbers.' The featured guitar riff on 'Talk' is vaguely reminiscent of Big Country, albeit in a mellower vain. 'X & Y' sounds, in turns, like Lennon's 'I'm Losin' You' and 'Glass Onion.' For all that, Coldplay presents a sound that is very much their own and one that's easy to enjoy.

Having clearly established themselves as a band that's going to be around, Coldplay has served themselves well here with X & Y, a collection of memorable melodies, stirring hooks, and fine arrangements that will, I think, wear well for years to come. I guess I wish that, at this point in their career, there were more discernible points to their songs. But it's easy to imagine Coldplay thirty years from now performing 'Fix You' as the final, celebratory encore of their concerts before packed stadia.

Fill My Empty Heart (lyrics for one of my songs)

While rummaging through my computer disks today, I ran across one that had the lyrics of a song I co-wrote back in 1999, with a member of our congregation, Kathy. It's called Fill My Empty Heart.

Kathy had composed a fantastic melody and asked me to write the lyrics, expressing some things she was feeling at a really tough time in her life. In March, 1999, she sang the song for the congregation during a worship celebration. In it, Kathy expresses her belief that God would help her. That has proven to be true.

Incidentally, I had the honor of presiding over Kathy's wedding in May, as she married a wonderful man from our congregation named Tom. Here's a link to the message I gave then.

Sorry, I can't podcast the melody to Fill My Empty Heart right now. But here are the lyrics:

Fill My Empty Heart
Here, within my heart
There's a longing part
Crying out
Deep within my soul
There's a yawning hole
Needing filled
Though I try to find my missing peace
Nothing in this world can bring release.

In the day to day
There's a maze of grey
All around
Though I run from place to place, I find
That I can't outrun my heart, my mind

I know I'll see
The answers that I need
And then I'll know the peace
That I have been searching for
I believe in miracles
If we're ready to receive
And I know You'll show the way
If I put my trust in You

All my life
I have been casting about
For things I thought would please me
Now I find
You were all that I ever needed,
The One Who makes me whole.

With the dawn You bring
I can fin'lly sing
"I know joy!"
Leaning on Your grace
I have found my place
In Your world
And a soul that meets You at the cross
Will soon count all things but You, a loss

Fill my empty heart
You fill my empty heart
Fill me, Lord!

The Pictures in Our Minds

Earlier in the day, as the two of them kissed and climbed into their respective cars for the rides to work, she reminded him. “Remember,” she said, “we’ve got that thing at the Sampsons tonight.”

“Right. Have a good day, hon.”

For one brief nanosecond, he had a clear picture in his mind: He’d drive home from work, get a quick shower, and then, he and Julie would go to the Sampsons.

Soon though, NPR and ESPN radio had pushed that picture to a gallery somewhere on the periphery of his brain. It probably didn’t help him keep the picture firmly braced in the main gallery that he didn’t much care for the Sampsons. Or that even Julie had consented to going to their house begrudgingly, as an act of social obligation.

By the time 6:00, when Matt left the office, rolled around, that picture--of going to the Sampsons--was crumpled up in the garbage in the alley behind the gallery. “I bet Julie’d like to eat Chinese tonight,” he thought. A new picture had entered his mind, Julie and him watching Law and Order over egg rolls.

So, after he slid in behind the steering wheel, he pulled out his cell phone to spring his proposed evening activities on Jules. But before he could hit the speed dial, the phone rang. It was Julie. “Could you stop and get a bottle of wine for us to take to the Sampsons?” she asked. Suddenly, the forgotten picture was back in the main gallery, basking in all its hideous glory. “Uh. Sure, Jules. What kind of wine did you have in mind?”

People often tell me that they’re not creative or imaginative in any way. “I’m no visionary,” they say laughingly. But that isn’t true. One of the things that most distinguishes our species from the others on this planet is that we all have these pictures in our minds. We have a remarkable capacity to envision the future, be it the evening ahead or what we want to do for retirement.

Some of our pictures have been painted by others and imposed upon us. Others of our own composition enslave us and keep us from being all we could be. Some annoy us and some inspire. Some excite us and lead us to do wonderful things.

Often, in trying to bring our pictures to life, other things come our way, things far better than we pictured. As a young man, for instance, I always pictured myself waiting to marry until I was about 29 or 30. But then this young woman, who I'd first met when I was in the sixth grade, re-entered my life and there I was, standing at the altar at the age of 20. We celebrate our thirty-first anniversary next week.

Our pictures, it should be said, can also delude us. Back when my son was in middle school, I coached his rec league basketball team for three long years. How long were they? We went 0-33 during those three years. A kid on the team was short, slow, a poor shot, and a lousy ball handler. At the end of season 3, I took the boys out for pizza and I asked each of them, one by one, “What sort of work do you want to do as an adult?” This particular young man told me, between gulps of pizza, “I want to play in the NBA.” I didn't know what to say.

Fortunately for him, this kid didn’t have enough talent or drive to allow him to keep this picture on prominent display in his mind for long. Life quickly disabused him of any notion that it would come true and he was able to attend to other pictures.

Some aren’t as fortunate. They’re the people who have real talent and get close to seeing their pictures come true, but circumstances get in their way. In Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Natural, made into a movie starring Robert Redford, a talented ballplayer named Roy Hobbs sees his dreams of getting into the major leagues delayed until, by happenstance, he becomes an aged rookie for a pennant-contending team. To his former lover, he says wistfully, “Things sure turned out different.” When pressed on what he meant, Hobbs describes the picture he’d held in his mind for decades--the picture that enslaved him now and made it impossible for him at that moment to be truly happy. He saw himself in his retirement years walking down the street and hearing people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Roy knew that would never be said of him and there was no picture with which he could replace the old one, a new vision that would liberate him for living.

My coaching experience came as the result of my carrying a picture in my mind. I'd envisioned myself molding these nine guys, most of whom hadn't played that much basketball and were usually the last ones chosen for pick-up games, into a real team. I pictured them all becoming confident young athletes. I saw some of them even becoming good enough to try out for their school team and making it.

But none of that happened. It wasn't until years later that I found out what did happen. I got a phone call about five years ago from one of the team members. He and his family had moved far away. He was in town visiting relatives. "Mark," he told me, "my grandmother always sends your newspaper columns to me and I keep them in a scrapbook." I gulped, touched and filled with wondering disbelief at this revelation. Then he said, "I really want to coach, to work with kids and help them the way you helped me." Honestly, I have no recollection of anything I ever said or did that could have remotely been seen as helpful to this kid. But I came away from the conversation thinking that, no matter what picture had motivated me when I decided to coach a basketball team, Someone else had a different picture in mind.

That often happens. One of my favorite Biblical figures is Joseph, eleventh son of the Hebrew patriarch, Jacob. Joseph was a person with all sorts of pictures in his mind from an early age. He was a dreamer. On top of that he was, as a youngster, a snot-nosed braggart and his daddy's favorite. So, he would let his older brothers know about dreams in which his future dominion over them was foretold.

Understandably, his older brothers, working hard for their father while Joseph enjoyed an easy life, didn't care for Joseph's pictures of the future. So, they secretly sold the boy into slavery, insinuating to Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

Ultimately, Joseph was sold to a prominent Egyptian official. Years passed. After rising in the esteem of his owner, the owner's wife hurled false charges at Joseph and he ended up in prison. More years passed. Finally, because of his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph was released from prison and became, in effect, Egypt's prime minister.

As things developed, Joseph's brothers, unaware that this Egyptian official was their long-lost kid brother, bowed before Joseph--just as had happened in his long-ago dreams. They were seeking food, because the land of Canaan where they lived was undergoing famine. Eventually, Joseph revealed his identity, telling his brothers that all was forgiven. He brought his entire extended family to live with him.

After Jacob died, his brothers became afraid. They were sure that Joseph's regard for his father was all that had prevented him from getting revenge on them for his many years of suffering. So, they concocted a story for Joseph, claiming that Jacob had told them to tell Joseph that once he died, Joseph shouldn't kill them. Joseph wept, not from being chastened by these words attributed to his father. He wept instead, because his brothers didn't get it: He had forgiven them. Besides, he said, God had allowed all this adversity to befall him so that a better picture than even he had seen in his dreams would become real. Because of his vice-regency of Egypt, thousands were being spared starvation, including his own family. "You meant it for ill," Joseph told his brothers. "But God meant it for good!"

One of the arts we need to master in life is discerning when to hold onto a picture and when to replace it with a new one. Some people give up too quickly on the pictures in their minds--visions of happy marriages, of restored friendships, of careers that match their abilities and passions--and lose out on the good that life has to offer. Others hold on tightly to preferred pictures and so, make themselves and those around them miserable. This art of holding onto and letting go of our preferred pictures has relevance to things as simple as evening plans and as big as a national vision.

Two other good things to have when it comes to the pictures we hang in the central galleries of our minds are faith and a sense of humor. In fact, I think they're essential. I’ve told the story before about Father Myke, the New York Fire Department chaplain who was killed in the 9/11 attacks. “If you want to make God laugh,” he used to say, “tell Him what you’re going to do tomorrow.”

I may write more about this in the future. I can't promise that I will...God would get a chuckle if I did.

UPDATE: Thanks to Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit and to Betsy of Lunar World for linking to this piece.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

McCartney's 'Fine Line': First Reactions

I'm not sure what the new Paul McCartney single, Fine Line, is about. But what it lacks from being less interesting musically than most Macca compositions is compensated for by the rather intriguing and mysterious lyrics. They seem to be a plea to someone who has disgraced himself and is confronted with a choice at the "fine line" between "recklessness and courage" and "chaos or creation" to "come back to me."

The single is to be part of the new collection, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, set for release in September. AOL subscribers--except for Mac people--can download it right now. You can also go to and if you register with the site, listen to it on their special C&CitB pinboard.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 5

[I'm convening a Bible study for the folks of our church, Tuesdays with Markie. We're looking at the Old Testament book of Genesis. Tonight, we looked at Genesis 12:1-15:6.]

Genesis 12
Genesis 13
Genesis 14
Genesis 15:1-6

1. As mentioned last week, chapter 12 brings a change in focus in the book of Genesis. The balance of the book will recount God's call and cultivation of Israel's patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his sons. They are the ancestors of God's people, meant to shed God's light on the nations, ultimately through the One the New Testament describes as "the light of the world," Jesus Christ.

2. In verse 2, God not only promises that Abram and Sarai, an elderly couple who are childless, that He will make a great nation of their descendants. God also promises that Abram, who will soon be renamed Abraham, will be blessed, primarily meaning, again, that he will be a father of many. In verse 3, God shows the meaning of this by saying that He will bless those who bless Abram and curse those who curse him. This is a promise that, often in spite of Abram's faults, God will keep.

The Old Testament narratives rarely take the time to explain concepts like grace, for example. The Hebrew language is visual and its thought world is too. It tends to be narrative and picturesque rather than conceptual. The Old Testament usually lets you see something like grace exemplified.

In the biography of Abraham, this sinful, imperfect man, we learn about how God's grace works in our own lives. God favors us and we may respond with trust or faith. When we do so, we are blessed, as Abram was. This is the most unique tenet of the Judeo-Christian faith, the faith of the Bible, and it is utterly different from every other faith on the planet. We humans are incapable of acting with perfect conformity to God's will for human beings. But when we trust God and His promises, He counts it as righteousness.

3. In verse 2, God also tells Abram, "I will...make your name great." Ironically, just a few verses earlier, God thwarts the actions of the people of Babel, preventing them from building a tower, the motive for which is to "make a name for themselves." What gives?

The people of Babel sought to attain by their own scheming and effort what God grants as a gift to those who trustingly put Him first in their lives.

4. "So Abram went..." Genesis 12:4 says. No fanfare. No grand pronouncements. Just simple obedience. Abram and wife Sarai had no idea what they were getting into. Aged, wealthy, deeply rooted in their community in modern-day Iraq, they went. It's easy to imagine those who are poor and without food or work becoming refugees, as Abram and Sarai later will be owing to a famine in their adopted place of residence. But Abram and Sarai trust. This is why in the New Testament book of James, for example, we're told that faith without works is dead. That doesn't mean that we can earn our way into God's favor or into heaven. It means that when we have faith, when we trust God, it will be made visible in our lives. We see this in Abram's and Sarai's obedience.

5. Abram's and Sarai's journey in Genesis 12:4-9 presages the journey of their descendants, the Hebrews. They even end up living for a time in what would become their people's homeland, an area then occupied by the Canaanites.

6. One of the things I love about the Bible is its honesty about those who believe in and follow God. They are imperfect, indicating that their place in God's kingdom doesn't depend on them, their works, or their virtues. It depends solely on the goodness of God and God's willingness to accept those who turn in trust to Him even after they have sinned.

In Genesis 12:10-16, Abram deceives the Pharaoh, telling a "white lie" (a lie is a lie though) about the identity of his wife. He does this out of fear, in spite of being on a journey of trust that God has sent him.

Ironically, at the end of the incident, the superstitious Egyptians, fearful that Abram's God will punish them, send Abram away wealthier than he was before the incident. It's the opposite of what one might expect and another example of the gracious manner in which God deals with those who trust Him. This isn't to say that people who believe in the God of the Bible should take God's grace and forgiveness for granted. As Paul, in the New Testament, will say of this presumption centuries later, "God forbid!" But it does mean that we should know two things: God will look out for us and when we sin, we can turn to God to seek forgiveness and be confident that He grants it.

7. In Genesis 13:1-13, a conflict arises between the herdsmen of Abram and those of his nephew, Lot. Coming on the heels of his rather treacherous act toward the Pharaoh, Abram does something surprisingly wonderful. He points to the land before them and tells Lot that he can pick the best places for him to live and keep his herds. Abram takes the leavings.

This is exactly how grace works. Most religions and belief systems demand that we earn redemption or forgiveness. In other words, other religions demand good behavior before a begruding deity will bless. But here, we see that after sensing God's favor in spite of his sin against the Pharaoh, Abraham exhibits in good behavior. God's grace incites goodness because long before we even thought of doing the right thing, God acted decisively for us--first in His setting aside of the people Israel and then decisively, in the Person of Jesus Christ!

8. God reiterates His improbable promise that the aged Abram and Sarai are to become the parents of a great nation (Genesis 13:14-18). As a Christian, heir of their faith in God, I count myself as being among their children.

9. Genesis 14:1-16 recounts one of the wars that was always going on among the minor potentates in that region. Abram and Lot are both noncombatants. But in the course of battle, Lot is taken a prisoner of war and Abram, so powerful that he virtually acts as a king, takes his nephew back. Unlike other warriors, Abram refuses to take the bounties of war.

10. Genesis 14:17-24 tells one of the most mysterious and wonderful stories of the Old Testament. Only one other passage in the Old Testament, in the Psalms, mentions King Melchizedek. It has great significance for several reasons:
a. Melchizedek is "priest of the Most High God" in Salem. Salem is the Canaanite town on which in later days, Jerusalem, the holy city where Israel's temple will be located.

b. In the days when the Canaanites occupied the land God would later give to Israel, Salem was the center of worship for a number of deities, the greatest of which was the "maker of heaven and earth" which the Jews would see as their own Deity.

c. Salem means peace. Here, we find recognition of the fact that Abram, who had gone on a mission of mercy and rescue, was no warrior but had emerged victorious over those who were warriors. This passage may be read as heavenly affirmation of Abram's course. (Notice that he accomplished his mission with 318 men and he even split those forces for the attack.)

d. Melcizedek brought bread and wine and the blessings of God. This presages both the Passover feast of the Jews and the Sacrament of Holy Communion for we Christians. King Melchizedek has often been seen by Christians as prefiguring Christ.

e. In response to these blessings from God, Abram tithes: He gives 10% of his income to this mysterious king.
11. God never tires of telling Abram his promises and He reiterates them in Genesis 15:1-6. It ends with a ringing declaration which Paul underscores in Romans 4: Righteousness--rightness with God--is not our achievement; it's a gift from God to all who through Jesus, the Messiah, the fulfillment of God's promises to the human race!

In the Meantime, in Darfur...

the attacks of the government on people continues.

My Darfur Failure

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff is upset with President Bush for failing to make the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan a high priority. But he also sees the news media as being caught up in covering inconsequential celebrity gossip more than the deaths of 300,000 people by the Sudanese government. He's also got the sorry numbers, comparing TV's coverage, for example, of things like the Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart trials to that of Darfur.

Writes Kristof:
Serious newspapers have done the best job of covering Darfur, and I take my hat off to Emily Wax of The Washington Post and to several colleagues at The Times for their reporting. Time magazine gets credit for putting Darfur on its cover - but the newsweeklies should be embarrassed that better magazine coverage of Darfur has often been in Christianity Today.

The real failure has been television's. According to monitoring by the Tyndall Report, ABC News had a total of 18 minutes of the Darfur genocide in its nightly newscasts all last year - and that turns out to be a credit to Peter Jennings. NBC had only 5 minutes of coverage all last year, and CBS only 3 minutes - about a minute of coverage for every 100,000 deaths. In contrast, Martha Stewart received 130 minutes of coverage by the three networks.
The late Neil Postman, in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, long ago catalogued and warned us of the implications of a media and a society so desperate for constant entertainment "product" that it fails to pay heed to things that are important.

In a sense, by its dearth of coverage of the genocide in Darfur and of other important matters, the media in this country and elsewhere, is simply giving us what we want. "We" being the public.

"We" want coverage of Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, and Tom Cruise because entertainers are our royalty, because we wish that we too could be fabulously wealthy, because we resent their wealth and prominence and would like to see them tarred and feathered. So, the media feeds us what we crave. Meanwhile, people are dying in what is at the least, a sub-theater of the war with world terrorism and Islamofascism.

In part, this state of affairs is a product of our wealth, that is, the wealth of we in the great American middle class. Clearly, by the standards of the world, those of us who compose this social class in America, are fabulously wealthy. We've got money and time on our hands, we like our comforts, and we enjoy ensconcing ourselves in our ever-enlarging suburban castles, popping a movie into the DVD, and being as disconnected from the world as is possible.

Like Cain, who killed his brother Abel, on being asked by God of the brother's whereabouts and condition, we're likely to answer, "Am I my brother's--or my sister's--keeper?"

Of course, the answer is, "Yes!" And while intellectually, we would agree with one of the central themes of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan--that our neighbor is whoever is in need--we claim to be too overwhelmed and too ill-informed to know what we can do not only for the people of Darfur, but for the person in the four bedroom, two-and-a-half bath, three-car garage next to us. "I've got enough on my plate just trying to make a living and getting my kids to their soccer games to worry about other people's problems," we may say.

And if anyone should dare disrupt our carefully-constructed personal empires, we're apt to protest like the ancient Hebrews when the prophet Isaiah brought his disturbing messages from God, "Speak to us of smooth things."

I'll be quick to add that I'm at least as guilty of indifference as anybody else. Maybe more so. I live in a nice house in the suburbs. I pay too little attention to the pain of my neighbors. I offer too little money and too few prayers. I haven't peppered my congressional representatives, the White House, or the State Department with emails on the Darfur tragedies. I haven't made enough effort to find information that's on independent web sites and at such mainstream media sites as the one run by the BBC, which has done an excellent job covering Darfur.

Kristof is right to point to the failures of the media and our politicians to address this tragedy. But it's our failure too...and mine.

UPDATE: Ohio blogger Michael Meckler sent this very interesting comment on this post in an email. He's given me permission to share it with you:
I was particularly struck by your comment, "[W]e claim to be too overwhelmed and too ill-informed to know what we can do not only for the people of Darfur, but for the person in the four bedroom, two-and-a-half bath, three-car garage next to us." I find the latter situation to be an even greater indictment than the former. Not to take anything away from the genocide in Darfur, but you are correct to associate the "I'm not listening" attitude concerning large-scale foreign tragedies with our failure to connect with our own neighbors and even with our own families.

I live in an area with many older residents, and I try to make time to visit. I am regularly stunned at how infrequently next-door neighbors and children and grandchildren who live in the same town bother to check up on these folks. For example, last week while visiting one older gentleman who no longer drives, I discovered he did not have any bread in his apartment or milk in his refrigerator. He asked if I would go to the store and get him some groceries to last a few days, and I was happy to do so. This gentleman, however, has a grandson who lives in town, but the elderly man didn't want to "bother him." Older folks can be that way, but clearly neither the grandson nor any neighbors had checked in on this gentleman for several days.

There are so many folks who are our neighbors who may be suffering from despair of one form or another, and these individual stories will never make the news either. Yet these individuals are the ones whom it is the easiest to help. All it takes is a willingness to listen, to pay a little attention and to spend a little time.
And Hugh Hewitt has this to say about Nicholas Kristoff's piece:
...Nicholas Kristof is blasting the president and MSM for not doing enough on Darfur.

Note first that Kristof is simply disingenuous in his account of the president's record on Darfur.

But that is to be expected. What's really remarkable about Kristof's piece is its failure to mention that for years a number of groups have been doing everything possible to keep attention and focus on Darfur and Sudan. The refusal by Kristof to even note in passing the work of groups like Samaritan's Purse --work that has been as dangerous as it has been unappreciated by media elites-- is remarkable because a reference in his column to Christianity Today demonstrates he is aware of these long-standing efforts.

In the world of elite media, it seems that nothing matters unless it attracts the attention of elite media. Kristof's focus on Darfur is a good thing. His refusal to report the entire story is not.

While Kristof clearly should have and could have mentioned the relief efforts and advocacy for the victims of genocide in Darfur that's been done by Christian groups, he may have deemed it beyond the scope of this particular piece. Its basic thrust was that while he has been critical of the Bush Administration on Darfur, he feels even more critical of the mainstream media. In an appearance on the Diane Rehm radio show a few weeks ago, I did hear Kristof acknowledge the efforts of Christian groups to be helpful and to keep the genocide happening there in people's consciousness.

But, as to Hugh's broader point, that media elites tend to ignore the efforts of Christian groups in situations like this--presumably because they don't fit with the elites' story lines for those who bear the label Christian--I think that he's right on.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Unite Later links to this post. Thank you.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Dimestore Guru on Hiatus

Rob Asghar, a wonderful writer who has recently begun writing a syndicated column, today announced that he's putting his blog on a six-month hiatus.

Frankly, as understandable as Asghar's decision is, I'm saddened by this development. His is one of the best blogs around. His refreshing, no-baloney perspective, the imparting of his rich life experiences, his warm regard for the human race, and his compassionate faith, all create a wonderful site. But he's keeping the blog, with its archives, up and on it, you can also find a link to his column. Best wishes, Rob!

Thoughts About Those Who Ask, "How Are You Really?"

How would you react if a friend you'd not heard from for awhile sent a one-line email to you? The line? "How are you really?"

That's exactly what happened to novelist and blogger Richard Lawrence Cohen recently. His post reacting to the email is interesting. I found it, as another commenter on Cohen's site put it, "weird" and wrote this [I've edited out my mistakes]:
Years ago, someone I knew who was entering the field of pastoral counseling as a specialty started asking people that question. "How are you...really?" makes the asker seem so wise, so knowing, so perceptive, so capable of peering beneath the veneers we all put out before the world...especially to those we use to fend off the faux-wise snobs who want to use the people around them to prove their worth. (Which, truth be known, they doubt. But they only become aware of that years later after they've gone through therapy.)

I'm not putting your friend in that category, mind you. But it seems to me that a good 90% of the time, the question, "How are you really?" isn't the genuine query of someone who cares about you and perceives some secret torture dogging your soul. They're people out to glorify themselves. To them, you're the students' cadaver in the medical college surgical theater.

Merle Miller's warped and probably inaccurate oral biography of Harry Truman contains a section about an interview Miller allegedly conducted with a cousin of Truman's. The woman was giving Miller a sense of what life in Independence, Missouri, the President's hometown (and hers), was like. "When I ask people how they're doing, I most emphatically don't want to know the answer," she said. I suppose that's true for most of us. So, it's possible that your friend was asking a question to signal that she or he wanted a friendship composed of more than pleasantries. But, given that the email contained all of one line, I'd be suspicious of that were I in your shoes. I'd wonder if the question weren't more about her or him than you.

Besides, there really is something to be said for maintaining relationships built on pleasantries. Who has the energy or the inclination required to have every friendship be composed of deep soul-to-soul honesty? It's not practical or possible.

Given that reality, it's probably okay that while not being dishonest with others, we not tell each other "how we are...really" every time we're asked.

Pleasantries have their place. The mother of another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, was asked during the 1976 campaign if her son always told the truth. Miss Lillian allowed as how Jimmy may have occasionally told little white lies. The reporter interviewing her asked what an example of a white lie might be. "Well," she replied, "do you remember how when you came in here and I told you that it was nice to see you?"

Sunday, July 24, 2005

"ICE" and Your Cell Phone

In the wake of the recent terrorist bombings in London, many Brits--more than 80% of whom have cell phones--have adopted a sensible suggestion. Among the numbers on their cell phone contact lists is one labeled, ICE, an acronym standing for "In Case of Emergency." Should people be rendered unconscious by any emergency circumstance, ICE entries allow medical personnel and others an immediate link to family or friends who can answer provide vital information. Here's a link to the ICE web site. Thanks to our old family friend, Sandy, for providing this useful suggestion.

Hewitt Takes Tancredo to the Wood Shed...and Well He Should!

Hugh Hewitt is a conservative Republican and committed Christian. Hewitt has been a friend of Congressman Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican, who has engaged in public speculation about bombing Mecca and other Muslim holy sites.

When Tancredo first made his remarks, Hewitt used his blog and his radio show to firmly repudiate the comments not only because they fail to help the cause of antiterrorism, but also because they dishonor the millions of Muslims around the world who have nothing to do with terrorism, because they dishonor the Muslims who are loyal American citizens and are fighting in our armed forces today, because Mecca has no strategic value in any war, and because, in spite of Osama bin Laden's warped rhetoric and evil actions, the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam. Hewitt's reasoning is sound on this matter.

Tancredo has not backtracked from his absurd comments, in spite of not receiving any support from any national leader, Republican or Democrat, including the President of the United States. In fact, Tancredo has instead, defended his remark.

Now, Hewitt has taken the Colorado congressman to the woodshed. He, I should point out, is no member of the so-called "mainstream media" elite. Hewitt is a card-carrying conservative, former member of the Reagan White House staff, and torch-bearer for conservatism through his columns, radio show, books, and blog.

I admire Hewitt's pursuit of this matter. When Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois made his recent irresponsible comments, an insufficient number of Democrats spoke up to censure him. I hope that Republicans will not make the same mistake with regard to Tancredo's statements.

In the past, I've said when I've disagreed with Hewitt--his rejection of and my support for the Senate Gang of Fourteen's compromise on judicial filibusters comes to mind. But I have just one thing to say: You go, Hugh! Read Hewitt's entire post on this matter.

Growing in the Sense of God's Love and Presence

Romans 8:26-39
(Shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 24, 2005. The theme of this message was suggested by the folks of But they bear no blame for what I did with that suggestion.)

Today, I want to talk about growing a deep sense of the presence and love of God. I want to talk about how that can happen when we allow three things we already know to penetrate our hearts and wills.

I had just finished mowing my lawn several Sundays ago and was in the garage, sitting down to take off the shoes I wear whenever I do this chore, getting ready to go take a shower. Suddenly, I heard a car pull into the driveway and looked up to see it stop almost sideways there, a sure sign that someone was in a hurry and probably because something was wrong.

It was Donna, from our congregation. “Mark,” she said, “I tried to get you on your cell phone, but didn’t get an answer. The son of a neighbor was just killed in an accident and we can’t get in touch with the family priest. Could you come over?”

I put my shoes back on and ran into the house for my keys. I didn’t know the family and wasn’t sure what to say or do. I just kept praying, “Please, God, help this family. Help them and help me to help them, too. Please, God.” It took me two minutes to get to their place and I probably prayed that prayer, parrot-like, twenty times. I simply couldn’t think of anything else to pray!

When I arrived, I gave the mother a hug and put my hand on the shoulders of the father. I stood there a lot in silence. I prayed with them and a short time later, I left. I didn’t feel as though I’d done much. Later though, the young man’s father asked Donna on two different occasions to convey to me how much it had meant to him that I had been there.

I filed the incident in my mind as yet another example of God’s mysterious ways. In particular, to me it exemplified how God answers even inarticulate and sometimes wordless prayers when the words don’t come to us.

Further confirmation of how God answers such prayers came just this past week. As you know, our congregation has been keeping eight year old Jacob in our prayers. He was undergoing a delicate surgical procedure designed to help him have some hearing, something he’s never experienced before. His mom, Carol, wrote to me several times to thank all of you for your prayers. She said it was particularly comforting to her because all she could think to pray while Jacob was undergoing surgery was, “Please, God…Please, God.”

Carol dismissed her two-word prayers as nothing more than “a mother’s nerves.” But that’s not how God heard them! In our Bible lesson for this morning, the New Testament preacher and evangelist Paul says, “…we do not know how to pray as we ought, but…[God’s] Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

When we approach the God we know through Jesus Christ with trusting faith and authentic helplessness, the helplessness of those who know they need God and cannot rely on themselves or their own resources or anything else, the Spirit turns our inarticulate craving for God into prayer.

And it’s prayer that touches the heart and the will of God because in our helpless surrender, we’ve let the Holy Spirit turn our prayer into a simple plea: “In this place, in this circumstance, Lord, Your will be done!”

In last week’s Bible lesson, Paul told us that we followers of Jesus Christ place our hope in a heavenly home that we can’t yet see. Today, he tells us that in just the same way, when we pray the kinds of desperate prayers I offered a few Sunday afternoons ago as I headed for the home of Donna’s neighbors or that Carol offered in the surgical waiting room during Jacob's operation, we trust that the Spirit Who we can’t see is nonetheless at work, making something of our seemingly pathetic prayers.

In an effort to understand some of what is going on in our world recently, I’ve been doing some reading about the Muslim religion and about their holy book, the Qu’ran. In that book, Muslims are told that the prayers offered in response to the five daily calls to prayer (adhans) are only acceptable to God if they recite the correct words with precision from the Koran and then, only if they do so in Arabic. What a contrast to the God we know through Jesus Christ! Through Jesus, we know the God Who is big enough and compassionate enough to reach down to us and hear us even when our words and our minds are jumbled. Paul reminds us today that through Jesus Christ, we know that the Spirit is making sense of our prayers even when we don’t know how to pray.

We know something else. “We know,” Paul writes in our Bible lesson, “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”

Peregrine Lanziosi was an Italian priest who lived from 1260 to 1345. He “developed an advanced cancer of his foot and was scheduled for an amputation. Amputations in fourteenth-century Italy were gruesome; the extremity would be sawed or cut off with a dull instrument while one was awake. Peregrine…is said to have prayed before sleep for a healing to come to him in the night. He had a vision that he was cured. When he awoke the cancer was gone, surgery was canceled, and he spent the rest of his life ministering to people afflicted with cancer. He was canonized [by the Roman Catholic Church] in 1726 and is known as the patron saint of cancer patients.” Apparently, the surrendered believer in Jesus doesn’t even have to be awake for the Spirit to search our hearts and sue for God’s good to be done. God took Saint Peregrine’s anxious presentation of himself to God and turned it into a prayer that God would use him to serve other victims of cancer. I’ve meet more than a few modern-day saints who, in remission from this disease I hate so passionately, have taken on their own ministries of service and compassion to other cancer victims!.

God doesn’t cause the rotten things that befall us in this sin-tinged, death-infested world. But we believe that through the prayers and efforts of followers of Jesus who are turned prayerfully to Him, God can take even bad things and use them for good.

Last December 26, a massive tsunami hit much of this planet. Most of its victims were Muslims and Hindus. More than 160,000 people died or went missing and more than 500,000 homes were destroyed. The estimated cost of rebuilding that housing stock is $5-billion. As Pastor Paul Gauche writes, God surely didn’t cause this tragedy. But God has stirred the hearts of Christians and others around the world to respond compassionately to it. In the case of Christians, they're helping others in the Name of Jesus Christ, because of the prompting of God's Spirit.

And so we know that even in a world sometimes gone crazy, the Holy Spirit makes sense of our prayers and that God is bringing good out of even the worst of circumstances.

We know something else, too. Paul puts it this way: “If God is for us, who is against us? He Who did not withhold His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, will He not with Him also give us everything else?” The God Who came into our worlds in the Person of Jesus Christ and sacrificed Himself on a cross isn’t going to be skimpy about sharing His love and His presence with us.

A man was sent to me once for counseling. He was wracked by guilt. He had done a number of things in his life that he genuinely regretted. But he found it impossible to believe that God could forgive Him. After a frustrating hour spent showing this man one Bible passage after another revealing God’s willingness and desire to forgive and have a relationship with those who turn from sin and turn to Christ, I was about to give up on trying to help him.

Partly in frustration, I told him, “Your problem is that you believe more in your sin than you do in Christ.” “What do you mean?” he asked me. “I’m saying that Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection are all the evidence you could possibly need that God is for you and wants what’s best for you and is willing to take the rap for you on your sins. But you think that your sins are too big for Him to handle or swallow up or throw away forever. If you believe in your sins more than you do in Christ, you will never feel forgiven.” Warming to my subject, I told him, “It boils down to this. You have got to get over yourself and let Christ love you.”

I’d like to report that that guy had a miraculous and immediate experience of forgiveness. The fact is I only met him once and at best, I had only given him food for thought. But believe this: No matter what your sins or your hardships in life, God is for you and nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever change that.

God is for you
. In telling you that, folks, we are at the very core of what we believe as Lutheran Christians. We are, according to the great Reformed Biblical scholar, Joachim Jeremias, looking at the central message of the New Testament and I would add, of the whole Bible. Through Jesus Christ, you can know of a certainty that God is for you and for every human being who has ever sinned, everyone who has ever confronted pain or suffering, any human being who has ever drawn a breath. And there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can ever or will ever alter that simple fact! Jesus' cross and empty tomb stand as testament to it. God, if I can say it again, is for you! God will move heaven and earth to make the eternal life of those who dare to surrender to Christ and allow Him to love them to turn out right.

So, this morning, I challenge you to grow deep in the love and in the presence of God in your life. That begins to happen when we allow ourselves to realize three truths:
  • the Spirit can make something of our prayers even when don’t know how to pray;
  • God can make good things come from even the worst of circumstances; and
  • absolutely nothing can ever separate the believer in Jesus Christ from God’s love or care.
[The true story of Peregrine Lanziosi comes from Larry Dossey's book, Prayer is Good Medicine.]

[My intent is to post some notes on the phenomenal passage on which this passage is based, later.]