Saturday, August 20, 2005

My Four Favorite Lincoln Books

I've been a student of Abraham Lincoln since I was four years old. Here are my four favorite Lincoln books:

1. Lincoln: David Herbert Donald's 1996 biography is the magnum opus of a scholar who has spent a lifetime studying the sixteenth president. Donald's thorough research is matched with his informed and analytical mind and his gifts as a writer. Novices and afficiandos alike will derive much from reading this work of a great historian.

2. With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. This is another worthy one-volume telling of Lincoln's life. First published in the late-70s, it was written by Stephen B. Oates.

3. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. I've discussed Garry Wills' phenomenal examination of one of Lincoln's most important speeches--and arguably the nation's most important speech--here.

4. The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop. This journalist-eye's view of the twenty-four hour period when the sixteenth President was assassinated is a great read. Here, you learn something of the conspiracy, the manner in which the President haplessly slipped into the cross-hares of his assassin, and share in the sense of loss and anger that engulfed much of the United States when Lincoln became the first American president to be murdered.

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight

I mentioned the Springfield home of poet Vachel Lindsay. The Lindsay poem with which I'm most familiar, Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, was written during the First World War, some fifty years after Lincoln's death.

The poem has always been a favorite of mine and it comes to life when you visit Springfield.

It portrays Lincoln walking the familiar haunts of his adopted hometown, roused from the sleep of death on the Springfield hill where he is buried, awakened by war, injustice, and the promise of peace.

The poem does more than evoke the image of the Springfield Lincoln, who when not riding the Eighth Judicial Circuit as a trial lawyer, walked from his offices to his home, stopping often to talk with people and play with children.

It also suggests images of an earlier Lincoln, the young man in New Salem, bent on improving himself and learning the law, voraciously reading as he walked on his errands, perhaps delivering the mail, turning a friendly face and giving a greeting to those he passed.

Finally and most directly, it evokes memories of the Presidential Lincoln, shawl wrapped over his shoulders, making his midnight walks to the War Department telegraph office for news from Civil War battlefields, ever burdened by the unfolding national tragedy and his role in it.

Here, in a picture of the compassionate and now deceased Lincoln, is Lindsay's beautiful poem:

It is portentious, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house, pacing up and down.

Or by his homestead, or by shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat, and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint, great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:--as in times before!
And we who toss or lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why,
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come:--the shining hope of Europe free:
The league of sober folk, the Workers' Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

Other Attractions in Springfield, Illinois

There are other things to do and see in Springfield, many of which will bring Lincoln's life and times vividly home for the visitor. There are other attractions as well.

Twenty miles northwest of town, the state of Illinois has recreated the village of New Salem where the young Lincoln lived, first fell in love, and began his career in politics.

A faithful replica of the old Illinois State House, where Lincoln served in the state legislature, is just blocks from the presidential library and museum. The staff there do a fantastic job of explaining the place's history and significance. Lincoln, as a member of the Sangamon County legislative delegation, played a central role in moving the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. That particular delegation was referred to as the Long Nine, a nod to their almost uniform tall heighth.

The Lincoln-Herndon law offices are located on the square across the street from the old State House.

Lincoln's home is located at the corner of Eighth and Jackson. It is restored to its appearance when he and his growing brood lived there, as is the surrounding neighborhood. The National Park Service has done a wonderful job with this restoration. (When I visited there back in 1968 and 1969, only the Lincoln home was restored.)

The Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery is an impressive monument to the President. It sets atop a hill and is crowned by an obelisk. Lincoln's wife and three of the couple's sons are buried there as well. Two of his sons died before the President did. Another son died seven years after his assassination. When one recalls that, like the President, Mary Todd Lincoln's mother died during her childhood, it is difficult to imagine the depths of her ongoing grief. (Unlike Lincoln, whose stepmother loved him and treated him well, Mary Todd's stepmother was unkind to the girl, one reason why she lived with her sister in Springfield as soon as she was able to make such a decision for herself.)

A house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which we were unable to visit because it wasn't open while we were in Springfield, is an attraction that might lure us back soon.

Another attraction we were unable to see was the home of poet Vachel Lindsay. (For more on Lindsay, click here.)

Our Visit to the New Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois

The museum at the brand-new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois is a fantastic place. It is the best museum I've ever visited.

Whether you're a child who knows nothing about our sixteenth President or a History Ph. D, you'll get a lot out of a visit to the museum, which opened earlier this year.

You enter the museum space via a large central atrium. Life-sized figures of the Lincoln family, as they appeared in the early White House years, meet you. Thousands of people have no doubt already had their pictures snapped next to Lincoln, wife Mary, and sons Robert, Willie, and Tad.

From here, visitors are likely to choose between two central display areas, referred to as Journey 1 and Journey 2. Journey 1 traces Lincoln's life from age twelve in Indiana through his election to the presidency. Stunning life-sized figures, including one showing the heart-wrenching separation of a slave family at auction, are interspersed with vivid portrayals of Lincoln's life and things going on in the country during this period. The conflict-ridden descent into Civil War, including a clever TV-news report on the four-way race for President in 1860, by Tim Russert, is accessibly portrayed.

In Journey 2, the visitor walks through the doors of the White House, with figures of Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Generals McClellan and Grant, and John Wilkes Booth close at hand. You pass through various scenes from the Lincoln presidency: the first Inaugual Ball, the villification of Lincoln by cartoonists and writers from every conceivable point of view, the Cabinet meeting at which--to stunned silence--the President read his Emancipation Proclamation, an amazing and informative four-minute visualization of the Civil War, the death of son Willie and its horrible aftermath, and a visit to the House chambers of the old Illinois State House where Lincoln's body lay in repose, complete with a replica of his casket. In this latter spot, I noticed that even though we weren't actually filing past the President's body, a genuine hush fell over young and old alike. This reaction was akin to the respectful silence people observed when, later in the day, we walked past Lincoln's marker at the Springfield cemetery where he's buried. The Lincoln museum manages to sweep people, young and old, into some tangible experience of Lincoln's life and legacy.

Two theaters present two multimedia films at the museum. One, called Ghosts in the Library, shows how historical archives grant us better understanding of the past and so, of our present. The other film, Lincoln's Eyes, is simply stunning. Both theaters have been created by subcontractors who have worked with the Disney people for projects like Muppet 3-D Theater and their presentation of American history through the narration of Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. These films are easily the match of anything presented at Walt Disney World.

Yet nothing has been "dumbed down" here, a tribute no doubt to the leadership of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum's director, the eminent historian and veteran presidential librarian, Richard Norton Smith. Smith, if I recall correctly, has done stints at the Ford, Reagan, and Nixon libraries. He is also the author of my favorite biography of George Washington, Patriarch.

Including lunch at the museum, which was very good and featured a reasonably healthful menu, my wife, mother-in-law, and I spent four-and-a-half hours at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. If you're a parent or grandparent of any child above six years old, plan on taking a trip there soon. Both you and they will love it!

Friday, August 19, 2005

The Conflict Deepens (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 12)

Matthew 9

In chapter 9, Jesus performs more signs pointing to His identity as Messiah and God-enfleshed. By His lavish spreading of God's love, contrary to religious expectations, He becomes even more distasteful to the religious leaders.

Matthew 9:1-8. Chapter 9 begins with Jesus and His disciples taking a ride in the boat. As soon as they make landfall "some men carried a paraplegic on a stretcher and set him down in front" of Jesus and His companions. Peterson's paraphrase of Jesus' response and what ensues is interesting:
"Jesus, impressed by their bold belief, said to the paraplegic, 'Cheer up, son. I forgive your sins.'"
Notice that Jesus doesn't immediately heal this man. Instead, impressed by their faith in Him, Jesus grants the man and his friends something they hadn't even asked for: the forgiveness of their sins.

This points to an important principle. When, in humility and surrender, we turn to the God we know through Jesus Christ for help, we open the door into our lives to Him. When we do so, God walks in. We may think we know why we're inviting God to help us, but God knows our deepest needs even better than we do. Give God an inch and He will take a mile...and that's a good thing, believe it or not!

In the New Testament book of Revelation, Jesus' beloved disciple, John, recounts visions he received of the risen Jesus, now in heaven, and His messages for seven different first-century churches. To one church, in the city of Laodicea, Jesus says: "Look at me, I stand at the door. I knock. If you hear Me call and open the door, I'll come right in and sit down to supper with you..." (Revelation 3:20).

The paraplegic and his friends, by their act of bold trust in Jesus, had invited Him into their lives. Jesus saw their need and filled it.

But some of the "religion scholars"--scribes--weren't keen on Jesus' response to the men's faith at all. Only God can forgive sins, they reasoned. Jesus wouldn't have disagreed with them. That was why He forgave the sins of these men. But the scholars "whispered, 'Why, that's blasphemy!'" The primary definition of "blasphemy" given by Merriam-Webster's dictionary is:
"...(noun) 1 a : the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God; b : the act of claiming the attributes of deity."
These two elements of blasphemy aptly describe what the religion scholars, who saw Jesus as nothing more than an upstart preacher from Nazareth, thought of His daring to forgive sin.

Jesus, we're told, was aware of what the scholars were whispering. This triggers one of the cleverest things Jesus ever said to His opponents, a variant on the standard form Semitic argument which runs, "If this little thing, then this big thing."

Here, Jesus asks His detractors, "'Which do you think is simpler: to say, 'I forgive your sins,' or 'Get up and walk'? Well, just so it's clear that I'm the Son of Man and authorized to do either, or both...'" Then, Jesus commands the paraplegic to get up and walk, which he does.

This underscores something that we've talked about in this series before: The miracles--or as the Gospels call them in the original Greek--the signs aren't tricks meant to dazzle us; they point beyond themselves to Who Jesus is, what His authority is, and that He has brought the new kingdom of God into the world.

In the grand scheme of things, restoring the ability to walk of a paraplegic is small potatoes compared to being able to forgive sins and thereby empowering people who would otherwise be forever alienated from God, to enjoy an eternal relationship with Him. After all, a time would come when the paraplegic wouldn't be able to walk any longer and even those brought back from the dead faced eventual death. Healing only lasts so long. But forgiveness of the debt we owe to God for our sin--the New Testament book of Romans says that "the wages of sin is death"--will give us life beyond the grave.

Matthew 9:9. Later, Jesus calls a tax collector--a man named Matthew--to follow Him...and amazingly, Matthew does! A short while later, Matthew has a party for his tax collector friends and a bunch of other "disreputable characters," notorious sinners.

Tax collectors, as you probably know, practiced legally-protected extortion in first-century Judea where Jesus lived. They were like franchisees for the Roman government. They paid the Roman officials a fee and in return: (1) Were to collect a set amount of money in taxes from area residents, from which they would take a cut; (2) Could collect any amount over that set amount, all of which lined their pockets.

The Romans used citizens of Judea to collect taxes for them. The collectors were doubly despised. First, they were hated because they worked with the Romans occupying a place in Judean society similar to that filled by collaborators in occupied France during World War Two. Second, they were also hated for gouging their own people, profiting from and living in luxury because of their suffering.

Because they were so marginalized and morally indifferent, tax collectors tended to hang out with other disreputable people, among them prostitutes.

Matthew 9:10-13. In Matthew 9, Jesus hangs out with a crew like this. Not surprisingly, the "good" religious folks are scandalized. They ask His disciples, "What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riff-raff?"

A good one, Jesus insists, after hearing them. "Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick?" He asks them. "Go figure out what this Scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite the outsiders, not coddle insiders.'" Jesus knew the truth of what my friend, Virgil, a member of the congregation I formerly served as pastor, once said, "The church building would be an empty place on Sunday mornings if God didn't let the sinners in!"

We don't know how many of the outsiders, those who had formerly loved their rebellion and sin, left their outsider status behind and entered the kingdom of God by turning from and believing in Jesus, that day. But we do know that no one is so far from God that they can't turn from sin, receive forgiveness, and be given fresh starts with God! One-time slave trader John Newton learned this. After coming to realize that buying, imprisoning, and selling human beings was wrong, he asked for forgiveness from the God we meet in Christ and for the power to live differently. Newton's life was utterly transformed and he became a pastor, anti-slavery activist, and a composer. One of his songs celebrates God's willingness to charitably forgive all sinners. It says, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see!"

[For more on Matthew 9:9-13, see here.]

Matthew 9:14-17. Later, some followers of the late John the Baptizer ask Jesus why the Pharisees, members of a sect of Judaism to which Jesus was most closely related, went through all sorts of religious rituals, but Jesus and His disciples didn't. Jesus' answer in a nutshell, is that as long as the bridegroom, the One Who is marrying Himself to the human family through His bride, the Church, was still around, there was reason to party down.

And He says that He's about new business, expanding the kingdom of God to include people who surrender to Him from every ethnic background on the planet. You don't put new wine in old cracked bottles, He says. That means you can't contain His expansive love in old rituals or in old time religion.

Eventually, Jesus says, there may be times when religious disciplines will be helpful. But they can only be helpful if they assist us in genuinely following Him, not as some grim religious obligation. God hates that stuff!

Matthew 9:18-26. Next comes a cluster of two events that form a kind of narrative sandwich, each showcasing what happens in the lives of two people bold in their faith in Jesus. First, a "local official," grieving for his daughter who has just died, approaches Jesus and asks Him to touch her so that she will live.

As Jesus follows the man to the bedside of the dead girl, a woman, in the crowds constantly milling around Him, believing in Who Jesus is and what He can do, resolves that she will touch his robe, certain that in doing so, she will be healed. For twelve years, for as long as the dead girl had lived, we will soon learn, she had suffered from a hemorrhage that would not stop. In a culture that regarded menstruation as an impurity, this particular hemorrhage, would have been regarded as a judgment of God against the woman. Because the woman took the risk of faith, Jesus tells her, she is well.

At the house, Jesus does bring the little girl to life and no doubt to the chagrin of His opponents, news of what Jesus had done was soon all over the place.

Matthew 9:27-31. One of the recurring and comical aspects of Jesus' ministry was how He would perform a sign, tell the primary beneficiaries of His intervention not to tell anyone, and they would proceed to disregard His directive, blabbing their heads off about it.

As I've explained in an earlier installment, Jesus told people not to spread word of His signs because, apart from His crucifixion and resurrection, people might too readily become riveted on the signs as objects of adoration in and of themselves. But the signs were only meant to point people to Jesus' authority and His good intentions for the human family. They were meant to point us to the need to die to sin and rise to the new life God gives to those who take up their crosses and follow Him, assuring us that that the God capable of miraculous intervention in this life, can also give us new life beyond our graves. But of course, people couldn't keep their pie holes shut and in fairness to them, I doubt that I could have done so either.

Jesus restores the sight of two blind men and tells them, "Mum's the word." But they spread word all around.

Matthew 9:32-34. Next, Jesus casts out a demon, and His opponents, employing the kind of "war is peace" logic Orwell portrays in 1984, say, "He's probably made a pact with the devil."

Matthew 9:35-38. At the end of the chapter, Jesus is traveling towns and villages, teaching, preaching, and healing. He sees the crowds and gives the disciples a directive which I try to follow every day. Comparing the crowds of people in need of Him in their lives to a crop ripe for harvesting, He says, "What a huge harvest! How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!" [For more on Matthew 9:35-38, see here.]

[Here are links to the previous eleven 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


Explicating the Beatitudes...and More

Authenticity and Trust

Jesus' Radical Ethics

Friend of the Outcasts...]

I Play Andy Rooney

Andy Rooney has made a career--a third career, by my count--of often stringing together unrelated observations in his 60 Minutes essays. I've got some observations that I could never turn into full-blown columns or blog posts. So, I've decided to play Andy Rooney...

With computer-based game systems, people don't play board games like they used to. It seems that the rare families who do still play them regularly are smarter than the rest of us. Are they smarter because they play board games? Or do they play board games because they're smarter?

My current fast food obsession-du-jour is a steak bowl at Chipotle. I can't get enough of it!

Until a few days ago, James Whitcomb Riley was nothing but a name to me. My wife was very familiar with him, though. So, on a trip back from the fantastic Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, we stopped at Riley's boyhood home in Greenfield, Indiana. He lived from 1849 to 1916, and was designated variously as the Hoosier Poet and the Children's Poet, the latter because his poems explored childhood experiences. He appears to have been part Will Rogers, part Bill Cosby, part rock star, and part poet. In reading some of his work since, it's understandable why we don't learn about him in school: His poems are a bit archaic, not great literature, and written in a Hoosier dialect that young readers may find impenetrable. But his life provides a good window through which to look at America in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. By the way, the home is well-worth seeing and the tour guides are admirably dedicated to their work.

Can someone please explain to me the appeal of Eminem? And for that matter, while I like the genre of rap music, I can't understand why anyone would want to extol the virtues of hate or violence or materialism. What is up with that?

Can someone else explain to me why I like the music of Coldplay as much as I do? It's melancholy and I'm not usually into more than an occasional dollop of melancholy. Yet, at the end of a listen to their latest CD, X & Y, I don't feel down.

The judge who presided at yesterday's sentencing of Ohio Governor Bob Taft, is a guy I knew in college. Back then, Mark Froehlich and his twin brother were given the nicknames of Frick and Frack by some of the other OSU Young Democrats with whom they and I hung out. They were seen as being excitable and when the two of them were together, they would feed off of each other's enthusiasms, building what they deemed irrefutable cases for whatever their political hobby horses of the moment were. They were both intelligent people. Now that I know what Frick is doing, I can't help wondering whatever became of Frack.

Among the people I knew during my college years and the period in my early twenties when I was involved in politics, a number have gone on to political prominence: A state Democratic Party chair; a mayor of Cleveland; a mayor of Springfield, Ohio; at least two White House aides; numerous lobbyists. I never knew, but was very much aware of another guy who would go on to serve in Congress, John Kasich. Kasich was the vice presidential candidate of a slate running for seats in OSU's Undergraduate Student Government (USG) the same year I ran to be an assembly person on a different slate. Our slate won. But Kasich seemed never to have lost his political momentum.

I wonder if they ever play board games with their families?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

On the Gaza Evacuation

Tamar quotes an email received from a friend in Israel on the Gaza pullout. In a nutshell, she's impressed with the gentle yet firm manner that Israeli soldiers are enforcing the pullout.

This is an historic moment. No matter what the motives of the Sharon government, the pullout is a bold action. As a mailing I received from the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati puts it:
At a cost of more than $1.7 billion to the Israeli government, disengagement makes Israel the first country in modern history to give up land acquired in a defensive war (1967).
Whether this is the right course for Israel to take, it's neither my right or my intention to say.

As a Christian, I believe in the power that resides in the strong sometimes foregoing the use of power. There is little doubt that the same Israeli military which today is acting with such gentle firmness could destroy the forces of the Palestinian Authority many times over. But in an action that seems improbable from the militant and conservative Sharon, Israel under his leadership is voluntarily vacating Gaza. It's stunning to see...even as one's heart is touched by the departure of many who have never known life in a different place.

Rob Thomas Needs a Band

Some singer/songwriters just need a band. Bands keep them a bit more honest lyrically, less prone to opting for cleverness over communicativeness. A band tends to keep the sound tighter, less poppy. That Rob Thomas is an extraordinary talent was confirmed repeatedly in his work as lead singer and composer for Matchbox 20. His voice is unique and he has a real flare for memorable lyrics. He's at home in a variety of musical styles, though at his best when he rocks, even when it's with a Latin edge, as he proved in his 1999 song with Carlos Santana, Smooth.

But I think Rob Thomas needs a band. If he's not careful, he'll turn into Michael Bolton. Or, as some reviewers have suggested, Justin Timberlake, who like Thomas, emerged from the Orlando music scene.

Thomas' first solo LP, Something to Be, is very good. But get a band, Rob, and rock! (I hear that Matchbox 20 may be available.)

Call Me 'The Earl of Sandwich'

I've decided that I need a new nickname. Call me, The Earl of Sandwich. By that, I don't mean that I've invented some delicacy that puts meat or jelly between two slices of bread. I mean that I always seem to be the meat or jelly between two slices of bread.

On so many issues of life, I wind up in the middle, because that's usually where I think what's true and right lies, where the facts as I see them lead me. Because of this penchant for the middle, I can leave people on either side of me unhappy.

Some months ago, for example, I wrote a column in which I said that even if states enacted legislation providing civil unions for homosexual couples, the Church, the Christian faith, and marriage would not be threatened.

I got a short email from an acquaintance who describes himself as conservative in politics and faith. He wrote simply, "Are you out of your mind?"

I wrote back, in effect, that the odds were better than even that I am out of my mind, but that the interests of state governments in people's intimate relationships are different from the interests of the Bible or of the Church.

Government first became involved in laws regulating marriage as a means of refereeing disputes that might arise between couples and their families of origin or among the couples themselves over finances, property, the custody of children, and the safety and well being of spouses and their kids. Economics and what we might call interpersonal justice--between spouses and toward children--are what the state tries to enforce in marriage.

The Church, on the other hand, is interested in marriage as a covenant established by God for women and men to enjoy lifelong relationships of intimacy under the direction and blessings of God. Furthermore, it is counter to the interests of the Church for Christians to impose their morality on others. Jesus has deputized us to make disciples. That never happens by legal coercion; it must come from gentle persuasion, empowered by Christians' reliance on the Holy Spirit to live their lives and speak words that reach the wills and hearts of the skeptical.

In a sense, marriage under the auspices of a state and the marriage recognized by God and the Church are two different institutions, although they can be co-terminous. (I, for example, am authorized by the State of Ohio to "solemnize" marriages. But to me that state stuff is just an add-on, a service I can provide to couples to satisfy state regulations. Real marriage, to my mind, is a covenant between God, a woman, and a man.)

So, I wrote to the guy questioning my sanity that while I would never preside over a civil union of a homosexual couple and would not regard it as a marriage from a Biblical perspective, I feel that the state may have an interest in refereeing and regulating elements of such relationships, analogous to the interest it has in refereeing and regulating heterosexual marriages. Otherwise the disposition of property and the custody of children could become messy business.

So, at least one conservative dismissed me as a liberal. That's not the first time it's happened either.

But I sometimes get dismissed in other ways. Last week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) of which I'm a part, met in its Churchwide Assembly and voted against legitimizing homosexual unions as a rite of the Church and also against the ordination of practicing homosexuals. In this, I believe, it was simply upholding the teaching of the Bible. Marriage, the pithy saying puts it, was instituted to happen between Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

The Church was saying in these decisions, "We welcome all people, including those whose sexual orientation is different from others. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness and we all struggle with sinful impulses and temptations to rebel against God's revealed will. But we will not say that certain selected sins are now okay."

God's law exists in part to be a mirror that we can hold up to our lives and thereby see our need of God's grace and power in our lives. When I hear God's command, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor," for example, once I get past my defensiveness and self-justifying excuses, several things happen in me. First, I recognize that apart from outright lying about the actions of other people, whether by gossip or by failing to speak well of those whom others condemn, I bear false witness against my neighbor. I violate God's will for my life.

Second, knowing that I'm in the wrong and personally incapable of "reforming" myself, I throw myself on the mercy of God for forgiveness and for the power to live my life differently, power I cannot generate on my own and power which, because of Jesus Christ, I can receive by simply turning from my sin (repenting) and receiving God's offered help.

These two things that happen to us when we measure our lives against's God's law will sound familiar to anyone who has gone through a Twelve Step program. Such programs begin with the simple insight that we're overtaken by an addiction that is destroying us and our relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves, an addiction which is too big for us to address in our own power. Secondly, we rely on our "Higher Power." The relationship isn't accidental. Alcoholics Anonymous which first promulgated the Twelve Steps is an outgrowth of the Oxford Movement, a Christian effort designed to help alcoholics get free of the power of their addiction.

The Church, in a sense, is a support group for recovering sinners. In its fellowship, we're encouraged to to take a look at our lives through the eyes of God. In it, we're all invited to struggle to live lives that respond to the love and will of God. And in it, we learn that God can transform the lives of those who are honest enough with Him to admit both their impulse to sin and their actual sins.

The only sin that Jesus says is insusceptible to divine forgiveness is what He calls "the sin against the Holy Spirit." The sin against the Holy Spirit isn't a specific violation of God's law. It's the refusal to pay heed to the reflection of ourselves we see when we look in the "mirror" of God's law. In these moments, God is trying to communicate with us, trying to get us to turn away from sin and turn to Him and the new life He offers through Christ. When we refuse to be convinced or convicted by God for our sin, we build a wall between ourselves and God. It isn't that God doesn't want to reach out to us and hold us to Himself; it's that we have decided to turn a deaf ear to God's words of forgiveness and love.

Had the ELCA decided to back the ordination of practicing homosexuals or the blessing of homosexual unions, it would have deprived people of hearing God's call to repentance in one aspect of life and thereby enabled them in building walls between themselves and God.

Last week, when I wrote that I approved of the ELCA's action, one blogger wrote a very gentle and irenic email to me, saying that while he had originally intended to put a link to this site on his web log, he could do so no longer. I note also that another blogger has eliminated a link to this site from hers. I suppose that for them, I'm indecipherably conservative.

I don't set out to be the Earl of Sandwich. I just seem to land there after prayer and study. It can be unpleasant sometimes. But maybe a voice from somewhere in the middle can be useful. I hope so.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

I've Been Away

My wife and I returned this evening from a short, but wonderful trip about which I'll probably do some writing. I simply wanted to assure regular readers of this blog that, in the immortal words of a particular California governor, "I'll be back."

Sunday, August 14, 2005

My Greatest Musical Hits

I post often about music. Below are links to some of my favorite posts of a musical nature.

John Paul II and the Power of Authentic Passion (Trust me, it really is about music...sort of...really!)

What Makes Bono Run

Elvis Costello and Thoughts on What Makes an Artist an Artist

Was Music Born or Killed with Elvis Presley?

Some Thoughts on Coldplay's X & Y

FLASH: Paul McCartney Dyes His Hair

Go Ahead and Fool Everyone, Be Yourself!

Michael Jackson and the American Love of Clarity

Welcome to Diverse City

My Current Traveling Music

Bowie and Meaning It

Growing in Interruptibility

Matthew 15:21-28

(Shared with the people of Friendship Church, August 14, 2005.)

Imagine for a second that you and your family have a trip planned. It could be a trip to Orlando. Or maybe you’re planning on "spending Christmas in Elmira" with your sister. Or you'll be doing a business-and-pleasure vacation. Whatever the case, imagine that your bags are packed, the car is gassed up, Mapquest's almost-accurate itineraries are printed off, and you're ready to roll.

Just then, the telephone rings. It’s the next door neighbor. The husband and wife there need to run to the hospital, where his mother has just been taken unexpectedly, and they wonder if your family can look after the kids for awhile?

For a brief moment, you consider listing all the reasons why you can’t do it. But you know that your neighbor needs you. Elmira or Orlando or wherever can wait, you know. Baby sitting wasn’t part of your game plan for the day, of course. It can be something you do as part of the overall mission of your life, though. It can be part of loving God and loving neighbor, of sharing Jesus Christ with others.

A few hours later, your neighbors’ usual sitter shows up to take over from you and you and your family pile into your vehicle. Somehow, the world hasn’t come to an end because you didn’t get started on time.

Part of growing in our faith in Jesus Christ is being willing to be sent wherever God may seem to want us to go and to go even when it interrupts our plans.

When Jesus walked the earth, He had an overall game plan, a mission. Central to it was for Him to visit the so-called “lost sheep of Israel.” These were Jesus’ fellow Jews, but ones who had wandered from God. Jesus was to call these people from their sin and back to God.

It wasn't that Jesus didn't care about all the people of the world. But His life and ministry were to be like a pebble thrown into a pond. He would create a big impact among one group of people and those who came to follow Him would move out, like the ripples created by the pebble, into the whole world.

Jesus was to target His ministry, calling many of His fellow Jews to faith in Him, and then, after His death and resurrection, they would carry the Good News that all people--Jews and Gentiles--who believe in Him will live with God forever.

In our Bible lesson for today, we see Jesus getting interrupted in the pursuit of that mission. He and His disciples are passing through the non-Jewish region around the cities of Tyre and Sidon. The people who live there Jesus aren’t the target of His immediate game plan.

And yet, while there, a Canaanite woman shouts at Jesus. The Canaanites, you’ll remember, were bitter enemies of God and of God’s people. A first-century Judean rabbi wouldn’t have been very likely to respond to a Canaanite.

Decreasing this Canaanite's chances of getting a rabbi to notice her is the fact that she’s a woman. The etiquette of the time forbade men and women from speaking together in public.

This particular woman was so insistent in calling out to Jesus that the disciples beg Him to send her away.

Jesus keeps His counsel for awhile. But frankly, I think it was His intention all along to respond to this woman’s plea. She cries out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David: my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Up to this point in Jesus’ ministry, no one had expressed such faith in Jesus. She clearly saw Him as the God and Lord of all creation. She also saw Him as the Messiah, the Anointed King. Even Jesus' closest followers had been slow to see Him in this light and in the chapter just before this incident is recounted in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus has reason to upbraid them for having so little faith. By contrast, in just a few moments, He will extol this woman for having "great faith," the only place in the Gospels where Jesus uses this phrase about anybody!

It's interesting that this woman never claims to be entitled to the request she makes of Jesus. This must have been refreshing to Jesus' ears. Both He and His cousin, John the Baptist, had been disgusted by their fellow Jews' claims to special rights and privileges simply because they were genetic descendants of Abraham. "God," John had said, "could raise up descendants of Abraham from these stones. You have no entitlement to the blessings God gives solely because of His mercy."

You know, you and I live in a society that is completely hung up on what we think that we're entitled to, on our rights. In the United States, we have the Bill of Rights, which is a great thing. In New York Harbor, we have a Statue of Liberty, which is wonderful. But we rarely talk about our responsibilities. (Maybe a Statue of Responsibility in San Francisco Bay, America's other great point of welcome, would be a good idea!)

And we in this modern age are no different from Jesus' fellow Judeans of the first-century. We in the church may like to point out that we put an offering in the plate every Sunday, warmed the same pew for thirty years, taught Sunday School, and stood up at the right point in every worship service as proof that we are entitled to have our prayers answered. And as to those outside the Church, how many folks have you known who never gave God a thought and then became fiercely angry at Him for some offense of which they've found Him guilty? The notion of entitlement is pervasive.

But the Canaanite woman doesn’t seem to feel that Jesus owes her or her daughter release from demonic torment. She bases her request not on what she deserves, but on the infinite love and mercy that God bears for all people!

After the disciples urge Jesus to send this pesky foreign woman away, He turns from them and to the woman in order, I believe, to teach His disciples and us, an important lesson. He tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Then Matthew tells us:
“...she came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’”
In those days, Jesus’ fellow Jews referred to non-Jews as wild dogs. Here, poking fun at His own people’s exclusionary ways, Jesus uses the word kunarion, a term used for dogs kept as house pets. On the way to granting this woman’s request, I think that Jesus speaks to her tongue-in-cheek.

She seems to pick up on Jesus' humor and His intent immediately. She would never dream of taking anything from the children of Israel, she tells Jesus, “yet even the house pets eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Jesus then lays aside the banter and declares, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!” He saw in her faith that He had never observed even in His closest followers. At that, Matthew tells us, “her daughter was healed instantly.”

There are many lessons we could draw from this incident. But I want to lift up just one.

Larry Dossey is a physician, researcher, and writer, who has made the general public aware of the scientific research that is being done into the effects of prayer as a component of the treatment regimen for those suffering from many diseases. His book, Prayer is Good Medicine, is one that can be read like you would a magazine.

Last night, I read his account of the efforts of a Methodist pastor, Karl Goodfellow, in Iowa. He had read about a scientific study in which the crop yields of Haitian farms were dramatically increased when people were recruited to pray for each farmer. Iowa is an agricultural state, of course. On top of that, farming is a dangerous profession, especially at harvest time when the pressure is on. Goodfellow decided to recruit prayer partners for each of the 12,000 family farms in his region.

The results were amazing. Yields increased. Farm families reported that even when accidents did happen, they seemed to have a serenity in dealing with them that they wouldn't otherwise have had.

But the thing that these farm families could hardly believe was that people they'd never met would interrupt the routines of their days--would look beyond themselves--to pray for and care about others. To bring Jesus' healing to others, they allowed themselves to be interruptible.

You and I can get so caught up in our agendas, in doing what we think is the right thing, that we forget to do the best thing. You and I have been sent to be agents of God’s healing in the world. The opportunities to bring Jesus’ healing to others may come to us at unexpected times and in unexpected places, sometimes at inconvenient times and places. To find them, we only need to open our eyes and our hearts! For Christ's sake, we need to be interruptible.