Saturday, September 03, 2005

CNN's Rehnquist Obituary


Rehnquist's Death Will Intensify Roberts Hearings

Just tonight, I picked up a close-out copy of William Rehnquist's history of the Supreme Court. As has already been pointed out by several commentators, the Chief Justice's passing during the watch of a Republican President is not likely to tip the balance on the Court.

But, if possible, it is apt to heighten the intensity of the confirmation battle over John Roberts' nomination for the Associate Justice position formerly held by Sandra Day O'Connor. O'Connor was seen as a "swing vote" on the Court.

Rehnquist loved the Court and played an historic role in reversing some of the trends advanced by the Earl Warren era which had preceded the tenure of Rehnquist's immediate predecessor, Warren Berger.

Race and the Response to Katrina?

Racism is a sin and it's endemic to America.

That's why the Associated Press news photos that came out on Tuesday are so offensive and so telling. One photo shows an African-American wading through flood waters in New Orleans holding a bag containing food that the accompanying caption tells us, he "looted" from a grocery store. Another shows two white Americans who have "found food" in a grocery store.

Three people. One black. Two white. All did the same thing. But the black person looted, while the white people found food.

Racism is a sin and it's endemic to America.

But are members of the Democratic Black congressional caucus right in asserting that racism accounts for the seeming lack of a federal response in the first days after Katrina hit?

Let's look at the facts.

There is a large black underclass in America. That includes New Orleans. Much of that has its roots in America's institutionalized racism, to be sure. And it may be a measure of a lack of compassion on the part of the white middle- and upper-class citizens of that city that they got out after the federal government told people to evacuate before Katrina made landfall. But many poor African-Americans didn't have access to transportation out of the city and were stranded.

Besides, as President Clinton pointed out in a joint interview that he and former President Bush gave to CNN in New Orleans, the city government there had encouraged those unable to evacuate to go to the Super Dome where, they assured folks, they could ride out the storm. Then, when the levee broke, thousands were stranded.

Unaccountably, the New Orleans city government failed to commandeer mass transit buses or local school buses to help the poor to evacuate the city before Katrina hit.

After the storm hit, the response of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) was, undoubtedly, slowed by the unexpected levee breaks. But it still seemed excruciatingly slow to move, a result perhaps, of the "reorganization" that put the agency under the Homeland Security Department, confusing the lines of authority.

Racism is a sin and it's endemic to America.

You can blame city and FEMA officials for incompetence perhaps. But I don't think that they're guilty of racism.

UPDATE: If you look at Mark Congdon's comments below, you'll see that I was misinformed regarding the sources of the two photographs. I apologize for not doing a better job of tracking things down. I decided to nonetheless keep the post up because I think that the larger points I wanted to make--racism is real and the inadequate initial response was not racially-driven--remain valid.

Able Scholar Deals with Katrina and God's Sovereignty

Ben Witherington is a wonderful Biblical scholar who teaches at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. Read his post here. He says well what I tried to say in this piece I wrote yesterday.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Jesus Commends Different Response to Natural Disasters

Some words from Jesus, as reported in the Gospel of Luke, seem appropriate to consider today:
About that time some people came up and told Him about the Galileans Pilate had killed while they were at worship, mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar. Jesus responded, "Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileeans? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you will die. And those eighteen in Jerusalem the other day, the ones crushed and killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed and fell on them, do you think they were worse citizens than all the other Jerusalemites? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you too will die." (Luke 13:1-5, The Message paraphrase)
So, what's the point? Just this. The particular temptation to which people of faith are most subject when they observe natural disasters like Katrina hit is to claim that God is punishing those who live in the affected region. Jesus says that's not true.

Responding to two different tragedies, one man-made, one a natural happenstance, events apparently "in the news" in first-century Judea where He lived, Jesus simply said that in an imperfect world, bad things happen. God, Jesus made clear, and in other places, isn't in the business of killing people who sin.

If God were to take the lives of sinners, you and I and every resident of this planet would have been killed a long time ago. The Bible says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Instead, according to the parable--or story--that Jesus tells immediately following the statement above, God is patient with us, pouring out His love and compassion on us in good and bad times all aimed at persuading us to turn to Him and live. (By the way, I love this passage because only Jesus would be audacious or sufficiently heedless of religious niceties to tell a parable in which the grace of God is manure...and be a good thing!)

Rather than blaming victims for their misfortunes, Jesus says that we should have a different response to tragedy. None of us knows the times of our deaths, the point beyond which, we won't be able to turn to God and receive the life that only He can offer. Turning to Him--or repenting, as the Bible calls it--means to repudiate our sin,to ask God for forgiveness, offered through Jesus Christ, and to seek God's help in living our lives His way, with love for God and others.

When we witness others struck by tragedy, Jesus says to resist the temptation to blame and instead, to respond in two ways:

(1) Help the victims and pray for them;

(2) Turn our own lives over to Jesus Christ so that whatever befalls us, we'll be with Him in this life and in the one that comes beyond death.

That, it seems to me, should be our course today.

Hastert Backpedals on Question of Rebuilding New Orleans

In this morning's New York Times lead story on Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, there were two interesting paragraphs:
Even as administration officials pledged vast resources to the region, however, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, told a local newspaper, The Daily Herald, that he was skeptical about using billions in federal money to rebuild New Orleans, given its vulnerability. "It doesn't make sense to me," Mr. Hastert said. "And it's a question that certainly we should ask."
He later sought to clarify his comments, saying in a statement: "I am not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated. My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens."
While it hasn't become politically correct to say that it could be unwise to rebuild New Orleans in its pre-Katrina form, it clearly is a question that officials know should be asked, both because of the danger to which such a New Orleans would subject people and because of the federal dollars that would necessarily be involved. Now is the time to ask it, before massive amounts of federal money and efforts are committed to rebuilding the old New Orleans.

For more on the subject of rebuilding New Orleans, see here, here, here, and here.

Clinton and Bush the Elder Defend Federal Relief Efforts in New Orleans

Check out this portion of an interview conducted by CNN reporter Suzanne Malveaux with former Presidents Bush and Clinton:
MALVEAUX: Do you believe that this is legitimate?

G.H.W. BUSH: Yes, I do. What happened? We all sighed with -- not legitimate. I believe that they ought not to be as upset, but I can understand why they are. We thought, a lot of people thought, that when the hurricane went to the right a little bit, New Orleans was going to be spared. And it was only the next day that, you know, there were these horrible problems with the levee. But, look, if I were sitting there with no shower, no ability to use bathroom facilities, worried about my family, not knowing where they were, I'd blame anybody and so you have to expect that.

MALVEAUX: But do you think this administration responded quickly enough?

G.H.W. BUSH: Of course I do.

CLINTON: Let me answer this. The people in the Superdome are in a special position. And let me say, I've been going to New Orleans for over 50 years. There's no place on earth I love more. They went into the Superdome, not because of the flooding, but because we thought the hurricane was going to hit New Orleans smack dab and they'd be safe in there if they didn't leave town.

What happened was, when the levee broke and the town flooded, what did it do? It knocked out the electricity and it knocked out the sewage. They're living in hellacious conditions. They would be better off under a tree than being stuck there. You can't even breathe in that place now.

So I understand why they're so anxiety-ridden. But they have to understand, by the time it became obvious that they were in the fix they were in, there were a lot of other problems, too. There were people -- they were worried about people drowning that had to be taken off roofs.

MALVEAUX: So you two believe that the federal response was fast enough?

CLINTON: All I'm saying is what I know the facts are today. There are hundreds of buses now engaged in the act of taking people from New Orleans to the Astrodome in Houston. And you and I are not in a position to make any judgment because we weren't there.

All I'm saying is the way they got stuck there, I see why they feel the way they do. But the people that put them there did it because they thought they were saving their lives. And then when the problems showed up, they had a lot of other people to save. Now they've got hundreds of buses. We just need to get them out. I think they'll all be out by tomorrow. Didn't they say they would all be out by tomorrow morning?

G.H.W. BUSH: Yes.

MALVEAUX: OK. Well, thank you very much. I'm sorry. We've run out of time. Thank you.

G.H.W. BUSH: Let me -- I just to want finish. I believe the administration is doing the right thing, and I believe they have acted in a timely fashion. And I understand people being critical. That happens all the time. And I understand some people wanted to make, you know, a little difficulty by criticizing the president and the team. But I don't want to sit here and not defend the administration which, in my view, has taken all the right steps. And they're facing problems that nobody could foresee: breaking of the levees and the whole dome thing over in New Orleans coming apart. People couldn't foresee that.

CLINTON: Yes, I think that's important to point out. Because when you say that they should have done this, that or the other thing first, you can look at that problem in isolation, and you can say that.

But look at all the other things they had to deal with. I'm telling you, nobody thought this was going to happen like this. But what happened here is they escaped -- New Orleans escaped Katrina. But it brought all the water up the Mississippi River and all in the Pontchartrain, and then when it started running and that levee broke, they had problems they never could have foreseen.

And so I just think that we need to recognize right now there's a confident effort under way. People are doing the best they can. And I just don't think it's the time to worry about that. We need to keep people alive and get them back to life -- normal life.

MALVEAUX: Good luck to both of you on this mission. Thank you very much. Presidents Bush and Clinton, thanks again.
I have watched with rising concern the misery in the hurricane and flood-ravaged areas and have wondered if concerns that FEMA, under President Bush the Younger's stewardship, was acting less than quickly, were legitimate.

Bill Clinton, who certainly has no political reason for defending the current President in this situation, seems to think that federal response has been appropriate and timely.

Thanks to Captain's Quarters for pointing out this piece.

UPDATE: President Bush, on his way to the Gulf Coast, has called the federal response to the Katrina disasters "unacceptable." He's right. The President has also pledged to "get on top" of the situation.

Today is Critical Day in Hurricane-Hit Areas

As is usual at times like these, the BBC seems to be doing the best job of covering Hurricane Katrina. Check out today's round-up report.

Please pray for those victimized by the storm.

Please also give to the relief agency of your choice. Glenn Reynolds has a list of many agencies that are active in the area.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

New Orleans in 2025

Writer Richard Cohen presents a frightengly plausible vignette of the Venice of North America in twenty years, complete with the ahistorical perspective endemic to much of our country today.

Bloggers Unite to Seek Funds for Katrina Relief!

Today, bloggers from all over the world will be joining forces for a day of concentrated online fund raising on behalf of relief efforts designed to help the millions of victims of Hurricane Katrina. (At last count, 526 bloggers from seven countries had signed on!)

Each of us have designated relief organizations to whom the contributions are to go.

My designated agency is Lutheran Disaster Response. (In an earlier version of this posting, I had designated an agency which a reader rightly pointed out only did international disaster response. The beauty of blogging is that the writer publishes unencumbered by editors. The deficiency of blogging is that the writer publishes unencumbered by editors.)

So, please designate funds for Lutheran Disaster Response or the agency of your choice.

More than just your dollars, please also offer up your prayers for all who have lost loved ones, suffered the loss of their homes and possessions, and face an uncertain future, asking God to sustain and encourage them!

God bless you!

Here is a list of many relief agencies to which you can contribute if you choose.

Here is a tag on "flood relief" postings on blogs from around the world.

Here is another Technorati.tag, this one dealing with all blog postings on "Hurricane Katrina."


Thrivent Financial for Lutherans has announced a generous gift matching program for individual Thrivent members giving to Hurricane Katrina relief and recovery. If you are a member of Thrivent Financial, please visit for more information and an important form that is required for your gift to be matched. We are grateful for Thrivent's partnership in our ELCA Domestic Disaster Response ministry!

The four states of the ELCA-Southeastern Synod, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee have suffered damage from hurricane Katrina. There is a great need for congregations to develop teams of people willing to help the victims by going to the disaster locations as work crews, and raising funds for Lutheran Disaster Response so we can provide help the victims of this disaster.

Bishop Warren, Hal Shope, LDR Coordinator for Volunteers, and Bob Tribble, Coordinator ELCA-Southeastern Synod/LDR are going to Mississippi and Alabama as soon as the roads are opened, and will need debris removal and clean-up crews first, then rebuilding teams later.

Teams responding will be coordinated by LDR coordinators to provide the best response possible. We urge all congregations to help the thousands of victims of hurricane Katrina.

Congregations with work teams willing to respond to the disaster areas, contact:

Bob Tribble
ELCA-Southeastern Synod/LDR

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Thoughtful Bloggers Wrestling with Whether the Big Easy Should Be Rebuilt

Porkopolis (from my neck of the woods) has created a fairly exhaustive list of thoughtful blog postings by writers who, like me, wonder whether New Orleans in the form that it existed before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, should be rebuilt. Check it out here.

A Response to One Skeptic About Katrina and Faith in God

Rich at Uncommon Sense, apparently a religious skeptic, poses some important, valid concerns on his blog post about Katrina today. Even if his concerns are expressed a bit too roughly for your tastes in his post, I Hate to Point This Out, I think that they're worthy of considering:
I'm watching a seemingly endless stream of people on Fox News thanking the Almighty for saving them from the fate of death that certainly befell hundreds of others in New Orleans and surrounding areas. I visited New Orleans for the first time just a few short months ago (May, I believe), and was staying at a place dead-center of the French Quarter. The destruction is heartbreaking.

The disaster is just that, I hate to see it, and anything that comes forth from the mouth of anyone involved is certainly understandable, given the dire predicament that so many face. Just as with the Tsunami in southeast Asia over the holidays, I'll send some money -- if for no other reason, as a symbolic gesture that the State does not need to hold a gun to the head of rational and productive people (taxes) to lend a helping hand when the need is so clear and the victims have no hand in their own demise.

However, has anyone asked the question: if the Almighty is mighty enough to save them from such terrible circumstances, is he not mighty enough to prevent the terrible circumstances in the fist place? I mean, isn't it rather like thanking the assailant who shoots you, for dropping you off at the hospital?

As I said a couple of posts down: God is a real asshole. Rational people who believe in His existence ought to be asking themselves why. (Emphasis mine)
I felt compelled to respond:
I do consider myself a rational person. Only a fool would say that events like Hurricane Katrina don't raise questions about their God and faith in Him.

But I feel that life contains many mysteries I can't explain. Why would God, inifinite and beyond my comprehension, be any different?

Whether all those people who invoke God really were spared by Him, I can't say. I see God as neither a Cosmic Watchmaker, who sets the timepiece and then walks away, or as the Constantly Intervening Orchestrator, who causes every single thing to happen in the world.

I believe that the world is a fallen place in which bad things happen to the good, the bad, and the ugly. I believe that God intervenes when invited and when it conforms to something He wills. But I also believe that miracles are, by definition, rare and that God allows the forces of nature, corrupted though they have become, to work as He designed them to work.

As a one-time atheist, I can only say that years ago, I came to feel that atheism was untenable intellectually.

But once I allowed myself to get to know God through Christ, making God very personal, very accessible, I came to believe in Him as a compassionate deity--that is, as one who "suffers with" us, that being the definition of the world compassion. I also came to believe that the God Who could transform His own seemingly senseless (and undeserved) death on a cross into a resurrection could hold out the valid promise of doing the same for me and for anyone willing to entrust themselves to their fellow sufferer, Jesus.

I've come to rely deeply on the promise that Paul writes about in Romans that "nothing" (and that includes hurricanes) "will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

I've written quite a bit about this on my blog.
I feel that while I may disagree with Rich on lots of things, he's honest and rational. I appreciate that.

What Katrina Should Tell the Whole World

This Chicago Sun-Times article gives a good rundown of foreign reactions to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It's overwhelmingly sympathetic and has included an offer of an increase oil production by Saudi Arabia's monarch, King Abdullah. No doubt with a tongue placed firmly in his cheek, Hugo Chavez, has offered Venezuelan oil and foreign aid to America.

Particularly touching to me was an editorial appearing in The Nation in Thailand, which said of the hurricane and its aftermath:
It is a crisis that the US must deal with effectively, and we are confident that it can. America’s civic groups, charitable organisations and the great generosity of American corporations and individuals, which react swiftly to bring relief to major disasters no matter where in the world they take place, have sprung into action. The professionalism and dedication of disaster relief agencies has also lived up to their best standard in this hour of need.

Sadly, the outpouring of compassion and courageous rescue operations so far witnessed have been marred by widespread looting and some violence reported in New Orleans, which was particularly affected by the storm, and in other places.

It will make months and years to return to normalcy in the hardest-hit areas.

Thailand, both its government and people, should provide whatever assistance it can to aid the Americans. We still remember when the US government dispatched dozens of aeroplanes and thousands of soldiers, to help tsunami victims in Thailand and other Asian countries. Furthermore, Washington has pledged $950 million out of the estimated US$12 billion promised by all Western donors.

The rest of the world that has benefited from American generosity should show solidarity with Americans who are now picking up the pieces.

Regardless of what other peoples think of the US government and its foreign policies, most of the world owes it to themselves to reciprocate goodwill to the American people.
But there have been other international reactions, of course. Attempts to explain why Katrina wrought so much tragedy and damage have ranged from the partisan to silly, from hateful to foolishly facile.

In a phone conversation earlier today, a friend originally from Germany said that she'd been told that some in her former homeland are claiming that the hurricane and the consequent flooding were a result of President Bush's policies on global warming.

More disturbing and ludicrous is the argument made on an Iraqi insurgent group's web site that Katrina represented God's judgment on America. The Sun-Times article also notes:
Islamic extremists rejoiced in America's misfortune, giving the storm a military rank and declaring in Internet chatter that "Private" Katrina had joined the global jihad, or holy war. With "God's help," they declared, oil prices would hit $100 a barrel this year.
No doubt America has many faults for which we might be rightly held by God. But there's no more reason to suppose that God was judging America through Katrina than there is to believe that Muslim nations like Indonesia were the recipients of God's wrath in last December's tsunami. In fact, when some Jewish, Hindu, and Christian leaders made that argument following the tsunami, I rejected it. (See here.)

This morning, I read, during my devotions, words Jesus spoke to His followers regarding the final days of earth, warning people not to become obsessed with when He would return. Some of what He says here bears relevance to the insurgent group's assertions:
"When you hear of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don't panic. This is routine history, and no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. But these things are nothng compared to what's coming." (Mark 13:7-8)
The point, at least for this discussion, is simple: We live in an imperfect world. Bad things happen. But, as Jesus points out, the sun shines and the rain falls on the good and evil alike.

If God were to lash out at us in judgment, none of us--American or Iraqi--would stand.

Fortunately, God is gracious and loving. He remembers, the Bible says, that we are all dust: finite, sin-imprisoned people who need, not His condemnation, but His liberation.

That's what Jesus offers to us:
"Come to Me [Jesus says]. Get away with Me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with Me and work with Me--watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with Me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly" (Matthew 11:28-29).
Because the world is susceptible to forces of nature that are no respecter of nations, classes, races, or religions, Jesus says that we all need to make following Him our highest priority. "Stay with it," He says. "That's what's required. Stay with it to the end. You won't be sorry; you'll be saved" (Mark 13: 13).

Events like Hurricane Katrina or last December's tsunami remind us of how fragile life is--even for citizens of the wealthiest nation on the planet--and how important it is to be in relationship with the God we know through Christ, Who sustains us in this life and gives us hope for the one to come.

Even in the face of grim, impersonal disaster, Jesus promise and call remain the same: "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you know Me, you will know My Father also" (John 14:6).

Links to Relief Agencies

Glenn Reynolds has links to all sorts of relief agencies to help the people of the Gulf Coast.

Katrina: An American Tsunami

Consider this statement:
"We have an American refugee situation on our hands," said Laura Howe, a Red Cross spokeswoman working in Birmingham, Ala. "We have a mass migration of people who are homeless. It is an incredible thing to see and experience, and I don't think any of us in our lifetimes ever thought we would see anything like this."
Read the entire article from which it comes. (Thanks to Althouse for leading me there.)

Two Engineers Weigh in on Whether to Rebuild New Orleans

Read the post here.

More Fodder for Debate on Whether New Orleans Should Be Rebuilt

I found this linked on a post I was reading a short while ago. A portion of the article was read by Hugh Hewitt last evening on his radio show, to which I was listening on my way to Bible study. Published on September 11, 2001, it anticipates what might happen to New Orleans in the event of a Category 5 hurricane.

A Tremendous Account of the Katrina Disaster

Read this.

A Daunting Question: Should New Orleans Be Rebuilt?

The question that has been rolling around in my mind since yesterday is one of those simple--but huge--ones. I don't know the answer. But the very fact that it seems like a reasonable question to ask is a bit daunting to me. It's this:

Should New Orleans be rebuilt?

Here is a large city built, as we've been told repeatedly in recent days, in a bowl below sea level, setting astride a large lake, the Mississippi Delta, and the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans is a massive disaster waiting to happen, be it a hurricane or the expected eventual change in the Mississippi River's course, either of which will destroy the city.

Even suggesting moving a city the size of New Orleans upriver seems ludicrous. While in the past, smaller towns and cities setting on rivers and lakes have been moved with the assistance of the US Army Corps of Engineers, none of those places were as large as New Orleans. Or as rich in history or tourist dollars. None of them possessed a Super Dome, a French Quarter, or the Sugar Bowl.

Last summer, my wife went on a Mediterranean cruise with her mother, two brothers, and sister-in-law. They had a great trip, which included a stop in Venice. Venice, in some ways, is Italy's New Orleans, a city built in an unnatural place for a city, constantly threatened by the inevitable defeat by nature of all its costly efforts to maintain itself. As my wife told me about the extra expense entailed to maintain an attractive and unique tourist destination, I couldn't help thinking, "What a waste! What an unnecessary danger for all the people who live and work in and visit Venice."

The same thoughts now cross my mind when I consider the much larger city of New Orleans. By all means, we need to help the people there rebuild their lives! But--and, as I say, I genuinely don't know the answer to this question--should the city itself be rebuilt in its current location? It seems to me that now is the time, before a much larger tragedy befalls the people of New Orleans, to ask that question.

UPDATE: It turns out that I'm not the only one asking this question. Check here, here, here, , here, and here, in addition to sites mentioned in different posts.

McCartney's 'Front Row' Interview Fun

BBC Radio 4's Monday interview with Paul McCartney is a real delight! Front Row interviewer John Wilson gets Macca to give something other than his well-worn, standard issue answers. He talks about headlining the recent Live 8 show, including singing Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the songwriting craft as seen through some of the songs on his newest LP, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.

It's sort of refreshing to hear McCartney's voice, far from warmed up, cracking as he explains some things and forgetting the chord transition of one of his new compositions. Take a listen.

Katrina Aftermath: One Tragedy in New Orleans

This man's story of trying to save his wife and being unable to do so will move you. Please pray for all victimized by Katrina and give to the relief agency of your choice.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Watching Katrina, Remembering the Tsunami

Here's a link to a piece written after last December's tsunami disaster. It seems somehow relevant today.

Responding to Katrina with Relief, Prayers

Here are links to four different relief agencies that are bound to be active in helping with relief efforts in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi:

World Vision

Lutheran World Relief

Catholic Relief Services

American Red Cross

Please consider contributing to these organizations and please continue to pray people in the areas hit by this natural disaster and ask God to help the relief efforts of all organizations and agencies working there!

Katrina and Questions About God's Goodness and Power

The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina raises questions about God's power and goodness. Here are some earlier posts that addresses those issues:

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 1
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 2
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 3
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 4
The Light of the World!

On Dylan's Contrary Courting of Fame

Writing in today's New York Times, Jon Pareles calls Bob Dylan rock's ultimate example of a contrarian. The occasion for his reflections is the impending release of a Martin Scorcese-directed documentary dealing with Dylan's early musical development, concluding with the 1966 motorcycle accident that triggered his brief hiatus from music. The film is being accompanied by a soundtrack, which in appropriately contrarian fashion, doesn't present all the same versions of songs featured in the film. Both are called, No Direction Home, taken from that litany of rhymes in the chorus of Like a Rolling Stone.

I was struck by the last paragraph of Pareles' article:
Unlike the vast majority of entertainers, Mr. Dylan wasn't devoted to pleasing an audience. He didn't give them what they wanted: He gave them something better. It would all catch up with him, and quickly, and when the motorcycle accident gave him a reason to withdraw he seized it. But "No Direction Home" stops there. Contrary as Mr. Dylan was, in those brief and remarkable years, negativity pulled him through.
While it could be argued that Dylan in fact did try to please a bigger audience than was available to him in the folk community of the early- and mid-60s by "going electric," it's true that in doing so, he recklessly set aside his "base" audience. In his biography of Dylan, Anthony Scaduto well-documented Dylan's wrestling over whether to go for pop glory or to continue pursuing his own idiosyncratic muse during the period covered by the new film and CD package.

In the end in fact, Dylan may have split the difference. Whether born of genuine frustration or of studied intent, Dylan married his music--with its vague, poetic lyrics and rock, blues, and jazz riffs--to a public persona that attracted attention.

Dylan decided to be hipper than thou. When a Time magazine reporter of this period pressed Dylan on the meaning of his music and the connection he seemed to make with some audiences and the revulsion he encountered in others, he wrote a song about it that included the brutal words, "Because something is happening here/ But you don't know what it is/ Do you, Mister Jones?"

It was during this same period that Dylan famously encountered Donovan, touted by some as the English Dylan. In the film made of their meeting, Dylan is obviously stoned on something, but has sufficient presence of mind to berate, badger, and demean Donovan throughout. He clearly puts the Brit off his guard and in the bargain, perhaps unwittingly shows the world just how competitive and hungry for his own unique brand of popular adulation he really is.

Similarly, there is the incident reported by Paul McCartney of a joint-laden meeting between Dylan and the Beatles that also happened in this time frame. The group played a demo of something from one of their "transition" LPs--Rubber Soul or Revolver. Dylan, with obvious sarcasm, asked, "Oh, you've decided you don't want to be cute any more?"

But, of course, in putting people off their guard, Dylan added an aura of mystery to his music and his persona. People love mystery. That's why the press kept writing about Greta Garbo long after she had quit making films. It's why the reclusive Howard Hughes engendered so much interest. It's why people like romance movies that tell the stories of how two people get together, the screen crackling with sexual tension and the audience wondering how they can ultimately forge a partnership, but are bored with films that tell the stories of happily-married couples who simply love one another and stick it out day after day.

In demeaning popularity, Dylan courted it. And why shouldn't he have courted it? After all, whatever the art form, the artist doesn't create new work with the idea, "I hope that nobody ever hears this, sees this, or experiences this." Art is a form of communication and the artist hopes to communicate with as many people as possible. (Often for the added motive of making money.)

Although Dylan seems never to have realized that he has a lousy voice, I believe that at some level he must have understood early on that he would never have the vocal acumen of artists like the Beatles. So, like Andy Warhol, a not particularly talented visual artist, Dylan decided to develop his own niche. The folkie described by one person in the documentary as a "sponge," took varying parts of Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley, and Rimbaud, mixed them altogether with an in-your-face attitude, and voila, Bob Dylan, the mythic electrified troubadour, emerged.

Pareles' characterization of Dylan's adopted course can be seen as "negativity"; I simply see it as Dylan, with incredible savvy and insight, deciding on a different course to popular acceptance.

Nonetheless, Dylan should not be seen as someone who caved in. His route to popularity and ultimately, iconic status, was neither well-worn or easy. At every point in the period chronicled by Scorcese and the new CD, Dylan took a courageous path. He could easily have ended up being spurned and forgotten as a result of his experiments. But he forged on his different pathway and our music and our lives were enriched for it.

In America, we particularly value popularity. Be it getting the most votes, having the highest-rated TV show, the most friends, or whatever, we see popular acceptance as almost an ultimate good. Even today's American voters want to vote for winners and consign losers to the ash heaps of history in ways previous generations never did. The artist who is able to keep doing interesting things that risk mass rejection, while still living with the desire for popular acceptance, is a rare person. Bob Dylan is one of these.

Monday, August 29, 2005

No More Religion (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 14)

[Mostly relying on Eugene Peterson's fantastic paraphrase/translation of the Bible, The Message, I've been writing a series of blog posts in which my desire is to see Jesus with fresh eyes. Maybe you can find a translation of the Bible with which you feel comfortable and try doing the same thing yourself.]

Matthew 11

You don't have to be particularly insightful to see that most, if not all, of the world's greatest problems have been caused or worsened by people's dogged devotion to one religion or another.

A religion is any system of thought or way of life that people use to better themselves. Whether the intention of the religionist is to worship God or themselves, religion always calls people away from love of God or love of neighbor.

In some religious systems, devotees strive to work hard to please or placate an angry deity.

In some, people strive to become one with a deity through proscribed processes or procedures.

Other religions may not be immediately identified as religious systems. But as Paul Tillich once pointed out, echoing Martin Luther and others, whatever is of ultimate importance to you is your god.

Understood in this way, every day we can observe people who bow down to, serve, and strive to please demanding gods. Some worship in the Church of Money, the Church of Power, the Church of Popularity, or other such "holy" places. Every obsession and addiction on the planet has spawned its own religion and each has something in common: They imprison people, engendering desperation to have enough of what their god seems to offer--from the momentary buzz to personal security.

They also have one other thing in common: None of them can ever make us feel alive or worthy or secure in ourselves. Not even those "good" things that we can worship like spouses, families, and friends.

A woman I met years ago told me the story of what happened to her after a little daughter died of leukemia at age 2. She and her husband had another daughter who was a year younger than the child who died. Because of the loss of the older baby and her overwhelming fear, this mother became overly protective of the younger girl. She rarely let her out of her sight and she showered her with attention and gifts.

One day, when the younger girl was two, the woman was visiting with friends. Suddenly, she realized that her daughter was gone, nowhere to be found in the house. They discovered her at the bottom of the friend's pool. She'd been there for awhile and it was doubtful that the little one would live. You can imagine the mother's agony!

But then something happened as she paced in an emergency room waiting area, offering up desperate prayers to heaven. "As I prayed," she told me, "I sensed God telling me, 'You shall have no other gods before Me.'" The words, of course, are the first commandment, found in the Old Testament book of Exodus.

The woman said that she felt God was telling her that she had made her child or being a good mother her deities. She spent each day anxiously pursuing that god, trying to placate the demands it placed on her life.

Any time we allow anyone or anything other than the God we meet in Jesus Christ to be our deity, we're engaged in religion and anxiety will be the result.

When we surrender to Jesus Christ, relationship--with God and with others--replaces religion and peace replaces anxiety. Not perfectly, of course. We're human beings; we carry a lot of baggage. But Jesus brings peace, freedom, and hope. Jesus frees us from religion.

These are the great themes of this chapter in Matthew's gospel, seen first in Jesus' condemnation of critical, whiny religiosity and then in the freedom and peace He offers to all.

Matthew 11:1-19: The chapter begins with emissaries from John the Baptist asking Jesus if He really is "the One we've been expecting"? Apparently, like every other mortal human being, John had questions or doubts. He needed reassurance that Jesus really was the Savior, sent to free those who turn from sin and turn to Him, to live with God forever.

Jesus invites John and his followers to consider the evidence:
The blind see,
The lame walk,
Lepers are cleansed,
The deaf hear,
The dead are raised,
The wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side. (Matthew 11:4-6)
After John's followers leave, Jesus speaks of John's place in history and says that no one born of the mortal race was ever greater than John. But, Jesus says, "in the kingdom he prepared you for"--the kingdom that Jesus is bringing into being--"the lowliest person is ahead of him."

For some, Jesus knows, it will seem odd for Him to be saying good things about John. These critics--representatives of the prevailing religious view of the time--look at the externals of John's and Jesus' lives and ministries and think that they must be at loggerheads. John was ascetic in his lifestyle; Jesus was known to enjoy wine and good food. John led a spartan life; Jesus partied. John was careful not to associate with sinners; Jesus seemed to seek out their company.

Neither one could please the good religious folks though, something that Jesus points to bluntly and fiercely in His words here:
"How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children whining to their parents, 'We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.' John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riff-raff. Opinion polls don't count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating." (Matthew 11:16-19)
So long as one isn't abusing oneself or others or violating God's will for human beings, there are a million different ways to live for God and in ways that are pleasing to God. The key is to be surrendered to God, not to the standards of the world and its religious systems.

Those caught up in religion though, have a desire to control the behavior of others. They're so miserable with themselves, so afraid of losing control, and so fearful of moving out of sync with the grim demands of their deity-of-choice that feel it their appointed duty to act as vigilantes against other people's behaviors.

Some of these practitioners of religion may even see themselves as being Christians, followers of Jesus. But their version of Christianity is always about rules, whether for worship, or proper attire in the church building, or politics.

There was a sect of first-century Judaism with which Jesus locked horns, whose devotees often displayed these traits. They were the Pharisees. In a way, the Pharisees were the group of Jews most like Jesus. Like Jesus, they believed in repentance. Like Jesus, they believed in a resurrection, something to which the Saducees, another group of Jesus' fellow Jews, did not subscribe.

But the Pharisees were like an alcoholic who knows the Twelve Step program inside out, who is capable of reciting it chapter and verse, yet is unable to do what an alcoholic must do to get free, admit their problem and surrender to their "Higher Power." The Pharisees of Jesus' day hadn't really surrendered to God. Instead, though they would never say it, saw themselves as God's equal, looking down their noses on the sinful human race the way they supposed God did. They used God's laws like whips on those they deemed spiritually inferior to themselves, even on John the Baptist...even on God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ!

Jesus was clear that He hadn't come to abolish God's law. God's law has three major purposes: to be a mirror in which we see our deficiencies in righteousness; to drive us to turn to God as we realize our human incapacity to obey God's law; and once we've turned from sin--repented--and received the assurance of God's forgiveness, as a guide in our desire to please the God Who loves us completely. Jesus, with His sinless life, fulfilled the demands of the law and so opened the possibility of life with God for all who entrust their lives to Him.

No wonder Jesus was so critical of the religion of the Pharisees. Later in Matthew, we'll see just how critical He was. But consider a few of Jesus' words about them: "You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You go halfway around the world to make a convert, but once you get him you make him into a replica of yourselves, double-damned." (Matthew 23:15)

Jesus didn't come into the world to make us like everybody else. He came to set us free to be our true selves, our God-selves!

Matthew 11:20-30. The Good News is that Jesus wants to set all people free of religion and of all the stresses their life-sapping demands impose on us. After lamenting the unwillingness of the world to accept the free gifts He offers, Jesus turns to the crowd surrounding Him and asks (I love these words so much!):
"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to Me. Get away with Me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me--watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with Me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."
Jesus Christ can free you from religion and give you a relationship with Him that will change your life. It begins when you come to Him and let Him give you rest.


Thanks to Oddites and Treasures for naming this site as its Blog of the Day! I've never explored Oddities and Treasures before, but hope to do so later today.

Child Labor in India

The BBC has an article on child labor in India's silk-weaving industry that's worth reading:
It is estimated that there are around 10,000 children in the districts of Kanchipuram and Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu work in the silk industry.

There are over 100,000 looms set up in individual homes on which these famous silk saris are woven. Many of these saris cost several thousand rupees.

These looms are located in individual households and most of them employ at least one child.
Read the whole story.


Pray for the people of New Orleans and all areas nearby that are in the path of Katrina. I'm asking God to give them safety.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

A Gentle Soul's Death

While many of my colleagues report deriving a greater sense of the closeness of God through the music of the Taize community, led by Brother Roger, it has always left me nonplussed. Nonetheless, in a quiet and unassuming manner, Roger and his company brought the Good News of God's love in Christ to many.

This is why the elderly brother's death, especially so violent an end, is sad indeed. Read this piece.

UPDATE: The Economist has an obituary. Its conclusion:

Listening, rather than preaching, was the essence of Taizé. Christian leaders would have done well to imitate that secret. As it was, churches all over the Christian world borrowed the Taizé songs. Fame forced Brother Roger to worry about copyright and piracy; it also gave him critics. For some he was too Catholic, allowing masses and observing the Marian feasts. For others he was too timid, championing the oppressed but disbanding branches of his order when they became politically violent. Brother Roger ignored all this. Moral and political reform, he believed, would come only when bitterness and resentment vanished from human hearts. [italics mine]

He was attending the evening service when a deranged woman cut his throat, killing him almost instantly. He died in the midst of the reviving music he had brought to Christianity. Had anyone asked why, he would have gently reminded them that he did not leave a silence that was empty.

Now What?: Powered by Grace for Christlike Living

[This is a message shared with the people of Friendship Church on August 28, 2005.]

Romans 12:9-21

In his book, Improving Your Serve, Pastor Chuck Swindoll tells an apparently true story that took place in bomb-ravaged London after the Second World War. In a bakery one morning, sweet rolls were being baked and iced. A little boy, dressed in ragged clothes, had his nose pressed against the bakery window, looking longingly at those rolls. An American soldier, part of the force still in England, happened by in a jeep. Taken by this sight, he stopped, for a time staring at the boy. The soldier then climbed out of his jeep and walked over to the bakery window.

“Would you like one of those rolls, son?” the soldier asked the boy. “Oh, yeah!” the little guy replied.

The soldier then went into the bakery, ordered a dozen of the rolls and brought them out to boy. “There you go,” he said and turned to walk toward the jeep.

Just as he was climbing in behind the wheel, the soldier felt a tug on his coat. It was the little boy. He peered into the soldier’s face and asked, “Are you God?”

Swindoll concludes that we are never more like God than when we give. I would expand that lesson and say that we're never more like God than when we give, we serve, we forgive, and we put others ahead of ourselves.

In a way, this flies in the face of our usual notions of what it means to be “like God” or “godlike.”

Years ago, a concert by Bob Dylan was scheduled to appear on NBC television. In anticipation of its airing, TV Guide interviewed him. “Do you believe in God?” he was asked. In typically cryptic fashion, Dylan didn’t really answer the question. Instead, he mused, “I wonder what it must be like to be God?”

Adam and Eve wondered about the answer to that question back at the beginning of human history and supposed that it meant doing whatever you wanted, any time you wanted, and, if it came into your mind, to whomever you wished.

And some years later, the Old Testament book of Genesis says, the people in a city called Babel became intent on building a tower--a ziggurat--so high that they would become as great as God.

But when God revealed Himself to people--to the ancient Israelites “in many and various ways," as the New Testament book of Hebrews puts it--and ultimately, to the whole human race through Jesus Christ, we learned that God’s most outstanding traits are that He gives, serves, forgives, and puts others ahead of Himself.

For some weeks now, we’ve been looking at the New Testament book of Romans while considering our call as followers of Jesus to grow deep and mature in our faith. Romans is a letter written sometime after 50 A.D. by the evangelist and preacher Paul to the Christian church at Rome.

Last week, I pointed out that the first eleven chapters of the letter is really a review of the basics of our hope as Christians: That God loves us all so much that He became one us, accepted our punishment for sin by dying on a cross, rose again to life, and offers new life that never ends to all who trust Him with their lives. Paul does take an excursus in chapters 9, 10, and 11 to ask non-Jewish Christians to have a care about sharing Christ with his fellow Jews.

But then in chapter twelve, he begins a new section of the letter in which the basic question is: So what? After we’ve told God we want to turn from sin, that we want to surrender our lives to Christ, then what?

Last week, we looked at the opening verses of Romans 12 and we saw that Paul challenged us to take up two major goals for our lives. First, we’re to humbly turn to Christ and give Him control of our lives. Second, we’re to find the unique gifts God has given us and use them to love God and love others. On this latter point, philosopher Dallas Willard says that our call as Christians is to live our lives as though Jesus were living it. If you work in a factory and have three kids, your call is to try living that life like Jesus would live it. If you’re a single veterninarian, your call is to live your life as Jesus would.

You and I will never get this business of living like Jesus completely right. Paul says in another place that on this earth, encumbered by our sin and selfishness, we only see through a glass darkly or a mirror dimly. But as we rely on Christ through each moment of our lives, we will move toward God’s ultimate goal for us--on that will be achieved in heaven: We’ll be like Christ!

The reason for wanting to adopt this lifestyle is simple. We want to thank God for the free gift of new life that is ours simply because we believe in Jesus.

In today’s Bible lesson, Paul discusses ways in which we can practically express our thanks to God in a series of statements that the scholars call sententiae. These are sentence fragments, reminiscent of ancient Hebrew wisdom. In these statements, Paul talks about what a Christlike life looks like and if you spend any time reading them, I think that you'll have two reactions. First, you'll say, "I'd love to be such a loving, forgiving, caring, and giving person." Second, you'll say, "There is no way that I can ever be that person on my own steam."

Pastor David Stark has said that Paul’s outline of what a life lived gratefully for Christ--this impossible lifestyle--has three major ingredients.
First: We’re joyful in hope;

Second: We’re patient in affliction;

Third: We’re patient in prayer.
A strong subtheme in all of this, of course, is a willingness to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Jesus says that when we fail to forgive others as we’ve been forgiven, we turn our backs on the forgiveness that Jesus offers us, we display an impatience with others even though we expect God and others to be infinitely patient with us, and our prayers go unanswered because God will not hear the prayers of people who refuse to forgive.

Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, knew this. It’s hard to believe that the founder of such a benign organization had her detractors, but she did. Once, on a tour, a woman who had treated Barton particularly unkindly sent word that she would like to have dinner with her.

The aide with whom Barton was traveling was mystified at how readily she had agreed to the dinner. She reminded Barton of the woman’s vicious misdeed toward her and she seemed not to recall it. “Don’t you remember?” the aide asked Barton. “No,” she replied, “I specifically remember forgetting it.”

If, as followers of Jesus, we truly want to be more like Christ and will to forgive those who have hurt us, we can do so with the help of the One Who, from His cross, graciously prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

This lifestyle of remaining joyful in our hope, patient in our affliction, and patient in our praying, of learning to be like Christ, isn’t something that you can work into your life, the way you work in a morning jog or a trip to the mall. It's a gift from God, granted to those with faith in Christ. It's a gift He wants to give to everybody.

On the first night of Billy Graham’s historic mission in New York City in June of this year, he told of a meeting he’d had years before with a Roman Catholic monsignior in Poland. “You know,” the monsignior told Graham, “I got my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. One day [while there] I was on a bus and a woman was sitting behind me, a black woman, and she looked at me and said, ‘Have you been born again?’ I told her that I was a clergyman, a father in the church, and had a theological education And she said, ‘That’s not the question I asked you. I asked you have you ever been born again?’”

The monsignior went on to tell Billy Graham that he went back to his room in Chicago “and...began to think about” what the woman had told him. “’I took down my Bible and some other things I had, and I saw where Jesus said to Nicodemus that you must be born again. I got down on my knees and I prayed that God would forgive me and come into my life. My life totally changed.’”

Now, here’s the point. You and I could spend our lifetimes reading and rereading Romans 12:9-21. We could agree that it portrays the way people who follow Jesus Christ ought to live and should want to live. We could be in worship every Sunday. But until we surrender to Jesus Christ the way that monsignior did and get down to the business of actually asking God’s help to live Christ’s way each day, we’ll be as lost as the most hardbitten cynic.

The only people who are really like God are the ones who have surrendered to Him and who keep surrendering to Him each day. It's they who are learning how to be joyful in hope; patient in affliction; and patient in prayer. May we invite Christ into the center of our lives so that all the world can see Him living in us!