Friday, November 04, 2005

What Are the Implications of Avian Flu Threat for 2008 Presidential Race?

In 1932, the nation was overwhelmed by the Great Depression. It also had a presidential election.

The incumbent president, Herbert Hoover, was blamed for the economic catastrophe from which ordinary Americans were reeling, for insenstivity to their plight, and for ineffectiveness in dealing with it.

His opponent, Franklin Roosevelt, was rather vague about his program. But, like Hoover, he spoke a lot about balancing the federal budget.

In the end, it didn't matter what the political views of the two major candidates were. The nation was predisposed to booting Mr. Hoover out and Mr. Roosevelt had something very big going for him: A jaunty and reassuring confidence that all would be well.

In emergency situations, we tend to put aside philosophical concerns. Political philosphies are seen as the obsessions of a people so comfortable that they can afford to indulge them.

When emergencies impinge on an electorate, whether those emergencies are economic catastrophe, war, the breakdown of domestic institutions, or mass outbreaks of disease, voters turn the reins of executive power over to people who look like they can lead them to better days.

(Fortunately, in America, at the national level, we've always turned to trustworthy leaders. In 1933, for example, Americans brought Franklin Roosevelt to the White House, while in Germany, Adolf Hitler was installed as chancellor.)

What happens if the Avian Flu becomes an ever-greater possibility as we move into the 2008 campaign, or our collective awareness of it grows, or if, God forbid, the H5N1 virus mutates, making human-to-human transfer of the disease possible before or during the 2008 elections?

Once again, Americans will be looking for a decisive, confident leader they believe can lead them to better days.

Michael Barone and Hugh Hewitt have already given anecdotal evidence that rank-and-file conservative Republicans appear to be willing to lay aside their philosophical qualms with former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, believing that he proved his mettle in dealing with national security issues in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. His unruffled demeanor in the face of horrible circumstances could bring him more support from Republicans.

Another possible beneficiary on the GOP side would be John McCain. McCain's credentials for "unrufllability" have been proven in extremis in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. He's also seen as a man of principle who won't cave in to the easy answers. Like Giuliani, he's fought and beaten cancer. His chief deficiency is that he has no executive experience. Americans like to give the presidency to governors.

Of course, governors like Mitt Romney in Massachusetts would also have the opportunity to strut their stuff as they dealt with a pandemic outbreak. Another Massachusetts governor first entered the nation's consciousness by his firm handling of an emergency situation, a police strike in Boston. That was Calvin Coolidge and he later became president.

Among the Democrats, the likeliest beneficiary at this point would appear to be the two governors who seem likely to vie for the party's 2008 nomination.

The first is Bill Richardson. He is an impressive guy and a tested administrator who is credentialed in more than a few of the sweet spots of contemporary US politics. He knows energy policy. He knows about the North Koreans. He is Hispanic and deals with the immigration issue in New Mexico every day. I feel certain that, like Haley Barbour in Missisippi, Richardson is both smart and unflappable.

The other is Mark Warner of Virginia. Warner is the one I think likeliest to emerge as the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee anyway. Moderate southern Democrats have a leg-up in runs for the presidency. If they can successfully run the gauntlet of the primaries, they have a capacity for triangulating Republican nominees in general elections. Warner is smart and if he has to deal with the Avian Flu, his leadership abilities will be brought into focus.

I'm praying that this pandemic won't happen. But if it does, it will without doubt, have an impact on the 2008 presidential race.

Who, Besides Governments, Should Have Plans for a Pandemic?

Every state and community should have a plan to deal with the possible outbreak of an Avian Flu pandemic...and, I'm beginning to think, every church, synagogue, mosque, school, social service agency, and retailer should as well.

If the H5N1 virus mutates, making human-to-human conveyance of the disease possible, as seems likely, the failure to have such plans could prove fatal in the extreme.

The reason I say that?

Avian Flu far quicker and deadlier than the influenza strains with which most of us are familiar. Thus far, half of all humans who have contracted the disease through close contact with infected bird populations, have died. Avian Flu is so deadly because its symptoms seem to show up within twenty-four hours of exposure and within seventy-two hours, its victims can be dead. It's far quicker and more deadly than the influenza strains with which most of us are familiar.

If an outbreak arises, the most sensible responses will be to blunt its spread by limiting possible exposure.
  • Faith communities may want to plan on suspending their regular weekly worship and some other church activities.
  • Schools and social service agencies may also have to suspend normal operations.
  • Retailers may have to close up shop for a time. (If that's necessary for the good of all, it would seem that federal and state governments should make sure that they're not swamped by the debt they likely would pile up during a shut-down.)
Fortunately, in this age of the Internet, faith communities, schools and agencies, and retailers will be able to conduct some form of their ordinary work.
  • As we saw exemplified in many of the New Orleans faith communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it is possible for pastors and congregations to share spiritual sustenance via email, pastors' blogs, chat rooms, and church web sites. In fact, it will be easier to do this in the face of an Avian Flu pandemic than it was after Katrina, because populations will be less dispersed.
  • In an emergency, social service agencies and retailers might make similar use of cyberspace, not to mention the telephone and conventional mass media.
  • Long term, of course, direct human-to-human contact is both optimal and really, what we all need. This need for human fellowship has been built into our DNA by God. The call to love God and love neighbor, which is how Jesus summarizes all of God's Law, is not just a command, it is our privilege.
But if a pandemic hits, it will be essential to deal with it in ways that are compassionate, sensible, and innovative.

UPDATE: One suggestion I intended to include in this post and then forgot, is that faith communities make their buildings available for use as temporary hospitals during any pandemic. There is a long tradition of this in Christianity, of course, and in fact, the first hospitals were Christian institutions. I can't think of a better or more practical way of sharing the love of Jesus Christ. Surveys indicate that should a pandemic arise, there won't be enough hospital beds in the whole country to accommodate the ill. In Massachusetts, they plan to use college dorm facilities, which is also smart.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

In Preparation for Sunday: Revelation 7:9-17

I've been remiss about posting about the Biblical text that will be the focus of this coming Sunday's worship. Influenced by something my colleague, Tod Bolsinger, said at the recent GodBlogCon in Los Angeles, last week I decided to invite members of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Church, and whoever else might be interested, to consider the text for the coming week. So, here goes...

The text for this coming Sunday's worship is Revelation 7:9-17.

We Lutherans have an interesting history with this book of the Bible, the last one in the New Testament corpus. Starting with Martin Luther, the monk and priest whose reforming work began the movement of which we're a part, we've been ambivalent about Revelation.

Luther himself didn't like the book, saying that he simply couldn't understand it. This is odd, in a way, because as a Johannine book--that means that, like the Gospel of John and the three letters in the New Testament, First, Second, and Third John, Revelation is attributed to John, the beloved disciple--employs many of the same symbolism one finds in the other books attributed to John.

(By the way, Luther hated the term, Lutheran. It was originally meant as a term of derision, the enemies of reforming the Church and its proclamation to the world claiming that those who agreed with Luther about such issues as justification by faith in a gracious God were more loyal to Luther than they were to Jesus Christ. Luther said that because he was nothing more than a sack of worms and because our hope comes not from a person, but from God, the appellation was completely inappropriate. He preferred calling the movement, evangelical, coming from the New Testament word, euangelion, meaning Good News. Of course, in more recent years, the term evangelical has come to mean something rather different from Luther's usage of it. But it still refers to being people of the Good News summarized so well in John 3:16. For more on Luther, see here.)

Through the years, Revelation has been misused by all manner of apocalypticists claiming to know what all the book's rich imagery means. Just as Craig Williams has said of The Chronicles of Narnia though, it's also true that to read Revelation as a crude allegory is wrong. People have always tried to do this, though.

Take, for example, Revelation's talk about Babylon. In my lifetime, I've heard a succession of preachers who have claimed to have Revelation figured out identify Babylon as the Soviet Union, the United States, China, Communists, or Islamofascists. From their "insights," these misguided souls have then extrapolated the meaning of other images in Revelation and what they tell us about the end of the world and the return of the risen Jesus.

Generations of apocalyptic preachers and writers have worked people up into fearful frenzies and have lined their pockets through such irresponsible talk.

They ignore Jesus' specific injunction not to worry about when the world will end. (See here.) In fact, He even said that all the signs that point to the end of this planet's life had already occurred when He walked the earth in first-century Judea. The call of the Christian isn't to play these endless games spun from Revelation, but to trust in and walk with Jesus Christ today!

But apart from ignoring what Jesus has told us, these folks also ignore the meaning of the Babylon imagery to John, the writer of Revelation.

In Old Testament times, the Babylonian Empire swept into ancient Judea, the remnant of even more ancient Israel, and conquered God's people. They were utterly subjugated and many of their leaders were killed or exiled to Babylon, where they served as slaves of their Babylonian masters. The walls of Jerusalem, walls being the marks and the guarantors of safety for ancient cities, were brought down or allowed to crumble. More seriously, the Temple, where it was thought that the presence of God dwelt in the Holy of Holies, was torn up and allowed to deteriorate.

The "Babylonian Captivity" created a massive crisis of faith for the Hebrew people:
If Yahweh, their God, was the Lord of all and omnipotent, how could this have happened?

If they were God's chosen people, how could this have befallen them?

Had God allowed them to suffer the consequences of their chronic reliance on themselves or on worldly power, leaving them naked and vulnerable before a superior army, a superior power in the world?

If God was only knowable in a Temple made with hands in Jerusalem, as many had thought, what happened to their God and to their faith when the Temple was no more and they were far from home?
Many Old Testament passages give voice to the anguish and the questions of God's people in these circumstances.

When John penned Revelation some seven centuries later and wrote about Babylon, the Babylonian Empire was a long-dead entity. But there did exist an analogous one, the Roman Empire. And by the time John wrote Revelation, at least some elements of that empire were persecuting the Church, the followers of the resurrected Jesus, in many ways. So, he may well have had Rome in mind. But to someone as tuned into God and to the history of God's relationship with the world, Babylon would have been much more than Rome.

Babylon is a symbol of all worldly power at enmity with Christ and His Church. That power may be political, military, psychological, social, religious, or intellectual. Babylon is the world system, if you will, before which the Church stands naked and defenseless if it relies on the power of anyone or anything other than the God we know through Jesus Christ. But, as Luther would say, with Christ fighting by our side, the world system cannot prevail.

The name of John's book, Revelation, translates its Greek title, Apocalypse of John. In spite of the dire associations made with this word, apocalypse simply refers to something that has been revealed, a revelation.

In his book, John talks about a revelation he receives from the risen and ascended Jesus. I like the thematic outline of Revelation found in the Study Bible:
1. The church on earth (chs. 1-3)
2. The Lamb and the seven seals (chs. 4-7)
3. Seven angels with trumpets (chs. 8-11)
4. The church persecuted by Satan and the beast (chs. 12-14)
5. The seven bowls of God's wrath (chs. 15-16)
6. Judgment of Babylon (chs. 17-19:10)
7. Final judgment and final victory (19:11 to end)
Our particular text falls immediately following an enumeration of those in the heavenly places from Israel.

Our passage talks about "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages." These are the non-Jews, Gentiles, who have come to know God through Jesus Christ. (Both Hebrews 1:1-4 and John 1:1-14, among other passages in the New Testament, point us to the fact that Jesus is God's ultimate, definitive self-disclosure.)

I'll cover the passage in greater detail in a post tomorrow, hopefully. But, here's a superficial consideration:

17:9: The "I" is John, of course, committing this revelation to paper.

The multitude of Gentiles stands in contrast to the 144,000 enumerated from among Israel. This can hardly be considered a polemic against the Jews since John, to whom authorship is traditionally ascribed, was himself a Jew. It rather demonstrates the universality of God's love for all people and the accessibility of God's grace, granted through Jesus Christ.

The Lamb is Jesus. This is one of many images and names used for Him. In the Gospel of John, another John, the Baptizer, sees Jesus near the Jordan River and declares Jesus to be "the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world."

In ancient times, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a pure, unblemished lamb was sacrificed by the High Priest in the area known as the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. (The Temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian Captivity ended. But it no longer exists, being the site today of one of the holiest mosques in Islam. All that's left is some of the wall, where pious people from throughout the world come to pray.)

Atonement is an old English word that can literally be rendered as at one ment. On the Day of Atonement, the sacrificial lamb bore the sins committed by the people in the preceding year. The animal's blood was then sprinkled on the penitent awaiting the emergence of the Priest from behind the curtain that concealed the Holy of Holies. This meant that all the sins of the preceding year no longer impeded the people's relationship with God. In other words, God and the penitent were one again.

The New Testament book of Hebrews, which uses many of the same themes and motifs as the Johannine literature in the New Testament, compares the atonement offered on Yom Kippur, when an unblemished animal is sacrificed and is effective for only a year, to the atonement that comes when the Lamb of God, God Himself, the Savior of the world, offers Himself as a sacrifice on the cross. Through Christ, Hebrews asserts, our sins are forgiven and our relationship with God are secured "once and for all." (That phrase, "once and for all," by the way, translates a Greek word, hapax, which the preacher in Hebrews repeats over and over, a lot like the "Gospel train," a rhetorical device employing repetition and heightened drama in the African-American Christian tradition, to great effect.)

White robes and palm branches symbolize purity and victory, respectively.

7:10: This is a bit like the welcome Jesus received on what's called Palm Sunday, when He entered Jerusalem triumphantly, just five days before He was executed on a cross.

7:11-12: This is an utterly worshipful scene. There is complete deference to God.

7:13-14: What is the great ordeal? I believe it's what all believers in Jesus go through, in one form or another, at lesser or greater degrees of severity. It's what happens when we attempt to live faithfully in following Christ and confront Babylon, the world system that rewards selfishness, greed, domination, and the idolatry of things.

The world, as Jesus points out in the Gospels, is currently under the dominion of darkness and sin, though God's goodness and love break out wherever He is honored. But when we buck that system, difficulties--ordeals, tribulation--ensue. You can bank on it. But Jesus promises that if we hang in there with Him, following Him and repenting when we have failed to do so, we will live with Him and all His children on the better side of history.

7:15-17: This is a great affirmation of God's promises to the faithful.

What strikes you, what questions or insights, strike you as you read this passage?

Chronicles of Narnia: Not Meant to Be an Allegory of the Gospel

I love C.S. Lewis' seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia. I'm excited that the first book he wrote for the series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, will be coming in movie form this coming December.

I love the books because, first of all, they represent great literature, wonderful stories filled with intriguing characters in interesting situations. Another attraction is Lewis, the stylist: as an Ohio State professor of Literature once told me, Lewis "writes like an angel."

There is also much Christian truth in the Chronicles. Aslan is clearly a Christ figure. But, as Craig Williams shows us in the latest post on his wonderful blog, Lewis never intended The Chronicles of Narnia to be an allegory.

The person who sets herself the goal of identifying what every character or circumstance "represents" in Christian truth or the Biblical witness will soon understand the futility of the undertaking and rob themselves of the joy that goes with simply letting their tales come to them as is. (Although there are oodles of Biblical allusions.)

Lewis was a scholar of the first degree, steeped in a knowledge of the myths of many cultures: Greek, Nordic, Roman, and so on. He drew on that rich tradition to weave these magical tales.

Yes, Lewis has created what must be regarded as a great expression of Christian art comparable to anything created by Michelangelo. But part of the Chronicles' greatness and their capacity to both entertain and enlighten resides in their being, first of all, great works of art that avoid pedagogy.

Read Craig's post with quotes from two Lewis letters addressing this issue.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 17

[During our Tuesdays with Markie Bible studies at Friendship Church, we've been working our way through the important Old Testament book of Genesis. Here, in periodic posts, I've been presenting a summary of our conversations on the book which the ancient rabbis said held the key to understanding Israel's faith. For Christians, it's also important because it all foreshadows what we have come to experience intimately through Jesus Christ: that God loves sinners, provides them with the opportunity to be forgiven through repentance and belief in Him, gives hope and encouragement when life is hard, and is our loving Lord whether we live or die.]

Genesis 34 tells what happens when Jacob's only daughter, Dinah, is raped by a young man of the Hivites, Shechem.

1. In Genesis 34:1, Dinah, living in foreign territory, is shown seeking the company of other young women. This meant that she probably went into the town named for the young man who would rape her.

The irony in this is that cities in those times, about 1700 BC, were usually the safe places to be, not the countryside in which Dinah's still-nomadic family lived. Cities were bounded by walls, the narrow gates into which were locked at sundown. It was in the countryside that bandits roamed and of course, wild animals attacked. But somewhere either close to the city or within its environs, Shechem at first spoke tenderly to Dinah and then raped her.

Shechem then asks his father, Hamor, apparently unaware of what has happened, to arrange for a marriage between Dinah and Shechem.

Even in patriarchal ancient Israelite thought, by the way, rape was never justified. (See Genesis 34:1-4)

2. Jacob's reaction to learning of Dinah's rape is strange. He decides to hold his tongue until he has revealed what has happened to his sons. Given the fear and revulsion with which he later greets his son's reactions in the matter, it's hard to know why he told his sons. What does seem clear from that later response on Jacob's part is that he was not intent on exacting revenge, at least not immediately, because he was afraid of the larger numbers of men that Hamor and the Hivites could bring against Jacob and his relatively small band.

3. Hamor visits Jacob and family to seek Dinah's hand in marriage for Shechem. It's interesting that Jacob's sons interpose themselves in marriage negotiations that should have involved only Jacob and Hamor. This in itself should have aroused Jacob's suspicions about his son's plan of action.

It's interesting to note that we've run across a sibling's interposition in such negotiations before. When Abraham's servant went to Iraq, seeking a wife for Abraham's son, Isaac, Laban, the son of Rebekah's father, Bethuel, stuck his nose in to the negotiations. In each case, manipulation was involved.

4. Distinct among many peoples in ancient times, male Israelites were circumcised as a sign of their covenant relationship with God. The Hivites were apparently unaware of the theological significance of circumcision. They seem to think it's only a social custom and with the promise of marriageable women and through the use of their superior numbers, possession of all that Jacob and his family owned, they readily agree to be circumcised.

5. It was said that the third day after circumcision was the most painful in the recovery period. This was when Jacob's sons, who never intended to allow Dinah or any other woman of their party to become wives of the Hivites, attacked the handicapped Hivites. Killed were Hamor, Shechem, and every other male in the city. They also utterly plundered the place, taking all their wealth as well as their wives and children. They then brought Dinah back to their encampment.

6. Jacob was upset by his sons' rash action. Jacob tells his son, Simeon: "You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household" (Genesis 34:30). Simeon is unrepentant.

A few final points on this incident:
  • The actions of Jacob's sons don't comport with an important Biblical principle labeled as lex talionis. This is summarized with the Biblical phrase of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," which many interpret as legitimizing vengeful action. In fact, lex talionis is a principle meant to limit punishment. It says that punishment must match, but not exeed, the gravity of the crime. Rape is clearly horrible. But the crime cannot warrant taking the life of a whole city's males, especially since there is no indication that any of them knew of Shechem's violation of Dinah.
  • The utter destruction of Shechem wrought by Jacob's sons was standard operating procedure for conquering armies in those days. Conquest was meant to utterly subjugate and even humiliate the conquered and take possession of the enemies' families and property. This is what the word holocaust originally meant.
This is not the last time that Jacob's sons will cause him grief.

[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14
Part 15
Part 16]

Please Pray for the Family of a Seminary Classmate Who Died Last Evening

If you're a regular reader of Better Living, I have a special request to make of you. Please pray that God will comfort and encourage the family and friends of Pastor Dave Drewes, who died last evening. He was 49.

Dave and I were seminary classmates, although I chose to extend my seminary training by one year and we didn't actually graduate together.

Dave Drewes was one of the most talented people I ever met. Not only was he a fantastic communicator of the Gospel, both in his preaching and writing, and a winsome leader, he was also a fine musician, who played guitar, composed, and recorded his own music, and a terrific, insightful cartoonist.

Dave had, for about eleven years now, served as pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Lithopolis, Ohio. (That's just outside of Columbus.) He played the lead role in that congregation's decision to financially partner with the congregation I was called to start here in the Cincinnati area some fifteen years ago, Friendship Lutheran Church. That came in the early years of our church's life and was enormously helpful.

Some of the members of Friendship met Dave a few years back, as we exchanged pulpits, he preached at Friendship and I did the same at Lithopolis. In the back of my mind, I stewed a bit that the people here wouldn't want me back after hearing Dave!

Please ask God to sustain a grieving family and congregation as they mourn Dave's passing. Ask too, that God will fill them with the empowering hope of Jesus' resurrection!

An Empire Built on a Bum Philosophy?

To say that there is a Christian agenda on political or legal issues has always been inaccurate. God isn't a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal.

But now comes this story on one of the most unrepentant politicizers of the Gospel and everyone should find it disturbing. Of course, there's no way of knowing yet whether the allegations it contains are true, but it is something that needs to be delved into...before anybody writes another check. (Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for leading me to the story.)

Before the Alito Debate Gets Completely Nuts

Last month, some conservative Republicans hijacked the debate over Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court, claiming that she wasn't a true believer in conservative dogma and attacking her personal competence. Miers was, I think, unfairly savaged.

Now, at least some liberal Democrats are lining up for a similar assault on Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. A profusion of Democratic senators have dismissed him as "radical" or "extremist."

Labels are easy to apply. But what exactly are the facts?

In this Los Angeles Times story, liberal Democrats who have worked with Samuel Alito say that he's no extremist and that he's a fair-minded judge who abides by law and precedent.

(Thanks to Zendo Deb for leading me to the Times report.)

UPDATE: Lawprof Ann Althouse, whose opposition to Miers' nomination was I thought, both reasoned and a tad elitist, has now made it her mission to refute every inaccurate statement made about Alito. Because the nominee is being attacked for positions on rulings with which she is very familiar, Althouse appears to know of what she speaks.

TO CLARIFY: I'm not taking a position on the Alito nomination. I just believe in fairness.

Is It Because I'm 'In Touch with My Feminine Side'?

During the recent GodBlogCon gathering in Los Angeles, someone said offhandedly that, of course, the lion's share of blog commenters were bound to be male because blogging is such a techie sort of thing. I turned to Lores Rizkalla and said, "That's funny. I think that something like two-thirds to three-quarters of my commenters are women."

I haven't bothered counting. But that ratio still seems close to accurate to me. I wonder why that would be. Any ideas?

I asked my son this evening and the smart aleck told me, "It's because you're effeminate." (Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld might say.) After I stopped laughing, he looked at me with that winsome smile of his and said, "You walked into that one, Dad."

So, what do you think? Why does this blog seem to violate the ordinary experience, especially for blogs written by males, of attracting more female than male commenters?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Don't Ignore the Obvious (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 19)

Ignoring the obvious can be funny.

Years ago, I saw a skit about a baseball player who made that mistake. There he stood in his stance in the batter's box. The pitcher threw the ball his way, the catcher caught it, the umpire cried, "Strike Three," and several seconds later, the batsman took his swing. Then he said, "Let me see if you can throw that again." The umpire pointed out that there really wasn't anything left for the pitcher to prove, so the batter should have a seat in the dugout.

Matthew 16 opens with a group of Jesus' enemies acting even more stupidly than that ball player (Matthew 16:1-4). On the heels of Jesus' miraculous feeding of 4000+ people, the Saducees and Pharisees come to Him, resistant to acknowledging His religious authority for fear of diminishing their own, and demand that Jesus give some sign that He is the Messiah. Jesus must have been tempted to ask, "You mean like what I just I did?"

His response was perhaps the moral equivalent of that rhetorical question. Jesus alludes to what was apparently a common expression those days, the Eugene Peterson paraphrase of it being especially cool:
He told them, "You have saying that goes, 'Red sky at night, sailor's delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning.'"
Jesus then upbraids these supposedly pious people for being able to understand what the skies told them about impending weather patterns, but being clueless when the obvious truth was looking right at them! The only sign they were going to get, Jesus said, was "the Jonah sign."

Jonah, of course, was the Old Testament prophet who was commanded by God to travel to the city of Nineveh and tell them that their evil was so pervasive that God was going to destroy the place. Jonah didn't want to do this. He hated the Ninevites and, aware of how merciful and forgiving God is, he was certain that the people there would repent--turn from their sin--and that God would forgive them and spare the city. Jonah wanted Nineveh destroyed.

So, instead of going on the mission on which God had sent him, Jonah decided to sail away on the Mediterranean. Angry with Jonah, God caused a storm to beat on the boat on which he was sailing. Jonah told the others on board that he was the reason for the danger in which they found themselves and that they should toss him overboard. The moment they did so, the sea turned calm.

God, being merciful even to this rebellious preacher, provided for Jonah's rescue. He was swallowed by a great fish and rode in its belly. Three days later, after Jonah had worshiped God in this unlikely sanctuary, Jonah was vomited out, apparently close to Nineveh. There, Jonah told the people of God's plans and just as he feared, the Ninevites repented. Also just as Jonah feared, God forgave them.

Jesus is saying here that, like Jonah, who emerged from the belly of a fish after three days, He would emerge from a tomb on the third day following His death and be the sign to the world of God's willingness to bring forgiveness to repentant people.

One of the ways in which we can put Jesus off, endlessly delaying actually dealing with His call on us to turn away from sin and receive His forgiveness or ignore His claims to be God-in-the-Flesh, the Savior Who can give us new and everlasting lives, is to say, like the Saducees and Pharisees, that we need some sign. His willingness to take our rightful punishment for sin and His resurrection ought to be sign enough.

What I've learned is that the only way any of us can ever know that Jesus is all He claims to be is to dare to believe in Him. "I don't understand everything about You, Lord," we can say, "but I am willing to believe."

The resurrected Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (John 20:29).

In Matthew 16:5-12, Jesus is still steaming over the Pharisees' and Saducees' disbelief. It incites Him to speak metaphorically when the disciples reveal that they've forgotten to bring along all that bread with which Jesus had fed the 4000. At first, the disciples don't get what He's talking about. But as one commentary explains Jesus' words:
"When yeast is put in a batch of dough made of flour and water, it makes the whole batch rise and expand...Jesus was saying that the dishonest teaching of the Pharisees and the Saducees affected the whole people of Israel in the way a little bit of yeast makes a whole batch of bread dough rise..."
Matthew 16:13-18 brings a climactic moment. After having observed Jesus up close, Simon, soon to be re-dubbed Peter by Jesus, confesses his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, God's Anointed Savior-King. Jesus says that it's on the Rock of such faith--Peter or petros in the New Testament Greek--He will build His Church. Jesus says that not even hell will be able to bring down the Church.

When Jesus speaks of the Church here, He doesn't have in mind bureaucratic structures or buildings. The Church--or in the Greek of the New Testament, the ecclesia, a word that literally means called out ones--is the fellowship of believers in Jesus called together by God's Holy Spirit through the lives and words of ordinary people who believe.

It's very much in the spirit of this understanding of the Church that the Augsburg Confession, a statement of belief to which members the Lutheran movement of which I'm a part adhere, says:
"It is also taught among us that the one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that ceremonies instituted by men [sic], should be observed uniformly in all places..."
In Matthew 16:19, Jesus hands to the Church what are called the keys of the kingdom. The upshot is that the Church has the awesome responsibility of proclaiming God's truth to the world. That includes sharing the truth of forgiveness to those who repent in Jesus' Name as well as the truth of the continuing need of forgiveness to those who turn away from Him.

This is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Nor is it a license for legalistic preaching. God wants all people to be in relationship with Him. But God never forces Himself on anyone. Paying heed to God's Word and living accountably to one another, the people of the Church are to proclaim these and other truths about God to the world.

So, why does Jesus tell the disciples to tell nobody He's the Messiah in Matthew 16:20. Isn't the whole idea for them to tell the world that this is true so that they too, can follow Him and receive the new lives He wants to give people?

Yes, but until Jesus goes through the cross, the crowds attracted to Him, the very crowds who would welcome Him as a conquering hero on the first Palm Sunday and then cry for His death on the first Good Friday, are unlikely to understand what they're getting themselves into in following Jesus.

The person who follows Jesus allows Him to enact a kind of daily crucifixion and resurrection in their lives. Daily, He calls us to crucify our self-centered impulses that can only lead to our separation from God, so that our new, better, and eternal selves can rise with Christ.

Until we understand that bearing a cross and submitting to the execution of our old sinful natures is a daily part of the Christian's life, we won't be ready to follow Jesus.

Jesus believes in truth in advertising. He doesn't want us to ignore the obvious and so, understand both the challenges and the glories of following Him.

[Check out the previous 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...

The Conflict Deepens

Guidelines for Loving the World for Christ

No More Religion!

The Subversive God

Stories About the Kingdom

The Emperor Who Had No Clothes vs. the God Clothed in Humanity

So Much for Being a Milquetoast]

Republican President Nominates Republican for Court...And Some Are Shocked

While I have violated this personal blogging rule in the past, my intent is not to advocate specific political positions here unless I feel that some clear moral imperative flowing from my faith in Christ impels me to do so. I'm a pastor, not a politician.

But as a life-long student of history and political affairs, I do like to make observations on the mechanics of political decisions and debates.

I also feel strongly about the need to be an advocate for fairness in our politics.

All of which brings me to the nomination by President Bush of Judge Samuel Alito for Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the Supreme Court. Bush had barely made his statement announcing the nomination when he was met with ideologically-rooted Democratic opposition to Alito. He's being dismissed as a radical, a view which a former Democratic colleague of Alioto's dismissed yesterday in an interview on NPR.

Democrats and Republicans alike should bag ideological litmus tests for confirmation to the Court.

Elections are voters' definitive statement about the direction in which they want to see the country go. The entire country elects presidents with the implicit understanding that they will nominate judges who broadly share their judicial philosophies.

It seems to me then, that the only circumstances under which the Senate can fairly vote against judicial nominees are when a nominee lacks the credentials the Senate deems necessary, when there are legal or ethical questions about the nominee, or when she or he has espoused some intrinsically evil views. (Things like racism or the defense of totalitarianism would come to mind in this latter category.)

I railed against the unfairness with which I felt that some conservatives treated Harriet Miers. I feel equally disgusted with the words of Senators Reid, Schumer, Kennedy, and Boxer regarding Mr. Alito.

The only real litmus test the Senate should have for judges is if they possess the background credentialing necessary to serve on the Court. The constitutional and legal orientation of who presidents nominate is decided, as it should be, long before the nominations are made, every leap year November. If Democrats or Republicans want to decide on the ideology of Supreme Court nominees, they need to win the White House.

What's Up with All the Question Marks?

I just noticed that my three most recent posts--now my four most recent posts--have ended in question marks.

What's up with that?

Does anyone have an explanation as to why?

Can anyone help me stop?

Monday, October 31, 2005

What If Your Family Was Discouraging?

Among the many jobs I've had in my lifetime is that of factory worker. At one plant, the now-defunct Lennox Industries facility in Columbus, I worked on a line that produced a huge air conditioning and heating unit--the DMS 325--used on office buildings.

Every day, during morning and afternoon breaks and at lunch time, my co-workers and I sat on the rollers with which the enormous units that we produced were sent from work station to work station along our line. Those rollers were our preferred cafeteria, where we ate and talked.

One of the guys on my line was a squat man with slicked-back black hair. He sported a pencil-thin moustache and a lousy attitude. No matter what the conversation, he would ultimately offer the same "wisdom" between drags on his cigarettes. "Born in hope; die in despair," he intoned. It was his mantra, his motto: "Born in hope; die in despair."

You should know that I actually liked the guy. He was uncommonly intelligent and well-informed, although he didn't spout off like, say, the average blogging pastor. (I can say that, given that I am one of those average blogging pastors.) He had a quick wit. Because of these winsome attributes, I often wondered what series of disappointments had come into his life that caused him to express such incessant discouragement.

I wondered, too, what he was like at home. What effect, for example, did his philosophy of hopelessness have on his wife and children? I cringed to think of how his mantra might be taken up by his kids as a way of thinking, as a way of living.

In comments he left regarding the last post in this series on discouragement, writer and blogger Richard Lawrence Cohen suggested that there was at least one source of discouragement in people's lives I had failed to consider thus far. That was the family that, instead of nurturing children with a sense of life's possibilities, convinces them that things always turn out worse than you hope. The atmosphere in these households is established by parents who, in effect, tell their children to keep their expectations low so that they'll never be disappointed. They're the families where one or both parents, by word and deed, pound home the message, "Born in hope; die in despair."

In my work as a pastor, I meet people who struggle with the aftereffects of being raised in such homes. They have an impoverished capacity for belief, for hopefulness. By this, I don't only mean to refer to the limited capacity they sometimes display for belief in God, although that often is the most significant casualty in the lives of people raised in discouraging environments.

But this limited capactity for hopefulness permeates their entire lives. They settle for less--for less warm and convivial family relationships, for less stimulating and challenging work than they might be capable of handling, for less of the enjoyment that comes from risking failure by striving to do and be our best.

I'm not advocating that people adopt a false or pollyannish optimism. I've recounted here the interesting conversation between author Jim Collins and Admiral John Stockdale, the highest-ranking American POW during the Vietnam War. Collins was stunned to hear Stockdale say that, while he never doubted that he would one day be free, he nonetheless said that the POWs most likely to crumple under the agonies of their brutal confinements were "the optimists." Collins paraphrased Stockdale's explanation of who the optimists were:

The optimists. These were the people who were part of the "fake it till you make it crowd," who would try to delude themselves and others to ignore the facts and simply because of a (probably internally-manufactured) feeling, named a date definite when they would be out. But when those deadlines passed, discouragement would overtake them, leaving them vulnerable.
To have the capacity for hope doesn't mean that you overlook the obstacles, pain, or difficulties--unforeseen and otherwise--that come in a life. It means that you have the ability to cope with the realities in life even as you strive to do and be more...even as you endeavor to meet the implicit promise that exists in every human life.

If you were raised in a household environment of discouragement, the antidote isn't to paste on a happy face and dig on. The people I've known who have successfully dug themselves out from under the rubble of such upbringings have taken some of the following steps:

  • Looked for mentors who would be both affirming about their strengths and constructively critical of their weaknesses;
  • Consciously worked at improving themselves by always reading and by making friends with good, wise, intelligent people;
  • Specifically, in the area of reading, delved into the biographies of people who have achieved notable and worthy things, underscoring the possibilities in our lives;
  • Worked at being good, reliable friends to others, becoming part of a network of mutual caring.
All of this stuff can be helpful in overcoming the discouragement that comes from being raised in a discouraging environment. But, I believe that there is an ultimate source of encouragement and that's the God we know through Jesus Christ. He's certainly been that for me!

In the New Testament book of Philippians, the apostle Paul, a guy who surely experienced more difficulties than most of us would likely endure in several lifetimes, writes:

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (Philippians 1:21)
What does that mean? Actually, there's a lot to those ten simple words. But, for our purposes, let me suggest a few:
  • Death comes to us all;
  • But if we believe in and follow Jesus Christ, the God-Man Who took our punishment for sin and rose again to give us life that never ends, death will not be the final word on our existences;
  • Knowing that God gives us forever life through Christ empowers us to live both with greater confidence and less concern about failure. When you know that you belong to God no matter what, you can be a more insistent advocate of justice, for example;
  • Knowing that God gives us forever life through Christ makes our days on earth here both more meaningful and more disposable. On the one hand, we know that every moment is soaked with eternal implications. We can invest ourselves in the only things on this earth that will outlast it, other people. On the other hand, we don't have to horde our days, using them selfishly. We can give ourselves to others and to the causes that promote others' well-being in the certainty that no matter how much of our lives we give to the service of God and others, God has lots more life to give to us.
Even if we were raised in a culture of discouragement, our lives can be changed. It can happen when we dare to believe in Jesus. And don't worry if you suffer from "an impoverished capacity for belief." Even the most deeply faithful person you ever met in your life was incapable of believing in the crucified and risen God-Man Jesus on their own. The New Testament says that nobody can say that Jesus is Lord without the help of God's Holy Spirit. All we have to be is willing to believe in Jesus and to maintain that willingness. We surrender our wills to Christ and God will begin to forge faith in our lives. Encouragement will only be one of the blessings that then will flow into our lives.
[Here are the previous installments of this occasional series:
Discouragement and Some Antidotes
Discouragement and Mr. Nice Guy
Discouragement and the Human Touch
What If I'm the Source of Another Person's Discouragement?]

So You Think Lip-Syncing Went Out When Jerry Lewis Teamed Up with Dean Martin?

Actually, it's alive and well in at least one dorm room. The obvious work done on upper body choreography and learning the words to the song makes me wonder what sorts of grades these two young men will receive this term. (And, notice the contribution of the kid on the computer in the background.) This really is funny. Thanks to Rhett Smith for the link.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Why is This Called 'Reformation Sunday'?

Romans 1:16
(This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church earlier today.)

He was born in November, 1483, in the German principality of Saxony. His father was a one-time coal miner who, through hard work, had risen to middle class status, the owner of several mines. His mother, who would exert so much influence over the boy was, in the custom of those times, a full-time housewife and mother.

His name was Martin Luther. From an early age, he exhibited great intelligence and many talents. As time passed, he would become an extraordiary preacher, theologian, and musician. These pursuits were far from his father’s intentions for young Martin. Hans Luther wanted Martin to become a lawyer in order to care for him and his wife in their old age.

That, in fact, was the trajectory on which Martin’s life was moving when a shattering experience intervened.

He was heading back to the university he attended, when a ferocious thunderstorm arose. A lightning bolt knocked Luther to the ground. Understandably terrified, Martin cried out to the patron saint of miners. “Saint Ann,” he said, “save me; I will become a monk.”

I once told this story to Father Seavey Joyce, who served Saint Ann's parish in the same small town where I did my seminary internship. Seavey listened and said with an impish smile, "I guess that goes to prove that even saints make mistakes." (He was kidding because, he told me once, he was sure that one day the Roman Catholic Church would name Luther one of its saints.)

But of course, it wasn't Saint Ann who made a mistake. It was Martin Luther. In fact, in his moment of terror in the thunderstorm, he made several mistakes. Mistake one: Calling for supernatural help from anyone other than the God we know in Jesus Christ. Mistake two: Making a deal in the hopes of placating what Luther thought was an angry God. God doesn’t make deals.

But Luther became part of a long tradition of people who did the right things for the wrong reasons.

In the Old Testament book of Genesis, for example, we find the true story of a young dreamer named Joseph. His father, Jacob, doted on the boy while virtually ignoring his ten other sons. Resentful, Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery and then took the coat their father had given to him and spattered it with blood. They showed it to Jacob. He concluded that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

The brothers had done the wrong thing. But it turned out that, unbeknownst to them, they played into God's plans for Joseph. Joseph was set down a difficult road that ultimately led him to become, in effect, the prime minister of Egypt, second in command after the Pharaoh. In that position, Joseph oversaw the storing of crops during seven bumper years in anticipation of seven years of famine, a famine that affected the entire Middle East.

Ultimately, Joseph was able to use the stored crops to save the lives of his very own family members and many others. Later, he was able to tell his brothers that when they sold him into slavery, "You meant it for evil. But God meant it for good so that many might be saved." Joseph's brothers had somehow done the right thing for the wrong reasons.

In the New Testament book of Matthew, we find the story of people who came to see the Christ Child. We call them "wise men." But they were really little more than astologers, people who made horoscopes and superstitiously believed that stars foretold occurrences on this planet. It's the sort of the practice that the Bible condemns completely. We're to depend on God and on nothing and nobody else. Yet, these wise men who followed the stars for the wrong reasons, at the end of their journey, came to the right conclusion: This baby was the Savior of the world.

Martin Luther’s entry into the monastery for the wrong reason turned out to be very right, indeed! I don’t think that his father ever forgave the young Luther for taking the vows of a monk and "abandoning" his family. When, several years later, Luther also was ordained a priest, his father, Hans, expressed the belief that Martin’s call might not have come from God, but from the devil.

Martin Luther, it turns out, was a deeply disturbed young man, probably neurotic. He felt himself utterly and completely guilty of sin. He couldn’t imagine that a morally perfect God could or would forgive him. At times, Luther hated God. He believed that God was playing a vicious game with the human race: Demanding moral perfection and when we were unable to attain it, gleefully sending us to hell.

Noting how disturbed Luther was, believing that a fully occupied life would crowd out his worries and fears, and recognizing how intelligent Luther was, his superiors decided that he would study to become a doctor of theology. He would teach at a new university scheduled to be started in the Saxon town of Wittenberg.

At first, a new regimen of work, which included administering fourteen monasteries, pastoring a local church, and teaching at the new university, did nothing to assuage Luther’s loathing of God and of himself.

But then, something happened to change Luther’s life and world history. (And, over time, through the Reformation Luther began, my history.) Like most seminarians and priests of his day, Luther had never studied Scripture. He did so now, as he prepared for the classes he was teaching.

In the Bible, Luther found a different God than the one often preached in the Church of his day. He saw a God of grace and love Who reaches out to His children, Who charitably understands their fallen humanity, Who forgives and empowers right living, and promises eternity to all with faith in Him. He saw a God Who hates sin while loving sinners, Who calls all to repent for their sin and believe in His Son, Jesus.

He began to see this picture of God as he studied the book of Genesis in preparation for lectures to his students at Wittenberg. He met this God again in the Psalms. And, perhaps most clearly of all, Luther saw this God in the majestic New Testament book of Romans.

A key passage for him was Romans 1:16:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
With his deepening knowledge of the Scriptures and the original Hebrew and Greek in which the Old and New Testaments had been written, Luther’s understanding of God blossomed.

Up until this point in his life, Luther, like most of the people of his time, labored under the mistaken notion that righteousness was a state of moral perfection, a status God commanded of us, although none of us could ever attain it. Such a view made God a kind of contemptuous cat toying with human mice until they died.

Now, Luther saw that righteousness is having a right relationship with God and that it can’t be secured by anything we do. He saw that while God does demand moral purity from us and that our sin earns us everlasting condemnation, God Himself took on flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ so that He could die in our place on the cross and all with faith in Jesus won't be condemned. Instead, God gives all with faith in Jesus forgiveness and everlasting life. That's what Romans means when it talks about salvation and salvation as God's gift to believers in Christ. Period.

Realizing all of this now, Luther, who studied in the tower of the monastery at Wittenberg had what was later called his “tower experience.” While studying God’s Word, Luther had an overpowering sense of the depths of God’s love for all of us--including himself. Coming to know that rigteousness is God’s gift to all who turn from sin and entrust their lives to Christ, Luther said, was like having the gates of heaven thrown open to him! The faithful person would try to respond to the love of God given through Jesus Christ, of course. But, Luther knew, we can’t earn God’s love. It’s a gift called grace.

The once-neurotically ashamed Martin Luther now became a joyful champion of the new life that God gives to all with faith in Christ. As he grew in the confidence he had in Christ and in God’s love for him, Luther grew bolder in sharing what he had learned about God from the Bible.

On October 31, 1517, he posted 95 theses--or propositions--for debate on the church door in Wittenberg. In those days, a scholar who wished to engage in discussion about important issues posted points on the doors of churches. Church doors were the Power Points or bulletin boards of that time.

Luther’s theses were prompted by a common practice in the Roman Catholic Church of his day. The Church then taught that there was a place called “purgatory,” a sort of holding room that the dead supposedly went to between death and eternity. Purgatory was supposed to be a place where people were purified for entry into heaven. To raise money, the Church often authorized the mass sale of pieces of paper known as indulgences. These indulgences allowed people to buy hundreds or thousands of years out of purgatory for loved ones or even themselves.

Luther, now certain that eternity was a free gift, was deeply offended by this practice. He would later say that if there were such a place as purgatory and the Pope, as head of the Church, had the capacity to free people from the place, he should do so out of simple compassion and not accept a penny for the service.

When Luther’s preaching against indulgences began to effect the bottom line on their sale, the Church went after him. Ultimately, he came under what was known as an “imperial ban.” That meant that both the Church and the powerful Holy Roman Empire, a confederation of principalities and nations, agreed that if any one saw Martin Luther, he was to be killed on sight. Luther was labeled a heretic, a perverter of the Christian faith.

For the balance of his life, Martin Luther remained steadfast in proclaiming the God we see in Jesus Christ, the God of grace and God of glory. Among Luther’s last words were, “We are all beggars,” an acknowledgement that none of us is better or more important than others in God's eyes and that all with faith in Christ are the recipients of God’s charitable gifts: forgiveness and new life. We cannot earn them, but thank God, He loves to give them to those humble enough to surrender to Christ! Luther died in 1546.

We celebrate this day as Reformation Sunday because on All Saints Eve, Hallowed Evening or, as we call it, Halloween, in 1517, Luther’s 95 Theses began a major reformation of the Church. That reform movement goes on to this day. The members of this congregation, are part of it.

Martin Luther had learned from God’s Word that our relationship with God and our freedom from sin and death don’t come from our works or from doing proscribed acts of ritual, religious or otherwise. These things come to us freely from a God Who, in Christ, shows us that He isn’t our enemy, but our very best friend. And having said that, you know now why this Lutheran Church is called Friendship.