Saturday, November 12, 2005

Miller's Interesting Slant on 'The Wizard of Oz'

Confession: I've always hated The Wizard of Oz. Although we felt obligated while growing up to view the annual network television showings of this 1939 film, I don't believe that a single member of my family ever liked it. Watching it yearly was like swallowing medicine you had to take, although you had no notion as to why.

Danny Miller, a fan of the film, has a fun post on why he's always seen The Wizard of Oz as a Jewish film and how the annual viewings at his grandparents' house when he was growing up were like Passover. Read it. Danny is a very good writer.

"The mood here appeared to be cautiously hostile."

So says this interesting New York Times article about the stance taken toward the nomination of Samuel Alito, Jr. to the Supreme Court by faculty and students of his alma mater, Yale Law School.

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Charlie Lehardy has some really important things to say about thankfulness as we prepare for Thanksgiving.

Williams on Narnia: Let the Story Speak

Craig Williams pleads with Christians and churches to simply let C.S. Lewis' story in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe "talk" to people. His plea has broader application than to just this wonderful story, about to be seen in movie theaters starting on December 9. We need not micromanage people's reactions.

This is hard, the human impulse, particularly the human religious impulse is to force-feed our notions on others in the mistaken idea that our particular versions of belief are right and that other ideas are dangerous. It seems every Christian tradition has its rather constricted notions on what Christians are supposed to look, talk, and smell like. (Steve Taylor wonderfully lampooned this penchant in his song, I Want to Be a Clone.)

But life in the Spirit, life with God, has many unanswered questions and open ends. Jesus is the narrow way and salvation only comes through Him. But once through that portal, life is meant to be a bit like what happened when people went through the stable door in The Last Battle, the final volume of the Narnian Chronicles: The sky is the limit. (I love the passage in that book in which one character said that the stable must be simply enormous, one containing a reality bigger than the world in which they had formerly stood. One of the children comments, I'm paraphrasing, "We had a stable like that once in our world.")

We follow a wild and untamed God. Remember Mr. Beaver's words to the Pevensie children when they first arrive in Narnia and he is explaining who Aslan is: "Safe? Of course, he isn't safe. But he's good." The Chronicles of Narnia can do more to glorify our unsafe and good God if we let people experience them without our interpreting everything first. Craig is right, that would be taking all the wonder, beauty, discovery, and mystery from them!

Christians aren't called to tame God, people, or ideas. To even make the attempt is to pretend to be gods ourselves...and that is a fool's errand.

Peter Drucker, Giant of Twentieth Century Thinkers, Has Died

Management guru Peter Drucker has died.

I first became acquainted with Drucker when I found a copy of his book, The Effective Executive, among the volumes left by deceased pastors to our seminary library which were not catalogued in the collection. It was one of the best freebies in my personal library!

Drucker is one of the giants of the past century, a thinker whose discussions of management bounded well-beyond the stuffy confines of economics or cost-benefit analysis. He made it possible for even preachers to understand leadership. He had a good deal to teach those who would lead countries, too, or anybody of an inquisitive nature.

The Claremont Institute has the transcript of a 1984 interview with this fascinating man, a committed Christian.

The "Multitasking" Robber

"When it comes to multitasking, it's hard to beat the woman who can rob a bank and not interrupt her cell phone conversation." I have the feeling that her bank-robbing days are numbered.

Friday, November 11, 2005

More on Pat Robertson

Pastor Jeff has an interesting take on Pat Robertson. From a post titled, This Just In: Pat Robertson is Still Nuts, I especially like this:
Seriously, the only reason this man [Robertson] still gets press is because he can be counted on to stay stupid things and make Christians look like idiots. We don't need your help in that department, Pat.

The citizens of Dover certainly didn't reject God from their city. They voted Intelligent Design out of their science classes. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some evangelical Christians voted against the teaching [of] ID in science classes. I think there are good scientific reasons to doubt atheistic evolution. But the big picture of creation from the Bible is about who and what, not when and how.

Veterans Day: Thank You

A few years ago, my family and I took a trip to Washington, D.C. Our son was in college, our daughter about to enter her senior year of high school. We were in the Washington Monument and each of us went our different ways to peer out the windows on all sides of the place.

After awhile, my son came up to me, accompanied by an older man. They had been chatting and in the course of their conversation, the man had somewhat hesitantly revealed to my son that he had fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War Two. My son wanted me to meet him. We chatted for a few minutes and as we parted, my son shook his hand and told him, "And thank you very much for what you did for me."

The man seemed both embarrased and appreciative. I can also tell you that I was proud of my son.

And so, learning from his example, I want to tell all veterans who may read this, "Thank you for what you did for me...and for all of us!"

A Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lesson: First Thessalonians 5:1-11

"Always have a plan. Always be ready to break from your plans." Good advice! Earlier this week, I planned to write at least three considerations of this Sunday's Bible lesson for our worship at Friendship Church. But life intervened. So, here's a second consideration, based on some study I did in The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB), a great commentary of the entire Bible...

1. Context effects content. Just prior to the passage (4:13-18) we'll be delving into on Sunday, Paul has been talking about what it will be like for two groups of people when Jesus returns to the world: "those who are asleep" and those who are still alive when reappears. Now, in 5:1, Paul says that we don't really need to know more than this.

2. Some see "an adversative contrast" between 4:13-18 and 5:1-11. Not so, says the NIB, paraphrasing scholar Tracy Howard's argument that "neither section gives a systematic chronological timetable, and both sections are exhortative in purpose and parallel in content. Both commend a certain type of behavior in the light of eschatological [end time] matters. Both discuss the...parousia [the coming, appearance, or presence of the risen Jesus] (or the day of the Lord), and draw on various apocalyptic images to clarify the importance of that day for believers in the present."

In other words, both sections deal with the impact of the reality of Jesus' future return on how we live our lives today.

3. Believers lives in an already/not yet state of being. We know that as we follow Christ, we already have resurrection victory even in the midst of the challenges of today.

4. So-called "transitional markers," words that mark seams in the passage make it easy to outline this passage:
5:1-2: Hearers of Paul's letter aware of the day of the Lord
5:3: Unbelievers ignorant of the day of the Lord
5:4-5: End-of-day contrasts between believers and unbelievers
5:6-8: The call for believers to be sober
5:9-10: The justification for remaining sober
5:11: Recommendation of "mutual consolation and edification [building up]"
5. Paul peppers the entire passage with several synonomous phrases commonly used in his day, especially about end times. The first is "a time of judgment." (v.1)

6. A "thief at night" is another such phrase from Jewish apocalyptic literature. (v.2) (Luke 12:38-39; Revelation 3:3)

7. "labor pains" is also commonly used in Jewish apocalyptic writing. (Psalm 48:6; Mark 13:8)

8. Interesting: "peace and security" (v.3) was a "propaganda slogan" of the Roman imperial regime. Paul's phrasing may have been an attack on those in the Thessalonian church who were putting the empire in a higher place in their priorities than Jesus Christ. In fact, this problem underlays much of what Paul says in this entire letter. Caesar Augustus was seen by many as the benefactor of a kind of new age, with Augustus' role painted in almost godlike terms. Paul says that the only true new age will come with Jesus' return on that occasion the New Testament always calls, "the day of the Lord.'

9. About vv.4-5, NIB says that night "represents a condition of unawareness or insensitivity." Believers are children of the day and therefore won't be flummoxed by the day of the Lord. But unbelievers, experiencing the exact same thing, will be disconsolate and disoriented.

I imagine that C.S. Lewis does a good job of showing what this will be like in two of the books from The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Magician's Nephew, four persons from our world and the evil Queen Jardis from the dead world of Charn, are present when Aslan, the great Lion, "sings" Narnia into being. For three of the people--Digory, Polly, and the London cabbie, Frank--the sights and sounds of Aslan's creation are breathtakingly beautiful, arousing feelings of awe and wonder. But in Digory's Uncle Andrew and in Jardis, Aslan's activities rouse revulsion, fear, and a desire to run away.

In The Last Battle, a number of people are transported to eternity after entering a stable in which they have died. For the followers of Aslan who have entered, eternity is a place of beauty, restoration, life, and joy. But, in their midst are dwarves who are so resolutely selfish and cynical that even when offered the best of food and drink, can only taste refuse.

An analogous difference of perspective will mark believers and unbelievers, according to Paul, when they experience Jesus' return. For some, it will be a moment of indescribable joy. For others, it will bring dread or perhaps, even indifference.

10. At v.6, there's a shift in Paul's discussion. He moves from contrasting the perceptions of believers and unbelievers to looking at how believers are to live during these "in-between times." Besides the contrast in attitudes then, the differences between believers and unbelievers are also seen in the way they live life.

11. Believers, Paul says, are vigilant...ready for what life throws at them because they're deeply rooted in their relationship with Jesus Christ.

12. The church's weapons for dealing with daily life and the return of Jesus: FAITH, HOPE, LOVE.

13. In vv.9-10, we're told not to be like the sleepers in 4:13-18.

[Here's the first pass at this passage, from earlier in the week.]

Pat Robertson Is No Prophet

The good news is that Pat Robertson's 700 Club television show is viewed by only about one-million Americans each day. By the reckoning of my admittedly faulty math skills, that's less than .4% of the country.

The bad news is that not only is he viewed by one-million Americans and by more people in other countries into whose languages his blather is translated, he also seems to be among the mainstream media's favorite "Christian" spokespeople. Along with Jerry Fallwell and James Dobson, he's a straw man that skeptics, agnostics, atheists, and genuine inquirers into Christian faith can read about in their local paper, easily knock down or dismiss, and decide that Christians are every bit as legalistic, clueless, and venomous as your average Islamofascist.

Robertson likes to play the prophet. I won't bother reciting his past attempts to play this role. I will say that at least Robertson seems to understand what a prophet is from a Biblical point of view. In the Bible, a prophet is not someone who necessarily predicts the long-term future, although some of the Old Testament prophets did that. Prophets rather:
  • saw themselves as messengers who
  • addressed current situtations and
  • pressed people to deal with those situations in order to avoid future difficulties or even punishment
But, there is another characteristic generally displayed by the prophets: reluctance to fulfill their missions. Jonah didn't want to travel to Nineveh for fear that the people of that city would hear his message, repent, and thereby be reconciled to God. Other prophets were hesitant about sharing God's message, believing that their hearers would kill them.

Robertson shows no hesitation about being "prophetic." He opened mouth and inserted foot again this week, telling the people of a Pennsylvania town not to expect God to be there for them because they voted in a slate of school board candidates who said that, while notions of Intelligent Design could be taught in Humanities classes, they didn't want it taught as an alternative to Darwinian evolutionary theory in Science classes.

Now, we may argue about Intelligent Design. As I understand it, there are non-theistic scientists who believe in Intelligent Design, a version without a designer. Be that as it may, to me it defies common sense to observe the intricacies of the universe and conclude it all is the result of happenstance. And frankly, I take a more reverential, even literalistic view of the Scriptures, than others. I believe that there was an Adam and an Eve, for example.

But, Robertson has no Biblical warrant for telling the voters of Dover, Pennsylvania that they have voted God out of their town. "Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord of the Lord shall be saved," is a promise that God hasn't revoked, no matter what Pat Robertson says.

As I interpret that promise from a Christian perspective, it means that all who earnestly seek the God we know through Jesus Christ in their lives, has access and relationship with God.

The people of Dover may be wrong in the decision that they have made. But Robertson has no reason for telling them that they have erected a wall between themselves and God. The Bible simply doesn't support his latest foray into "prophecy."

Paris Riots: My Greatest Hits of the Past Two Weeks

The Paris Riots have "inspired" several posts on this site. Here are a few of those I think deal with issues of lasting importance for the future:

A Christian Perspective of the Paris Riots
Is Paris Burning?
The Republic is At a Moment of Truth
Steyn Says That Riots Begin Eurabian Civil War

I'm glad that the riots have died down in Paris and appear to be diminishing throughout France. But they imply much about the future of Europe and the global war on terrorism, as well as the ongoing need of the Western democracies to assimilate immigrants and win the allegiance of those from other cultures.

One of the great questions is whether the appeal of Islamofascism, which eschews playing any role other than dictating its version of domineering fundamentalism to every nation, can be diminished among young Muslims.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Confession I Probably Shouldn't Make

I admit it: I love to preach.

And teach.

And write.

I feel as though God made me to be a communicator and when I'm involved in communicating, I have a tremendous feeling of fulfillment.

The reason I have felt reticent about admitting this in the past is that one can love pursuits like these for the wrong reasons.

A person can be a limelight addict, so in love with attention that they hold forth ad infinitum.

It may be because of this penchant among preachers that Rick Warren says in The Purpose-Driven Life that he is unimpressed with preachers who talk about how much they love preaching.

I'm not so deluded as to think that I preach, teach, and write from altogether altruistic motives. I'm a sinner like anybody else. But I also hope (and pray) that by this point in my life--I'll soon be 52--my ego is sufficiently in check to allow my preaching, teaching, and writing do good for someone other than me.

Besides, it isn't the delivery of sermons that I enjoy so much. Or the sharing of the lesson. Or the feedback after the written piece has appeared in the local newspaper or here on the blog. (Although I do, frankly, enjoy those things.)

But what I really enjoy is what precedes those moments.

Take preaching, for example. I began preaching when I was in seminary, which means that I've been doing it now for twenty-five years. But, at the risk of getting wifty on you, I still don't know how a sermon comes into being.

Don't get me wrong. Preaching--any kind of communication--is work. People who think otherwise are really deluded. One of my seminary professors, Merlin Hoops, used to tell us a story he'd heard in Germany about a young pastor who had just preached a sermon and was excited about it. But another pastor who'd heard the effort was unimpressed and told the younger preacher so. "But, pastor," the younger one insisted, "I prayed and prayed about it." "That's fine," the older pastor said, "but did you study and work on it, too?"

Most weeks, I spend from five to fifteen hours studying the Biblical passages that form the bases for my Sunday messages. Then, I pray...a lot! Usually, by Thursday, I'm telling my wife things like, "I have no idea what I will say on Sunday. It's a wonderful passage, but my mind is a blank."

I've learned the truth of what one prolific writer remarked when asked how he had remained so productive through the years. "There's something quite motivating," he said, "about a deadline." For me, knowing that there will be people showing up at a time certain for worship on Sunday morning, people who need and deserve the comfort, hope, camaraderie, and guidance of God in their lives, is motivating.

It's then that I get busy...praying: "God, I have no idea what to say, although I've tried to saturate my mind in this text from Your Word. I think I know what needs saying. But I have no idea how to go about it. Please show me what to say."

It happened again last week. Actually, it was Saturday and I was in a quandary. It wasn't that I hadn't studied or prepared. I had. But I was stumped. I prayed and sat with my notebook and pen, ready to jot down some notes before I hit the computer keyboard. Then, the pieces fell into place and within an hour or so, the sermon was written.

And that is what I love about preaching. And teaching. And writing. I love that mysterious interplay of intellect, information, heart, desperation, and receptivity to God's Spirit and God's power that results in some new creation. It's something so mysterious that I can't explain it. It's like a special visit from God, giving me words and thoughts I would never come up with on my own.

My guess is that anybody who creates knows what that's like.

Michelangelo used to say that his job as a sculptor was simply to chisel away at the stone until the sculpture inside was made visible.

Paul McCartney has said that the songs he composes seem to come to him from someplace out there and he simply ushers them into the world.

C.S. Lewis' stepson, Douglas Gresham, has written that The Chronicles of Narnia began with an image of a fawn holding an umbrella and some packages that had impressed itself on Lewis's imagination when he was sixteen years old; when he began to write about this fawn twenty-four years after it had first come to him, Lewis had no notion of what would turn up on the page.

I certainly won't blame God for any of the deficiencies in my preaching or writing...and there are many! Sometimes, I know, I get in God's way.

But when I do get out of His way, it stuns me. Every time. I know that God makes more of our earnest efforts to be truly receptive to Him. That's why I love to preach!

UPDATE: Pastor Jeff has some interesting additional thoughts on creativity here.

Two Hope-Filled Promises

[I was honored to conduct the funeral of Laura, grandmother of a member of my current congregation in the Cincinnati area who grew up in the northwestern Ohio parish I served from 1984 to 1990. This is the message I presented there. The funeral took place earlier today in northwestern Ohio.]

First Corinthians 15:12-26
Psalm 27

“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” That’s what Paul says in one of our Bible readings.

It’s important for us to remember this today because if the message that all who believe in Jesus Christ are given new and everlasting lives isn’t true today, as you face the loss of your mother, grandmother, and friend, then it isn’t true at all.

No one here today needs to be reminded of how tough and painful life can sometimes be. And the pain doesn’t get any worse than when someone who loved us so much and who was so loved in return suddenly dies. Paul was saying that if Jesus is nothing more than a good luck charm to get us through a few scrapes in life, then we’re as lost as those who have turned their backs on Him.

That’s why I so love what Paul goes on to say in First Corinthians. I imagine him almost shouting it as he dictated it to the secretary taking down his words:
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”
As you face the loss of “Grandma R,” you, as followers of Jesus Christ, have two strong promises on which you can lean, two great hopes.

First: You have the hope of knowing that the God of the universe is right beside you. It was this hope that David was talking about in another of our readings, Psalm 27:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
After his wife died of cancer, C.S. Lewis wrote a book called, A Grief Observed. He begins by saying, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I’m not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness...”

You’ve probably experienced that fear-like grief already in these past few days.

Love will bring that sensation back again, sometimes in almost unbearable ways and sometimes, fleetingly, almost without your fully realizing it’s there.

It will come when you eat Thanksgiving dinner without Laura’s goose.

Or, when at a reception, you stand up to do a polka.

Or, when you’re at an auction, snooping--as she loved to do--through other people’s old stuff.

The memories will come and that fear-like dread of life without her will come back. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that it’s wrong to grieve. Death was never part of the original plan for the human race. It violates what we somehow know, deep inside of us, life was meant to be. Adam and Eve were made to live with God forever and so are we. And so we grieve.

But the God we know through Jesus promises to be with us, even in our grief. “...[H]e will hide me in His shelter in the day of trouble; He will conceal me under the cover of His tent; He will set me on a high rock,” Psalm 27 says. That expresses the hope we have for this life from Jesus.

But we have a second, bigger, and more wonderful promise through Jesus Christ. Paul goes on to write First Corinthians:
“...since death came through a human being, a resurrection of the dead also came through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus told the disciples, whose lives were about to be rocked by grief with His death on a cross. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may also be.”

I believe that all who follow Jesus, all who have persevered in believing His good news through all the bad (and good) news that meets us in this life, will immediately be welcomed into the presence of the One Who has prepared a place for all His people.

Laura is there now, with Jesus and with all who have believed in Him. She’s seeing the fulfillment of her lifelong faith in the God we meet in Christ. It’s the faith that David wrote about in Psalm 27:
“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
Today, I commend two kinds of hope to all of you: The hope that comes from knowing that the risen Christ is with you now and the hope that one day, as believers in Jesus, we will see Him and all who have followed Him, in eternity.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

What If Jesus Had Debated Bush and Kerry in 2004?

One southern California pastor presented his version of such a tete-a-tete on the Sunday before the last presidential contest. Now the IRS is apparently looking into revoking his congregation's tax-exempt status. Mark Roberts writes about the story and analyzes the sermon, by an Episcopal clergyperson, in question.

Hoping to Help in Disaster-Struck Areas

I've emailed several Evansville, Indiana congregations offering the services of people from our church in the Cincinnati area to help with any relief work we might do.

The lesson I've learned from several pastors and congregations is that these sorts of church-to-church efforts are far more efficient and far likelier to actually happen than trying to work through big relief organizations or denominational agencies.

A colleague is taking a group from his church to Slidell, Mississippi, scene of so much Hurricane Katrina-induced damage, to do some work next week. I'm hoping to hear from the same Mississippi congregation with which they're working in order to make arrangements for a work crew from our church to head down that way.

The tornado that ripped through parts of Indiana and Kentucky early on Sunday morning present churches in those states as well as in Ohio and other neighboring states to share the love of Christ in a very practical way. Jesus teaches us that our neighbor is whoever is in need.

In the meantime, we continue to pray that God will bring relief, solace, and hope to the victims of natural disaster everywhere.

Paris Riots: "The Republic is at a moment of truth..."

So says French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin about the failure of the French political system to integrate Muslims from north Africa and Arab nations into the country's life and the abominable failure to confront and end the lawlessness, some of it no doubt inspired by Islamofascist ideology, on French streets.

These twin failures have implications beyond the French borders, of course.

The French failure to assimilate has created a hotbed for Islamofascist recruitment in the heart of democratic Europe.

The French failure to thus far, deal effectively with the rioting there, now for nearly two weeks, will embolden all Islamofascists, with their desire to dictate the practices and daily life of every country, leaving behind all notions of pluralism or equal access to the marketplace of ideas.

The Republic is at a moment of truth. But if they fail this time, we might all pay the price.

[Of course, this all leaves America with a question: How well are we, the great melting pot, doing in assimilating folks from other lands? I'm not talking about illegals or those who sneak into the country bent on destroying America. I'm talking about those who, like the ancestors of every person born in this country, believe in the promise of opportunity in America. Assimilation is a very patriotic cause. It's also right and it's also shrewd. Just ask the French.]

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 18

In Genesis 35, Jacob and his family take a journey which, like so many of life's journeys brings joys and tears. But through it all, the imperfect Jacob is graced by the presence and the help of the God in Whom he trusts.

1. As the chapter opens, God tells Jacob to go back to Bethel. (The name means house of God.) One can surmise that he was only too happy to comply with these instructions because it would take him away from anyone who might come after his family and him in the wake of his sons' actions at the end of chapter 34.

2. Before leaving, Jacob tells his family and all their party to get rid of the idols and "lucky charms."

We may shake our heads in incredulity at the need for doing this when we consider all of the scrapes through which God has taken the Abrahamic family. What are they doing "hedging their bets" by invoking humanly-created gods and the moral equivalents of rabbit's feet?

The answer to that question is a bit complicated:
First, it's important to understand what historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and other students of the human family show us. Quite simply, human beings are inherently religious creatures. We only have to hit a few snags in life to become aware that we're not the self-sufficient big shots we sometimes pretend to be. So, we're inclined to look for someone or something that has more power than us to help us. We look for gods to worship.

But we also prefer that our idols be within our control. One of the reasons that, many years ago, I was hesitant to throw in with the God of the Bible, the God ultimately revealed to the world through Jesus Christ, is that He was (and remains) beyond my control. He wasn't like the idols of ancient civilizations, or the lucky charms or superstitions preferred by many, or like the finite stuff by which people today measure the value of their lives--things like money, good times, or achievement. Rather, this God was (and is) bigger than me and dared to tell me what was best for me.

The God worshiped by Jacob was, at this point, so far as we know, only worshiped by Jacob and his family. That means that they were surrounded constantly by those who believed in other gods. That would have created what we might call peer pressure on Jacob's family, especially when difficult streaks come along. The God of the Bible calls people to follow Him even when bad things happen. God isn't a good luck charm. He is, as Pastor Rick Warren notes in his book, The Purpose-Driven Life, vastly more interested in our character than our comfort. Our characters, after all, are eternal. The bodies we seek to keep comfortable are mortal.
All of these elements may have pulled and tugged at Jacob's family and servants. But Jacob tells them to give up on these gods and superstitions and to rely on God alone. All the religious paraphernalia is buried under a tree. As the group leaves, renewed in their commitment to trusting only in the one true God of the universe, a fear seizes the residents of the towns and villages through which they pass. God gives them a favor which their small numbers and powerlessness doesn't warrant.

3. Grief comes at Bethel and in the next town to which Jacob and family go, Eprath. First, Rebekah's nurse, Deborah, dies. Later, grief is intermingled with joy as Rachel, Jacob's beloved, dies while giving birth to another son, Benjamin.

But in the midst of these events, God reiterates His promise to Jacob, essentially the same promise given to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac:
I AM the Strong God.
Have children! Flourish!
A nation--a whole company of nations!--
will come from you.
Kings will come from your loins;
the land I gave Abraham and Isaac
I now give to you,
and pass it on to your descendants.
After this encounter with God, Jacob erected a pillar dedicated to God's honor, poured a drink offering on it, and then anointed it with oil.

As was often true in those times, Bethel had long been considered a place of worship. But the objects of worship there and elsewhere often changed. Now, Jacob dedicated the house of God to the God of all creation.

In Jacob's encounter, God also gave him a new name: Israel. The name, of course, would come to be applied to all of Jacob's descendants. Although the exact meaning of this important word is somewhat obscure, among its most important is God-Wrestler.

This may seem to be a strange designation for the people meant to be a light to the nations of the world and the womb from which the Messiah would be birthed. But as was true of Jacob, who wrestled with God, it's really only people who believe in God who bother wrestling with Him, struggling to understand His will and ways, sometimes rebelling, sometimes fighting fears and doubts, often wanting to make faith into a matter of the performance of holy rites rather than trusting surrender to the God Who made us. It's from these struggles that, as was also true of Jacob, blessings come.

4. The chapter ends with the death of Isaac. Jacob and Esau, apparently reunited for the last time, bury their father.

[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
Part 17]

Paris Riots: They May Not Be Assimilated Into France, But Have the Rioters Assimilated France?

Polysigh says:
Most commentators see the recent riots in Paris (and, it now seems, throughout much of the rest of the country) as evidence of France's failure to assimilate immigrants into the body politic. But perhaps it is just the opposite, that the riots, in fact, signify that these immigrants have assimilated French culture and politics. I don't mean to be flip, but to a great extent and perhaps more than any developed nation, the history of France has been written in the streets.
Read the whole thing.

Please Keep Tornado Victims in Your Prayers

Please pray for the victims of Sunday morning's deadly tornado that swept through parts of Indiana and Kentucky. Evansville, scene of a destructive tornado just three years ago, has been the hardest hit.

Please ask God to help people rebuild their homes and lives in the aftermath of the destruction. Ask too, for success to all relief workers in bringing not just material aid, but hope.

Here is a detailed account of the storm and its aftermath.

Paris Riots: What Took the French Government So Long?

This is a question that future historians will ask of the decision, made just on Tuesday, to allow France's regional governmental entities to impose curfews. How do you say, "Duh" in French?

Opinion Divided Among French Muslim Youth Over Paris Riots

Blog sites written by Muslim youth in France are home to lively debate and differing opinions over whether the riots perpetrated by their fellows are warranted. The Muslim community is far from monolithic about the riots. Many, including Muslim youth, condemn what's going on. (I found this story through Ann Althouse's site.)

Monday, November 07, 2005

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lesson: First Thessalonians 5:1-11

[For the third week now, I'm inviting the people of the congregation I serve as pastor into a consideration of the Bible passage around which our worship will be built this coming Sunday. If you have any comments, please let me know.]

First Thessalonians is the first of two letters from the first-century preacher and evangelist Paul, written to the congregation he founded in the city of Thesslonica. Thessalonica was the capital city of Macedonia.

Paul had gone there, along with his associates, Silas and Timothy, after being driven out of Philippi.

On three consecutive sabbath days, Paul had preached in the synagogue in Thessalonica. This conformed with a standard practice in the synagogues of those days. When a male visitor was among the worshipers, he was asked if there were anything he would like to say about the Torah. This is what lay behind the invitation sometimes extended to Jesus in Judean synagogues to "say a few words."

Paul's preaching convinced some of his fellow Jews who were there.

Also won over were Gentile listeners present at the sabbath services.

Throughout the Mediterranean Sea-basin, owing to generations of persecution, exile, and enslavement, there was a great dispersion (diaspora) of Jews. Wherever a Jewish population existed, they gathered for worship, some of them in formalized synagogues, some of them under trees outside of town. But wherever they gathered, Gentiles who had come to believe in the God of Israel--God-fearers, gathered with them as well. (Gentiles were referred to in the New Testament either as Greeks, referencing their being steeped in the Greek culture and language, or as ethnon, the ethnics. Greek language and culture was the equivalent of English today, the milieu of trade, communications, government, and business.)

The Jewish leadership were displeased with Paul and his team, though. They had worked to gather their fellow Jews and to proselytize the Gentile population and now here were these interlopers winning them over to the notion that Jesus of Nazareth had come as the Messiah, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies by dying and rising, and making it possible for all people to experience a direct and personal relationship with God through Jesus, God in the Flesh.

Paul and Silas were forced to flee from Thessalonica. But they kept in touch and Paul guided the congregation into greater maturity of faith by sending them instructions. This letter is part of those instructions in faith.

Specifically taking a superficial look at First Thessalonians 5:1-11:

vv. 1-2: Paul's words are really similar to those given by Jesus to His disciples during His earthly ministry. "There's really no need," Paul seems to be saying, "to go any further in discussions of 'the end times' than to say that it could happen any time."

v.3: Even today, there are apocalyptic tea-leaf-readers, people who think they've got God's plans for the end of the world all figured out. Paul, quite frankly, would tell these people to shut up. (So does Jesus.)

The end of the earth and the return of Jesus will sneak up on the world like a burglar in the night.

v.4: But, Paul says, that day shouldn't really catch us off-guard, simply by virtue of our knowing that it's coming. Pauls' analogy is instructive: A pregnant mother knows that she will give birth even though she has no idea when contractions are going to hit.

v.5: We're to live our faithfulness to Christ openly and in the light. When we strive to keep no secrets from God, we have nothing to fear when the brilliant light of what the New Testament calls simply, the Day, the day of Jesus' return, will cause us no terror.

v.6: I love this verse!

It hearkens back to James, Peter, and John, who Jesus took with Him to pray on the night He was arrested. He asked them to be vigilant in praying that God would protect them all from the temptations and shame that loomed as possibilities in the hours to come. But they kept falling asleep.

It also reminds me of the New Testament admonition to never tire of doing good.

Jesus' message seems to tell us to never be so comfortable with the life of this world that we fail to vigilantly follow Him or be engaged in the life style of love of God and love of neighbor that is the Christian's appropriate response to the love and forgiveness of God given to us through Jesus.

v.7: Here, Paul says that sleep is appropriate at night, keeping in mind that in the first-century world that knew neither electricity or powered light, you couldn't really work anyway. He also points out that one of the activities that people engage in apart from the searing showcasing of light is drunkenness. If we're to live useful, happy lives, Paul says, we need to remain sober. He doesn't just have alcohol in mind. He has in mind sound judgment, judgment tied in with the One Who designed us in the first place.

v.8: Faith, hope, and love. Good stuff. Look at First Corinthians 13.

v.9: Wrath, as I understand it, isn't God lashing out at sinners. Wrath is that set of consequences that come to us when we decide to violate God's design for us and our world.

In the natural world, God created gravity. Gravity means that I can't with abandon jump from a skyscraper and expect to be unhurt. I'll fall and the landing will be the end of me. If that happens, it won't be because God is angry. It will simply be the reasonable consequence of my actions.

When we violate God's moral law, as embodied in the Ten Commandments, there are also consequences. Even if we're never discovered by others or even if the world regards our violations as being "no big deal," there is scar tissue on our souls. Sin can also harm our relationships with others, cause us to lose our self-respect, or make us inhumane. Sin, until we turn back (repent) to God and trust in Jesus Christ, also acts as a wall between God and us. We will condemn ourselves, running into the consequences of our repudiation of God, even though God wants us to be with Him forever.

v.10: Jesus' death and resurrection makes it possible for all who believe in Him to be with Him a free gift!

v.11: Here, Paul talks about the importance of the Church. In the face of all that happens in our lives, we can encourage one another in the certainty that we belong to Christ forever.

[Hopefully, more tomorrow. By the way, you can find more about the establishment of the church at Thessalonica in Acts 17.]

A Christian Perspective on the Paris Riots

The New Testament book of First Peter encouraged the Christians of Asia Minor (and encourages us today) with these words:
For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (First Peter 2:13-17)
Christians see themselves as "aliens and strangers" in this world, as Peter writes just before this passage, because as followers of Jesus Christ, our real citizenship is in heaven. But we acquiesce to government authority for the good of all. We acknowledge that in a world suffering from the effects of human sin, not all will willingly respect the rights, prerogatives, or property of their neighbors.

The Christian accepts governments as gifts from God meant to bring the blessings of civil order in a world unwilling to voluntarily live directly under God's rule of love for God and love for others. Without civil order, there can be no justice.

When governments are unjust, Christians may feel compelled to challenge their governments for the injustices. But they're to do so peacefully for as long as is possible. (As was exemplified in Martin Luther King, Jr.)

What's going on in France, where young Muslims are rioting in the streets, may be readily explained. By most accounts, Muslims are treated with everything from indifference to hostility by the police and by French society.

But the violence cannot be justified or countenanced by the government there.

In a way, France now becomes another theater in the Global War on Terrorism. But it is more subtle than the one in Afghanistan, for example. Not all the young people engaged in civil unrest in France are aligned with Osama bin Laden. But they have the strong potential of becoming part of his Islamofascist horde. The French government has been guilty of creating a breeding ground for future terrorist cells. Now, it must reverse that course and commit itself to...
  • Integrating the five-million Muslims who are in the country into the life of the country. Many of the young North Africans and Arabs I have heard interviewed today consider themselves French and want to feel part of their adopted homeland.
  • Enforcing the law in ghettoized Muslim communities in Paris and elsewhere. From reports I've read today, the police had given up on being effective in maintaining order in these enclaves. They gambled that if they left the Muslim ghettos alone, all would be well. That "malign neglect" isn't good for anyone and no doubt gave rise to the belief on the part of many Muslim young men that they could begin this wave of violence and get away with it.
Without order, there can be no justice. The French government must be about establishing both order and justice now. From a Christian perspective, doing so is their most fundamental obligation.

[A few tangentially related posts from the past you might want to check out:
Fatwa Demonstrates World is at War with Fascists, Not Muslims
Can Democracy Take Root in the Muslim World?
Living In, But Not Of the World (Part of my 'Habits of Heart' series)
Can the Person Who Puts Jesus First Rule Fairly on Constitutional Questions? (Here, I delve into a Christian view of government)]

Fatwa So Far Has No Impact on Paris Riots

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. But a portion of the younger Muslim population there, incited by a combination of French discrimination, poverty, and the easy answers of Islamofascism, are apparently heedless of a Muslim fatwa condemning their violence:
France's biggest Muslim fundamentalist organization, the Union for Islamic Organizations of France, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, that forbade all those ``who seek divine grace from taking part in any action that blindly strikes private or public property or can harm others.''
The Guardian reports that the rioting has now spread to 300 French communities and that police in one German town near Berlin are investigating the burning of five automobiles that may be linked to spontaneous Islamofascism. There is a large Turkish population in Germany, much of it marginalized and impoverished as Arabs and North Africans are in France.

Islamofascism has gained a certain cache among many young Muslims who, prior to being exposed to its tenets, largely through numerous radical Islamic web sites, were irreligious. At this point, they don't care that the version of Islam they have embraced has little to do with the actual beliefs of Islam. Their religious ideology is merely an excuse to vent rage.

Times Has Detailed Coverage of Paris Riots

See here. As I wrote yesterday, how the French officials handle this assault on civil order is something in which all the Western Democracies have a stake.

Steyn Says Paris Riots Are Outbreak of "Eurabian" Civil War

It may be a gloomy assessment. But one suspects that at least one party to the riots think they're at war and so far, it doesn't seem to be the French officials.

This Doesn't Surprise Me

On my recent trip to the Los Angeles-area, my first-ever, I asked the driver of the shuttle who took us from our hotel to our conference site, how much the homes we were seeing then might cost. They were one-story slab homes that were nice. In my neck of the Cincinnati suburbs, they would have gone for about $80,000.00. His answer, confirmed by another driver later, was that in SoCal, the selling prices would be about $500,000.00. People who move to the Midwest from California and are able to sell their former homes, pocket quite a bit of cash. They buy larger homes with more yard at a fraction of what it would cost them back there. That's why this doesn't surprise me.

West Wing Debate: Could These Guys Please Run in the Real World?

After last night's live debate on The West Wing, my wife turned to me and said, "If all presidential debates were that enlightening, it would be great!"

The debate, ably conducted by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits playing the nominees of the Republican and Democratic Parties, respectively, had about it both aura of reality and unreality.

It looked like a real debate and there was something of the tension that comes through the TV screen with these quadrennial events.

The difference is that the Smits and Alda characters were blunter and more authentic than the real candidates usually are, exposing their fictional nominees' genuine sentiments about issues. Ironically, the showbiz candidates made no attempt to employ one of those standard presidential debate conventions, the withering one-liner, itself something nicked from showbiz.

The upshot? I think I would feel better about voting for either of the West Wing candidates for president than I've felt about their real-life counterparts in decades.

[By the way, here are links to some earlier posts on real presidential debates:
Note for 2008: Dump or Change Presidential Debates
Okay, So Maybe I Was Wrong About Debates]

NOTE: One reason I may have so liked the West Wing debate is that they adopted a format similar to the one I recommended in the first post cited above.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Good Source of Info on Indiana/Kentucky Tornado

Bruce Armstrong at Ordinary Everyday Christian is doing a good job of covering the tornado that hit parts of Indiana and Kentucky yesterday. Bruce includes links to agencies that can use your help and contributions as well as news stories. Please keep the families of those who lost loved ones and all who are dealing with the impact of the tornado in their lives.

Bono Interview in 'Rolling Stone'

He doesn't talk like a preacher at the church fellowship hour, but the lead singer of U2 has a lot of interesting things about his life, his music, and the shape of his faith here. Be warned: There is truly offensive language in the piece.

Is Paris Burning?

So Adolf Hitler asked back in 1944, hoping to administer a death sentence to the City of Lights even as his occupying army was forced to leave it by the oncoming Allied liberators.

Tonight, fires set off by different forces, young immigrants from African and Arab countries, burn in the Paris suburbs and at various places across France. This has been going on now for eleven straight nights.

These recent events are deeply disturbing to anyone who lives in a Western Democracy. They clearly show the dangers inherent in the failure to integrate immigrant populations into the life of a democratic nation.

But there is good reason to wonder if some of the Arab youth involved in the riots truly want to be integrated into the life of their adopted country. If they, like some of the Arab population in the Netherlands, who have come under the influence of Islamofascists, believe that the government's policies must comply with their own version of Islamic law, they may not want to participate equally in the civil life of France, they may want to dominate it.

In any case, the French government must decisively defeat the forces of anarchy now. There will be time for postmortems later.

All Western democracies must deal with the threat posed to their social compacts by the facile, divisive, and destructive programs of fundamental religionists. Whether one agrees with every argument raised by former President Jimmy Carter in his impressive new book, his discussion of this very issue, addressed to America's specific political situation, applies equally well to what is going on in France right now. For democracies to function, no religious group must be able to dominate others. This is why I so appreciate Hugh Hewitt's discussion of Jerry Fallwell in his book, In, But Not Of. Hewitt argues that Fallwell embarrasses and sets back the cause of Christ with his fundamentalist pronouncements.

Democracies require a fair marketplace of ideas. The young people breaking windows and throwing Molotov Cocktails in France tonight don't want that fair marketplace. They want to shut it down and tell everybody else what to believe, think, and do.

UPDATE: In the comments, Free2Rocknroll (aka: our son's best friend since childhood days), points out that Arabs in France are subjected to ill-treatment. (He's also quick to point out that this can't justify the rioting.) He's right. I was trying, perhaps too obliquely and with insufficient detail, to acknowledge that in the original post. The failure to integrate groups of people into a given society can be fatal. The French appear to have been heedless to the immigrant groups among them, ill-treating them when they come in contact with mainstream French society while tolerating a "don't look, don't tell" lawlessness in those areas where they live.

But it does appear to me that some of those who are engaged in rioting in France right now are unwilling to be integrated into a multicultural democracy. That sort of intolerance cannot be tolerated.

Real Faith Relates

Revelation 7:9-17

[This continues a series inspired by the staff at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church of Burnsville, Minnesota.]

How many have you took French when you were in school? I did. It’s a language that can sound so beautiful. But it isn’t easy. The grammar can be different from our English and the elisions, those changeable links between words that can sound like mumbling to English-speakers, are hard to learn. Comedian Steve Martin had a routine he once did in which he imagined someone writhing on the ground like an idiot. “Help!” someone cries, “He tried to speak French!”

The Biblical equivalent of trying to speak French may be trying to understand the last book of the New Testament, Revelation. You can bet that the people who claim to have it all figured out don’t.

But it is possible to say a few things about this book.

First, we can say that it represents a revelation--that is, something that was revealed--to the apostle John by the risen and ascended Jesus Christ decades after Jesus died and rose again. In fact the title in the original Greek of the New Testament is literally, The Apocalypse of John, the Revelation of John.

We can also say that Jesus reveals a number of things to John. Mostly, He indicated the disasters, persecution, and opposition Jesus-Followers would endure as the cosmos convulsed in its inevitable death throes and the wonderful eternal future that awaits those followers beyond the end of history.

We can also say that the number seven is important in the book of Revelation. As one scholar says:
The letter to the seven churches is followed by seven vision-cycles depicting the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven visions of conflict, the seven visions of Mount Zion, the seven bowls of the wrath of God, the seven visions of the fall of Babylon [Babylon probably represented the Roman Empire to John and more universally, represents the world’s sinful, selfish ways of doing things], and the seven visions of recompense.
Now, there’s a reason I bring all this up. One day, when we lived in northwest Ohio, my wife and I found a baby-sitter and drove into the big city of Napoleon to do some shopping. We were heading back to our house in the country and laughing about something. As is my tendency, I was clowning around. My wife said something, which I pretended had offended me.

Just as we pulled up to a four-way stop, I acted like I was backhanding her. Though my hand stopped about a foot from her face, a guy who knew nothing about our cutting up and only saw my gesture, pulled up opposite us at the intersection at the same time. There was a look of rage on his face. At least for a moment, he thought that he was looking at a wife-beater.

If you want to understand content, you must understand the context. If you want to understand the specific things that people say and do and avoid misjudgments, you have to know something about the circumstances from which they arose. That’s also true of the complicated book of Revelation and Bible lesson we’re looking at today.

It recounts a scene in which John observes throngs and throngs of people wearing white, symbolizing that they’ve been made pure by the blood of Jesus that washes away the sin of all who believe in Him, and waving palm leaves, which in the ancient world symbolized victory, hailing Jesus.

The people John visualized were believers in Jesus who, in spite of the difficulties, tragedies, and calamities of the world, continued to follow Him, even with their dying breaths. They reached heaven because on earth, they ignored the blandishments and the persecution of a world that opposes God and persevered in following Jesus.

One of the things that so interests me about this passage is how Jesus chooses to tell John about the rewards of perseverant faith in Him. Think about it. Jesus could have told John, “Here’s Frank (or some other individual person). Frank kept following Me and now Frank is in heaven.”

Instead, Jesus showed John an army of Franks and Lindas, Manuels, and Lucys. Why?

Last Sunday and the Sunday before that, we celebrated Baptisms here at Friendship. Mackenzie Jane was baptized two weeks ago and Benjamin Malcolm was last week. We could have baptized them privately. But it’s always preferable to do so during our public worship because our lives as followers of Jesus are not private matters. Christian faith isn’t just about, “Jesus and me.” When we are baptized into Christ, we’re also baptized into His family, the Church. Real faith involves relationships, not only with the bigger world we want to love into following Christ with us, but also with the people who are part of our church family.

We need the church, in fact, probably more than we need our earthbound families. But those earthbound families can tell us something about why our church family is so important. Back when our son was in the eighth grade was required, as I suppose all the kids in that grade in our district were required, to write a family history. So, at Christmas time, he asked the oldest of my three sisters, who is three years younger than me, “What was it like growing up with Dad?” She smiled and asked me, “Should I tell him the truth?” When I said that would be okay, she told Phil, “He was a pain in the [inappropriate church word].”

After elaborating on that, she turned serious and told Phil there was something else she wanted to say about growing up with me. “Your dad and I used to have long talks. One of the things we talked about was that everybody, whether they’re black or white, is equal. He really believed that.” Her eyes then misted over. “Years later,” she told our son, “when my daughter began to date a black man, I had misgivings about it. I was worried about what they or any children they had might go through. But then I remembered what your dad told me and how firmly he believed it. It really helped me to understand how wrong it would be to object to my daughter marrying someone of a different color.”

Folks: Sometimes our family members, even the members of our church family, can be pains in various portions of our metaphorical anatomy. But, if we persevere in our relationships with God and each other, those family members can also help us to deal with the difficulties of life and become our better selves.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with Carol, a member of our congregation who volunteers time and energy for our outreach program at Friendship. She also does a lot of things behind the scenes to help our congregation that few people see or know about. She told me why she did what she does. “This,” she said, referring to all of you, “is my family.”

It isn’t easy to follow Jesus Christ in our world today. You young people in middle and senior high school know that. So, does everybody in this room.

Putting God and not yourself first is a radical idea.

Loving your neighbor rather than living by the ethic of “shaft or get shafted” is not how the world recommends we do business these days.

We know that Jesus will meet all who have kept faithfully following Him in eternity. But along the way, we need the encouragement of our church family to help us to keep following.

Real faith relates.

So, join one of our small groups--the Women’s Book Club, the Men’s Group, our Tuesday Bible study.

Get involved with one of our ministries.

Telephone that person you haven't seen in worship for awhile.

Your faith will be stronger for it and your life will be better for it.