Saturday, November 19, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Sold Out at Midnight, Second Night

Cold and flu symptoms have me awake with coughing. So, I decided to go online for awhile. My son was planning on seeing the new Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at a 12:30 A.M. showing, after getting off of work. But when he and his co-workers arrived at the theater at about 12:15, all seats were sold out. That's incredible!

Of course, if we lived in China, with its contempt for protecting intellectual property rights, they could have gone down to the corner video store and picked up a pirated version of the film for a buck!

The buzz about the Potter film seems to be that it's very good. Some are even suggesting that it's the best of the lot.

Who could have imagined before the Potter phenomenon that a movie based on what is essentially a children's story would sell out theaters after midnight, when the crowds are sure to be predominantly adults, even on a Friday night? Amazing!

Of course, like The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis' extraordinary seven-volume series, the first of which, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is scheduled to hit cinemas on December 9, the Potter books are well-written stories with appeal to more than just children. They're works of literature. The truer their cinematic adaptations can manage to be to the books, as the Potter books have shown, the better, both artistically and commercially.

A Personal Note...

Go, Buckeyes!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Williams Gives 'Goblet of Fire' Big Thumbs-Up!

Craig Williams has this to say about the new Harry Potter film:
As a Christian, one of the things I look for in books and films and music is integrity -not piety. In this film as in the others and the books as well, there is integrity. Good is never confused with evil. The children, though wizards and witches, struggle with doing what is right and good. Their values are not up for grabs, though they may fail from time to time. Rowling continues to hold up friendship, sacrifice, thinking of others, kindness, goodness and the like. I know so many Christians who espouse these virtues but right below the surface they are selfish, judgmental, stingy, and down right unkind to people who are not like them, who do not believe as they do. In this light, which is Christian and which is not?
He loves it. Read the whole thing here.

The Way of Optimism, Pessimism, or Faith?

Are you optimistic, pessimistic, or faithful?

These terms, I think, represent three different world views. The first two are based on the same rather naive premise. Both the pessimist and the optimist believe, at some level, that the world ought to bend to their wishes.

The optimist holds onto the childish--by that I mean, immature--notion that his or her momentary happiness is such an important order of business for the universe, that things must go the way he or she wants them to go.

The pessimist is likely a one-time optimist or a young person schooled by pessimists. Pessimists too, are so self-absorbed that like optimists, they're offended when things don't go as they wish them to go. They become cynical and perceive themselves to be wise in the ways of the world. They're really only bores and leeches who drain life and joy from those who have to be around them.

One of my seminary professors, a man who had been through some horrible experiences in his life, told us that while it would have been horrible pastoral practice, when dealing with a pessimist or a crushed optimist asking, "Why has this happened to me?," he had to fight the impulse to shake them and ask, "Well, why not you?"

The person of faith is different from pessimists or optimists. She or he realizes that life on this planet isn't perfect and is often unfair, but God is present with them anyway. They also know that God specializes in taking rotten circumstances, even death, and giving new insights, courage, character, and life to those with faith.

With a realistic understanding of their own personal deficiencies and of the possibility of suffering, sorrow, and setbacks in this life, they know that they are never stronger than when, in moments of weakness, they dare to draw strength from the God of all creation Who, on a cross, became well-acquainted with sorrow and ultimately, through His resurrection, won a victory for all with faith in Christ that never ends.

Dan writes courageously about his four-year-old recovery from alcoholism here. I don't know where Dan is in his faith journey. But I do know that the Alcoholics Anonymous program to which he refers is rooted in the Christian Gospel's call for us to be utterly candid with God about our suffering, our sin, and our need of Him.

The Gospel insists that if we will turn our past, present, and future over to the God we know through Jesus Christ, all of our lives--especially the painful times--will become crucibles in which the old self, pulled this way and that by optimism and pessimism, will die and a new self, scarred by life and starred by God, can emerge.

This new self walks with greater confidence--not in ourselves and not in the ultimate acquiescence of the world to our particular hopes and dreams. Our confidence, in good and bad times, is in the God seen in Jesus Christ, Who stands with us now and promises us an eternity of fulfillment and awesome new adventures with Him.

In the posthumously published, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times, the late Dutch priest and scholar Henri Nouwen writes:
When Jesus said, "For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Matt. 9:13), he affirmed that only those who can face their wounded condition can be available for healing and enter into a new way of living.
Optimists and pessimists never face the reality of their woundedness and so wall themselves off from the healing of spirit, soul, and psyche God sent Jesus into the world to bring. The way of faith isn't easy. But it is the way of real life!

UPDATE: Here are links to two past posts that relate to this topic:
Two Hope-Filled Promises
Hope Meets Despair

You Say It's Your Birthday...

it's my birthday too, yeah. I'm fifty-two. (Look here.)

UPDATE: Since posting this, I've been a bit chastened by the memory of this line from John Lennon's 1975 song, "Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)":
Everybody's hollerin' 'bout their own birthday

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Echo of History: The Senate Resolution on Iraq

Where I'm about to step may be a minefield. But as a lifelong student of History and politics--I mean since I was four and including majoring in Social Studies, managing a congressional campaign, working for the Ohio House of Representatives, and once being a candidate for public office--I can't help but make an observation about the resolution passed the other day by the Republican-controlled Senate.

In that resolution, the upper chamber sought regular reports on progress with the war in Iraq from the White House and more significantly, asked for the outline of a plan for what has been called by some, the Iraqization of both the war and of Iraqi civil life.

The resolution had the support of a disparate group of Republican senators including George Allen, John Warner, Lindsay Graham, Bill Frist, and Chuck Hagel. (John McCain was opposed. I knew that and yet included him in the list of those supporting in the original version of this post.)

The Senate has been excoriated by some Republicans for what they perceive as disloyalty to the President, for "embarrassing" him while out of the country, for a lack of courage, and even, it's hinted, for a lack of patriotism.

Republican senators have defended the resolution as a matter of exercising congressional oversight, as a symptom of restiveness in the country over what the President's course in Iraq is going to be, and as an act of patriotism and support of our military personnel.

Democratic Senator Joe Biden has offered a few comments about the resolution and its meaning. But for the most part, Democrats have been relatively quiet about it, while continuing to pursue charges that "Bush lied" about the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

I have no intention of offering an opinion about the politics of all this.

But I do say something about the history of it. The action of the Republican Senate resonates with history.

Back around 1965 and 1966, during the Vietnam War, the Democratic Party enjoyed majorities in both the House and the Senate and occupied the White House.

The Texas-born President, Lyndon Johnson, a man who apparently saw no limits to what government might do or spend money on, had won a landslide victory in the 1964 elections.

Everyone agreed immediately following that election that he enjoyed extraordinary amounts of political capital that could be used to pursue his ambitious domestic agenda.

Everywhere Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party looked, it saw green lights.

But there was a problem: The War in Vietnam. As it dragged on with no end in sight, the nation became restive. Americans wondered about the exit strategy, even though a majority of the country always supported seeing the war to an end, whatever that formulation meant.

The Republican minority spoke about the conduct of the war, by and large advocating a strategy which they described as victory rather than containment. But their voice was largely marginalized and irrelevant to the discussion. The Democrats were in control and it was the Democrats who needed to resolve Vietnam. (Even when Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, by a thin margin, he hadn't given any specifics on how he would end the war, pointing simply to the historic precedent of Dwight Eisenhower's end of the Korean conflict within six months of his coming to office and of the need to turn sovereignty and the conduct of the war to the South Vietnamese. That policy, once Nixon was in office, came to be called Vietnamization.)

In the end, it was the Democrats and mostly, the Democratic Senate, that came to challenge Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policy. People like Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, William Fullbright, Wayne Morse, Frank Church, and others broke with the President. So did Democratic activists from throughout the country.

Something like this seems to be happening now. Whether spooked by decreases in public approval for the President's conduct of the war, genuinely concerned about where our Iraq policy is going, or a combination of those motives, Republican Senators are doing today what Democratic Senators did then. Back then, Senate Democrats regretted their support of the resolution which authorized Lyndon Johnson to go to war. They saw it as a blank check with which the President had bought a lot more trouble than anything for which they'd bargained. It appears, whether genuinely or not, that many Republicans in the Senate are feeling the same.

Some will argue that the analogy between Vietnam in 1965 and Iraq in 2005 is inapt. They have a point. There were 65,000 Americans killed in the Vietnamese conflict, compared to 2000 in this one. But, of course, every single life is precious. The Vietnam experience has also decreased American patience for lengthy military operations.

I've studied enough History to reject the tired old statement that, "History repeats itself." History never does the exact same thing twice. But there are lessons to be derived from History.

The Republican Senate of 2005 appears to be embracing a role not dissimilar to than taken on by the Democratic Senate of 1965. Whether they're right in doing so is a judgment I leave to others. Some argued--and argue still--that Lyndon Johnson's opponents in the Senate prolonged the war and gave aid and comfort the enemy. Others say that they hastened its end and made the Administration accountable. Similar point-counterpoint arguments are going on today, perhaps.

But this isn't something new. There is at least one precedent.

A Book Worthy of a Place in Your Personal Library (Rerun)

[I'm re-running this post for reasons that will become obvious as you read it.]

My mentor, friend, colleague, and one-time parishioner, Ron Claussen, has written and published a book of devotions called What? God...You Want Me To Do Something?

Back when I was a new pastor, called to serve a church in northwestern Ohio twenty-one years ago, God blessed me big time: Ron was serving a neighboring parish composed of two congregations, each about three miles from me. The day after I arrived on the scene, he visted me and gave me the best advice on being a pastor I've ever heard. "Love the people," he told me.

Whenever I was disappointed that I wasn't proving to be the Lutheran version of Billy Graham, packing them in Sunday after Sunday, or when the grey winter skies, so prominent on the flat farmland that surrounded us, brought me down, my wife co-conspired with Ron. She called him and said, "Ron, it's time" and unaware of their conspiracy and amazed by his providential timing, I received a call from Ron, who asked, "Want to go out to lunch today?" Because of his listening ear and his solid Biblical counsel, I always felt better after those lunches!

The area where we served in northwestern Ohio included the most-heavily Lutheran county in the United States, Henry County. (The building facilities of the church where I served as pastor, Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Okolona, Ohio, set on the line between Henry and Defiance Counties.) We used to joke that you couldn't spit without hitting a Lutheran there and Lutheran church buildings dotted every hamlet and just about every other country road. Each of them was close to being packed to the rafters on Sunday mornings. Because there were such strong ties among those churches and because unlike the rest of us, Ron had taken the time to figure out how everybody in a four-county area were related to one another, he was known and beloved by every member of every one of those churches. We pastors thought of Ron as our "bishop" and of ourselves as his assistants.

But it wasn't just the Lutherans who sensed the powerful presence of Christ and His love in Ron. Congregations of several different denominations facing pastoral vacancies harbored the hope that maybe they could cajole Ron into becoming their pastor. He also had an easy way of relating to non-believing people, an authentically friendly manner that earned their confidence and their trust.

When he became development director for the Filling Memorial Home of Mercy in Napoleon, Ohio, a Lutheran facility for severely and profoundly mentally retarded children and adults, churches and individuals from throughout our area became more deeply involved in volunteering and financially supporting the institution. On a bigger stage, Ron shared Christ's love and "loved the people." They, in turn, saw the Filling Home as a great way to share the love of Christ with those in need and, at the same time, support the ministry of a pastor they had come to revere. (One of the auxiliary blessings that flowed from Ron going to the Filling Home is that he and his wife and family joined the congregation I served as pastor!)

Ron has retired and now confined to a wheelchair as the result of being victimized by polio back in 1952, he still is loving the people. He has an active email ministry and has, as I've mentioned, written and published What? God...You Want Me To Do Something?

I heartily recommend it for you to help you grow in your life of faith. It's composed of 52 weekly devotional pieces that each conclude with a challenge to the reader to compose their plans for living the devotion over that seven day period. The devotions, in other words, are a lot like Ron: A terrific communicator of the Good News of Jesus Christ, his life has always nonetheless been his greatest witness.

Getting your own copy of Ron's book will be a bit of a challenge. You can't, unfortunately, order it from Amazon. But the effort you take will be worth it. Here's how to get it:

(1) If you live outside of Ohio, send a check for $13.75 to Ramblings from Ron Ministries. (That's $12.00 plus shipping and handling.)

(2) If you live in Ohio, send a check for $14.50 to Ramblings from Ron Ministries. (That's $12.00 plus shipping and handling, plus sales tax.) For accurate record-keeping, please note your county of residence on the Memo line of your check.

(3) Be sure to note your return address on accompanying piece of paper.

(4) For every additional book, add 50-cents to cover shipping and handling.

(5) Mail your orders to: Ramblings from Ron Ministries, 24544 Kammeyer Road, Defiance, Ohio 43512.

There is nobody I respect more in pastoral ministry than Ron Claussen. He is the gold standard, as far as I'm concerned. Do yourself a favor and buy this inspiring book.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Christian Carnival #96 is on Jordan's View

Alex Jordan has done the hard work of summarizing and presenting a whole lot of blog posts for this week's Christian Carnival. Go here for interesting reading.

Switchfoot Concert at a High School

How cool is this? You can watch the whole thing. (They're my third favorite band of all time.)

Riots in France: The Economic Component...and the Threat

While the leaders and suicidal raiders of Islamofascism have, by and large, come from the upper- and middle-class intelligentsia in places like Saudi Arabia, they engender support on the street by playing to the resentments, legitimate and fanciful, of poor Muslims.

This is why the rioting in France, continuing three weeks after they began, albeit at a lower level of destruction, is an important warning to all of Europe. The seemingly permanent Muslim underclass fostered by indifference and cradle-to-grave socialism has bred resentment. The resentful, in turn, become a breeding ground for new generations of Islamofascists.

There is evidence to suggest that some Muslims in Europe don't want to assimilate into a pluralistic Europe, of course. But that isn't the whole story.

Read this interesting analysis from the Boston Herald.

A taste:
...clearly at the heart of these riots is a rotten European economic and social model. It seeks to insulate people from the rigors and anxieties of the marketplace through generous pensions, unemployment and health benefits, mandatory vacations, limits on the length of the work week, and protections against low wages and layoffs.

Whatever the noble intentions of the social model, its results – especially in Germany, Belgium and France, where it’s been taken to absurd extremes – have been disastrous. Businesses simply don’t want to hire new workers, and the consequences are complacency, enervation and despair. The Euro Zone economies have grown in the past year at 1 percent, compared with nearly 4 percent for the United States. The unemployment rate in France is 9.8 percent, nearly twice that of the United States. That’s been the norm for a decade.

Good jobs are slipping away from Europe. In the ultimate knowledge-based, non-polluting industry – pharmaceuticals – research has flowed decisively to the United States.

Reflective Rerun

Because my fifty-second birthday is later this week, I'm in a reflective mood. I may even write about it. But for now, here's a rerun, a piece I wrote in August on the eve of my wife's and my thirty-first wedding anniversary.

One Blow of the Mallet

Check out James 3:13-18, from the New Testament, as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson:
Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here's what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It's the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn't wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn't wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn't wisdom. It's the furthest thing from wisdom--it's animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you're trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at others' throats.

Real wisdom, God's wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It's gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercies and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

God's Metaphorical Mallet to the Skull: I'm Beginning to Get It...Maybe

Sometimes, it seems, God needs to use a metaphorical mallet to the skull in order to get my attention. He's been doing that with me this week. The theme: Less talking about your faith in Christ and more living it.
Less talking about loving your neighbor; more doing it.

Less talking about giving to the cause of Christ in the world; the more doing it.

Less talking about being in favor of God's justice for the poor, neglected, and despised; more being an advocate.
This business of living out my faith is certainly one of the themes emerging from my consideration of the Bible passage on which I'll be preaching this coming Sunday. (See here, here, and here.)

Then, this morning, I read the devotion assigned for today at Our Daily Bread here.

And a moment ago, I read this wonderful piece on Authentic Christianity at Blind Beggar.

I may be starting to get it, God. Now the question becomes, will I live it?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Simon at has a very funny video showcasing the many films in which The Wilhelm Scream has been used since 1955. This made me laugh as much as did the clip of the two Chinese students lipsyncing to the Backstreet Boys. Simon explains a little about The Wilhelm Scream here.

A Third Pass at Matthew 25:14-30

Each week, I'm inviting the people of the congregation I serve as pastor--and anybody else who's interested--in considering, questioning, and discussing the Bible passages around which our Sunday worship is built. This Sunday, we'll be looking at Matthew 25:14-30.

Below are quotes and ideas taken from The New Interpreter's Bible commentary, along with some of my own thoughts sparked by it.

1. Because of this very story or parable, told by Jesus, the word "'talent' came into the English language in the Middle Ages as a term for God-given abilities, 'gifts and graces.' The talents in this story refer to money..." If I had known that, I had forgotten it.

2. Jesus tells a parable similar to this one in Luke 19:11-27. As Matthew presents this parable, it is "an allegory of the parousia..." (The parousia, a word that can mean variously, appearing or coming, refers to when the risen Jesus comes back to the world and judges "the living and the dead.") The parable deals with the reality that as Christians, we await the return of Christ to our world. In a sense, our only task in life is to figure out how to do that.

3. To be good and faithful slaves of Jesus, the call of His followers, "is not mere theological correctness, passive waiting, or strict obedience to clear instructions, but active responsibility that takes initiatives and risks..." We're to be, as I've been saying so far this week in considering this passage, confident and bold.

In his recent interview with Rolling Stone, U-2's Bono was asked what he thought of the evangelical movement. He said that he was wary of people whose faith was a lot of talk, but not much in the way of walk. (He went on to say that whenever he's challenged evangelical Christians to take action on AIDS and African debt relief, it has responded positively and with action.)

Jesus' earthly brother, James, said that "faith without works" is dead. It isn't our works that earn us a place in God's kingdom. That is a gift from God for all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ and what He did for us on the cross. But faith that fails to respond to Christ's love, that fails to live in relationships of active love for God and neighbor, is a dead thing. Faith gives one the confidence to love and act. Faith gets us off our backsides and into the risky business of living.

4. An interesting observation made by the NIB commentary is that the master gives no specific instructions to his slaves. "Each servant," it notes, "must decide how to use his time during the master's absence."

God gives followers of Jesus Christ an awesome--and maybe, an awful--freedom. While we await Jesus' return (or the ends of our own lives), we can choose to be "theologically correct" but far away from God's intentions for us: attending church, making our offerings, stopping at red lights. Or, we can dare to take the life that God has given to us and give ourselves, our time, and our money to the passionate love of God and others.

I am still very intimidated by Jesus' words in this parable! And yet they exhilarate me too. They seem dangerous and wild, compelling and energizing.

[A First Pass at Matthew 25:14-30
A Second Pass at Matthew 25:14-30]

My Son's Reaction to Times Piece on Lewis and Narnia

My son, P-Diddy around here, is a twenty-four year old who recently received undergraduate degrees in History and Philosophy. His plan is to begin graduate school in Fall, 2006. The other day, he composed a response to this New York Times article and has given me permission to present what he wrote here:
Wow. Not to ruin this article for everyone, but I REALLY disagree with this guy. I think he totally misses the point. He is so concerned with making Lewis into some hypocritical apostle for middle-class, bourgeois Christianity that he fails to give Lewis a fair hearing.

He doesn’t try to understand things from Lewis’ point of view, but instead plunges ahead with what he believes the vast majority of readers of this book think.

What did he like about these books anyway? He keeps saying he likes Narnia, but cuts everything down.

Meanwhile, he is attacking Lewis’ life. He does this while only presenting a few people’s viewpoints and only focusing on what he appears to want to hear about.

Okay, fine, I’ll do a little critique of his work. For starters, he wrote “a homage” instead of “an homage” and he ended at least two sentences with prepositions. Why do I bring this up? Because it doesn’t mean a thing to his over-all critique. However, to him, it probably would if Lewis had written it.

Then, he compares Lewis to other children's authors. He states that Lewis is sub-par compared to the likes of Rowling and Philip Pullman. I don’t know about Pullman, but you can’t compare Rowling and Lewis. They have totally different styles. Its like comparing Hemingway and Dickens, or Neil Simon and William Shakespeare. Different people have different styles and we like the work equally because of those different styles. We’d get bored if everyone wrote the same. This is not a cop-out. I like Rowling and Lewis in different ways. Rowling can lead you through twists and turns. She can bring to life magical things. Lewis, on the other hand, brings his characters’ motivations to life. He understands the gradations of sin, the nature of redemption, and all the real stuff of life. His imagination is not so much in the physical make-up of Narnia and its people, but in their psychological make-up.

Reading his work is like reading Hemingway or Shakespeare. It is concise, clear, and so beautiful. It doesn’t muck around with pretty “darling sentences” and long-winded monologues. It cuts quick and deep. It allows the reader the freedom to imagine. In an era of TV-raised brain sponges, Lewis is a breath of fresh air. He lets people commune with his books and without showing them everything.

Also, Mr. McGrath fails to see that Lewis is not talking about Susan Pevensie, one of the main characters in The Lion, the Witch, and Wardrobe, being interested in grown-up things like nylons and lipstick to demonstrate that she was more adult. He is making a comment about the postmodern view that girls are to become shallow women in training.

My gosh, has this guy been living under a rock? Has he missed sociological discussions about the problems in the rise of this subculture of encouraged female shallowness?

Sociologist Douglas Rushkoff calls these girls “midriffs”. He states, “The ‘midriff’--the character pitched at teenage girls, is the highly-sexualized, world-weary sophisticate that increasingly populates television shows such as Dawson's Creek and films such as Cruel Intentions.”

Mr. Lewis anticipated this problem and offered a solution to one of the greatest threats in our current Western culture, the over-commercialization of a generation.

And the only real cure, concludes Lewis, is a right relationship with others and God. The alternative is a shallow and lonely life in pursuit of elusive, superficial happiness. It's a kind of happiness, dubbed by the philosophical community as psychological happiness. And it's a happiness widely regarded by that field as being substandard. Rushkoff agrees with this critique and also adds that his greatest fear about the post-modern youth culture isn’t its violence, but its ubiquity.

Thus McGrath, in an attempt to show a problem with Lewis’ work, demonstrates his own inability to understand contemporary sociology and philosophy and Lewis’ genius for hitting the nail directly on the head.

Meanwhile, the ad hominem fallacies in McGrath's piece were a bit much. Focusing on possible sexual relations that Lewis may have had or with assertions that Lewis was a bit of a stuffed shirt as a way to discredit Lewis’ stories, only demonstrates that if Mr. McGrath wants to take on one of the foremost intellectuals of the twentieth century, he ought to be better prepared to take him.

So, did I like the article? In a phrase, “Its nice to hear another side even if I don’t agree with it.” But, to be perfectly frank, I’ve heard better arguments from high school freshmen.

Churches, Elections, and the IRS

That's the topic of an outstanding series of posts being written by Mark D. Roberts. So far, I agree with every single assertion that he makes here.

Monday, November 14, 2005

So, the New York Republican Party is in Disarray?

That's what this interesting New York Times article. This native New Yorker might be persuaded to run for governor. Bicoastal action heroes for the GOP?

Check Out Interesting Piece on Tommy a Trumpeter

Mike Laprarie has a really interesting post on Tommy Dorsey, the Big Band leader known as a smooth trombonist. But it's a different take on Dorsey as it profiles him asn afficionado of the trumpet, his roughly-played instrument of choice. The post includes several MP3 recordings of Dorsey on trumpet, sounding a lot like Louis Armstrong to me. Although a generation removed from the BigBand sound, I like much of the genre, especially when it closely borrowed from jazz. Check out Mike's interesting post here.

A Second Pass at Matthew 25:14-30

Now that my fingers are somewhat more acclimated to this keyboard, a few thoughts on this coming Sunday's Bible lesson, Matthew 25:14-30, including the commentary of Brian Stoffregen, to which I referred in my earlier post.

Perhaps the most provocative and interesting idea Stoffregen introduces in his commentary, among several, is that the Master's decision to give (paradidomi in the Greek) the various talents to his slaves should perhaps not be seen as the assignment of a stewardship. Stewardship is the concept of caring for that which doesn't belong to us. Stoffregen is suggesting that the Master flat out gives the talents to the three slaves. He makes this suggestion on the strength of paradidomi, a verb that most literally is to be translated as give over. (The only subsequent claims the Master makes on the talents he gives away are from the last slave who failed to take any risks in using it or making it grow. This implies that the other two slaves kept the Master's earlier gifts plus what they made.)

The implications of Stoffregen's keying in on paradidomi are subtle, but interesting. It first implies that God is gracious in giving skills, earning power, intellectual capacity, and the like to everybody. As Stoffregen points out, the Master was gracious even to the slave to whom he gave one talent. (A talent being the equivalent of between 15 to 20 years of wages for a day laborer.)

But He distributes them on the basis of our abilities. These gracious gifts aren't to be confused with salvation, which as Stoffregen points out, God makes equally accessible to all simply for their faith in Jesus Christ. The point is that while we are all equally important in God's eyes, we all are made differently.

Bill Gates, for example, has shown considerably greater acumen at making money--my son tells me that Gates is "worth" about $60-billion right now--than I have. Given Gates' abilities, it would be silly to install me as CEO of Microsoft in place of him. Conversely, it might be just as ridiculous to replace me with Gates as pastor of Friendship Church.

Surely one of the points that must be derived from this parable then, is that for us to pine for the gifts others have received. Barring the intervention of malicious or indifferent people who may in some ways steal our gifts from God (for example, developed nations soaking up unconscionably large percentages of the world's food and other resources instead of sharing them), God assigns to us precisely what we need to fulfill the missions and provide us with the necessities of our lives.

If Stoffregen is right about the implications of pardidomi, it adds a certain power to this parable. It's what I was getting at when I kept writing down two words in the notebook in which I jot down my own ideas about the passages on which I preach each Sunday. The two words:

  • Confidence
  • Faith
Respecting God's gifts, I think, entails having sufficient confidence in God to risk spending every last gift He gives to us in maximizing them. It also means being bold in our faith.

The bottom line is that faith isn't faith until it is lived. It's lived through our everyday interactions, in the charity we exhibit with our attitudes and our checkbooks, in the service we render, in the willingness to run our financial gas tanks down to E in order to love God and love neighbor.

These are all scary thoughts to me. All too often, I live an, "I'm getting ready to" faith, all preparartion and no execution, all blow and no show. Jesus is saying to risk blowing everything we've been given in order to fulfill our God-given purposes in life. I feel that I have much more in common with the third slave than with the first two. For me to imply anything different when I speak about this on Sunday would make me a huge hypocrite.

[Here's the first pass at this text.]

A First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lesson: Matthew 25:14-30

As regular readers of 'Better Living' know, I'm inviting the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Church, to prepare for Sunday worship by reading and responding to notes I leave here on the Bible texts around which that week's worship will be built.

I also hope that they and other readers of the blog will join an ongoing discussion in the comments sections of these posts.

This week's Bible passage is Matthew 25:14-30.

At present, I'm just going to link you to an interesting commentary on the passage written by Brian Stoffregen, a fellow Lutheran pastor in California, who writes and posts fantastic discussions of Gospel passages used in preaching. You can link to his commentary, insights, and questions about the passage here.

I intend to add some comments based on issues Stoffregen raises in a later post. Right now though, because we've just had the carpeting at our house steam-cleaned, including that area where I usually do my blogging, and I must wait for it to dry, I'm using my son's laptop in our kitchen. I'm finding it a bit awkward since I'm not accustomed to this keyboard. So, I don't want to undertake any major writing projects on it yet.

One other thing: On most Sundays, I use a Bible lesson from what is called a lectionary. A lectionary is simply a plan of Bible lessons for wirship and built around the Church Year. (I'll talk about that at another time, maybe.) The lectionaries of most denominations--that is, those denominations that use lectionaries--are almost the same, with only slight occasional variations.

The passage addressed here is a portion of the Gospel lessons likely to be used in most churches--at least Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Methodist, American Baptist, and other ones--this coming Sunday. So, I hope that this and the other posts I may leave here this week help laypeople and clergy alike prepare hearts, minds, and wills for worship.

A Modest Proposal?

John Schroeder has a fun proposal that people from the "normal" Church buy out TBN and all the televangelists, like Pat Robertson, with their lousy, semi-almost-Christian theology, and deny them access to the public. As tempting as John's proposal is, I had to say this in his comments section:
I like the idea, John. But I have several thoughts:

1. Getting any group of Christians to agree on what constitutes "normal" (especially given our status as "aliens and strangers") is a tough task.

2. Besides, as Bruce Cockburn has observed, "the trouble with normal is it always gets worse."

3. Then there is my rising suspicion that the money Christians spend on big media is increasingly wasted. Pat Robertson, for example, has, at most, 1-million Americans watching his '700 Club' daily. We could prevent those folks from hearing his blather, but for most people, TBN and other outlets are unengaging blurs through which they rifle while channel surfing. I think that real witness happens one-on-one and on blog sites, for example.

4. Of course, the negative impact of these folks is magnified when the mainstream media picks up their many outrageous misstatements of the Gospel. They can deligitimize or undermine those legitimate, faithful individual witnesses for Christ. So, what your proposal does have going for it is that it might momentarily give the "normal" church some breathing room, disallowing the competition of "another gospel" from the airwaves.

The problem with this of course, is that Jesus has said we will always have to deal with false prophets. Like those arcade groundhogs you have to beat with a hammer, these goofballs keep popping up. So it was for Paul; so it is for the Church today.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 19

Ron Hals, one of the professors of Old Testament from whom I learned at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, told us about the time when he and his wife had decided to read the Bible together over the course of the year and came to one of those boring genealogies in the Old Testament. "Ron," he reported his wife saying, "why do we have to read this? Is it really important?" "It must be," he supposedly said, "it's in there."

Genesis 36, with its genealogy, is "in there" and may actually be important. But as we continue to look at Genesis, I'm going to skip over it in these notes and move onto Genesis 37.

Genesis 37 begins what, with one inexplicable departure, will be the extended tale of the final chapters of this book. It also introduces us to the most unique member of the Patriarchal family, Joseph. Whereas his forebears were furtive and fleeting in their faithfulness, once he reaches his maturity and its accompanying adversities, Joseph exhibits incredible faithfulness and confidence. To me, he is the most admirable figure in the Old Testament and I wish I were more like him.

1. As Genesis 37 begins though, the narrator's story of Joseph sets us up for observing a leading characteristic of people of faith: They change. They mature. They grow.

Joseph is a snot-nosed kid favored by his father. He's a tattle tale. (Although the tattling may be an earlier manifestation of a gift Joseph would later evidence, that of administration. I surmise that the tale he told Jacob may have been of sloppy practices on the part of his shepherd brothers.) Joseph is also the recipient of dreams, a significant charism (gift) from God. Those dreams, which he appears to share with relish with his brothers, indicate that one day, though the next-to-youngest, will be lord over the others.

One of the biggest problems we have as human beings is to think that those gifts that come to us from God--whether talents, spiritual gifts, or divinely-arranged experiences--are our achievements and justify feelings of arrogance or entitlement in us. Actually, the opposite is the case. Such gifts are trusts from God to be employed with confidence but not arrogance. The young Joseph had not yet learned this lesson.

2. Why Jacob decided to send Joseph on this mission to his brothers is unclear. It certainly would have been difficult for him to imagine that his other sons would be as treacherous to Joseph as they proved to be. But he hardly could have thought that Joseph's visits would be regarded as anything other than spying.

3. Joseph ends up enslaved, although his brothers imply to Jacob that he was killed by a wild animal. As wrong as the brothers' actions and as horrible as Jacob's fate, we will learn through the course of the Joseph narrative that God is at work. First, he will use adversity to transform Joseph into the humble and confident servant he needs to be. Second, he will use the transformed Joseph for His greater purposes. In the end, the brothers will bow to Joseph. But that will bring no satisfaction to Joseph. Rather, he will derive his greatest satisfaction from using the gifts of God to serve God's purposes in the world. That's why I say that I wish I were more like Joseph.

[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
Part 18]

"They are very cooperative, beautiful, and handsome"

So said a Pakistani of thirteen paramedics who, without support from any outside organization, have gone to remote areas of Kashmiri Pakistan to provide medical attention to victims of the earthquake there:
“I mean we're saving lives, many lives, every single day. You know, as a paramedic in New York City once in a while you have a direct influence on life and death. Here it’s happening every half an hour,” says [Joe] Connelly [one of the paramedics].

In New York their job is to keep a patient alive and drive that ambulance to the nearest hospital. Here there are no hospitals or ambulances. No stretchers, either, except one which they made out of floorboards.

Their clinic is a tent next to a military hospital which had been demolished. There was no running water and no electricity, so they were operating by flashlight. And there were tremors and aftershocks all the time.

Yaser Bashir Coker brought his little sister to the clinic and says he had never seen Americans before coming to the clinic.

His first impression? “They are very cooperative, beautiful and handsome.”
It's hard to beat compassion as an expression of who we are and what we're about.

The thirteen paramedics were profiled by Bob Simon on 60 Minutes tonight. Check it out here; it was fantastic!

McCartney Wakes Astronaut and Cosmonaut

This is so cool! Read here and here.

Real Life Relating: Ready, Come What May

[Message shared with the people of Friendship Church, November 13, 2005. It's part of a series inspired by the staff from Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Burnsville, Minnesota.]

First Thessalonians 5:1-11

The November 11 issue of The Week magazine had an article that caught my eye. It was called “How the universe will end.” It begins by presenting the views of cosmologists, some of whom theorize that the universe will die as the result of what’s called a “Big Crunch,” while others say it will be because of a “Big Chill.” But some, the article said, took what might be called a more hopeful view. They believe that even beyond either one of these cataclysmic events, which could happen sometime in the next 10- to 20-billion years, “sentient dust,” some form of intelligent life, will remain and perhaps reconstitute itself in a kind of “mental cosmos,” a cosmologist's version of a resurrection.

Pretty wild stuff! But the article confirms a simple fact: We are totally fascinated with discussions of the end of the universe.

And this fascination isn’t confined to those with an interest in science. The Left Behind series of books, loosely based on one interpretation of the Bible’s discussions of the end times, has sold more than 75-million copies since first appearing in 1995! (A fourteenth book is about to go to stores, making me wonder if the publisher intends to keep putting out books until the end times actually arrive!)

Interest in the end of this life in this universe isn’t new. According to scholars, first-century Christians in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica, immature in their faith, were bothered by two big questions: If a Christian died before the resurrected Jesus returned to the world to close the doors on this universe, were they going to miss out on a heavenly eternity? AND When exactly, they wondered, was Jesus coming back?

The preacher and evangelist Paul addresses these questions in his letter to the Thessalonian church from which today’s Bible lesson is taken. Paul assures the Thessalonian Christians who know that Jesus could return any time that all believers in Him, those who have died who will be resurrected and those still alive here at the time of His return, will meet Him.

Then, at the start of our Bible lesson, Paul says something that is so simple, we may overlook it. “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters,” he writes, “you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

Did you read about the young woman who has recently robbed four different branches of the Wachovia Bank in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.-area? Her mode of operation is deceptive. She walks into the bank, apparently chatting away on her cell phone. When she gets to the teller, she opens up a box or a bag containing a pistol and a note instructing the tellers to hand over all of their cash. While one can safely bet that this young woman will be apprehended soon, we can also see how she exemplifies the way thieves like to work. Unless they’re particularly bad at their jobs, thieves usually show up without advance announcement.

No matter what the cosmologists theorize or what stories religious writers create, the end of this universe and what will happen to all of us when it does, is not something we need to stew over.

This is essentially what Jesus said once when asked about the end times. “It is not for you [or for us] to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority...” He said.

And another time He told people: “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father...”

The forecasters won’t be able to predict it. The preachers won’t know when it arrives. The end will come like a thief in the night.

For the person of faith in Jesus Christ, the question then becomes, how do we prepare for this event that could come at any time? Paul says:
“[L]et us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”
Want to be ready for the inevitable end of this life? Stay vigilant. Keep following Christ. A story I’ve told before pictures Martin Luther working in his garden. “Brother Martin,” he’s asked, “what would you do if you knew the world were ending tomorrow?” Luther looked down at the hoe and his weeding and said, “Finish this row.”

The point? Whether we or this earth have a long time to live or short, those five purposes we talked about earlier this year and which I hope you review from time to time, remain the same: To worship God with our whole lives; to fellowship with God’s family; to become more like Christ; to serve others in Jesus’ Name; and to tell others the Good News about Jesus.

But how do we keep doing that in the face of life’s challenges? Just this past week, our congregation was impacted by the death of Jennifer's’ grandmother and by the stroke suffered by Mick. And every day, even as we sense God’s blessings and love for us, we also face smaller challenges: tight schedules and demanding deadlines; conflicts with co-workers; traffic jams; the legitimate needs of our families; and so on. How do we cope?

We cope, first of all, by remembering that the future is in God’s hands. All God expects of us is to be faithful today. That’s work enough for any of us.

Secondly, we cope by not just allowing life to roll over us. We ask Christ to be with us. That’s what Paul means by being sober, wakeful, watchful. On occasion, I counsel couples whose marriages are in trouble. They seem to have fallen asleep and put their marriages on auto pilot, failing to recognize that while marriage is a gift, it’s sustained by daily repentance, daily forgiveness, daily commitment, and daily communication.

There’s a third means of coping with the uncertainties of our futures, cosmic and personal, which Paul talks about in our lesson. He says, ““Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

I was feeling inexplicably bleak and overwhelmed yesterday, working on this message when our twenty-four year old son, getting ready for work, walked up to me, wrapped his arms around me, and said, “You are one of my favorite people.” I’m such a baby. I started crying. Because I was sad? No! Because I was happy. I was encouraged. I was built up.

Those are the very things that are meant to happen when Christ’s Church gathers together.

Whether it’s in the welcome we afford newcomers in our midst or the peace of God we share with old friends, whether with our listening ear or the prayers we offer on others’ behalf, we help one another cope with the uncertainties of life and we remind one another of the certainties of eternity when we do these things.

No church I know of encourages or builds others up better than this one. Real faith comes out in real relationships.

Dear folks of Friendship Church, in this business of encouraging and building others, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep getting better at it. Make it a major object of your life. It’s the Lord’s work for us and nothing is more gratifying!