Sunday, December 31, 2006

Glen VanderKloot: Ending Strong, Starting Right

[My friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot presented this message to the people of his congregation, Faith Lutheran Church of Springfield, Illinois. You can subscribe to Glen's daily inspirations by sending an email to, typing SUBSCRIBE in the subject line.]

Author Dr. David McLennon tells a story of his very first job in a small town general store. This was before malls and supermarket chains. At age thirteen he was hired as a handy boy. He would sweep the floor, bag items for customers, stock the shelves. On one particular Saturday, he recalled, he heard the owner say to one of the clerks, "It's that time of the year again. It's time to take inventory."

Dr. McLennon wrote that this was a word that had not yet entered into his vocabulary. When an opportune moment arrived, he went up to the older man and asked, "Sir, what is an inventory?"

Patiently the owner explained that it was a time when you made a list of everything that you had--from groceries on the shelves to wrapping paper and string. Still somewhat puzzled, the young McLennon then asked, "Why?"

The owner responded, "Well, it's easy to forget exactly how much you have each year. Every now and then you have to take an inventory just to see what all you have."

That little story sums up what New Year's is all about. It is a time when each of us needs to take an inventory of our life. Because it's easy to forget exactly how much God has given to us, we need to take an inventory, just to see all that we do have.

Taking inventory allows us to end strong and start right. This is what we always want to do: end strong, start right. These two go hand in hand.

Often we see a race in which one of the runners starts out very strong, yet be so weakened by the end of the race that he finishes far behind. One alone isn't enough. We need to do both: end strong, start right.

Ending strong. Jesus said, "Stay with it. That's what required. Stay with it to the end. You won't be sorry... (Mark 13:13 The Message)

We always want to end strong, especially at the end of life. We see a wonderful example of this in Stephen. He was one of the first deacons in the church. He also is one of the first Christian martyrs. As he was being stoned to death, he called out, "Lord Jesus, please welcome me!...Lord, don't blame them for what they have done." (Acts 7:59-60 CEV)

Stephen died as he lived - faithfully. He ended strong. Let us live our lives faithfully every day so that someday we can say along with St. Paul, "I have fought well. I have finished the race, and I have been faithful." (2 Timothy 4:7 CEV)

Starting right. One day a woman who was very depressed about the conditions of the world decided to go shopping. She went into a mall and picked a store at random. She walked in and was surprised to see Jesus behind the counter. She thought it was Jesus because he looked just like the images she had seen at church. She finally asked, "Excuse me, are you Jesus?"

He responded, "I am."

She asked, "Do you work here?"

Jesus replied, "No I own the store."

Now the woman was quite curious and asked, "What do you sell here?"

Jesus answered, "Just about everything. Feel free to walk up and down the aisles, find what it is you want and then come back and we'll see what we can do for you."

So the woman did just that. She saw that there was peace in families, no more war, no hunger or poverty, and no more drugs. There was harmony, clean air, careful use of natural resources, honesty in politics and government. There was no AIDS, cancer, hurricanes, tornadoes or flooding. There really was `peace on earth good will to all.'

By the time she returned to the counter, she had an incredibly long list. Jesus took the list, skimmed through it, looked up at her and smiled, saying, "No problem."

Then he bent down behind the counter and picked some things, and laid out a huge number of packets. The woman asked, "What are these?"

Jesus replied, "Seeds."

"But don't I get the finished product?" she asked.

Jesus answered, "No, this is a place of hope and dreams. I give you the seeds...
  • Then it is up to you.
  • It is up to you to plant.
  • It is up to you to nurture.
  • It is up to you to fertilize.
  • It is up to you to prune.
  • And it is up to you to harvest."
The woman left the store without buying anything.

As we begin 2007 God is giving us some great seeds. The rest is up to us. Remember God says:
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life...loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you..." (Deuteronomy 30:19-20 NRSV)

That is how we end 2006 strong and start 2007 right.


Reflection Questions:
  • What seeds is God giving to me?
  • How will I use them?
  • How is my life going to be different in 2007?
Action Step:
This week take an inventory of your life and make a plan of action for 2007.

Start Out the New Year...

by watching an old movie. There are dozens and dozens to choose from on this site and they're all free.

Among the films I noted while perusing the site are the D.W. Griffith production of Abraham Lincoln starring Walter Huston, Charade, Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (with Peter Lorre), His Girl Friday, and The Last Time I Saw Paris with Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor.

A Sampling of 2006 Posts at Better Living

Last year, I went way overboard--which I tend to do--and published a series of "best of" posts listing a combination of my personally favorite posts and those that received the most hits in 2005. For each month, I listed between five to ten different posts!

This year, ripping off an idea from Ann Althouse, I pick one post from each month of the year, chosen solely because I like it. (Except for two months, for each of which I name a bonus post.)

January: Barry and I Were Right

February: Valentine's Day Thoughts

March: My Battle with Cliff Clavin Disease

April: What About 'The Gospel of Judas'?

May: The Connection That Brings Life

June: If TR Were Alive Today, He'd Be Blogging

July: Interpreting Lincoln's Second Inaugural Sermon
July Bonus: What's To Be Done When You're Not Into It?

August: The Lebanese War Subjected to an Armchair Historian's Analysis

September: David and the Well at Bethlehem

October: Why It's 'Reformation Sunday'
October Bonus: I Was Wrong

November: How to Overcome Worry

(Maybe I'll pick one for December in January.)

[UPDATE: Ali at Aliblog links to this post and goes on to list a post from her blog for each month of last year. I enjoy reading Ali's writing. My wife and I enjoyed meeting her parents and brother at a wedding celebration in northwest Ohio this past year!]

Saturday, December 30, 2006

'Dinner for One'

Maybe the strangest New Year's Eve custom in Germany revolves around an old English music hall skit originally aired on the BBC more than forty years ago. Dinner for One airs repeatedly on German TV on the last night of the year, drawing family and friends around their sets before they begin their celebrations.

Dinner for One
is in English and it's in black and white. Frankly, it's not that funny. You'd think that those three things would guarantee that nobody in the post-modern world--especially the post-modern world of continental Europe--would care about it. But in 2001, when my daughter and I viewed the program with German friends and their neighbors as we prepared to welcome a new year with them, we noticed that they all knew every line by heart...and still delighted in them.

For the Germans in 2006, it's apparently "the same procedure as last year...same procedure as every year."

Hermann the German, one of the best observers of everyday German life, presented the skit on his site here, if you're interested.

Another Good Post on Ford...

from the always-interesting Pastor Jeff.

More Reflections on Gerald Ford

These from my blogging colleague, Danny Miller. (He was fifteen when Ford became president. I was almost twenty-one and newly married.)

Is Wind Energy One Way to Freedom from Oil-Dependence?


Three Egyptian Deaths...

bring Avian Flu fatalities to 157. Are we prepared in the US?

In the mail from Amazon...

When Did We See You, Lord? and A Short History of the American Revolution.

Both choices were inspired by our just-completed jaunt to Charleston, South Carolina. I'm sure that there will be some posts inspired by that trip, my first there. The first book was co-written by the Roman Catholic bishop of Charleston and I saw it at a bookstore there. The second book was featured at a gift shop operated by the city's preservation society.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford: Our Insurance Policy

Richard Nixon thought that Gerald Ford was his insurance policy. It turns out that the unassuming man from western Michigan was our insurance policy.

Reports circulated in mid-1974 that President Nixon, with evidence of his multiple violations of the Constitution, the law, and his oath of office mounting, had asked aides disdainfully if they could imagine that any member of Congress would proceed with impeaching or removing him from the presidency knowing that Ford would succeed him. When Nixon's first Vice President, Spiro Agnew, had been forced to resign in disgrace, the thirty-seventh President initially wanted to nominate John Connally to take Agnew's place. However, members of Congress, especially Democratic Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, told the President that Connally, soon to be indicted in federal court, couldn't be confirmed, but that he and the Senate were enthusiastic about Ford.

Nixon thought of Ford as a lightweight. Initially resistant to the notion of nominating him for Vice President, he came to view Ford as a hedge against having to resign the presidency. He simply couldn't imagine anyone seriously wanting to see Gerald Ford become President.

But in this as on many things, Nixon was wrong. When, after taking the oath of office on August 9, 1974, Ford announced that our long national nightmare was over, we heaved a sigh of relief. Gerald Ford was our generation's Harry Truman, a plain-spoken man who loved his country, did his best, and let the chips fall where they might. We needed a President like him after Vietnam and Watergate.

I'm writing this post from a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. It was at a fort visible from this spot that the greatest constitutional crisis of US history began with the attack by Rebel insurgents on Fort Sumter. The Civil War ensued, testing whether that nation or any nation, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, dedicated to the principles of the American Revolution could survive.

Throughout much of our national history, there have been those who have misinterpreted the theme of the American Revolution and of the American experiment. They've seen the cause of America as being solely centered on individual liberty or freedom, particularly their own freedom.

Ironically, people who see America in this way usually are the ones who most threaten the freedom they claim to value. Unbridled freedom can become what the Founders called mobocracy, the tyranny of "the free," exemplified for them in the terrors of the French Revolution.

The desire for freedom is certainly part of what motivated America's founding generation. Thomas Jefferson, a delegate at the Continental Congress that declared American independence from Great Britain, well-articulated the views of his countrymen when assigned the task of presenting the American brief to the world about which even schoolchildren today know.

It turns out though, that even Jefferson didn't fully understand the other theme which completed or fulfilled our revolution. Both James Madison, his protege, and John Adams, his friend and rival, had constantly to correct Jefferson, who never really got it. Because of his misunderstanding, Jefferson disdained the Constitution. While out of office, he saw it not as a compact which bound Americans together, but as a temporary and expendable document meant to fix the flaws in the Articles of Confederation, flaws he never fully acknowleged. While President, he viewed constitutional limits on his ideas about the republic and giving Americans a continent in which to expand their agrarian nation, as being inimical to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

But the Constitution had been made necessary because freedom without mutual accountability can lead to a weak and ineffectual nation, as happened under our Articles of Confederation, or to license and violence as it did in France.

During the Civil War, southern leaders insisted that they were fighting for freedom. They were, in a way: their "freedom" to enslave others and to allow states to legitimize the "peculiar institution" of human bondage which kept their rice and cotton plantations afloat. More than one-hundred years later, Nixon chafed under attempts to bridle his "freedom" as a chief executive to violate the Constitution, overstepping his presidential prerogatives and violating the freedoms of others.

This is the sort of thing that always happens when one of the two guiding US principles is forgotten.

What Adams, Washington, Hamilton, and to a lesser extent, Madison, saw was that the Constitution completed the American Revolution, balancing freedom with mutual responsibility and checks and balances.

Lincoln would later fully articulate and explain the twin components of the American experiment, seeing that the nation was birthed to be a republic in which liberty was wedded to the rule of law, institutionalizing mutual accountability.

Ford, unlike Nixon, understood and accepted these twin components of the American experiment. That's why, in the address he gave on taking over as President, Ford declared that his ascent to the presidency as the culmination of the Watergate crisis proved that our constitutional system worked, that ours was a nation of laws, not of individual people.

"I am the President," Nixon once declared, in a statement eerily similar to that ascribed King Louis XIV: "C'etat est moi." Ford knew better than this, seeing that no human being is above the laws that bind nations together.

This decent, principled man was precisely the prescription needed to affirm both freedom and responsibility as the essential elements of our national identity.

I didn't agree with Gerald Ford's decision to pardon Nixon, although I understood his desire to get the disposition of Nixon's life off the national agenda. Nonetheless, as I'm sure many commentators have noted today, Ford, in his understated way, restored our trust in government and the Constitution and ended the War in Vietnam. He unflinchingly made some of the toughest decisions ever made by an American President, all in an amazing two-and-a-half year period.

In his typically self-deprecating way, the former Michigan Congressman said of his oratory that he was a Ford, not a Lincoln. But with actions if not eloquence, Gerald Ford, like Lincoln before him, insured Americans' continued fealty to the two primary principles of our country's founding. That's no mean achievement.

[UPDATE: See here.]

[THANKS TO: Two of my favorite bloggers, Charlie Lehardy, for linking to this post and to Pastor Jeff for doing the same.]

[THANKS TO: Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice for linking to this post.]

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

I Plan to Be Blogging Again on December 30

(But you know how God laughs at our plans!) I'm taking a a three to four day hiatus from blogging. There should be plenty for you to read here, though.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts, the Whole Series

Here are links to all the installments of my recently completed series, Opening Your Spiritual Gifts:
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7
Day 8
Day 9
Day 10
Day 11
Day 12
Day 13
Day 14
Day 15
Day 16
Day 17
Day 18
Day 19
Day 20
Day 21

Monday, December 25, 2006

"You got soul!"

That's what James Brown told Russel Shaw.

Why No Christmas Eve Message from Daniels?

As I mentioned, we had our Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship last night. And I did present a message. But it wasn't my message.

Instead, I resumed an old practice of mine, presenting an adaptation of something put together years ago by the late Roland Bainton. Bainton was a Yale history professor whose specialty was the Reformation. (He was also a fine caricaturist and a collector of Reform-era prints, by the way.) Bainton collected all of the Christmas sermons preached by Martin Luther and distilled them into a single, seamless sermon. Bainton's finished product was rather long. So, about twenty years ago, I pared it down for use on Christmas Eve. Except for about three Christmas Eve celebrations in the intervening years, I've used it ever since.

Even though Luther died in 1546, his preaching still works because of his particular genius as a communicator: the capacity to take sometimes complicated truths and make them accessible, rooting them in the daily experiences of people.

This ability, of course, was closely related to the entire project of his life as a theologian, pastor, and thinker. Luther wanted all to know that God had made Himself accessible and known ultimately through Jesus Christ. Through faith in Christ, all can know peace with God and have life with God forever.

Making Christ accessible to all, no longer the exclusive purview of theologians or priests, is what lay behind so much of Luther's work, including The Small Catechism, explaining the faith to families; his translation of the Bible into German, the catalyst behind standardizing the German language; and his reform of the Mass, making it what worship was intended to be, the work of God's people. (The term from which we get the word liturgy means work of the people, indicating that worship isn't a spectator sport, but something in which all of God's people are to be involved. And, of course, worship is meant to be the Jesus-Follower's way of life, not just something done once or twice a week.)

Of course, this emphasis was wedded to the Reformation Martin Luther set off in the Church when He insisted that God's favor, forgiveness of sin, and eternal life cannot be earned. They are free gifts from a gracious God to all who believe in Christ. (See here, here, and here.) (Without Christ, there would be absolutely nothing to celebrate at Christmas!)

I first did my distillation of the Bainton adaptation of Luthers Christmas sermons on a typewriter, long before I owned or had access to a computer. It's from the same typewritten sheets I produced back then that I read last evening's message.

Maybe one day, I'll re-key it and post it here.

[To get to my multi-part series on the basics of Christian faith, based on Martin Luther's Small Catechism, see here. To see The Small Catechism, go here.]

Glen VanderKloot: Christmas Expectations, Christmas Realities

[This is the Christmas Eve message of my colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot. To subscribe to Glen's daily inspirations, send an email to; simply type SUBSCRIBE on the subject line.]

It seems like everyone has expectations for Christmas. Some of these expectations are realistic, many are not.

What do you expect for Christmas? What about you? Are you expectations realistic, or not?

Kids and lots of adults are expecting - presents. Sometimes they are expecting something that is just never going to happen.

One child put on her list that she wanted a chimpanzee adopted from the Jane Goodal Foundation - cost $1000. Not gonna' happen!

One woman staying at a shelter was adopted by a church for Christmas. She put on her Christmas list: bath towels, wash cloths and a karaoke machine. Not gonna' happen!

Often soldiers in war zones hope and expect a Christmas truce. May happen, but probably not.

Many families are expecting family unity, reconciliation and behavioral change. May happen, but probably not.

All the characters in the Christmas story had expectations.

Mary and Joseph expected to get a room at the inn in Bethlehem. But there was no room in the inn!

Mary expected a much more favorable environment than a barn for her son to be born - but that is where she gave birth.

The shepherds expected to see in Bethlehem what had been told them by the angel. And they did!

The wise men expected a prince - born to royalty and wealth. Instead they found a baby born to peasant parents.

The wise men expected to find a baby who would be a king - not a baby in the manger.

The wise men expected Herod to be a man of his word - but God warned them in a dream that he was not.

It seems like everyone had expectations for Christmas. Some of these expectations were realistic, many were not.

What about you? What do you expect for Christmas? Are you expectations realistic, or not?

It turned out that the expectations for that night in Bethlehem just were not important. It turned out that whether their expectations were realistic or not was not important.

For independent of whether their expectations were met, everyone in the Christmas story was changed. They could not come to the manger, into the presence of Almighty God, and stay the same. How God changed
each of them was much more significant than their expectations or even the realities they discovered.

Mary was changed as she treasured in her heart all that happened.

Joseph was changed as he acted in faith accepting Jesus as his son, marveling at all that had happened.

The shepherds were changed, leaving the manger telling everyone what God had done and praising and glorifying God.

The wise men were changed as they bowed down, worshipped and gave gifts to the Baby Jesus.

The same is true for us. Our expectations do not matter.

What does matter is whether we open ourselves to Jesus and let God change us. We cannot come to the manger, into the presence of Almighty God, and stay the same.

Are we ready to let God change us?

Are we ready to treasure in our hearts the Christmas story?

Are we ready to act in faith and marvel at all God does?

Are we ready to tell everyone about Jesus, praising and glorifying God?

Are we ready to bow down and worship the Christ Child?

Are we ready to let Jesus be the focus not only tonight, but all nights?

Are we ready to turn over our lives to Jesus?

Are we open to receive the love, peace and forgiveness that God offers to us in the Christ Child?

These are the questions that matter.

As you come to the manger tonight, may God change you into all that he desires you to be. Amen

I Feel Good

I hope that James has reason to sing that right now.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

I Love Christmas Eve!

In just a few moments, I'll be driving to our church building to get ready for tonight's Christmas Eve Candlelight worship. This is really my favorite service of the year, the best part of Christmas for me.

Near the end of the service, I'll read the prologue to John's Gospel while everyone in the sanctuary holds a candle. Then, by the same candlelight, we'll sing the Austrian hymn, Silent Night. (Stille nacht, heilige nacht...)

Silent Night well evokes the understatedness of the first Christmas. Like all true things, I think, the importance of the first Christmas was mostly unseen and unrecognized by the people of Bethlehem and the surrounding territory. It could be perceived only through the eyes of faith, though none of it happened in secret. (That remains true to this day.)

God did choose to send an angel choir to announce the birth of the world's Savior to some shepherds. But isn't that just like God? I mean, for Him to send word to shepherds.

He's always choosing the lowly, the despised, the victims of prejudice, injustice, and poverty to be His witnesses.

It makes sense when you think about it: the proud and powerful, the people who think that their wealth makes them all that could hardly be counted on to take notice of the birth of Jesus, let alone tell the neighborhood. They would be too dazzled with themselves and their baubles to care. It's easy to live in denial about one's need of a Savior when your ego and your pockets are stuffed. Not so for those who live in poverty or deal with the pain and difficulties of life or know that the world isn't theirs to control. People like this have always been the ones to lead the rest of us in true worship of God.

That's probably why Jesus said that it would be harder for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. It isn't that a wealthy person can't hear and respond to God's call to own up to our need of Him. Abraham, patriarch of God's people, the Hebrews, was wealthy. It's just harder for the wealthy to surrender to God because of having so much more to surrender.

Mary seemed to know all of this, impoverished girl as she was, and it's reflected in the words she spoke to Elizabeth in the Bible lessons most Christians heard together as they worshiped today:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
I love Christmas Eve because, in a single event, God telescopes everything about Himself and everything He thinks and feels for us.

God isn't removed from us. He becomes one of us, a baby who soils His diapers.

God doesn't disdain stuff. He made it and wants to redeem His children and in fact, all creation.

God doesn't come to wow us, but to save us from our sin.

The child was laid in a stone feeding trough in a barn that was probably a cave. Later, wise men from the East would bring, among other things, myrrh, a spice used to anoint the dead. Jesus' very birth foretold His sacrificial death. It also hinted of something else that would happen in a cave: the resurrection of Jesus' flesh, the undeniable guarantee that all who turn from sin and follow this Savior, even if they die, they will rise again with Jesus and live with God forever.

Christmas tells us how much God loves us and how much those with faith in Christ have to look forward to, here and in eternity.

"I am so glad each Christmas Eve, the night of Jesus' birth. Then like the sun, the star shone forth, and angels sang on earth."

And the song will go on forever and ever, world without end. Amen!

What's Different About Being a Christian?

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church of Amelia, Ohio, during morning worship--celebrating the Fourth Sunday in Advent--on December 24, 2006.]

Luke 1:39-55
Recently, I read about a pastor who took aback the members of his congregation by asking them, “What have you done today that nobody but a Christian would do?”

When I thought about that question when I first read it and considered my day, I realized that I’d done a lot of good things: I’d done my work dutifully, volunteered in the community, cared for my family, said hello to my neighbor, paid my bills, done the banking.

But how many of those were things that only a Christian would do?

What about the way I lived that day indicated that Jesus Christ was my Lord and highest priority?

What have you done today that only a Christian would do? My answer to that question shames me. I realize that sometimes, whole days go by in which what I do has very little about it that’s distinctively Christian about it.

And we Christians are meant to be distinctive. The term the Bible uses for this distinctiveness is holy.

Holy people are those who have been saved from sin and death by confessing their sins, turning from them, and entrusting their eternal lives to Jesus Christ. Being holy, very simply, means letting Jesus Christ enter our lives and rule over us.

Notice what being holy doesn't mean. It doesn't mean being perfect. It doesn't mean looking down one's nose on others.

Our Bible lesson for this morning tells us something about a young girl named Mary. The Bible teaches that Mary, like other believers in history, wrestled with doubt. Mary had all sorts of experiences confirming that the child she was bearing was the long-promised Savior-Messiah. But in spite of all these signs, Mary’s human sinfulness--our inborn penchant to think that we are the universe's highest authorities and this world is all there is to living--would lead her to deny Who Jesus was.

Once, when Jesus was twelve, you know, Mary, Joseph, their friends, and their extended family went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. As they headed back to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was with someone else in their party. But after they discovered that Jesus wasn’t with them, they hurried back to Jerusalem. Mary said scornfully to Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this?” But Jesus, reminding her of Who He was, responded, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Later, after Jesus had begun His public ministry, He started to encounter opposition and death threats. And even Mary and her biological children seem to have entertained doubts about Jesus. When others questioned Jesus’ sanity, they tried to get him away from the crowds, maybe as a way of sparing Him the death which He had come to endure for us all. In this instance, too, Mary allowed her fears and her sin to overcome her faith.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on Mary. Saints, holy people, are sinners who believe in Jesus Christ and so, receive forgiveness as a free gift from God. In this, Mary is a good model. She was among the first to believe, however hesitantlly and imperfectly, that Jesus was the Savior of the world. She was the first to welcome Him into the world. (In her case, welcoming Jesus into her very womb!) Like most people of faith, she wrestled with unbelief. And like all people of faith, she looked forward confidently to spending eternity with the Lord born in a barn Who lived, died, and rose for us all.

Our lesson recounts what happens when Mary, the virgin pregnant with Jesus, visits Elizabeth, the post-menopausal wife of the priest Zechariah who is to give birth to the prophet who prepared the world for Jesus’ arrival, John the Baptizer. At the end of it, Luke records the words of Mary, spoken to Elizabeth, words patterened after those of an Old Testament figure, Hannah, spoken by her after she learned that she would become the mother of the priest, judge, and prophet Samuel.

In Mary’s words, called The Magnifcat, for the first three words of her speech in its Latin translation, Mary rejoices in three things. I hope that they're three things in which you will rejoice as you celebrate Christmas this year.

First: God blesses us even in adverse circumstances, sometimes through them. In the years that followed, Mary would endure the gossip of those who claimed that Jesus was an illegitimate child conceived in the usual way. She would also watch her son being murdered for the sins of the world, a punishment He didn’t deserve, accepted on behalf of a world that didn’t appreciate Him...and which to this day, doesn’t appreciate Him. Mary must have been filled with dread as considered what pain and grief lay ahead of her. Yet, in today’s lesson, Mary called herself blessed because she was given a role in God’s plan for the world.

You and I have roles in God’s plan, too. And our roles are just as important as that of Mary. I learned recently of a couple in our community. The husband is fighting cancer. They go together regularly to a local hospital where the husband receives his treatments. The staff are amazed by this couple because they use the treatment times as an opportunity to tell others about how Christ is helping them through and to invite them to worship with them. Mary welcomed Jesus and all the problems He brought to her, something only a Christian would do. And only a Christian invites others to follow Christ, the way this couple is doing.

Second: Mary’s song affirms that God is for us. More than four-hundred years had passed between the last prophecy of the Messiah and Mary’s pregnancy. But generations had dared to believe that the God Who acted in the past would act again and He would act for all who believed in Him. They believed, as Mary affirms, that God especially works to bring down the arrogant and to lift up the humble.

Our call is to let the world know of God’s preference for those humble enough to know they need God to fill them and God’s condemnation of those too proud to admit their need of God. You and I are called to lift up those laid low by sin, by poverty, by injustice, by loneliness. You and I can find many opportunities to do things that only Christians can do when we fight against these ills and let others see Christ in us.

Finally: Mary’s song shows us the beauty and the power of a life given over to service to God. A peasant girl from a Third World country gave birth to the Savior! In 2007, you can follow Mary’s lead and strive to give yourself to the cause of Christ completely.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one: the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap, and being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Shaw almost had it right, I think. We can reduce ourselves to feverish, selfish little clods. We can be pathetically self-absorbed. I know that I can be.

But Christians know that God will never throw us on the scrap heap, though hell will be filled with people who turned from Christ and so, voluntarily threw themselves on the scrap heap.

We know too, that, with the power of God’s Spirit, we can be more than a force of nature; we can be supernatural weapons of an eternal God.

And we know that God can use us for a cause greater than all!

Mary learned that the life of a Christian, a holy if imperfect life devoted to Jesus Christ, isn’t always easy.

But it’s blessed, it’s joyous, and it’s filled with the peace and assurance that comes from knowing that we belong to God forever!

It’s a life filled with prayer, worship, service, and witnessing in the Name of Jesus Christ are four things which only Christians can do.

These are the things that Mary did. They're the lifestyle components of everyone who has ever confessed belief in Jesus Christ. Absent these elements, our lives are really indistinguishable from the rest of the feverish little clods who complain that the world doesn't bow to them, their desires, and their whims.

You can tell that a forgiven sinner is walking with Jesus Christ when, in Jesus' Name, they...
  • pray
  • worship
  • serve
  • witness
Only Christians do these things in the Name of Christ. Only Christians do these things with the strength and grace of Christ involved in them. In the power of the God we know through Jesus Christ, let’s do these things that only Christians can do. When we do, we’ll live Christmas the whole year through!

Okay, Explain This to Me

Writes Pastor Jeff:
The same rabbi who demanded a large menorah be put on display at Sea-Tac Airport got Washington's Governor to light a menorah in the statehouse. When a local real estate agent asked to place a creche next to it, the state turned him down, fearing that a creche might give too strong an impression of government support for religion -- as opposed to, you know, the Governor lighting a menorah in the statehouse...

Look -- I don't care if you put up a Menorah on government property as a sign of inclusion and equality. My faith doesn't need a show of government support. But this does raise the question of where you draw the line: How many displays are you going to allow? What ones? Who decides?

And to have the Governor light a menorah and then disallow a nativity scene does seem more than a little discriminatory. Why can the state express support for the miracle of Hanukkah and not the miracle of the Nativity?

To paraphrase Seinfeld:
"And this offends you as a Jew?"
"No, it offends me as an American."

I would prefer taking down all religious holiday displays off public property -- even Christmas trees -- rather than having the state express approval for certain religions.
Like me, Jeff is sick and tired of hearing Christians bellyache about a "war on Christmas." Jesus never promised that He would be any more welcome now than He was on the night of His birth or the day of His crucifixion. But it is more than a little weird that the symbols of one faith are acceptable and those of another aren't.

Read the whole thing.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Take a Christmas Tour with Jafabrit

I love her blog. This is just a little slice of Christmas life from her home to yours.

I didn't realize it...

but sometime in the past few weeks, Better Living: Thoughts from Mark Daniels became a Large Mammal. With a current daily average of 845 site visits and an inbound link score (that measures how many other blogs are linking to this site) of 233, I guess this blog is no longer one of the marsupials in the blogging least for now.

Anyway, thanks to everybody who visits, reads, links to, and comments on the site. Have a great 2007!

Of Gifts, Parenting, and How to Let Go

Susan Senator is the parent of an autistic son, Nat, now seventeen. During this season, Senator is thankful for those who work with Nat. Their compassion and dedication are gifts. And, her experience tells her that in spite of her fears over a future over which she has no control, there will always be someone who cares about what happens to Nat.

Near the end of her piece, Senator writes:
The other day, because it's close to Christmas, Nat's driver handed us a big bag of presents: a huge box of oreos and a polar fleece top to keep him warm. "He always asks for cookies because I give them to him sometimes," she shrugged. "So I want to make sure he gets his cookies."

The old twinge in my throat flared up. I almost cried as I took that bag from her. This gift was much more than a bag of cookies. What she gave me was a little peace of mind. I still don't know what the future holds for Nat as an adult. But I'm pretty sure that there will always be people out there who will care for and love him, even when it's not part of their job description. Even when it's not easy. And even when I'm no longer around.
I was moved to respond to what Senator wrote:
Thank you for this wonderful post!

Acknowledging that we're not really in control of our lives is among the hardest and most essential steps any of us can take.

It's certainly an issue for parents of children who aren't, for want of a better term, differently abled. Parenting is a slow, arduous letting-go. But I'm sure that the letting-go is more difficult for you as Nat's mom.

One of the joys of my life is my service on our county's Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. I don't know how I would have handled being the parent of a differently abled child and I know that I wouldn't be a good professional worker with such children. But I feel that the least I can do is provide support to such children (and adults), their families, and the very special people who work with these folks.

As a Christian, of course, I believe that the greatest gift we receive is God Himself, Who came to us as a helpless child needful of parents and a community to raise Him to adulthood. It's Christ Who gives me the capacity to deal with the uncertainties in my life, although I admit that I don't have them so maddeningly thrown into my face as you do each day.

But whether one believes what Christians say about Christ or not, I think that most people would agree with the Christian belief that the highest calling in the world--more important than the jobs of kings, presidents, athletes, or pop stars--is the call to be a parent. Susan, I can see that you take that calling with the utmost seriousness. Nat is blessed. And your post is a blessing.

I hope that Nat enjoys his Oreos.
The only way I know how to let go is to let God into all of the daunting and seemingly insoluble situations of our lives. I go back to the three-word Latin motto my seminary professor, Trygve Skarsten, used to write on our "blue books": Ora et labora. Pray and work.

And in that order: Ask for God's help. Then do your best.

Live with the unknowns and trust the God Who has made Himself emphatically, clearly, lovingly, unmistakably known in the Savior Whose birth we celebrate on Christmas!

I don't have the same faith in humanity that Senator has. I know how self-absorbed and sinful I can be. My observation tells me that's true of the rest of the human race. But I have faith--sometimes the size of a mustard seed--in the big, infinite, loving God Who makes Himself known for all to see at Christmas. This is the God Who inspires people to pray and work and serve in His Name and so, make the world a little better. God is the One Who gives me hope.

Read Susan Senator's post.

[Also read here.]

Somehow, This Fits with Las Vegas

The mayor there is teaching a class. (TY to The Moderate Voice for leading me to this story.)

Christmas Encounters

A four-part series by Charlie Lehardy, each one a gem:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Great Christmas reading! Part 4 will be particularly interesting to those with a love for science, I think.

Great Reflections on Christmas

From Jan:
Christmas is the best time to remember that we really do have everything we need. And that yearning deep in our very bones is not just for a new car or for straight hair, or a spouse - who would also be imperfect and occasionally fail us. It is for our true home, where we will be loved perfectly forever and will never want. I leave you with a beautiful perspective on disappointment at Christmas. "Christmas reminds us of all that should be right with the world, but the world isn't always right...But it's not about Christmas, is it? It's about an empty tomb. Christians were never the Christmas people, those concentrated on the First Advent. No, we are the resurrection people, born to die, then to live again."
Read the whole thing.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 21)

Ready. Fire. Aim.

After the first of the year, I’ll be providing members of Friendship Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, and readers of this blog with a Spiritual Gifts Inventory I first created more than seventeen years ago. It’s based on the list of seven gifts Paul enumerates in Romans 12. As I’ve said before in this series, there’s probably no counting all the spiritual gifts God grants to His people. But this inventory may help you to learn some things about yourself and the ministry God wants you to do as part of the Church’s overall mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

In the meantime, I urge you not to spend too much time thinking about what your gifts for ministry are. Navel gazing doesn’t result in a lot of ministry in Jesus’ Name.

Instead, just get involved with ministry. If your heart is right and your motivation is to glorify God, you won’t go wrong.

The problem with many Christians is that they’re closet perfectionists, forgetful that they follow a gracious God Who accepts us “just as I am, without one plea.” That’s why Steve Sjogren, author of The Conspiracy of Kindness and other books, tells Christians: “Ready. Fire. Aim.”

Get involved with ministry first, trusting that God will make the best of it and that each experience will take you closer to the ministry that’s right for you. As another pastor, Rick Warren, puts it, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” Even the person who does ministry poorly is at least doing something.

I also advise being creative. Do you think that your gift is hospitality? Then, spearhead an effort to throw a party for the people of our community at the church building or a cookout in some cul-de-sac. Do you have an interest in auto mechanics? Then, offer to teach a class on auto maintenance basics that we could share with the community. Or, set a regular time each month when you and others who share your interest offer free oil changes to our neighbors. Have you been dabbling in filmmaking? Offer to lead a group who prepare film clips for use in worship or create a fun documentary we could post on the Internet, promoting Friendship. Are you adept at making friends? Make it a conscious goal to use this gift to invite others to worship with us.

People wonder, “How does a church grow?” Many churches grow to megachurch size these days. But few megachurches really grow. Most of their memberships are composed of people from smaller churches. Reflecting the “what’s-in-it-for-me?” mentality that so pervades our culture, these people migrate to larger congregations with big staffs and big bankrolls, where everything gets done for them.

But how do churches grow God’s way? That’s very simple: They imitate God. The most famous passage in the New Testament is John 3:16, where Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” God gave.

And God calls us to give. Not just our time, talents, and treasures, but our whole selves. We’re to give our whole selves to the God Who gave His whole self to us.

When I was in seminary, Pastor Bruce Schein’s teaching style was what I would call the US Marine Corps version of the Socratic method. We had about 200 pages of readings to do before our two weekly class sessions of an hour and fifty minutes. Pastor Schein would do some brief set-up lectures and then, he would begin to ask us questions. His entire method was designed to pull things out of us and to cause us to put things together so that we learned and so that we owned what we learned. It was exhilarating! But only if we spent the time needed to prepare for class. Schein would tell us, “You need to give me your minds and your efforts. If you don’t do that, you won’t grow.”

Immediately following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Church, in spite of the constant threat of persecution and martyrdom, enjoyed explosive growth. The reason for this strange phenomenon might be found in several verses in the New Testament: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses, sold them and brought them to the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:34-35) In another place, we’re told, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:46-47)

I’m not asking anyone to turn the deed of their house over to the church. I know I’m not planning on doing that. I am saying that the early Church members gave themselves to God’s purposes without stint and with joy.

Churches that really grow don’t do it by picking up members from other congregations and putting out a Hollywood-style product for consumers of religious life. New and everlasting life is God’s gift to all who believe in Jesus Christ. But we only grow as Christians when we give ourselves--including our spiritual gifts--to Christ and the Church. And when Christians grow, the Church grows. Really grows.

Give yourself to God and to the mission of the Church. Ask yourself each day, “How can I use opportunities, talents, and relationships to help the Church grow?” When you truly give yourself in the everyday places of your life and when you help with all the things needed to make the church go, you’ll find your spiritual gifts and your church will be packed out all the time.

You’ll find your spiritual gift and all churches will grow when all Christians adopt the motto of, “Ready. Fire. Aim.”

Bible Passage to Ponder: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)

[THANKS TO: Alex Jordan of Jordan's View for linking to this series. Check out the other blog articles to which Alex links in his Blips on the Blogosphere 9-Christmas Edition.]

[THANKS ALSO TO: Bruce Armstrong of Ordinary Everyday Christian for linking to this and the posts in this series. Pray for the health of Bruce's mother, too, please. And congratulations to Bruce for reaching a milestone, his two-hundredth post!]

Friday, December 22, 2006

"Let My Pride Fall Down"

Lauren, scientist who's also a Christian, presents some excellent thoughts here.

Let Keith Ellison Take the Oath of Office on the Koran

One congressman's stupid ideas to the contrary, I stick with what I said in November when Dennis Prager first began spouting this nonsense.

I am a Christian who believes that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. I want all people to believe in Him and so, have eternal life. It's precisely because I am a Christian who believes that people are loved, served, and persuaded to follow Christ, not coerce or bullied into it, that all attempts to prevent Ellison from taking the oath using a Koran should be repudiated. It's bigoted and un-Christian to do so.

Besides, it's profoundly un-American and unconstitutional.

Read my whole post on the subject.

"The Night Before Christmas"

[My friend and colleague, Glen VanderKloot has shared this in today's edition of his daily emailed inspirations, OnLine with Faith.]

The Night Before Christmas

T'was the night before Christmas
and all through the town,
Not a sign of baby Jesus
was anywhere to be found.

The people were all busy
with Christmas time chores,
Like decorating, and baking,
and shopping in stores.

No one sang "Away in a manger,
no crib for a bed."
Instead, they sang of Santa
dressed up in bright red.

Mama watched Martha Stewart,
Papa drank beer from a tap.
As hour upon hour
the presents they'd wrap.

When what from the TV
did they suddenly hear?
'Cept an ad that told
of a big sale at Sears.

So away to the mall
they all flew like a flash,
Buying things on credit
and others with cash!

And, as they made their way home
From their trip to the mall,
Did they think about Jesus?
Oh, no... not at all.

Their lives were so busy
with their Christmas time things,
No time to remember
Christ Jesus, the King.

There were presents to wrap,
and cookies to bake.
How could they stop and remember
Who died for their sake?

To pray to the Savior,
they had no time to stop.
Because they needed more time
to "Shop till they dropped!"

On Wal-mart! On K-mart!
On Target! On Penney's!
On Hallmark! On Zales!
A quick lunch at Denny's.

From the big stores downtown
to the stores at the mall,
They would dash away, dash away,
and visit them all!

And up on the roof,
there arose such a clatter
As grandpa hung icicle lights
up on his brand new step ladder.

He hung lights that would flash.
He hung lights that would twirl.
Yet, he never once prayed to Jesus,
Light of the World.

Christ's eyes ... how they twinkle!
Christ's Spirit ... how merry!
Christ's love ... how enormous!
All our burdens ... He'll carry!

So instead of being busy,
overworked, and uptight,
Let's put Christ back in
Christmas, and enjoy
Some good nights!

Rev. Jon Prain
Luke 2:11 CEV

This very day in King David's hometown a Savior was born for you. He is Christ the Lord.


Lord, help me to make Jesus the center of my Christmas. Amen

[You can subscribe to Glen's daily inspirations. Simply send an email to and put SUBSCRIBE on the subject line.]

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 20)

Mercy or compassion is the spiritual gift of those Christians empowered by God to personally undertake and to incite fellow Christians to do something about the needs of others.

Many people at Friendship Lutheran Church and at one of our neighboring Lutheran congregations remember a man named Fred. Fred was a member of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection and headed a committee there that assisted people in need from throughout our area: people who were hungry, behind on their rent, unemployed, in need of gas money to get to work, and so on. Fred died several years ago and when he did, it was a loss for both of our congregations and our entire community. We often coordinated our efforts with Fred, especially when he found folks in need in Clermont and Brown counties.

Fred had the spiritual gift of mercy or compassion. He worked to coordinate efforts not only among churches, helping to stretch their dollars, but also with various local agencies.

But Fred was no pushover. He made certain that people asking for help weren’t simply plucking others’ heartstrings, taking advantage of them. When he found phonies, he refused to help and alerted other congregations about them.

Of course, we can’t always know if the people who ask our churches or us for help are authentic or not. Several people I know with the gift of compassion have personal rules governing how they approach such circumstances. One says that whenever she encounters a person asking for money on the streets of downtown Cincinnati, she gives them several dollars. “The way I see it, if they’re lying, the onus is on them. I’ve responded, which is what I think God calls me to do,” she says. Another person with this gift, when approached by a person for money for a meal, invites them to go with him to a nearby restaurant. There, he buys them dinner and also talks with them.

One of Jesus’ most famous parables was that of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). In it, a man, a Judean, is mugged, left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Two religious officials, equivalent perhaps to a pastor and a seminary professor in our world, pass by the bleeding man. But a Samaritan, a member of a national group that Judeans hated, bandaged the wounded man, took him to a nearby inn, and provided for his care. Jesus says that all of us are to be that kind of neighbor and that our neighbor is anyone whose need is made known to us.

But those with the gift of compassion have a special heart for those in need. Compassionate service is the focus of their personal ministries. They challenge the rest of us to fulfll Jesus’ call to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Often personal experiences will prompt those with this gift to use it. In Fred’s case, for example, seeing the needy children of Europe after World War Two caused him to make a personal vow to help those in need whenever he could.

I see the gift of compassion in many members of Friendship. They’re the ones who lead the rest of us in sharing compassionately with others. They well exemplify too, the way this gift is meant to be expressed. In Romans 12:8, Paul says that those with the gift of compassion should express it “in cheerfulness.” There is no more cheerful person than the Christian with the gift of mercy exercising their gift.

Mercy or compassion is the spiritual gift of those Christians empowered by God to personally undertake and to incite fellow Christians to do something about the needs of others.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” (Acts 9:36)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Preacher's True Confession

I hate organ music. Yes, I am a preacher. Nonetheless, I really do hate organ music. Always have.

But occasionally, an organ adds something special to a a piece of music.

Take the classic, Woolly Bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. What would that song be without the prominent role played by the organ?

Or would anything by Booker T and MGs be as good?

And without the musical backdrop provided by the organ on Gary Lewis and the Playboys' otherwise mediocre 'This Diamond Ring' (along with that low-register Chris Isaak-y guitar solo and tinkly xylophone), the song would have been completely forgettable.

But who could ever forget the Beatles' Shea Stadium version of 'I'm Down,' on which John Lennon's maniacal solo on the Wurlitzer, a response to a screaming crowd paying no attention to music that was piped through the PA system, had Paul McCartney laughing hysterically?

Or Ringo Starr's staccato organ punctuating the end of the chorus on 'I'm Looking Through You'?

Or Al Kooper's slightly-behind the beat, squeaky organ on 'Highway 61 Revisited'? Or the organ solo on 'Light My Fire' by the Doors?

An organ can enhance a song. But does Matthew Fisher, organist on the Procol Harum song, A Whiter Shade of Pale, deserve 40% of the song-writing royalties for that tune, as he claims? I don't think so.

For one thing, Fisher's contribution was more in the way of being an arranger than a composer.

For another, as musician and producer David Was points out in this November report on NPR's 'Day to Day,' the melody of A Whiter Shade of Pale was taken from a composition by Bach. (Was also says some claim to see a decided similarity to Percy Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman. They have a point.)

As I see it, all Fisher really did was riff off that second-hand tune given to him by the band members who were always credited with composing A Whiter Shade of Pale.

But a judge has ruled in Fisher's favor and soon he'll be sharing the cash brought in by the Procol Harum classic.

One footnote: A Whiter Shade of Pale was apparently the song playing at the very moment when Paul McCartney met his first wife, Linda, at a party they were attending. Years later, in a song called Young Boy (on which Steve Miller has a great guitar solo, by the way), McCartney invoked that memory with an organ part inspired by Fisher's Procol Harum organ on Pale. Watch out...encouraged by this ruling, Fisher may now want to sue McCartney. But if he does, he'll have to get in line behind the former Beatle's second wife at the Old Bailey.

While there are some exceptions, I still hate organ music. I really can't Handel it.

[Ann Althouse sees the Fisher case differently.]

Robert Gates: Surge Protector?

Presidents don't usually hoist their own policy trial balloons. They leave that to other--ordinarily anonymous--members of their Administrations.

So, did President Bush use his Wednesday press conference to reveal a key--and set--element of the new Iraq strategy he's to announce in a January speech? In short, has the President decided to employ the surge option, increasing overall Army and Marine force levels in Iraq to create a surge aimed at what the President called "victory in Iraq"?

The idea of increasing force levels by 15,000 to 30,000 people is one of which Pentagon brass have apparently been scornful. Yet, the President says that he's ordered new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, currently in Iraq on a fact-finding tour, to advise him as to whether such a surge is advisable and if so, how it could best be done.

Of course, as many have pointed out, the more basic question about such a surge is what its purpose would be. Military analysts, like retired General Barry McCaffrey, seem to say that an Iraq "solution" can only be achieved politically, not militarily. If his critique represents a sizable body of opinion among America's general officer corps, they may deem a surge as dangerous and unlikely to change things on the ground.

Could this presidential announcement be nothing more than a feint, intended to throw people off? I doubt it. I don't think the President would have spoken so overtly of the surge option unless he really was considering it and likely to embrace it. But it's uncharacteristic of this President to speak so openly of the options he's weighing before announcing a policy.

In the end, there appears to be no upside to the President tipping his hand on a surge policy that he has no intention of pursuing. It's likely to elicit fierce derision if it becomes the President's announced policy. Given that reality, I surmise that he really is biased toward upping the force levels in Iraq. A trail balloon and a subsequent retreat to a fallback policy risks expending more political capital than the President has right now.

Bob Gates may be President Bush's surge protector, the new kid in the administration who, contrary to the Clark Clifford scenarios that I and others have written for him, is actually as hawkish about Iraq as the President and the Senate's number one surge proponent, John McCain. Gates may be the one to whom the President will point as recommending the surge. If the surge works, the President gets the credit. If it fails, Mr. Bush may try accepting the resignation of yet another Secretary of Defense on whom the political blame can be placed.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 19)

Leadership is the spiritual gift of those Christians empowered by God to lead the Church and its ministries in pursuing its mission.

I was ordained as a pastor in 1984, four-and-a-half years after I'd left the political world and started seminary. Time and again, seminary classmates had affirmed that I was "a leader." And it's true that throughout my life, including those years before I went to seminary, whenever I was thrown in with a group of people, I seemed frequently-- and involuntarily--to emerge as a leader.

But I’ve learned that while it’s good to have a gift repeatedly affirmed like this, there’s a danger that we may become the victim of our own “good press.” We can get too sure of ourselves, at risk of developing the greatest mistaken attitude that leaders can adopt: a sense of entitlement. People with this attitude see themselves as being in a superior class. Those with a sense of entitlement may be "bosses," who throw their weight around, but they're not leaders. Bosses can't inspire respect or superior performance in others; leaders do that. And they don’t do it with coercion. They do it with persuasion. But leaders who try to persuade others without the guidance and the empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit put themselves and those they lead on a track--fast or slow--to meaningless motion.

In the Old Testament book of Genesis, you'll find the story of Joseph, favored son of the patriarch, Jacob. When Joseph was young, he apparently had a strong sense of how his father's shepherding business should be run. He also had the gift of "dreams," a spiritual capacity for envisioning things. While he was undeniably imbued by God with the capacity for visionary leadership, Joseph demonstrated his lack of maturity when, as a young man, he used his gifts to squeal on his brothers to their father and when he gloated over dreams indicating that one day he would be their lord. It was only after enduring the crucible of hard experiences that Joseph's leadership qualities, once a justification for arrogance, were tempered by the realization that a real leader is, first and foremost, a servant of God and of others.

Of course, the ultimate servant-leader was Jesus Christ Who, on the night of His arrest and betrayal, did the slave's work of washing His disciples' feet. He then told the disciples that anyone who aspired to be with Him or to do God's work in the world must learn from His example and be a servant too.

The Church needs leaders, lay and ordained, to do its work. God has gifted some for leadership. But without adopting the attitude of a servant, leaders will never fulfill the promise of their lives. They'll be fatally focused on themselves and fail to advance the mission of the Church.

Pastor and leadership guru John Maxwell often answers a question he rhetorically poses, “How do you know if you're a leader?” Easy, Maxwell says, turn around and see if anybody’s following you. If you are a leader, then by all means, get on your knees right now and ask God to give you a servant’s heart. A leader must be, first and foremost, a servant of God and of others.

Leadership is the spiritual gift of those Christians empowered by God to lead the Church and its ministries in pursuing its mission.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

[This post is largely a reworking of an installment of my series of blog posts, Leadership Lessons.]

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Um, No

Christopher Hitchens says that people who describe themselves as foreign policy realists are supporters of the Saudi royal family.

While some realists may be close to the Saudi family, their lineage goes way back before their regime in Riyadh. And it's an honorable and savvy school of thought.

Realists trace their approach back through the Federalist-Republican tradition, beginning with George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton and proceeding through such figures as Thedore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.

See my post on the three major strands of foreign policy/national security thinking in US history here.

(Thank you to Glenn Reynolds for leading me to the Hitchens piece.)

First Pass at This Sunday Morning's Bible Lesson: Luke 1:39-55

[Most weeks, I present as many updates on my reflections and study of the Biblical texts on which our weekend worship celebrations will be built as I can. The purpose is to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, get ready for worship. Hopefully, it's helpful to others as well, since our Bible lesson is usually one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

[Note: This will be my only pass at this Sunday morning's lesson.]

The Bible Lesson: Luke 1:39-55
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

General Comments
1. This coming Sunday morning, we'll be celebrating the Fourth Sunday in Advent, the season that anticipates Christmas as well as the coming of Jesus into our lives and at the end of time. Sunday night will bring Christmas Eve, when at Friendship, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, God in human flesh.

2. The past two weekends of this Advent season, the focus has been on John the Baptizer and his ministry of anticipation of the Messiah, God's Anointed One, who turns out to be Jesus. This Sunday, the focus shifts. Brian Stoffregen writes:
While it is a simplistic and only partially accurate dichotomy, we might say that John's preaching centered on answering the question "What should we do?" (Answer: Bear fruit worthy of repentance.) In Jesus we have the declaration, "This is what God has done and is doing."
A repentant life, the life of a person who turns back to God for life, forgiveness, and hope, prepares a person for receiving what God has done, is doing, and will do for us through Jesus Christ.

3. The Magnificat, in verses 46-55, is often called the Song of Mary. Of course, there's no indication that Mary sang these words. That's a later traditional way of describing her speech.

It's called the Magnificat because of the first three words in the Latin translation of Mary's speech, Magnificat mea anima, meaning, My soul magnifies. The soul in the Biblical thought-world refers to our whole being, not some smoky, ghostly vapor. Mary begins her speech, in essence, by saying, "Every fiber of my being shouts of the glory of God!"

4. Mary's speech is clearly patterned after the speech of another Biblical mother, Hannah, who lived at the tail-end of the era of the Old Testament judges. I talk about Hannah and her "song" here.

5. One of the important themes of Mary's speech and of this entire lesson is also a prominent theme in Luke's gospel: God brings down the arrogantly powerful and wealthy and lifts up the humble poor. God sides with the humble poor over against the arrogantly powerful and wealthy.

For those of us who live in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth, there is a cautionary note here: Everything we have is a gift from God meant to be shared, not hoarded selfishly. As Jesus puts it later in Luke's gospel, "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." (Luke 12:48)

In the very selection of an ordinary servant girl to birth God incarnate, God is indicating His intention to lift up the humble and bring to grief the arrogant.

6. In the new film, The Nativity Story, Mary's Magnificat is placed elsewhere in the story. This is harmless poetic license. GO SEE THIS MOVIE. IT'S FANTASTIC!

6. For interesting comments on this text, see here, here, and here.

John Wesley

Read John Brown's post.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 18)

Giving is the spiritual gift of those Christians who are empowered by God to give more than 10% of their annual income to the mission of Christ in the world.

All Christians are called to give financially to Christ’s mission. The minimal baseline expectation, according to the Bible, is that all believers will give the first 10% of their income to this cause. It’s what the Bible calls a tithe.

Jesus says that giving to His mission is an investment in His Kingdom and a measure of our faithful dependence on Him. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:19-21, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Giving isn’t a means of earning God’s approval. God’s approval is a free gift for all who believe in Jesus. But giving does demonstrate our gratitude for the forgiveness and new life that come to us through Jesus Christ.

Giving to Christ’s mission also brings blessings. In Luke 6:38, Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

This doesn’t mean that you’ll be a millionaire if you tithe. God never promises to make us wealthy. It does mean that givers are blessed, always because of the sense of being in sync with God and His plans for our lives and sometimes in other ways we can’t imagine.

If all Christians tithed, it would be far easier for the Church to do its mission. We have nearly 60 households in Friendship. I recently calculated what would happen if only forty of our households gave their entire annual tithe to Friendship, assuming an average household income of $50,000. The result would be giving of $200,000, which would enable us to pay off our mortgage more quickly, undertake new ministries, and meet our current annual operating budget of about $130,000.

God gifts some people to go beyond the 10% minimum in their giving. Often, these are people to whom God has also given a special ability to create wealth, though not always. Usually, they do have a particular acumen for managing their personal finances. One of these is Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy, who even before he attained success, decided to be a more-than-tither in his giving and also that his restaurant should be closed on Sundays. In fact, these very decisions probably contributed to his success.

Not everyone can be a Truett Cathy. But if you believe that God has given you the spiritual gift of giving, you can contribute mightily to the mission of Christ, whatever your income.

Giving isn’t easy for me. It’s about as far from being one of my spiritual gifts as I can imagine. But I certainly revere those who have it and exercise it.

Giving is the spiritual gift of those Christians who are empowered by God to give more than 10% of their annual income to the mission of Christ in the world.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Give, and it will be given to you...” (Luke 6:38)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Follow-Up on That Opening Prayer at the House

As you know, I was scheduled to do the opening prayer at the Ohio House of Representatives today. It turned out to be a wonderful experience.

My Dad went with me and I hadn't known until I arrived to pick him up today that in spite of being a resident of Columbus for fifty-two years, he had never been to the State Capitol building. As we walked away, I commented that I couldn't believe he'd never been there before. "Well," he said, "I was busy raising a family." May the people in that gorgeous Capitol building always remember that they're employees of folks who, like my father, work hard to live their lives and to do right by their families, neighbors, friends, and communities!

When Dad and I first arrived, we went to the little Capitol building restaurant in the basement below the Rotunda. We wanted something to stave off hunger until I was finished praying. It was a good decision on our parts!

Snack finished, ready to go to the House, and turned around by all the refurbishing that's been done to the place since I worked there, I asked a young woman waiting for an elevator how to get to the House chamber. "Just follow me," she told us. "That's where I'm heading." When we got to the chamber, a House page approached her for instructions. "A page," I said, "I used to be the page supervisor." "That's what I do," she told me. "Oh," I said to my dad, "one of my successors." Turning back to her, I said, "I left here in 1979." She smiled and said, "That was the year I was born." I laughed and told her, "You really didn't have to tell me that."

When Representative Joe Uecker introduced me at the beginning of the session, he couldn't resist telling his colleagues that I had worked there a long time ago.

The original plan had been for us to meet Representative Uecker's aide, Sheila Ross, about fifteen minutes prior to the session. But we arrived very early. We did though, get the chance to meet her. She was the one who really had done all the work necessary for making our visit there go smoothly and I don't remember if I actually thanked her when she introduced herself to my Dad and me.

As I mentioned yesterday, the start of today's session was to be delayed from 11:00AM to 1:00PM. But as it turned out, it started even later than that, owing to last minute negotiations on pending legislation. (It should be added that under the current speaker, Jon Husted, sessions generally get started on time. But the close of General Assembly sessions always bring last-minute compromises and accomodations.)

While there, I had the chance to chat with Ohio Public Radio's Bill Cohen, a guy I had met several times back in the day. He was a friend of my old pal, Howard Ornstein, and the three of us even went to a Columbus Clippers game or two together. (I don't think Bill remembered me. But I have the advantage over him. While I left Columbus and the State House long ago, I've been listening to his radio reports every weekday in the intervening twenty-seven years!) But I had to ask Bill if he still plays folk music and he confirmed that. "I used to say, 'Let's play some folk music for the young people.'" he told me. "Now I say, 'Let's play some folk music for the old people!'"

It was also good to see and talk with Brad Young, House Clerk, a friend of several members of the congregation I serve here. Brad and I got to know each other when I co-presided at the wedding of his friends. He and his wife and my wife, my family, and I stayed at a beautiful Bed and Breakfast in Loudonville on the night before that wedding.

My Dad and I also spoke with several staffers and House members before Speaker Pro Tem Chuck Blasdel brought down the gavel to begin the session. (Husted walked in a few moments later.)

It was great of Representative Joe Uecker to take the time to speak with us. He commented, "What I wouldn't give to be able to spend time with my Dad the way you're getting to do with yours today, Mark." It was good.

After we left, Dad and I met up with a dear friend of mine since high school days, Tom Carr. I showed them around the Capitol and the old Supreme Court building. Then, we trekked to the Max and Erma's at City Center just to catch up. I couldn't believe that Tom took the time to come to the Capitol just to hear me lead the House in prayers. But then, I have always been blessed with truly fantastic friends!

Okay, enough rambling. Here's the prayer in its entirety:
Lord, as this General Assembly session draws slowly to a close, we ask for three things for the members of both the House and the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats.

First: We ask for You to give them the wisdom to discern the difference between what’s important, what’s urgent, and what’s unnecessary.

Second: We ask that You would also give them the clear-headedness and the courage they need to vote with that wisdom.

Finally: We ask that their wills will be open to whatever guidance You want to give to them. We can ask for nothing more. Amen
Several Ohio bloggers expressed interest in what I might pray and wondered what they would say if they were in my place. (See here and here.)

As of this writing, the House is still in session, trying to wrap up the 126th. General Assembly. But as soon as today's session is archived, you'll be able to see and hear the prayer here.

[UPDATE: See here.]