Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Strange Peace of Christ (Rerun)

This message delivered in 2004 seems somehow appropriate right now.

Democracies Should Stand Unafraid

Ibn Warraq writes, referencing the controversy over those Danish cartoons, at Spiegel Online:
A democracy cannot survive long without freedom of expression, the freedom to argue, to dissent, even to insult and offend. It is a freedom sorely lacking in the Islamic world, and without it Islam will remain unassailed in its dogmatic, fanatical, medieval fortress; ossified, totalitarian and intolerant. Without this fundamental freedom, Islam will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality; originality and truth.

Unless, we show some solidarity, unashamed, noisy, public solidarity with the Danish cartoonists, then the forces that are trying to impose on the Free West a totalitarian ideology will have won; the Islamization of Europe will have begun in earnest. Do not apologize...
Read the whole thing.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Cartoons in Poor Taste; Don't Warrant the Reaction, Though

Muslims the world over are outraged by some satirical cartoons that have recently appeared (and reappeared) in the Danish media.

The Danish cartoons may be in poor taste. But how serious is it to satirize a man--Mohammad--by comparison with the daily satirizing and disrespect with which Jesus is daily treated in the West's mass media? (Including un-Biblical perversions of Jesus that inform bestsellers like The DaVinci Code?) After all, we Christians believe that Jesus was also God-in-the-flesh!

My feeling is that if we Christians are willing to take our lumps and mix it up in the marketplace of ideas without burning flags or calling for people to be executed for having ideas or beliefs different from our own, then Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, and others ought to live with the same magnanimity.

I have enough faith in the greatness of the God I know through Jesus Christ not to need to threaten people who don't believe in Him as I do. (Although I will always remain committed to sharing Him with others in the hope that they too will come to follow Him!)

Some Muslim leaders, it should be pointed out, have called for calm and the demonstrations the world over haven't been as large as one might have expected. Nonetheless, the reaction of many Muslims is disturbing.

I was going to write more on this subject, but Pastor Jeff said it all so much better than I would have said it. A few choice passages:
When Christians and Jews start rioting in the streets with guns, burning flags, closing embassies, and calling daily for the destruction of their neighbors, let me know. Until then, how about we hold Muslims accountable for their own despicable propaganda and expect them to behave like civilized adults?

Could the Danes have known the response the cartoons would get? Sadly, yes - which has led some to argue the Danes shouldn't have published the cartoons. This is known as the soft bigotry of low expectations. Protection of speech which is polite and inoffensive is not protection of speech.
Read Jeff's whole post.

More Good from Scars

Last weekend, during two different worship celebrations, I presented a message on Jesus Christ's call for all who follow Him to a life of messy transformation. I talked about how Jesus Christ can free anybody of the things that imprison us, be they unhealthy habits or life-robbing addictions.

Then on Sunday night, as I try to do every week, I posted the message on the blog (see here). Several hours later, I received word of comments left with the message by a reader who calls himself, Falter Ego. He wrote:
I try to end every blog entry of my own by finding a random entry that is worthy of comment. Tonight, your entry was the first one I read, which if you read my blog at all you will see is very ironic.

I don't know yet what my higher power is. I have spent many years angry with God because of the frustrating pain my family and I have had to deal with. I have spent many more years secure in the decision that there is no such thing as one all powerful, all seeing, supreme being; certain that all who believe otherwise are fools.

But, I am certain today that although I may not have found my higher power, I just may have found my higher calling...helping those who suffer under the crushing weight of alcohol and substance abuse.

Thanks for your grace and your post.
I was moved beyond saying by reading those words, mainly for two reasons:
First, my message was a simple Word from Christ rooted in the Bible. Yet, a person not exactly sure of where he is spiritually and sometimes angry with God, was touched by it. That only underscores for me how wonderful and powerful God is, how desperately He wants to reach everyone with His transforming love, and how He can even use the meager words, prayerfully offered, of someone like me to touch another. That's humbling and inspiring and overwhelming all at once!
Second, the words of Falter, a recovering alcoholic, emphasized a great truth. It's seen in those amazing words near the end of his comments:

I just may have found my higher calling...helping those who suffer under the crushing weight of alcohol and substance abuse.
Pastor Rick Warren, in his book, The Purpose Driven Life, points out that it's from the painful experiences we endure in life that we develop character and the ability to fulfill a higher purpose in our living.

My own observation is that experiences that leave us with scars--emotional, psychological, spiritual, even physical--also can lead us to our own special, God-designed, God-blessed ministries. This is true whether the scars have come our way circumstantially or via our own bad choices.
The man who's fought with depression can help the friend caught up in the same battle.

The woman who's endured feelings of not being appreciated by spouse and family can reach out to another woman going through that experience.

The young teacher, freshly tempered by middle and high school years in which he was the class loser on whom everyone else dumped, can be that listening ear and encouraging voice to the nerds in his classroom.
Time and again, I've watched as those who have recovered from cancer have proven to be the very people to help others just diagnosed with the disease. And I always try to send recovering alcoholics to talk with people who've finally come to terms with the reality of their own addictions.

When we bear the scars of adversity, we're able to sympathize.

We're also to call others to the carpet, "speaking the truth in love," as the apostle Paul puts it in the New Testament.

I often call the Church, God's support group for recovering sinners. Relying on the power Jesus Christ makes available through the Holy Spirit, the people of the Church are called to "bear and share" each others' burdens. Christians are called to let our scars mandate our particular areas of service.

And that service isn't to be rendered only to those within the fellowship of the Church either.

The Savior Who died and rose to offer new life to all people has a heart that beats for all people everywhere. It's hard to imagine Jesus, Who said that the greatest commandment of all is to love God completely and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, would place a limit on the extent to which we Christians can share our sympathy.

The Lord Who moved beyond ethnic, religious, national, or societal boundaries to heal lepers, forgive Samaritans, free adulterers, and answer the prayers of Romans, also sets off His limitless Love and lordship within His people so that we can carry that fire into every darkened place on the planet.

On top of that, I believe that this amazing Savior also inspires others who've been scarred by life to ministries, even when they may not yet follow Him. After all, Jesus was more than a man. He is also God and He has no limits!

Whatever Falter's relationship with God right now, I'm sure that that God Who loves him more than I can express has given him a ministry to reach out those who've been scarred as he has been. I'm anxious to see how things unfold for his ministry in the years to come.

For now, all I can do is shake my head and say, "Isn't God amazing?"

[Read here for my earlier piece on thanking God for our scars.]

Bono Delivers One of the Best Sermons I've Ever Read

Read the whole thing. I loved this section especially, recalling how he had long wanted to avoid religious people:
Seeing what religious people, in the name of God, did to my native land… and in this country, seeing God’s second-hand car salesmen on the cable TV channels, offering indulgences for cash… in fact, all over the world, seeing the self-righteousness roll down like a mighty stream from certain corners of the religious establishment…

I must confess, I changed the channel. I wanted my MTV.

Even though I was a believer.

Perhaps because I was a believer.

Greatest Hits of 2005: November Posts

I've been posting links to the posts that appeared on this blog last year which evoked the greatest response or that I just happen most to like. I feel like Casey Kasem. Anyway, we're now up to the posts from November, 2005. So, with further introductory babble, here they are...

Two Hope-Filled Promises
Don't Ignore the ObviousWhat Are the Implications of the Avian Flu Threat for the 2008 Presidential Race?
Pat Robertson is No Prophet
Real Faith Relates'Du Bist Deutschland' and the Tragedy of German History
Will There Be a Turkey Fire? Or Will Something Else Happen This Thanksgiving?
Reflections on JFK's Assassination
Real Faith Risks Giving
Why Are We So Litigious?
Longing for Christmas in the Midst of Winter
Real Life Relating: Ready, Come What May
A Confession I Probably Shouldn't Make
A Christian Perspective on the Paris Riots
The Way of Optimism, Pessimism, or Faith?
Who Besides Governments Should Have Avian Flu Plans?
Before the Alito Debate Gets Completely Nuts

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Something You Should Know About John Boehner

Cincinnati-area Congressman John Boehner was elected House majority leader by his fellow Republicans this afternoon. It's been rightly pointed out that Boehner has accepted campaign contributions from a number of lobbying groups.

But, something that hasn't gotten as much play is that Boehner has always been an implacable foe of earmarks, those appropriations inserted into pieces of legislation that contain unnecessary pork barrel spending. Boehner has been so opposed to earmarks that he has refused to get them for his congressional district, often creating problems for him with fellow Republicans there. He deserves props for his courage and consistency on this issue, I think.

Check out this article about Boehner from 2004.

Third Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Mark 1:29-39

In my first two looks at this passage, I've given a general overview and then considered the seemingly intractable issues of healing and God's sovereignty. (You can see those posts here and here.)

Here, I want to briefly look at another important issue in the lesson. Very few personal reflections here...mostly a few quotes from other commentators.

The passage: Mark 1:29-39

The issue: Jesus' reason for leaving, as mentioned in v. 38:
He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
Brian Stoffregen writes that when Simon and company approach the praying Jesus, asking Him to return to healing the throngs gathered at Simon's house and Jesus refuses, "we have the first dispute between Jesus and his disciples." He goes on to write:
This dispute might be characterized as the disciples' (and people's) desire to have Jesus go back to where he was vs. Jesus' (and the Father's?) desire to move ahead to new areas. Jesus did not come to keep the gospel hidden in Capernaum, but to spread it throughout Galilee and Judea and the world.

How many "church fights" are over similar issues? To try and become what we used to be vs. stepping out into an unknown and different future? pleasing the "people back home" vs. seeking to be faithful to God's call? keeping the treasure of the gospel (and healings) for our selves vs. spreading it throughout our communities and the world? centering only on our members vs. centering on the unchurched, dechurched, unbelievers?

What is so enticing about "going back" is all the successes back in Capernaum. Miracles were happening. People were being cured. The entire city was at the door. There has been no opposition to Jesus and his ministry. Who wouldn't want to continue such "successes" in ministry. Who of us clergy wouldn't wish to have everyone in town fighting to get into the church? Who of us clergy wouldn't wish to have no one criticizing us for our ministry? Returning to Capernaum seems awfully attractive.

In contrast to that wonderful past in Capernaum, the future, roaming around Galilee was uncertain -- but that is what Jesus has been called to do. He will not walk the safe and seemingly successful way, but follow the way God has set before him. It will not always be what his disciples want. It will not always be with the people want. It will be what God has determined.

Related to this: As often as we say: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb 13:8), we also need to quote the words of the one seated on the throne: "See, I am making all things new." Congregations need to live in the tension of the eternal sameness of Jesus Christ and God's power which is always leading us into something new...

...A family systems approach stresses the fact that much of the unhealth in systems (and congregations) is caused by being stuck in past successes -- continuing to do the same old things when they are no longer appropriate or no longer effective. In order for Jesus to fulfill his mission, he had to leave behind his successes in Capernaum.
Another commentator--I apologize, but I can't now find who it was--has written this:
Jesus now makes himself widely available in a wide sweep, reaching into a lot of corners, teaching & 'casting out demons.' God's good news is never mere theory. There always needs to be some expectation that 'something will happen'! Else, where is the Good News?...
Finally, my own observation about this aspect of the lesson: Jesus says that He has come to proclaim His message. That interests me because He doesn't say, "I've come out here to heal and cast out demons," although He clearly will be doing that.

This, I think, underscores the place of healing in Jesus' ministry and in the ministry of His Church. Its role is a subordinate one. The power of Jesus to bring physical healing or liberation from demonic possession are simply signs pointing to His authority, authenticating the truth of His teaching.

From the beginning of Mark's Gospel, it has been the message of Jesus that has been central to His ministry. We read that message in Mark 1:15:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
While others will routinely misunderstand Jesus, it seems that the worshipers at the Capernaum synagogue who witnessed Him cast out the demon from a possessed man understood the subordination of the miraculous sign to the good news of eternal restoration of our relationship with God that Jesus brings:
They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)
They saw the healing as an element of Jesus' teaching.

Jesus knew that He had only a short time to let as many people as He could that He was the bearer, the bringer, the embodiment of God's Good News for the human race. It was to prepare for the continuation of that mission that He went out in the pre-dawn hours to pray. (Notice that for this new wave of ministry, Jesus returns to a wilderness place, the very sort of place from which He emerged following His baptism so that He could first begin His ministry.) It was also to continue that mission that He ignored the siren song of popularity and easy success in Capernaum to face opposition and certain death for us.

Another Look at SOTU

My friend, Deborah White, a liberal Democrat and a committed Christian, live-blogged the President's State of the Union message. Whether you agree with Deborah or not, she always has interesting things to say...and she is a wonderful person! Click here for her take on the President's SOTU message.

Break a Leg, Lores!

I met Lores Rizkalla at GodBlogCon, the gathering of Christian bloggers held in the Los Angeles area this past October.

This former Social Studies teacher is bright and friendly and articulate. An Egyptian-American, she's also a committed Christian. Her politics are conservative.

Lores begins a new chapter of her life this weekend. She'll be hosting her own weekend talk show on LA station, KRLA.

Even if you don't share Lores' politics or her faith, I'm betting that if you have the chance to tune in her show, you're going to like what you hear. You'll be able to do that through the KRLA web site.

Anyway, Lores, as you begin this new adventure, I'm praying that it'll be a great experience for you and for your listeners. God bless you, my friend.

(To learn a little more about Lores, click here.)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

How Much Profit is Too Much?

Pastor Jeff has an interesting take on making money and the recent profits announced by Mobil-Exxon from a Christian vantage point. It may surprise you.

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent

This series of posts deals with some of the subjects that so haunt us when it comes to the subject of healing I addressed in this post. I hope you find the installments of this series helpful:

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

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Mark 1:29-39

[These dispatches are meant to convey some of what I'm learning and thinking about the Bible lessons around which weekend worship is to be built at the congregation I serve as pastor. This week's Bible lesson is Mark 1:29-39. To see the first pass at the lesson, click here.

[Members of other congregations might also find these "passes" helpful because something like 80-90% of the time, the Bible lessons we use are from the lectionary (or lesson plan) used by we Lutherans, as well as Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and many Methodists, Presbyterians, American Baptists, and others.]

Mark 1:29-39:
29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

A Big Concern:
This text confronts us with an enormous cluster of issues surrounding the question of healing.

Christians acknowledge that:
  • Jesus is God enfleshed. That means He possesses all the attributes the Bible associates with God, things like omnipotence, omniscience, and compassion.
  • Jesus has the ability to heal and can heal anybody He chooses to heal.
  • Jesus promises that the same power to heal and to relieve people of the influence of demonic forces is reposed in those of us who follow Him.
  • Jesus is the sign of a God Who wishes to be deeply involved in the lives of human beings.
Yet, when we look at our world today, we see lots of suffering before which the Church can at times seem impotent and cowed.
Does Christ care?

Can He heal?
These are important questions. The temptation is to respond to them with facile answers that sweep the problems they raise under the metaphorical rug.

(1) Some for example, take refuge in what a colleague of mine and I used to call "wallow theology." The proponents of wallow theology in effect, believe that after Jesus rose from the dead, He left us to simply fend for ourselves while evil washes over us. Jesus might have healed, these folks say, but that has little to do with our circumstances today. There are supposedly reputable Christian theologians who adhere to such a view.

They remind me of the woman in my internship congregation whose theology was simply, "We do the best we can do. We do the best we can do." But that's not the Jesus we meet on the pages of the Bible! He said, "With God, all things are possible." I'm unwilling to give up on that promise.

(2) Others take refuge in a version (a perversion) of Christian faith that's all about miracles, signs, and wonders. Whether it's the professional purveyor of faith in miracles or the desperate people on whom they prey, people who buy into this brand of Christianity are taking a wrong turn.

They're like those Jesus upbraided in John 6. After Jesus performed the miracle of feeding more than 5000 people, He headed out for another destination. But the crowd formed an armada that chased Jesus across the sea. Why? Jesus said that instead of seeing the miracle as a sign of Who He is (God and Savior) and of what He can offer to them (life), the crowd saw Jesus as a meal ticket. They worshiped the sign rather than the sign-giver.

They saw Jesus as a means to an easier life. But Jesus doesn't promise that our time on earth will be easy. "In this world, you will have trouble," He once said.

And it's true to say that every person we ask God to heal will eventually die. (Unless, of course, they're living when Jesus returns to the world.) Consider Lazarus, Jesus' friend. In John 11, Jesus calls him back from the grave, after being dead for four days. Yet the poor devil had to die again.

Jesus does perform miracles, even today. I've known many people whose bodies, psyches, and relationships were restored after they and others had prayed. Healing happened.

But I have also known people for whom many prayers were offered who weren't healed.

What should we say to all of this? Our Bible lesson may help us to see a few things:

(1) Even when Jesus was on earth, He didn't heal everybody. At the end of our Bible lesson, Simon and company want Jesus to go back to heal the throngs of people not yet touched by Him. But Jesus insists that He must go on to proclaim repentance and renewal and to perform healings and exorcisms in other places.

This doesn't reflect a lack of compassion on Jesus' part. A sinless Savior Who goes to a cross to take the punishment of people who deserve that punishment can hardly be said to be hard-hearted or lacking in compassion.

Rather, it speaks to the nature of Jesus' miracles. They are, as mentioned above, signs. Signs never point to themselves. They point beyond themselves. They point to something or someone. Jesus' miracles--be they healings, exorcisms, mass feedings, or bringing people back to life--aren't the ends or objects of our faith. They're indicators that the compassionate, wonder-working Savior Who performs them is worthy of our complete trust.

(2) Physical healing isn't the ultimate object of the Christian's life. "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ," the apostle Paul once wrote, "then we are of all people, most to be pitied." Our desire as Christians is to live with God forever. That means willingly turning from all that might separate us from God's righteousness and making Christ the number one priority in our lives.

After Karen, the woman I wrote about here died, I was given a note she had prepared for me in case this happened. "Please tell everybody who prayed for me that just because I died, this doesn't mean their prayers didn't 'work'," Karen told me. Being healthy, she went on to say, is more than having a healthy body here on earth.

(3) The Church is given the gift of healing. But we limit God when we say that it can only happen in certain proscribed ways. God can use our prayers. God can use doctors. God can use those who have the spiritual gift of healing and can lay on hands. A sovereign God can use any means He chooses. He can even choose not to heal.

(4) We will not be able to bring healing to everyone. Just as Jesus, during His earthly incarnation as a man, dealt with the limitations of time and space that features in His decision to move onto other places at the end of this Bible lesson, humility demands that we acknowledge that we can't be everywhere at once and we don't even have the capacity to pray for everyone. If our impulse to bring healing isn't matched with a humble faith, we'll either burn out, give up, or be useless in the hands of God.

I hope to present more thoughts on this lesson tomorrow. But I'll be somewhat pressed for time as I intend to write the message for this weekend then and I'm in the middle of a big writing project in anticipation of the upcoming Lenten season.

Lunchtime Thoughts on Last Night's State of the Union Message

Since I never actually learned to type and don't own a laptop, for me to simulblog President Bush's State of the Union last night would have been a joke. I'd have been scurrying from the family room to where my desktop sets and challenged my four typing fingers beyond their capacity. But now a few thoughts on last night's SOTU:

The one major disappointment I personally had with the speech came when he enumerated nations in need of democracy and the President failed to mention China. Over the long haul, I believe that the Chinese government represents the single greatest threat to peace and to the interests of the US in the world. This is rooted in that government's repressiveness, hegemonic designs, and economic development. We need to deal with those realities.

Having said that, whatever one's politics, I think that you have to count the President's speech a very good one. Bush is not a naturally gifted orator. But when he needs to hit one out of the park, he can do it. He did that again last night.

He presented an unapologetic defense of both the War on Terrorism and the War in Iraq, including his domestic eavesdropping program. He was most effective in addressing this cluster of issues.

Domestically, the speech was an interesting grab bag of proposals.

With its combination of Wilsonian foreign policy and grand domestic initiatives, the speech at times sounded like one that could have easily been delivered by Lyndon Johnson.

But it was laced with a few conservative thoughts, bound to placate the Republican base. For the traditional conservative crowd, the President called for fiscal restraint. For the social conservatives, there were statements about the use of human embryos. For many conservatives of varied stamp, the call for making the tax cuts permanent was also no doubt welcome.

His proposal to establish a bipartisan commission on Social Security was artful and made the sarcasm with which the Democrats greeted his acknowledgement of the failure to change the program last year look tawdry.

The biggest surprise of the speech to me though, was the fact that he didn't mention outgoing Fed chair Alan Greenspan. You would think that the President would have wanted to tap into the bipartisan good feelings about Greenspan's eighteen year tenure. I'm baffled by this omission.

Overall though, I think that the speech confirms a shift in the definition of conservatism that has been happening during this administration. Bush conservatism certainly has little in common with the Republicanism practiced and preached by such luminaries of the party as Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan. (Or even the conservatism of his father.) The shift may be entirely warranted, but it's a decided, almost volcanic, one for sure.

Mozart, Einstein, and the Essential Order of the Universe

Last year was the one-hundredth anniversary of Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity. This year is the 250-th. anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. According to an interesting article in today's New York Times, there is more of a connection between the two prodigies than that, though:
Einstein once said that while Beethoven created his music, Mozart's "was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master." Einstein believed much the same of physics, that beyond observations and theory lay the music of the spheres — which, he wrote, revealed a "pre-established harmony" exhibiting stunning symmetries. The laws of nature, such as those of relativity theory, were waiting to be plucked out of the cosmos by someone with a sympathetic ear.

Thus it was less laborious calculation, but "pure thought" to which Einstein attributed his theories.

Einstein was fascinated by Mozart and sensed an affinity between their creative processes, as well as their histories...

In 1905, the year he discovered relativity, Einstein was living in a cramped apartment and dealing with a difficult marriage and money troubles.

That spring he wrote four papers that were destined to change the course of science and nations. His ideas on space and time grew in part from aesthetic discontent. It seemed to him that asymmetries in physics concealed essential beauties of nature; existing theories lacked the "architecture" and "inner unity" he found in the music of Bach and Mozart.

In his struggles with extremely complicated mathematics that led to the general theory of relativity of 1915, Einstein often turned for inspiration to the simple beauty of Mozart's music.

"Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music," recalled his older son, Hans Albert. "That would usually resolve all his difficulties."

In the end, Einstein felt that in his own field he had, like Mozart, succeeded in unraveling the complexity of the universe.

Scientists often describe general relativity as the most beautiful theory ever formulated. Einstein himself always emphasized the theory's beauty. "Hardly anyone who has truly understood it will be able to escape the charm of this theory," he once said.

The theory is essentially one man's view of how the universe ought to be. And amazingly, the universe turned out to be pretty much as Einstein imagined. Its daunting mathematics revealed spectacular and unexpected phenomena like black holes.

Though a Classical giant, Mozart helped lay groundwork for the Romantic with its less precise structures. Similarly, Einstein's theories of relativity completed the era of classical physics and paved the way for atomic physics and its ambiguities. Like Mozart's music, Einstein's work is a turning point...
What Mozart and Einstein seemed to believe--perhaps at times, needed to believe--is that in the end, in spite of the chaos and uncertainties of life, the universe makes sense. They believed that with order, there was peace, serenity, and calm. In spite of all our obsessive railing against "stress" these days, this idea of theirs is very out of vogue today.

The prevailing culture believes in randomness and chaos, almost elevates these things to godlike status. Doing so displaces the true God and allows us to answer only to ourselves.

It should be said that the world is submerged in chaos in many ways. This is what Paul talked about in the New Testament book of Romans (chapter 8), when observing that at present, all of creation groans under the weight of human alienation from God and its consequences. (To which the modern environmental movement should, at the very least, issue a hearty, "Amen!") But there is an underlying order, observable to scientists and anybody else with eyes.

As a Christian, I believe that the longing for order and peace reflects an ancient memory Einstein and Mozart displayed is bred deeply into our collective DNA. We know that the chaotic natural and human realities we experience today aren't what is meant to be. We also know that the profusion of chaos doesn't erase the essential order of the universe. So does God, the One Whose Spirit bore over the waters of primordial chaos and brought order, life, and peace into being.

Like all the greatest artists and thinkers of history, Mozart and Einstein were in touch with the most basic facts of the universe. May their tribe increase!

Coretta Scott King

Read the obituary from the New York Times.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Alito Not a Judicial Cartoon

The Wikipedia profile of newly-sworn Associate Justice Sam Alito contains two bits of interesting information:
At Princeton, Alito led a student conference in 1971 called "The Boundaries of Privacy in American Society" which, among other things, supported curbs on domestic intelligence gathering, called for the legalization of sodomy, and urged for an end to discrimination against homosexuals in hiring by employers (see [1]). During the conference, Alito stated that "no private sexual act between consenting adults should be forbidden."

Alito was a member of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, which formed in October 1972 against Princeton's decisions regarding affirmative action. Apart from Alito's written 1985 statement of membership of CAP on a job application, which Alito says was truthful, there is no other evidence of Alito's involvement with or contributions in the group. Alito has cited the banning and subsequent mistreatment of ROTC by the university for belonging to CAP.
It would seem that Alito's judicial philosophy, even as a young person, was more complicated and nuanced than either his advocates or adversaries have shown. (Thanks to Dave Friedman for linking to this piece.)

Will U2 Incorporate Hip Hop Into Its Sound?

Or is the ever-savvy Bono just playing the PR game?

My guess is that U2, ever-innovative, wouldn't be averse to incorporating new sounds into their repertoir or to working with hip hop artists on a few cuts here and there.

"He wanted to be successful without being famous"

That's what someone said of the late George Harrison after his untimely death from cancer. It was the singer-songwriter's second bout with the disease, the interregnum between them punctuated by a middle-of-the-night assault by a knife-wielding man that nearly ended Harrison's life. Pop music was too central to popular consciousness for Harrison to be able to realize his desire for success without fame.

For forty-six years, Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, has been able to be successful without the uncomfortable accoutrements of fame. But now, at age 79, portrayed in an Oscar-nominated movie and about to be portrayed in another film by Sandra Bullock, one wonders if Lee can continue to live in relative obscurity.

Human beings, no matter if they're religious or not, universally display an impulse to worship something or someone. To refer to cults of personality, the way we do, as "idol worship" is more than just idle talk. I take a very little interpretation of the phrase. We put the famous on pedestals, preferring the gods we can see--and ultimately knock off their pedestals, if we so choose--to worshiping the one God beyond our physical sight and beyond our control.

It's the presumption of control that makes celebrity idol worship so dangerous. The worshiper--the fan--begins to believe that they control the object of their worship. The famous chafe under such treatment and then are dismissed as being surly, temperamental, or difficult.

For the particularly insecure celebrity, the worshiping fans really can come to call the shots. One tragic example of this is Elvis Presley. Instead of growing as an artist the way his one-time Sun Record-mate Johnny Cash did, Presley, in spite of enormous talent and huge potential, followed a formulaic route that led not only to his artistic demise, but perhaps his personal fall as well. He was a prisoner of his fan base.

The pressure on Lee to write another Mockingbird must have been intense at times over the past four-and-a-half decades. But she seems to have opted for the solid success of a classic book rather than a profusion of bestsellers. One wonders what might have happened had her Alabama friend, Truman Capote, remained at home as Lee has. Lee can rightly be considered a great writer although she's published only one book in her lifetime.

She's been successful while shying away from fame. Just some lunchtime musings.

[Read today's New York Times profile of Lee here.]


That's all I can muster to say about this New York Times article on VA Polytrauma Units and their work with massively wounded soldiers.

SOTU: How to Fix It

Ann Althouse reacts to a New York Times piece this morning in which Francis Wilkinson argues that the State of the Union message ought to be delivered in writing. Our first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, delivered the annual report to the Congress in person. But Thomas Jefferson began a practice which held through the presidency of Woodrow Wilson of sending the annual SOTU message to the House of Representatives in writing, where it was read by a clerk.

Wilkinson is laudatory of the Jefferson practice, writing, "Thomas Jefferson abandoned the spectacle when he became president, preferring to send his constitutionally mandated message to Congress in writing. His republican example succeeded in killing the ritual for more than a hundred years."

He also claims that Wilson shifted to the public delivery of the message because he was "an Anglo-phile and world-class meddler." Wilson was probably both of those things. But I think that more prosaic motives prompted the two presidents to approach the SOTU message in the ways they did.

I wrote about this, whether the SOTU should be delivered in person and how the annual address could be improved, in comments at Althouse:
In spite of his protestations to the contrary, Jefferson's primary reason for not delivering the State of the Union was no doubt that he was a poor public speaker.

Since Jefferson is one of the most loathsome liars and smarmy characters in American political history, it shouldn't surprise that he would, out of habit, veil his personal insecurities behind a "republican" argument. This, from a man who, claiming to be a republican who believed in limited executive power, while president, undertook the most breathtaking illegal land grab ever.

When things didn't go Jefferson's way, it was his characteristic to go into hiding. He did that during the Revolution while serving as governor of Virginia. [And he] became a virtual recluse in the face of criticism during his second presidential term. [Madison had to practically beg him to stop his pouting and get back to work.]

And while serving as Washington's secretary of state, he chose to use a tawdry journalist-for-hire to go after his Cabinet rival, Alexander Hamilton, and to portray the President as a credulous oaf or worse, a would-be-king. Of course, Jefferson never took responsibility for this stuff, eventually going back to Virginia to direct his secret orchestrations against Washington's Administration and to undermine the Constitution for the sake of advancing his own political ambitions through a series of resolutions he drafted for several states, each claiming that if they chose, states could abrogate the power of federal laws within their boundaries.

Jefferson decided not to speak to the Congress to report on the State of the Union [in order] to hide.

Conversely, Woodrow Wilson, a man confident in his oratorical skills, resumed the public delivery of the address. And poorer public speaking presidents have probably rued the change in precedent ever since. But unlike Jefferson, they've taken their medicine.

If there is one thing that I would change about the public delivery of the State of the Union message, it would be this: Lose the Lenny Skutnik Moment. Skutnik was the guy who pulled several people out of the Potomac River after the plane on which they were passengers had crashed. It happened during the Reagan Administration. Reagan's State of the Union message happened several weeks later and the President's handlers made sure that Skutnik was seated in the House gallery. The President then introduced the hero--and he was a hero--to the gathered members of government, to a thunderous ovation.

Ever since then, the Lenny Skutnik Moment, often many Lenny Skutnik Moments, have become the boring conventions of not only State of the Union messages, but State of the State messages by US governors.

Two years ago, I attended Bob Taft's annual [State of the State] message here in Ohio. The Skutnik Moment came when the governor introduced one of the Smucker family from Orrville, Ohio, a major Ohio employer and maker of jellies, to the joint session of the General Assembly. (That day I learned too, that the Smucker people provided each member of the Ohio House and Senate with samples of a new peanut butter and jelly cracker combo.) It's great that the Smucker family have maintained their strong ties to Ohio. But does that warrant a feel-good introduction?

If you catch any of the annual addresses from US governors [on CSPAN], you know that the Skutnik Moment has reached absurd and painful proportions, the chief executives often looking less like governors than latter-day Ed Sullivans introducing various embarrassed luminaries planted in the audience for obligatory ovations from an otherwise unattentive legislature.

One element of leadership is presenting a vision. The State of the Union message can give presidents the opportunity to do that in person. But the power of that opportunity would be enhanced, I think, if the public addresses were shorter...and if we could lose the Lenny Skutnik Moment.
[Final note: Another reason behind Wilson's decision to deliver the SOTU in person is that he venerated Washington, about whom he had written a biography, and loathed Jefferson.]

Kurt Vonnegut: Secular Humanist and Believer in Intelligent Design

Back in my early-twenties, fresh out of college, lots of time on my hands as a substitute teacher whose duties were usually little more than functioning as a $30-a-day babysitter for junior high and senior high students, I went through a major fiction-reading stage. I hadn't previously read much fiction beyond that which had been required of me in school, preferring to read history and biography.

But I concluded that I needed to enrich my intellectual palette a bit by reading fiction. In my typically obsessive way, I couldn't hopscotch around the novels at my local library or bookstore. I had to focus on specific authors.

So, I read three or four books by Hermann Hesse.

Next, I tackled Kurt Vonnegut. I got a charge out of Vonnegut at the time, particularly his Breakfast of Champions, built around what was then to me, an intriguing and unknown literary device: The author inserted himself into the story, acting as a sort of God to a character from one of his previous novels, the former pornographer Kilgore Trout, changing the course of Trout's life in the hope that he could also change his own.

Vonnegut wrote Breakfast of Champions as a fiftieth birthday present to himself, punctuated by his futile desire to be young again. (It's funny for me to think of myself as now being two years older than Vonnegut was when he wrote that book!)

In any case, what came through his corpus was that Vonnegut was, in fact, what has come to be called a "secular humanist." Yet, in this interview excerpt presented by one of my favorite bloggers, Annie Gottlieb, Ambivablog, we see that Vonnegut is a secular humanist who believes in intelligent design:
MR. VONNEGUT: [ . . . L]ook, my body and your body are miracles of design. Scientists are pretending they have the answer as how we got this way when natural selection couldn’t possibly have produced such machines.
Vonnegut's position puts an entirely different spin on the whole discussion of ID, restoring it in fact to the status it enjoyed before being embraced as a stalking horse by some Creationists. Back then, scientists of both theistic and atheistic bents met at conferences to discuss the possibility and implications of an intelligent design and how it came to be.

Vonnegut's observation is simple and worthy of exploration: Can the doctrine of natural selection possibly explain the elegant panoply of life? I don't think that it can be and neither, apparently, does Vonnegut. But for me, that leads quite neatly and convincingly to "the God Hypothesis." I wonder where it might lead someone like Vonnegut once scientists really explored the notion?

Read the entire post.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Can Anybody Please Explain...

...what is going on?

Alito Confirmation a Tribute to Gang of 14's Compromise on Judicial Filibusters

No matter what your ideology, the Senate cloture vote on the nomination of Samuel Alito to be an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court must come as good news.

It was a vote for civil debate over judicial nominations after decades of ideological warfare and character assassination.

By this vote, the Senate has upheld the traditional view that the philosophical orientations of judges nominated by the White House are decided when Americans elect their presidents.

The job of the Senate then is to decide not how a judge might rule in future cases but whether they're qualified jurists without taint of ethical or legal problems or some concealed radicalism.

But Alito's impending confirmation is attributable more than anything else to the Gang of Fourteen's compromise on judicial filibusters hammered out last May. In their deal, the senators all agreed that, barring "extraordinary circumstances," they would disallow a filibuster against any judicial nominee.

Their agreement has so far resulted in the successful confirmation of three controversial conservative lower court judges, along with newly-minted Chief Justice John Roberts and the soon-to-be-sworn-in Alito. Perhaps only Roberts would have been confirmed absent the Gang's agreement.

There is no way that President Bush could have gotten his way on those five nominations without the deal worked out by seven Republican and seven Democratic senators.

Like all the best legislative compromises in history, this deal required a canny combination of political shrewdness and enlightened concession to make it work.

I believe--and believed when the compromise was first forged--that Republicans were the biggest winners in the process, ensuring as they did that President Bush's conservative jurists would be confirmed.

But Democratic participants in the Gang of Fourteen deal also helped their own party, by presenting Democrats in the Senate with an opportunity to repudiate the futile ideological obstructionism that has given their party such a black eye in the past.

Senators from both parties also each showed respect for the history of the Senate, preserving the filibuster as a legislative maneuver unencumbered by the threat of the so-called "nuclear option." (As much as you may hate the filibuster and as often it has been used in the past by those attempting to obstruct national progress, particularly in the area of civil rights, director Frank Capra showed us how it can be used as tool for good in his film classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)

I first wrote about the need for a compromise on judicial filibustering eleven days before the Gang's deal was brokered and welcomed it when it came enthusiastically!

I hope that tonight, the President called every member of the Gang to thank them personally for ensuring that his nominees for the Court have had the fairest treatment since the Ford Administration.

Past Posts on This Subject:
Impending Compromise on Filibuster of Judicial Nominations (May 12, 2005)
Good To See Compromise on Judicial Nominations (May 23, 2005)
Bainbridge Has Good Insights into Filibuster Compromise (May 25, 2005)
Just My Opinion (May 31, 2005)
"I've Been Nominated for Membership in the National Geo...I Mean, the Coalition of the Chillin'" (June 2, 2005)

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Mark 1:29-39

[To help the people of our congregation, Friendship Lutheran Church, to prepare for weekly worship, every week I periodicially post notes on my studies of and reflections on the Bible lesson around which worship will be built. This is the first week's first "pass" at the lesson, Mark 1:29-39.]

The Lesson:
29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Some General Thoughts:
1. The passage really seems as though it should have been part of the Bible lesson for this past weekend, Mark 1:21-28. I say this for three reasons:
v. 29 picks up with Jesus, accompanied by James, John, Simon, and Andrew, leaving the synagogue where Jesus exorcised the demon who had disrupted His teaching.

vv.29-32 recount what happened on the same sabbath day as in Mark 1:21-28.

v. 31 has Jesus performing a second miracle on the sabbath, the very "work" that will later bring Him trouble with the religious authorities. This second miracle however, stands in contrast with the first, which was an exorcism. This is a healing. Thus, on the first day Mark records Jesus performing miracles, He does one of each of the types the Gospel writer later records as the main categories into which those miracles fell: casting out demons and healings (v. 34).
2. There are two other main segments to the lesson:
vv. 32-34 recount how on the day after these first two Markan miracles, crowds thronged to people for healings and exorcisms. (In the ancient Jewish reckoning, and even today in that tradition, an old day ends and a new one begins at sundown. This is why the Sabbath Day is celebrated from sundown on Friday through sundown on Saturday.)

vv. 35-39 bring an account of the first conflict between Jesus and His fledgling group of disciples. More on this later.
Verse by verse:
v. 29: (1) The text actually begins with Mark's favorite adverb, immediately (euthus in the original Greek of the New Testament). In other words, what happens next fell immediately on the heels of the incident in the synagogue in Mark 1:21-28.

v. 30: There is here an intriguing connection between this first day of miracles recorded in Mark's Gospel and the first of Jesus' miracle as reported in John's Gospel. The first miracle mentioned there is Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding reception. There, the request for a miracle, if it can be called a request, was made most indirectly by Jesus' mother. She simply approaches Jesus and says, "They have no wine." Jesus, I think, consistent with the light mood of a reception, gives His mother a playful reply, asking her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and Me?" Seeming to understand Jesus' intentions, His mother immediately turns to the servants and tells them to do whatever Jesus tells them to do (John 2:3-5).

The point is that while Mary didn't know for sure if Jesus would perform this miracle, she certainly deemed Him capable of doing so. That seems to be the underlying assumption of those who tell Jesus about Simon's mother-in-law also. They don't make bold to actually ask Him to do anything for her, but after what happened in the synagogue, they must have the sneaking suspicion that He can do something for her. They simply inform Him of her condition.

(2) By the way, I have no idea who the "they" is in this verse.

v. 31: (1) Jesus seems to have physically lifted Simon's mother-in-law up. This, according to The Intepreter's Bible was the standard gesture Jesus made in healings.

(2) Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them: Because of the connection between Mark 1:21-28 and this passage, I wrote a little bit about this incident last week, based on a commentary by Brian Stoffregen and on his summary of several scholars' examination of this passage (I inserted several newer comments for this post in brackets):
...Mark says that as soon as the woman was cured of her fever, she stood up and served people. I used to think, "That's well and good. She was healthy enough to work. But it seems like a ripoff for her to have had to serve others as soon as she was feeling better!" I was looking at the text as a twenty-first-century person who hates sexism.

But for Mark, the woman's ability to once more serve others meant that the dignity of her station had been restored. Illness prevented people from functioning in the community. They were "put out to pasture." Healing allowed them back in. [It was deemed an honor owed to the oldest woman of a household to serve house guests.]

What all of this suggests is that part of the opposition that developed against Jesus had to do not only with when He brought them healing, exorcism, or restoration--the healing in this passage occurs on the Sabbath, thereby violating the commandment not to work on that day--but also that He uses extraordinary means to restore people to community. He freed people from being trapped on the sidelines of life.

For people like Scribes and Pharisees, who selfishly occupied positions of superiority in the religious hierarchy, Jesus' liberation of the demon-possessed and the ill represented a threat to their authority.
(3) One further implication of the mother-in-law's immediate attention to serving the guests is that the Bible doesn't share the world's demeaning view of servanthood. Servanthood is regarded as not just the highest expression of our humanity, but as the very highest expression of Jesus' deity. This is what Jesus was pointing to when He washed the feet of the disciples on the night of His arrest and betrayal. It's what Paul was writing about in Philippians 2:5-11:
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
v. 32: The crowds only needed a little encouragement to chase after the Miracle Maker. (If two miracles can be described as a "little" encouragement.)

v. 33: (1) It's probably hyperbolic to say that the "whole city" was at Simon's door, but you get the idea. There were a lot of people there. (Note that Simon has yet to be given Jesus' new designation for him, Peter.)

(2) This mass of healings would not yet bring Jesus into significant conflict with the religious authorities because they don't occur on the sabbath. The religiously-subservient crowds only come to Him once the sabbath has passed.

v. 34: Once more, Jesus orders the demons, who recognize that He is God in the flesh, not to proclaim His identity. I also addressed this issue last week:
Jesus commands the demon to be quiet. The reason for this, I suppose, is that one must come to identify Jesus as the Savior-Messiah by faith.

Besides, Jesus maintains "the messianic secret" throughout His ministry. While Jesus willingly affirms those who worship Him as Lord, God, Savior, and Christ, He never initiates such overt identification, even in the Gospel of John.

And even to those who make such confessions, like Peter, Jesus gives instructions to remain silent until His entire ministry has been fulfilled. It's only after Jesus' death and resurrection that we see His Lordship over death and life, understand that His Kingdom isn't of this world, and see that we too must endure death before the final fulfillment of His promise of life.

Until we become acquainted with these realities, we might be tempted to see Jesus as a cosmic kewpie doll, a pushover king who will do our bidding, no matter how selfish and self-aggrandizing it may be. "When Christ calls a man," the martyred opponent of Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said, "He bids him come and die."

The crowds who riotously welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday all believed that Jesus would be a pushover king who would give them all they wanted. As the week wore on and they realized that Jesus had no intention of leading a revolt against the Romans who occupied Jerusalem and Judea, they became disenchanted with Jesus. This is why they asked the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to release a rebel terrorist, Barabbas, instead of Jesus. They had come to the conclusion that Jesus was, in the words of Rick Warren, more concerned with their "character" than their "comfort."

The good news of Jesus is good news. But, as someone has said, before it can comfort us, it must first make us miserable. It does this in several ways:
  • Showing us the gap between our sinfulness and God's holiness, even the gap between our own standards of goodness and our performance.
  • Showing us that there is no way we can ever be good enough to earn God's forgiveness or Jesus' good grace.
  • Showing us that the only way to reconciliation with God is complete surrender to God and helpless acceptance of Jesus' offer of free help.
This is what the Bible means when it talks about "dying to self": Dying to a self-driven life and accepting a God-crafted life.Thank God He understands how limited we are. He knows that as long as we live on this earth, we'll see, as Paul puts it, "through a glass dimly."

That means that surrender to Christ is never, as I said last week I think, some "one and done" proposition. We need to surrender anew to Christ each day. This is because new temptations to rebellion against God assail us each day and because the closer we get to Christ, the more aware we become of previously unseen areas of rebellion.
v. 35: Jesus felt the need to face all the challenges He would confront in the coming sunlit hours. As many commentators have said, if Jesus, God in the flesh, felt this need, shouldn't we too?

v. 36: "Simon and his companions" enact what's going to become a common theme in Jesus' ministry. For all sorts of reasons, people will hunt Him down.

v. 37: It's hard to know exactly with what attitude Simon and the others say this. But whatever it may be, they definitely convey the notion that Jesus has become a hot commodity. Like the handlers of some charismatic politician or the agents for a new musical phenom, Simon and the gang are anxious for Jesus to give the crowds what they want. Neither they or the crowds understand Who Jesus is or that His miracles are meant to be nothing other than signs pointing toward the deeper truth about Him: That He is God and that He offers life to all who turn from their sin, accepting the crucifixion of their own selfish desires, and who will follow Him.

v. 38: Jesus' words here probably shock Simon. Instead of using this moment to spark a spate of positive PR for His cause, Jesus proposes leaving the crowds behind.

As Brian Stoffregen points out, it's hard to leave a successful past behind in order to embrace an uncertain future. But that's almost always what God calls us to do in His Kingdom. More on that in a subsequent pass at this lesson, I hope.

v. 39: Jesus continues His ministry. I hope to present more on Jesus and healing in a subsequent post.

Image-Making and the Crap Shoot of Democracy

For the responsible voter in a democracy, the challenge is to take measure of the people who seek our votes knowing that it's only long after the pols have stopped electioneering that we'll really begin to know them.

Political image-making is often derided and sometimes rightly so. But it is nonetheless an essential element for those who would persuade, lead, or govern. Just as the apostle Paul was willing to be "all things to all people" in order to reach them with his message about Christ, campaigning and governing politicians must be able to convince us that they are well-suited--even uniquely-suited--to address the needs of the times.

In his State of the Union message, President Bush, will once more engage in such image-making.

It's an old art. Back when the American Revolution was going badly, a huge contingent of the soldiers in George Washington's army were coming to the end of their enlistment periods. If they left, the war would be lost. If they stayed, the army could continue to fight its war of attrition against the most powerful empire on the planet.

Washington assembled soldiers and officers to incite them to stay with him. As part of his presentation that day, he wanted to include reading a letter from the Continental Congress. As he prepared to do so, he fumbled for his glasses. You see, gentlemen, he told them as he unfolded the letter, I have nearly gone blind in the service of my country.

That wasn't really true. Washington had been using glasses for some time. But this little bit of image-making did represent a deeper truth about Washington, one that all his army knew well: He had sacrificed his safety, his property, his honor, his life, and the well-being of his wife and family in the service of America's fight for freedom. The assembled soldiers were reduced to tears and Washington got his enlistments.

No recent American President was a better image-maker than Ronald Reagan. Asked once what he brought to the presidency that none of his predecessors had before, the former actor said that he knew what he looked like from every camera angle. And another time, in response to someone who wanted to know how an actor could possibly be president, Reagan said he couldn't understand how anybody who wasn't an actor could do the job.

Many who looked at Reagan and his presidency while he was living wrote him off as a well-meaning, but dangerous boob. They were always underestimating him. Reagan, like Franklin Roosevelt, his political, if not his philosophical hero, shared several things in common with him: They effused optimism. They affected an attitude of amiability. They were ambitious. They let others do their dirty work. And they never, ever let anybody really know who they were. They used their images to govern and by most accounts, did so effectively. But just as we've been able to take an accurate measure only recently, it will be some time before we really have a clear fix on Reagan.

Sometimes, knowing my interest in history, young people will ask me who I think our greatest presidents have been. They're surprised that I never list the chief executives who have served within the past thirty years or so. "Is it because our leaders have gotten worse?" they'll ask. "No, it's just that we don't know enough about these people yet to form fair judgments."

I'm grateful to the historians and biographers dedicated to unlocking these mysteries, though. There's a ton to be learned about America and about leadership from the biographies of past presidents. But the biographer of people like Washington, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan, who assiduously developed images and left themselves somewhat inaccessible in order to free themselves to truly function as leaders, has a huge task.

Richard Reeves, who in the past has written about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, has a new book out on Reagan. It was reviewed in yesterday's New York Times. The book seems not to have plowed any new ground. But I was interested in this paragraph in the review:
Reeves argues that Reagan was a master of both imagination and delegation. He stuck firmly to a small number of clear goals - reducing the size of government, restoring America's power and pride, and facing down Communism - and then delegated implementation to the "fellas." He did not so much do things as persuade others to do them for him. But his preference for delegation should not be confused with passivity. He insisted on using the phrase "tear down this wall" against the advice of his underlings, for example. The arms control deals that crowned his administration would have been impossible without his mixture of sci-fi fantasy and idealism. A Russian note taker who watched him carefully at two summit meetings likened him to an aged lion. If the prey was 10 feet away, he couldn't be bothered to move; but when it wandered to within 8 feet, he suddenly came to life - and Reagan the negotiator dominated the room.
Few who dismissed Reagan as a disengaged boob would recognize that portrait of him and none who voted in the elections of 1980 and 1984 had access to it. But the American people, in part because the Democrats didn't seem to offer the country an alternative vision that interested them, but mostly because of the image of Reagan's "morning in America" optimism, voted for the "aged lion" anyway.

Democracy is a bit of a crap shoot. The responsible voter must take proper account of the image and of what the truth seems to be whenever they go into a polling place. And, I think, they must pray. Since 1788, it seems that Americans have usually gotten it right when electing their leaders. May we always be so fortunate.

Thank God for Your Scars

I was in the fourth grade, it was recess time, and my classmates and I were playing a game of softball. Pat Murphy was at bat and I was on deck.

Pat had a bad habit. Every time he belted the ball, he threw his bat as he ran to first base.

This at-bat was no exception. Pat hit the ball to center field and let the bat fly. It hit me on the forehead with a violent crash, raising a huge lump.

A short time later, an EMS took me to the hospital. ER doctors looked me over and did some x-rays. You might not believe this, but the docs told my mother that everything inside my head was uninjured. Over the next few weeks, I suffered from black eyes, but that was almost all that happened as a result of my encounter with the thrown bat.

I say "almost" because forty-four years later, I do have one souvenir: A lump on my forehead. Even after we experience healing, there are often scars.

I heard a pastor once tell the true story of a woman who was having an affair, but knew she needed to end it. She loved her husband and her children. She had made a long-ago vow to be faithful and she couldn't live with the guilt or shame any longer.

As the pastor counseled her, she courageously broke off the affair. It really was courageous because it's hard for a woman to end it with a man who gives her all the attention that a lover, unencumbered by the challenges and the baggage that go with marriage, can provide.

The lover who didn't leave his socks on the Family Room floor, had never forgotten to pick up the gallon of milk after work, and gave her 100% of his attention when they were together seemed like the Prince Charming, the "soul mate," for whom she'd always yearned.

As she affected and lived with the aftermath of her breakup, the woman continued to meet with the pastor. "I know I did the right thing," she told him more than once. "I don't regret it." But sometimes, she confided, she missed her old lover. "And sometimes," she said, "it hurts like hell."

She was healed. She had turned away from her destructive sin. Her relationships with her husband and with the God Who cares about our marriages were restored. She had left the seeming certainties of a lover's undying attention to trust that an unseen God had a better plan for her. She'd found God's plan to be best. But, like the lump still on my forehead, the scars that went with breaking off her old intoxicating life will be with her for as long as she lives.

She had put herself completely at the disposal of the God made known in Jesus Christ so that the power of His crucifixion and resurrection could be reiterated in her living. A man named Paul writes about this in the New Testament: "...I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central...The life you see me living is not 'mine,' but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself to me. I am not going back on that" (Galatians 2:20-21, The Message).

God is willing to forgive our sins and give us joy from living His way. But, be warned: If we're genuinely following Him, the scars we incur will never go away.

They're the trophies of those who've grabbed the outstretched hand of a loving God.

They're the yellow lights blinking us to be cautious when we're tempted to go our own ways instead of God's.

Scars are often the gracious gifts of a loving God.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

It's My Kid Brother's Birthday

Today is the birthday of my kid brother, Marty Daniels. Marty is a very funny comedian. He's got a newly-redesigned web site. (He did it himself, proving once again that he's a real Renaissance Man!) Go check it out here.

A Moment of Self-Indulgence: Go, Buckeyes!

Having become aware of basketball in the Ohio State era of Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell, and Jim Bowman, I have always been even more into OSU basketball than OSU football.

As we came into this 2005-2006 basketball season, I told friends I thought that the Buckeyes would do well this season, but that next year would see them vying for both the Big Ten and national titles under Coach Thad Matta.

I still think that, but the Buckeyes have had a great season so far. Although they lost to a very tough Michigan State team yesterday, they still have a great chance of being in the NCAA Tournament, a terrific harbinger of things to come!

The Buckeyes play a non-conference game against Florida A&M tomorrow. Go, Bucks!

Naomi Wolf Sees Jesus

and I don't know what to make of it. But you have to hand it to this often-maligned person for going public with her strange experience.

Called Out to Messy Transformation

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church during our worship celebrations on January 28 and 29. The three key significant things mentioned here, while reflecting the way my own thinking has developed over the course of the week, are taken from a message by Pastor David Stark.]

Mark 1:21-28

There are three things that I want you to notice about this passage.

The first is the power of Jesus’ teaching. The people in the synagogue there in Capernaum were “astounded.” The original New Testament Greek says literally that they “were blown out of their minds.” The reason for their reaction, our lesson says, is that Jesus taught with “authority.” That word in Greek is exousia, which can also be translated as power. There was power and authority in Jesus’ teaching.

The telephone call came, as happens so often in crisis situations, in the middle of the night. This was in my former parish. “Pastor,” the person on the other end of the line said, “we’re here in Toledo. We had to bring Mike to the hospital. Could you come up?”

I wasn’t surprised. Mike’s life was a mess. I’d been counseling with him for some time and it seemed as though we were getting nowhere. He had so many problems. He was abusing alcohol and several different sorts of drugs. He was harming himself in other ways. During the course of our discussions, he also revealed that he had been repeatedly savagely abused as a child.

My experience through the years has been that people who abuse alcohol and drugs are usually among the most sensitive souls you'll ever meet, beautiful people whose lives have been so drenched in pain that they anesthetize themselves against life. The same was true, I suspected with Mike. You could tell that there was another person buried beneath his hurts, but the Mike I usually saw was an emotionless walking wound.

I arrived at the hospital that night just in time for his interview with an emergency room intake physician. The doc went through a series of boiler plate questions with Mike. Had Mike been in the situation before or been more on his guard, he might not have been as forthright with his answers as he was that night. “Have you ever contemplated suicide?” the doctor asked. “Yes.” That was it! Under those circumstances, the doctor was obligated to admit Mike, even against his will.

Folks, if I live to be a hundred-and-twenty, I will never forget the venom that spewed from Mike’s mouth at that. He was like a cornered animal. It wasn’t just what he said, it was how he said it. There was menace in his posture, as though at any moment, he might pounce on any one of us. I prayed frantically under my breath while the doctor and an assistant subdued Mike.

He was admitted to the hospital for treatment and I know that all the counseling that he received in subsequent weeks helped him. But what helped most was a little devotional booklet that a friend gave to him. Every day, Mike read the booklet and the Biblical passage on which it was based. He had become desperate enough to read God’s Word.

One scholar theorized (and I think that he was right) that the teaching the synagogue heard from Jesus that day in Capernaum was probably the same thing Jesus told people at the very beginning of His ministry, which we talked about last week: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

That’s so simple. Where’s the Wow Factor? What would cause the crowd to be “blown out of their minds”? Here’s the cause: Jesus is God. His every word is imbued with the power of the One Who made the universe. His words and every word that truly reflects His identity and will reflect the pure, underived power of God Almighty!

Jesus’ Word has so much clout, in fact, that as Mike heard it and read it and thought about it, a transformation began to happen in his life. It’s been sometime since I’ve heard from him, but the last time I did, he was doing well. He was freed of all his demons. There’s power in Jesus’ teaching.

This brings up the second thing that I want you to see about this passage: Jesus’ teaching has the capacity to call whatever prevents us from experiencing God’s wholeness, whatever keeps us from living life with God, out of our lives. That’s what happened in the synagogue in Capernaum. In the middle of Jesus’ teaching there, a man filled with a demon, a spiritual agent of the devil, showed up, disrupting everything. Apparently referring to his demon buddies, the demon, speaking through the man he possessed, asked Jesus if He had come to get all of them. “I know who you, Jesus: the Holy One of God.”

Jesus was not about to let a demon teach people at worship in a synagogue about His identity as God in the flesh. That’s something all of us must come to by faith as we get to know Jesus for ourselves.

Besides, when Satan tells us about Jesus, he always does it with a spin designed to undermine our faith. He tries to say that Jesus isn’t really God. Or that He can’t help you. Or He didn’t really rise from the dead. Or He wasn’t sinless. He tries to tell these lies even though the experiences of billions of people who have gotten to know Jesus down through the centuries disproves everyone of them.

That’s why Jesus called out to the demon, “Be silent! Come out of him!” In other words, Jesus called the thing that was enslaving that man out, so that he could be free. That’s what He did for Mike.

And whatever it is that’s enslaving you, Christ can do the same thing for you. He can silence and remove the all that enslaves you.
  • Young people, the Savior Who went to a cross and rose from the dead for you can give you a healthy self-esteem.
  • Middle age folks, caught in a rut, He can help you live with contentment and joy.
  • Older folks, dogged by a sense of your limitations, He can overcome your self-doubts and help you use your wisdom and experience for good.
Jesus and His Word have authority. Jesus and His Word can call the worst from out of us and set us free to be with Him now and forever. But here’s the third thing to remember: When Jesus works in our lives, it won’t always be easy. In fact, at times it will be downright messy.

Martin Luther once said that the believer in Jesus Christ is the Holy Spirit's workshop. I've never been in a carpentry shop yet that wasn't messy during the time the carpenter was building. Wood shavings from the lathe and dust from the table saw are on the floor. As Jesus works on us, removing what separates us from God's goodness and forging and shaping our characters, things can get messy.

When Jesus called the demon out of the man at the Capernaum synagogue, it convulsed and cried and yelped. The evil in that man wouldn't give up without a messy fight!

Sinful habits and compulsions, just like all habits and compulsions, are hard to break. That’s because, as somebody has said, we form our habits and after a while, our habits form us. They get a grip on us.

A man came to see me once. “I’m having an affair,” he told me, “and I know it’s wrong. But I can’t stop.” So far as I know, he never did. You see he had heard Jesus call out the evil into which he’d sunk, but he was unwilling to let it go. It would have been too messy to try.

I always loved baseball. But I pretty much stopped playing it when I was in junior high school. Then, years later, after I was married, a couple of buddies asked me to be on a rec league softball team. It was an intimidating thing. I was about the only member of the team who hadn’t played high school or college baseball. Two of my friends of whom you’ve heard me speak before, Tom and Jerry (really!), worked with me a couple of nights a week before our first season started.

A particular problem was my swing. You see, if you’re a right-handed batter, you need to allow your left hand to pull your swing through the ball, push off with your right foot, and extend with your left foot. My swing was all wrong. I rested my weight on both feet, for one thing. Worse, I pushed my swing through with my right hand, rather than pulling it with my left. All of that meant that I wasn’t striding into my swing or backing it with any power.

Those hours my friends spent working with me on my hitting skills weren’t perfect. But they paid off. For four of the seven years we played, I had the highest batting average on our team!

The point is that getting rid of a bad habit is messy. But the messiness pays off if we'll submit to proper instruction! No one is a better instructor than the Savior, Jesus.

Seminary professor Howard Hendricks was once told by a student, “You know, I haven’t been bothered by the temptation to sin in about three years.” Hendricks told the shocked student, “That’s about the worst thing I think you could say.” The student was dumbfounded and asked, “Why?” Because, Hendricks explained, if evil isn’t making a struggle for you, it means you’re probably not even in the game. It meant, you see, that that young man wasn’t cooperating with Jesus Christ in calling out the worst in him to help him to become a passionate, effective agent of His love and power in the world, which is what each of us can become.

She had drifted along spiritually for awhile, but came to a point where she felt a need for God. She began to attend church, not getting much out of it, when one Sunday, the pastor showed how Jesus and His Word could impact her life. It was as though he was speaking directly to her. Jesus always speaks to us through His Word, if we let Him.
  • Jesus' Word has authority.
  • It can call out of us everything that isn’t from God.
  • And when we let Him in, that Word can bring the messiness of positive change to our lives.
May the messiness that goes with Jesus’ forever freedom be a central element of your life every single day!

[The stories I tell about personal experiences really are personal experiences, no James Freyism here. The story of the student and Howard Hendricks is one I've read in several places through the years. The story of the woman at the end of the message is akin to something I've observed countless times through the years, but specifically was told by Pastor Stark.]

[The Bible lesson around which next weekend's worship will be built is Mark 1:29-39.]