Saturday, February 11, 2006

Avian Flu Update #1: We Must Be Prepared

I've written about Avian Flu before. But I intend to post something about it every day until a vaccine has been developed or adequate plans for dealing with an outbreak among humans have been promulgated.

Avian Flu was found in Africa for the first time this past week, appearing in Nigeria. Now, other countries, including Mauritania, are taking the prudent step of banning the importation of Nigerian poultry.

Meanwhile a major official in the Bulgarian government says that an outbreak of Avian Flu among humans in his country is unlikely. The phrase for that kind of thinking is state of denial. That this stance is unwise is underscored by the discovery of birds felled by the disease in his country, as well as in Italy and Greece.

Meanwhile, the United Nations official charged with coordinating that agency's response to the disease has said that he wakes up each morning certain of receiving news that the flu has mutated and is directly communicable between humans. The flu is only two mutations away from that horrible eventuality.

We must be ready in this country. The state of Indiana, which last fall unveiled a plan that also required all 92 counties to develop responses, is now preparing for a statewide summit to discuss and refine its plans. Such planning needs to happen at every level of government across the country.

Anti-Science Christians Major in Minors

Ann Althouse cites evangelist Ken Ham's utter condemnation of science in an appearance before elementary school students. I respond:
Stuff like this makes me cringe as a Christian and a pastor. I think that for one thing, Mr. Ham is majoring in the minors.

Historically, when the Church has summarized the core beliefs that anyone who claims to be Christian must adhere to, questions like when and how the universe came into being have been left to science. The Bible and historic Christian faith have been more interested in who created the universe and why.

Check out the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, for example, two summaries of Christian faith that are universally accepted by the Church. They simply affirm that God created. Nothing more is needed. [The sparseness of the Confessions' affirmation of God's creation of the universe] may [tacitly] acknowledge the fact that the Old Testament contains six different accounts of creation, most notably the two different versions that appear at the very beginning of Genesis.

In the first, starting at Genesis 1:1, God's Spirit moves over a roaring, stormy ocean of chaos and makes life, culminating in the creation of people. In the second account, [found] in Genesis 2 and 3, the primordial stuff from which God creates is a desert and Adam is the first creature brought into being.

Unless one assumes that the authors, editors, and original readers of the complex literature that composes Genesis were complete dolts, we see that they wouldn't have been unaware of the intrinsic problem with an overly-literalistic interpretation of two accounts that differ on whether things started with an ocean or a desert.

When Christians have said that the Bible is God's Word, we've never meant that God or an angel dictated the precise words to...Biblical writers acting as human tape recorders. It's the Muslims and Mormons who have said this of their holy books.

Christians, in contrast, have said that the Bible is "inspired." (Or as a literal interpretation of Second Timothy puts it, "God-breathed.") That means that God has always spoken to people through the media of people, using their experiences and vocabulary. In order to reach us, God has been required to use this method to speak what for Him amounts to "baby talk."

As Mr. Ham says, no human being could have been there at the beginning of God's creation. But using terms and notions human beings might understand, the Biblical writers were inspired by God to affirm that God created the universe. With this understanding, it's okay for Christians to think that paleontology, biology, and other scientific disciplines, though finite and as prone to error as any other human pursuit, might have something to say about the when and how of Creation.

Of course, for the Christian, the core of the Bible's message is summarized in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." That's the major on which we Christians should major. Everything else, by comparison, is unimportant.
I'm fairly conservative when it comes to the Bible. I believe that there were an Adam and Eve, that Jonah was really swallowed by a great fish, that God made a way for His people through the foaming sea, that Jesus turned water into wine, and that Jesus rose from the dead. But some things are essential for salvation and a relationship with God and other things aren't.

Even if I believed that the the Biblical writers were cosmic tape recorders, I wouldn't bother disagreeing with science--other than challenging those scientists who illogically argue that because of their observations of the natural order, there is no God. Our job as Christians and as part of Christ's Church, is to introduce people to Jesus Christ and welcome them into our family of recovering sinners. Everything else is self-aggrandizement, I fear.

I know, because I've been a terrible self-aggrandizer, majoring in other minors more than I like to remember!

UPDATE: You might also be interested in this piece, written last December.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Ambivablog cites a statement from Pope Benedict in which he asserts, rightly I believe, that there is no essential conflict between Christian belief and science. Also see here for a fuller treatment of the Pope's thoughts on this subject from Catholic Online.

Cooked Up Cartoonageddon

Annie Gottlieb (aka: Ambivablog) has the evidence.

'Groovy as a Cucumber'

An Associated Press story reports:
"Cool" remains the gold standard of slang in the 21st century, surviving like few expressions ever could in our constantly evolving language. It has kept its cool through the centuries -- even as its meaning changed drastically.

"Cool is certainly a charter member for the slang hall of fame," says Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of popular culture. " 'Cool' just sits back and keeps getting used generation after generation and lets the whole history of the language roll off its back." ...

It is the all-purpose word for OK, good, great, terrific and every gradation in between, now often pronounced as "kewl."
The term, beyond its original use of describing the opposite of warm, has certainly proved durable.

But I have to say, I take some exception to the inclusion of some terms in a sidebar accompanying the article claims have gone the way of the dinosaur. It's true that heavy, outta sight, far out, phat, gag me with a spoon, and the fuzz have all gone the way of the proverbial and oft-cited do-do.

But I used the term right on just this week. And everybody knows that I'm a, groovy guy. I mean, I'm au courant, right?

And what about off the hook? Just this past December after worship, a ninety year old woman visiting her family and our congregation used the term to describe one of the worship celebrations at her church. That's cool.

Copasetic, nifty, the cat's pajamas, and da bomb are terms whose currency has admittedly ended, but which I occasionally use just for fun. (Along with swell and the bee's knees.)

Of special interest on the sidebar's listing of passe slang though, is groovy. Nobody uses it today, of course, and I knew that its continued use in the 60s was probably fleeting when Doris Day used it on her CBS sitcom back in about 1969. Nothing could be considered hip...I mean, cool, if Doris Day said it. (Johnny Carson probably similarly killed Nehru jackets and love beads when he wore them on The Tonight Show in the same timeframe.)

But groovy has an interesting life. When the SoCal trendsetters and New Yawkers like Simon and Garfunkel ("Feelin' groovy...") used the term, I thought that it was a product of my generation. But that was just another example of Baby Boomer hubris. In the early 1970s, my grandparents gave my families copies of two complete editions of Columbus newspapers from 1945: one headlining the end World War Two in Europe and the other the end of the conflict in Japan. It was fun looking at the entire papers, seeing what made news and how much things cost. I even enjoyed reading the comic strips, something I never do today. One strip especially caught my eye. It showed two teenage girls talking. As I remember, one asked the other if she'd like to go to a party where a boy they especially liked would be. "That'd be groovy," said the other.

I was blown away....rendered incredulous. It's only one of many examples of how, through the years, I've had my generational conscension punctured. We're not so unique, after all, I learned.
Don't be too dismissive of old turns of phrase. Next week, they may come back and you, in an effort to stay relevant, will be using them yourself.

For Your Presidents' Day Reading Pleasure: Some Presidential Posts

February 20 brings Presidents' Day. Here are a few randomly-selected Presidential-related posts from the past:

Garry Wills on James Madison's PresidencyTR: Leadership and the Call for Sacrifice
The Book I Always Meant to WritePresident Bush Faces Critical Time
Foreign Policy Over Burritos and Tacos
His Excellency, Samuel Betances, and the Promise of America
A New Approach to Naming Our Greatest Presidents
More Whatcha Reading?
Today is the Birthday of America's Sixteenth President (2004)
My Four Favorite Lincoln Books
My Picks for the Four Best U.S. Presidents (my esteem for Lincoln has increased since this piece was written)
Where's the Rest of Me?
The Curse of Second Presidential Terms
'1776' Underscores Washington's Greatness
Fisher Ames on Washington
Image-Making and the Crapshoot of Democracy
Reflections on JFK's Assassination, the Unthinkable, and the Reliable
Who's the President's Anti-Model When It Coms to Social Security Reform?
A Biography of the Other Adams
SOTU: How to Fix It

Lincoln Links

In honor of the February 12 anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birthday, here is some Lincolnia for your reading pleasure:

Our Visit to the New Lincoln Presidential Museum
Other Attractions in Springfield, Illinois
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight...
Two First Impressions of Team of Rivals

Abraham Lincoln Really Was Great

Abraham Lincoln's first Secretary of War--the equivalent of today's Secretaries of the Army--was a Pennsylvania pol named Simon Cameron.

As the Union was forced to fight a civil war against a rebellious Confederacy in the opening months of Lincoln's first presidential term, it became clear that Cameron was in over his head. He was an inept administrator who let out massive contracts to manufacturers of ordnance, ammunition, tents, uniforms, blankets, knapsacks, and boots that were either defective or grossly overpriced.

Lincoln eased Cameron out of his cabinet, nominating him for an ambassadorship. At first, Cameron was resentful that Lincoln made this move and bitter toward the President. But he would soon have a different attitude about Lincoln.

After Cameron had vacated his Washington post, a Congressional committee began to look at the administrative blunders the Secretary of War had committed. There were some who thought that he might have been guilty of corrupt bargains with the owners of companies that had, in effect, stolen from the federal government. Ultimately, Cameron was censured by the House of Representatives. As Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in her wonderful new book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln:
Cameron was devastated, knowing that he would never recover from the scandal. Lincoln, however, made a great personal effort to assuage his pain and humiliation. He wrote a long public letter to Congress, explaining that the unfortunate contracts were spawned by the emergency situation facing the government in the immediate aftermath of Fort Sumter. Lincoln declared that he and his entire cabinet "were at least equally responsible with [Cameron] for whatever error, wrong, or fault was committed."

Cameron would never forget this generous act. Filled with gratitude and admiration, he would become, Nicolay and Hay [Lincoln's secretaries] observed, "one of the most intimate and devoted of Lincoln's personal friends." He appreciated the courage it took for Lincoln to share the blame at a time when everyone else had deserted him. Most other men in Lincoln's situation, Cameron wrote, "would have permitted an innocent man to suffer rather than incur responsibility." Lincoln was not like most other men, as each cabinet member, including the new war secretary [Edwin Stanton], would soon come to understand.
Even if you didn't know another thing about Abraham Lincoln, the reading of this vignette alone would alert you to his greatness. Yes, Lincoln craved the opportunity to do great things. Yes, he made mistakes. Yes, his racial attitudes would not mark him as open-minded in today's context. But he was, as all who came to know him--from Stanton to Frederick Douglass, from William Seward to Ulysses S. Grant--a truly extraordinary figure who brought great humility and great confidence to the presidency. He also was, without doubt, the most gifted writer to serve as President, one truly worthy of the designation of Great Communicator. And, as his defense of Cameron demonstrates, he was also a person of nobility who lived the maxim Harry Truman kept on his desk in the Oval Office: The Buck Stops Here!

I bring all this up because tomorrow, February 12, is the anniversary of Lincoln's birth in 1809. It's this anniversary, along with that of the birth of George Washington on February 22, 1732, that lay behind our President's Day holiday.

At the risk of being dismissed for naivete, I can assure you after a lifetime of studying the presidents and the presidency, that this country has been blessed with some truly extraordinary chief executives. Lincoln is one of them. No wonder that Theodore Roosevelt said that often, when pondering great decisions during his presidency, he asked himself what Lincoln might do. It's not a bad question for anyone who would be a leader to ask!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Earth at Warmest Levels in 1200 Years?

Researchers of a study being summarized in the journal, Science, say so and believe it's related to global warming. This is certain to be cited by the backers of the recently-announced Evangelical Climate Initiative. According to a report from The Globe and Mail:
The warmth in which the Northern Hemisphere has basked since the middle of the 20th century has been the most widespread and longest period of unusual climate experienced at any time during at least the past 1,200 years, according to a research paper in the journal Science.

The finding, by a pair of climate researchers from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., was based on comparisons of the current warm period to other hot and cold intervals since the year 800...

In 2003, a team led by researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that it believed the 20th century wasn't the warmest, nor the one with the most extreme weather of the past 1,000 years.

But this research has been criticized for its selection of the indicators used to estimate historic temperatures, among other problems.

The new paper tried to overcome some of these shortcomings by carefully selecting items, such as tree rings, that are directly connected to temperature changes.

Although the new paper looked at data up to only 1995, recent years have continued with even more pronounced warmth.

The World Meteorological Organization said late last year that the decade from 1996-2005 contained nine of the 10 warmest years on record.
Read the whole thing.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Random Stuff from Our Acts Study, Part 2

[These days, on Tuesday nights, a group of folks in the congregation I serve as pastor is looking at the New Testament book of Acts. Acts tells the story of the Church from the day of the risen Jesus' ascension into heaven until a time about thirty years later.

[As I did when a group studied the Old Testament book of Genesis, my intention is to present some random notes about our discussions. The aim is to provide people who can't participate in the group with the benefits of our times together and to help all of us who participate to remember what we discuss.]

Acts 1

vv. 1-2: Here, Luke, whose goal as explained in his gospel, is to create "an orderly account" of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, says that this book is a continuation of Jesus' ministry. It's a ministry empowered by His Holy Spirit and led by the "apostles."

The word apostle means sent one. While the term is used somewhat ambiguously in the New Testament, it's best to think of apostles as a subgroup of disciples. All followers of Jesus Christ are disciples, the English word that translates the term in New Testament Greek, mathetes, meaning student or follower.

The apostles, a group which as Acts opens numbers 11, owing to the betrayal, defection, and death of their twelfth members, Judas, were given a special role of leadership in the Church to which the Spirit soon to be sent by Jesus will give birth.

v. 3: Paul says that more than five-hundred believers saw the risen Jesus during the forty-day period between His resurrection on the first Easter and His ascension.

vv. 4-5: The fledgling Church was to stay in Jerusalem and wait. In this, Jesus is underscoring an ongoing theme of His own ministry. He interspersed times of intense activity with times of prayer in which He waited for the Father's empowerment. Now, the disciples are to wait for the Holy Spirit.

The word spirit in the Greek is pneuma, the equivalent of a Hebrew word, ruach. Both words can, depending on the context, be rendered wind, breath, or spirit. Of course, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the "triune" God, consisting also of the Father and of the Son, Jesus.

It was God's Spirit Who moved over the waters to create the universe in Genesis 1:1 and it was this same Spirit that animated the life of the first human being according to the second Creation account in Genesis.

v. 6: I find Jesus' followers so endearingly stupid some times...and so like me! Jesus has broken the barriers of sin and death and shown that He is the bringer of a transcendent kingdom, one that will last forever. Yet even now, forty days after Jesus has risen from the dead, the disciples are thinking in earthly political terms.

They may as well be asking Jesus, "Is this the time when you're going to throw out the Romans and put a chicken in every pot and a Maserati in every garage, Lord?" Or, "Is this when you're going to kick tail and take names?"

In their question, the gathered disciples betray a short-sighted, earth-bound understanding of the Messiah. It's the same understanding that had once caused Peter to upbraid Jesus for predicting His own execution and which may have motivated Judas to betray the Lord with the hope that once Jesus was arrested, He would lead an insurrection to throw the Romans out of Judea. It's the same understanding of the Messiah that caused the crowds that so uproariously welcomed Jesus on the first Palm Sunday to turn on Him and cry for His blood just a few days later.

The King could offer them eternity, but the disciples were still looking for little parcels of land and the hollow satisfaction of revenge.

None of this is to say that Christians should accept injustice. As I explain here, one of the missions of Christians and of the Church is to advocate for justice. Karl Marx was totally wrong about Christianity, the main target of his critique, when he said, "Religion is the opiate of the people." In fact, when a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, it gives a powerful motivation and an incredible confidence for witnessing against injustice, no matter the opposition.

But the Christian's commitment to justice isn't born of personal resentments. It isn't waged for oneself. Remember the speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis on the night before he was assassinated? He spoke of his people reaching a promised land of freedom, equality, and opportunity. Then he said, "I may not get there with you."

By this stage in his life, King wasn't fighting for himself. Even then, at age 39, King could have legitimately said that he had already made his contribution and taken a faculty position somwhere Yale or Harvard divinity schools. He could have become a respected grey-eminence at theological institutions or a large church and nobody would have thought the less of him for it. But he felt God's call on his life. He felt compelled to speak on behalf of those who hadn't yet made it to the "promised land."

In this verse, Jesus' first followers demonstrate that they don't quite get it yet. But within days, God is going to begin forging them into a bold force who will share the Good News that the risen Jesus Christ makes it possible for all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved from sin and death and have new life with God forever (Acts 2:21).

v. 7: Jesus' response has in mind the Day when He will return to the earth. These words, I think, stand as a condemnation of all those pseudo-Christian fear-mongers and booksellers who claim to have a handle on when Jesus is coming back. Only the Father knows when that will be, Jesus says.

v. 8: Here, Jesus says that the Spirit is going to empower this embryonic Church to move out in the world, telling His story.

They'll start in Jerusalem, the seat of the religious life of the Hebrews, home of the Temple.

They'll fan into the rest of Judea, the occupied nation of which Jerusalem is the capital. Judea was the home of two of Israel's twelve tribes, called the southern kingdom by historians.

Then, the Church was to go into Samaria. Not long after the death of Israel's most powerful king, Solomon, God's people split in two. The northern kingdom, also known as Israel, was centered on the city of Samaria. The Samaritans were hated by the Judeans with the special contempt we human beings often reserve for those to whom we are most closely related.

Finally, Jesus says, the early Church is to carry this message into the whole world.

It's difficult to imagine a less qualified group of people to lead the Church than these eleven "apostles." They haven't proven very reliable or faithful so far. But Jesus had faith in the ability of the Holy Spirit to help them fulfill His mission for them, if only they will submit to Him.

vv. 9-11: This scene always cracks me up. The people with Jesus were understandably amazed and incredulous as they watched Him being taken into heaven. But the men in white who show up--I think we can safely assume that they're angels--almost upbraid them for their incredulity.

vv. 12-14: Here we see that the Church is doing what Jesus told them to do. They're waiting. For Luke, waiting really involves waiting on God, which means devotion to prayer. In prayer, we seek God's direction and empowerment to do whatever God wants us to do. Jesus' first followers would have felt the need for God's power in light of the daunting mission Jesus gave them in Acts 1:8 and in light of their track record of abandoning Jesus in the tough times, as happened after He was arrested, tried, and crucified.

vv.15-26: It's amazing to see Peter's boldness here. After all, he denied knowing Jesus three times on the night of Jesus' arrest and trial. But his position of influence among his fellow Jesus-Followers bespeaks His fellow believers' awareness that God forgives the repentant--that is, people who turn from their sin and seek God's forgiveness. You can already see the impact of this period of prayer on Peter and the rest of the embryonic Church. We'll see even more of the effects of prayer in subsequent chapters!

[Random Stuff from Our Acts Study, Part 1]

I Am Psyched!

Ohio State's men's basketball team got a tough Big Ten road win tonight, defeated Michigan. It puts OSU in a three-way tie for second and sets up a dramatic confrontation with first-place Illinois in Columbus on Sunday.

The win makes the Buckeyes 17-3.

I fully expected Ohio State to vie for both the Big Ten and national championships next season. But the performance of Thad Matta's team so far this year is wonderful icing on the cake for Ohio State fans and alums and Columbus natives. (I fall into all three of those categories.)

I love OSU football, but having become a sports fan in the era of Jerry Lucas-John Havlicek Buckeye basketball, I've always been a bigger cage fan. I am really psyched! (Can you tell?)

Go, Buckeyes!

Greatest Hits of 2005: December Posts

I've been linking to the 2005 posts that brought the most traffic and comments or that I just personally like. Here are the December hits:

Leadership Lesson #7
Should Churches Close on Christmas?
Should Churches Close on Christmas (Part 2)
What is the Church Year? A Bit of an Explanation
When Confusion Comes
Reactions of Some to Execution Troubling
Narnia Film Review
Overcoming Evil Through Christ
Lessons from Shepherds
What Christmas Means
Taking Time to Savor the Savior
Mr. Christian and Mr. Mainstream Talk
Trust in Spite of Fear
The Greatest Communicator Speaks to Us
Quick Takes on Our San Francisco Trip
Woman Marries Dolphin
A sad one in light of subsequent events: Sharon Needs to Do Succession Planning Now

Two Perspectives on the Danish Cartoon Controversy

Charlie LeHardy

Jamil Momand (thanks to Ambivablog for linking to this piece)

What Does It Mean to Pray in Jesus' Name?

Mark Roberts has some interesting things on what it means to pray in Jesus' Name:
I have Christian friends who believe that every time a Christian prays, it's necessary for that person to mention the name of Jesus specifically, by saying "in Jesus's name" or "through Christ our Lord" or something similar. Thus they would not be pleased with what happened at the National Prayer Breakfast, where Christians prayed without using Jesus's name before saying "Amen."...

In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches His disciples to pray "in his name": "And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it" (John 14:13-14). Yet Jesus doesn't mean that we must say "in Jesus's name" at the end of every prayer, though this is surely a fine thing to do as long as we don't think of "in Jesus's name" as magic words. To pray in Jesus's name is to pray under His authorization. It means to approach God through Jesus and to seek, not our own will, but the will of Jesus our Lord.

Therefore, all Christians should pray in Jesus's name and no other, whether they say "in Jesus's name" or not. When I, and thousands of other Christians at the Prayer Breakfast, agreed with Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Jewish man, in prayer, we were praying in Jesus's name, even though he was not and did not use the familiar Christian ending to his prayer. I was coming before God in the name of Jesus because that's the only way I pray...
I think that Mark is absolutely right-on. As John Schroeder writes insightfully on his blog today:
Prayer is not about what we say, or even really "think" - it is another way of placing ourselves in a proper attitude in front of God, prostrate, humble, reliant, submissive and in awe.
In the ninth part of my blog series on Prayer: The Essential Conversation, I wrote last January:
...praying in Jesus' Name is more than saying a word or employing an incantation, as though communicating with God is like using a Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring...

I went on to describe some of what I think it means to pray in Jesus' Name:

People who pray in Jesus' Name:

1. Acknowledge Jesus' Lordship...

2. Ask God to provide answers to our prayers in ways that are consistent with the character and the will of Jesus. In essence, when we pray in Jesus' Name, we subordinate ourselves to the will and the infinitely greater wisdom of God...

3. Have confidence that their prayers are heard...
To pray in Jesus' Name means that we submit to God by way of the One Who died and rose for us, whether we legalistically intone His Name or pray in the company of those who don't share our faith or not.

King Funeral's Political Turn

Just before a meeting last night, a group of us were idly chatting when one person mentioned Jimmy Carter's presentation at the six-hour funeral for Coretta Scott King. He had, he told us, been completely turned off by what Carter said. I had to confess that except for an excerpt from Joseph Lowery's talk, heard on the radio while driving from appointment to appointment, I knew nothing of what Carter or anyone else had said at the funeral.

So, last night, I pored over a number of different accounts, avoiding, for now, any editorializing pieces on the subject. I wanted to form my own opinions.

A few thoughts...

(1) The tone of what was a marathon event seemed, at times, to have been enitrely too political. The accounts of the King funeral made me think of the funeral of the late Senator Paul Wellstone, whose life was tragically ended by a plane crash. Wellstone's family and friends, you'll remember, seemed intent on being overtly political, sticking it to their political opponents and giving a lift to the man about to take the late senator's place on the ballot in Minnesota, former Vice President Walter Mondale. (Mr. Mondale was defeated by Norm Coleman.)

In a way, as repulsed as I was by turning that funeral into a political pep rally, that transformation was more justifiable than what Lowery, Carter, and others chose to do to King funeral. Wellstone, after all, was a partisan figure. Mrs. King, although she certainly engaged the political process, was a prophetic figure. Like her husband, she spoke truth as she saw it to power, in the Name of Jesus Christ. Even King's daughter, in her eulogy, expressed thanks to her mother for her witness for Christ as an advocate for justice.

(2) I admire Jimmy Carter. But I feel that Mrs. King became a convenient prop for him to make a political statement during the funeral. The same thing appears true of Mr. Lowery.

(3) I have an old-fashioned notion that funerals aren't about politics or even about the deceased. They're occasions on which those who have been left behind can worship God, thank Him for the ways in which God worked in the lives of those who have passed away, and more than anything, be reminded that while death comes to all, we can have new and everlasting life through the God revealed to the whole world in Jesus Christ. That function of funerals seemed to have gotten lost by just about everybody associated with Mrs. King's funeral.

Had I been the pastor loci, the presiding clergy, for Mrs. King's funeral, I hope that I would have insisted that several principles be respected:
(1) A longer funeral doesn't connote greater honor.

(2) Fewer speakers.

(3) Less folderol.

(4) Jesus and the Good News of His transforming love, not human triumphalism or self-aggrandizement of various stripes, would have to be at center stage. Absent this element, whatever little performance takes place, a funeral as Christians understand a funeral, that is, as one kind of worship, doesn't take place and shouldn't be allowed to bear the label.

Second Pass at This Week's Bible Lesson: Mark 1:40-45

Check out Brian Stoffregen's outstanding commentary on this lesson here.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Friends of 'Better Living': Please Pray for This Upcoming Emphasis at Friendship Church

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on March 1. For millions of Christians throughout the world, the forty-day Lenten season is a time devoted to renewing our faith in Jesus Christ.

It's a time when Christians, focused on Jesus' gift of Himself on the cross, prayerfully consider how, at deeper levels in their lives, they can express their gratitude to the God we meet in Jesus.

It's also a time to prepare for a true celebration of Jesus' resurrection on the first Easter. The significance and power of Easter--the sheer joy and liberation of it--can only be experienced by those who heed Jesus' call to die to their selfish desires and impulses and bet their whole lives on Christ!

During this Lenten season, the people of Friendship, the congregation I serve as pastor, are going to focus on one particular aspect of Christian "followership," what the Bible calls discipleship. That one thing on which we'll focus is Servanthood.

Right now, a committee of special people is working on this Lenten emphasis which, in fact, will lead to wonderful things well beyond these forty days. Here's what will be happening:
(1) There will be daily devotions on why and how to be servants of Christ. Each devotion will be about 400-words or less in length. I'm writing these pieces and I'm finding it truly enjoyable. We're asking the members of our congregation to read these short pieces twice each day, once in the mornings of Lent and again in the evenings before going to bed. (They'll also appear on this blog.)

(2) On Wednesdays throughout the Lenten season, drawing on our Lutheran tradition, we'll have special worship and discussion gatherings over a light dinner. These weekly Soup, Salad, and Servanthood times will allow us to consider the call to servanthood together. We'll also provide some special training in conjunction with our newly adopted ministry emphasis, the youth of our community.

(3) On Easter Sunday, at the end of Lent, we will commission the people of our congregation to pursue our special ministry emphasis. We're working with the Boys and Girls Club of Clermont County to identify many different ways we can serve Christ by helping the youth of our community through this organization.
I ask my blog readers to please begin to pray now for our Forty Days to Servanthood program. Pray, please, that it will be a spark for our congregation to share the love of Christ in very practical ways with area youth and their families!

I look forward to sharing Forty Days to Servanthood with the nearly 300-people who regularly visit Better Living. Thanks!

Thoughts on the Evangelical Climate Initiative

Today, in Washington, a group eighty-six evangelical Christian leaders, including the commander of the Salvation Army, the president of Wheaton College, and Pastor Rick Warren, have released a statement in which they affirm the existence of global warming and call for government action to reduce the carbon monoxide emissions which causes it. The New York Times reports, quoting the statement:
"For most of us, until recently this has not been treated as a pressing issue or major priority," the statement said. "Indeed, many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians. But now we have seen and heard enough."
A commerical to back what's being called The Evangelical Climate Initiative has been produced. The Times explains:
The television spot links images of drought, starvation and Hurricane Katrina to global warming. In it, the Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of a megachurch in Longwood, Fla., says: "As Christians, our faith in Jesus Christ compels us to love our neighbors and to be stewards of God's creation. The good news is that with God's help, we can stop global warming, for our kids, our world and for the Lord."
Stewardship, a term for the care of God's gifts and of all life, is a common theme in the Bible. There, Christians believe, God has called us to use gifts--including all of life, our possessions, the Earth, and even our sexuality--appropriately, in ways that honor God.

But another Biblical theme is at play in the leaders' statement: The call to pursue justice.

It's significant that these leaders, considered to be in the conservative wing of the Christian family, not only accept the scientific research indicating that the deterioration of the ozone layer is causing global warming and increasing the risk to human life, but that they also are willing to undertake political action on the issue. In spite of the recent rise of the Religious Right and the long-time existence of a Religious Left within the Christian fellowship, most evangelicals and most Christians generally, have believed that Christian involvement in politics should be rare. This is because most Christians feel that few issues debated in the political arena have clear, unambiguous, Biblical answers.

But most Christian leaders these days, whatever their philosophical stripe, do believe that there are circumstances under which the Church must speak out, especially on issues of justice.

Micah, a book in the Old Testament, excoriates God's people, Israel, for willingly accepting God's grace and blessings, but showing no concern for the injustices to which others are subjected. A concern for justice is part of the believer's response of gratitude to God for His love. Micah quotes God as telling His people:
He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, The New International Version)
It's a concern for justice, whether you agree with them or not, that animates the activism of Roman Catholics and evangelicals on the abortion issue. They see unborn children as the victims of injustice.

It's concern for justice that has animated recent evangelical activism on the AIDS issue, calling for greater support for African nations in combating the disease, which has so surprised and delighted Bono.

A concern for justice also animates this Evangelical Climate Initiative, a concern that millions of people are being unjustly subjected to unnecessary risks and death because of environmental heedlessness.

One fact that today's announcement makes clear is that the Christian family is far more diverse and variegated than the often-monochromatic picture of it that might be gleaned from mass media.

This was underscored for me just this morning during a conversation with an Epicopal colleague. I have many differences of opinion with the Epicopalians, regarded as one of the more liberal Christian denominations. But my colleague, a liberal himself, said something that would probably surprise those who believe caricatures more than facts.

Once, he said, he included a line in his sermon about abortion. His belief is that while there may be exceptional circumstances when abortion is an option--such as when a mother's life is endangered or when rape or incest has happened and it may be deemed unjust to force a woman to carry such a pregnancy to term--every abortion is a tragedy. Every abortion ends a life. Every abortion leaves a woman with a bundle of unresolved issues. This is what my colleague said and it all strikes me as being self-evidently true.

Yet, after worship, one person approached him and condemned his words. "How dare you suggest that a woman not have the right to choose?" In fact, he hadn't even talked about that aspect of the abortion issue. He simply lamented the tragedy of it.

Hopefully, the environmental activism of conservative Christians will begin to change the stereotypes of Christianity that have been fostered by people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell and lend legitimacy to justice as a goal for the activity and proclamation of the Church.

Cohen Wonders What Would Happen If Dostoevsky Had Google

It's a brilliant piece, just for fun, by one of my favorite bloggers, Richard Lawrence Cohen. I, in turn, couldn't help wondering how Dostoevsky would react if he read Richard's post and felt compelled to comment on it (also just for fun):
It was nearly midnight when I read your post, Richard Ivanovich. I was in no mood for reading the words of a pre-Revolutionary pontificator and yet, I found I could not tear my eyes from the screen before me.

I wanted to shout, "It does not matter who said it, Richard Ivanovich, any more than it matters whether 'A Million Little Pieces' is factual or not. Whether it was Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn, the statement is true."

And it is true, isn't it? The line between good and evil truly is drawn not between nations or parties, but through every human heart.

Indeed, I found as I wearily read your words that line between good and evil divided my own heart. I moved from pity for you to disgust.

What is wrong with Richard Ivanovich?, I wondered. What has happened for him to have become so distracted? What might he do under such conditions? What might I do to him?

Freud would say, I suppose, that my friend will surrender to deeper and deeper levels of madness until it might become thinkable for him to murder his landlord. Jarred by the imperfections of his memories, he might be lured into undertaking the perfect crime against a person he deems superfluous, as scandalously incorrect and as unworthy of life as a person who would attribute words to Solzhenitsyn that most probably belong to Dostoevsky, words that might not have been written by Dotoevsky, but were surely thought by him.

Once imperfection impinges on the sensitive mind of someone like Richard Ivanovich, I reflected, a slow unraveling of the psyche might happen, one that could make the gravest acts of bestiality thinkable.

I began to perspire profusely. I needed a drink. But there was nothing to drink in this miserable little apartment overlooking Gorky Park. I put on my paper-thin sweater and went out into the wintry street. A single street light illuminated my way as I trudged through the snow, the only sound that of a sleigh, its deformed bell emitting a sorrowful peel that filled me with foreboding. I purposed to go to a pawnbroker. There, I would sell the brooch I stole from my landlord, hopefully securing enough money to buy a drink to steady my nerves.

But when I arrived, I found that no one in the darkened room answered my insistent knocking. Overwhelmed, I fell down in the snow and wept. "Where is God?" I sobbed. "Where is Richard Ivanovich? Where can I get a drink? Where is my copy of 'Crime and Punishment'?"

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

What's Happened to My Prayer Life

Someone once asked me, "What is one word you would use to describe the life of a Christian?"

It didn't take me long to come up with my answer: Change.

Change is the essence of the Christian life. It begins with a change in our relationship with God. Once we stood aloof from God. But when we open the doors of our wills and lives to Christ, we're changed from enemies of God to God's friends.

In fact, the New Testament says that we actually become new creatures. As John Schroeder puts it in this post, God "deconstructs" us and then refashions us. (This is what Martin Luther meant when he said that believers in Christ are "the Holy Spirit's workshop.")

That in turn, is a process that continues for as long as we keep turning back to Christ in a way of life that Luther called "daily repentance and renewal."

Personally, I've found that I've changed in another way since I first came to faith nearly thirty years ago. I used to sit for long prayer sessions of an hour-and-a-half at a pop. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and I believe that was something that I actually needed to do back in those days.

And some spiritual giants of hisotry have spent a lot more time praying than that each day. Luther once said that he had far too much to accomplish to be able to spend less than three hours in prayer every day. In prayer, God empowers us to live and to fulfill our responsibilities.

But I've learned that I'm not a spiritual giant and that for me, longer praying doesn't necessarily equal better praying. So today, my prayers are shorter than they used to be. I also pray more often. In this way, I'm able to avoid the spiritual pitfall of praying for a long time just to say that I prayed a long time--meaning that I egotistically yammered rather than prayed-- and because I check in with God more often each day, also do as Paul recommends: Pray without ceasing.

A few weeks ago, David Wayne (alias Jollyblogger), inspired by several things he'd read (see here and here), talked about short prayers:
The bible neither comands nor exemplifies long prayers. This is not to say that there is anything wrong per se with long prayers. Matthew 6:5ff [where Jesus excoriates the long prayers of some] deals with our understanding of the nature of prayer and motivation for it. We are not to pray with a desire to be seen or known for our prayer lives, and we are not to pray under the assumption that the efficacy of prayer is in any way correlated with the length of prayer. [Italics added by me.]
That set me to thinking and to sharing these comments with David [I've made one editorial revision, which is bracketed]:
Increasingly, I find my prayer life consiststs of a single word, uterred repeatedly in many different circumstances: "Help!"

I actually feel good about the more limited vocabulary that's taken hold of my praying in recent years. If prayer without ceasing is constant communion with God then, as situations present themselves, simply [bringing] them to God seems absolutely appropriate. Too often in my life, I've had ideas about how God should answer my prayers. This is presumptuous for the person taught to pray, "Your will be done."

Besides, as the years roll by, I learn that my perceptions of issues, problems, or challenges are often wrong. God knows best what help is needed, as well as where and when and how and why it's to be applied.

Prayer to me, is in part anyway, inviting God into the lives and situations for which we pray. (I love Yonggi Cho's statement that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman and will not go where uninvited.) In offering up my little bursts of prayer throughout my day, I'm trying to invite Him everywhere. Most of the time, that doesn't require wordiness.
Many regular readers here know that one of my favorite books is Prayer, written by the Norwegian theologian, Ole Hallesby. Hallesby says, with good Biblical and experiential warrant, I think, that for the things we offer to God to actually be prayer, two ingredients must be present:
  • Faith in God
  • Helplessness
Of the two, I think, helplessness is the more critical requirement. Absent helplessness, we may regard our prayers and the God to Whom we pray as a holy back-up system. Without helplessness, our prayers don't include the central Christian component of surrender to God's will implicit in the petition taught by Jesus, "Your will be done."

My favorite example of helpless Christian prayer, one mentioned here often, is of the man who brought a desperate request for Jesus to help his child. "If you can," the man tells Jesus. "If?" Jesus asks him, explaining that the man needs faith. "I do believe," the man replies, "Please help my unbelief."

Jesus doesn't ask us to have giant faith. He calls us to trust Him as much as we can. Even if our faith is as small as a mustard seed, that's good enough. That's because our small faith is reposed in a big God!

When, like that desperate father, we admit our deficiencies of faith and the largeness of our helplessness, I believe God will respond. God likes honesty. That doesn't require wordiness. God, after all, knows what's going on inside of us before we even speak. In fact, even when we don't know what to pray for, God can take our helpless calling out to Him and turn it into prayer.

I wonder how many of the situations that daunt us would be improved upon or how our perspectives on them would change if, rather than waiting for a good time to pray or trying to find the right words to pray, we simply said to God, "Help!" Increasingly, that's the prayer I'm offering. I'm learning that, usually in ways I never would have imagined, God answers that prayer.

An Interesting Look at the Politics of Domestic Surveillance

Yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee's interview of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales afforded an interesting look at the politics of the Bush Administration's domestic surveillance program. As an account in today's New York Times points out:
Four Republican members of the Judiciary Committee — Senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the chairman; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; Sam Brownback of Kansas; and Mike DeWine of Ohio — raised pointed questions about the eavesdropping program.

Mr. DeWine, who is facing a tough re-election battle, was particularly reproachful, telling Mr. Gonzales, "Presidents are always stronger in the conduct of foreign affairs when Congress is on board."

Mr. Graham, a former military lawyer who has been critical of the way the Bush administration has handled military detainees, said that the administration had taken a position that "seems to have no boundaries when it comes to executive decisions in a time of war."
Of particular interest to me was the position taken by one of my senators, Mike DeWine. The senator told Gonzales that the President's support would have been enhanced had the Administration sought statutory authorization for the surveillance program. (This is not that different from conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt's call for a straight up or down vote from Congress on the program.) For DeWine to take such a position in a year in which he stands for re-election tells me this:

He's decided that the principle involved, or the benefits of challenging the White House on this program, or a combination of these two factors are substantial enough to outweigh the risks of incurring any opposition from questioning the program.

This in turn, probably says as much about the President's position with the electorate, at least in Ohio and probably in the country, as it does about DeWine's political status here. In comments appearing in newspapers yesterday, newly-elected House majority leader (and Ohioan) John Boehner intimated that Republicans, because of the war in Iraq, are concerned about the 2006 midterm elections, fearful that opposition will so crystallize as to threaten Republican majority status in the Congress.

Because of those fears, I think it's likely that Republicans will separate themselves somewhat from the President in 2006, particularly on the war in Iraq and the surveillance program.

Others will probably separate from the White House on the budget presented yesterday. Not only does it have the deficits Republicans hate, it underestimates those shortfalls by not including spending plans for the war in Iraq. Those apparently will continue to be covered in extra-budgetary emergency spending proposals offered from time to time. That's already causing many Republicans to see red, in more way than one.

This entire phenomenon will be familiar to anyone who's looked at presidential history. The midterm elections in the second terms of presidents are notorious for displaying frayed coalitions and repudiations, gentle or seismic, of the chief executives in power. People grow weary of the President whose every move is chronicled and satirized on TV every day. Such weariness is increased by the pressures of war. (President Bush's father, after enjoying an 89% approval rating during the Persian Gulf War was tossed out of office in the next election. Woodrow Wilson led the US into decisively ending World War One and was wildly popular for it. But in 1920, Democratic nominee for President, Ohio governor James Cox, was decisively defeated by fellow Ohioan Warren Harding, when the former advanced Wilson's international vision as the latter called for a "return to normalcy.")

President Bush's State of the Union address last week signaled that he and his operatives understand their historical situation. The President's tone was unapologetic when it came to the Administration's policies on the war on terror, the war in Iraq, and the surveillance program, but conciliatory and chastened on domestic programs. (On this latter point, the President proposed a study commission to look at Social Security.)

But it would be a mistake to bet against the President at this juncture. In 2002, Republicans, employing the strategy envisioned by the President's chief political operative, Karl Rove, bucked the usual midterm trend of losses for the presidential party in power and secured Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. You can be sure that in November, 2006, this White House intends to buck history one more time.

Monday, February 06, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Mark 1:40-45

[Okay, folks, most of the blog's regular readers will know the drill by now, I suppose. But by way of explanation, each week I publish several "passes" at the Bible passage that will serve as the foundation on which our congregation's weekend worship will be built. In these posts, I present reflections and things I'm learning as I prayerfully consider the passages at hand. So, this is the first pass for this week's lesson, Mark 1:40-45.]

The Passage
40A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

A Few Initial Thoughts
v. 40: This is the first overt expression of faith in Christ that we find in Mark's Gospel. At most, faith is implied in Mark 1:30 and of course, in the silent witness of the Capernaum crowds who came to seek healing (Mark 1:32-33). Although it should be said that in both cases, there is reason to wonder whether what's being expressed is faith. At this point in the Gospel, the crowds are not responding to Jesus as a matter of trust in Him as the Messiah Who will suffer and die for them and call them to die to self in order to rise to new life with God. Not even Jesus' first four disciples--Andrew, Simon, James, and John--appear to have an understanding of Jesus that would qualify for the Biblical term of faith (pistis in the Greek of the New Testament, a word that means trust. Rather, the incipient faith we see here demonstrated is rooted in the belief that Jesus is a miracle worker who will give them what they want.

But the leper's belief in Jesus is different from what we've heretofore encountered in Mark's account. There's a note of "Your will be done" in his words. "If you choose," he tells Jesus. This is submission. In that word, if, the leper also recognizes that Jesus is sovereign, that Jesus doesn't have to heal unless He chooses to do so, and that it's possible that a sovereign God may allow suffering to happen in the lives of believers. Tough stuff, but very mature. (God grant me such maturity of faith!) This is the sort of real and unflinching faith I often observe in people who have suffered.

Leprosy was regarded as more than merely a biological ailment. The leper was "unclean," unfit for participation in social or religious life. This is why the Old Testament book of Leviticus had clear guidelines on how one who had suffered from leprosy could have the restoration of their cleanness, and their restoration to religious and community life, certified. The certification was done not by a physician, but by a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem.

It's a measure of Jesus' perceived compassion that the leper feels that he can approach Jesus. In those days, people were so paranoid about being near a person with leprosy, for fear of physical and spiritual contamination, that they would throw stones at lepers to keep them at bay. We no doubt see a contemporary version of this in the attitudes of some toward those infected with the AIDS virus.

v. 41: The most jarring words in this verse are: "Jesus...touched him..." This was a scandalous no-no.

Jesus did choose to heal the leper, underscoring what I mentioned earlier, that healing is always at the discretion of a sovereign God.

v. 42: "Immediately" again. Mark's frequent use of this term emphasizes several things: (1) the immediacy of God's presence in Christ; (2) the capacity and desire of Jesus to work with urgency in our lives; (3) the rapidity with which Jesus moved from meteoric superstar to rejected Messiah.

v. 44: Once again here, we see an example of what's known as Mark's "messianic secret." Until Jesus has gone through cross and resurrection, the crowds are inclined to see Him as nothing more than a kewpie doll, a miracle-maker bound to do their bidding and provide them with pleasure. But Jesus has not come into our lives to give us lives of ease. He has come to be the road to our everlasting transformation.

This is what will happen in the lives of those who turn from sin (repent) and trust in Jesus and the good news about Him (Mark 1:15). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran martyr killed by the Nazis in the waning days of World War Two, pointed out, new life and forgiveness are gifts we cannot earn for all with faith in Jesus Christ.

These things come to us as grace, the Bible's word for the charity God grants to undeserving people like you and me. They're gifts and they are free. ("For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast," Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9).

But, as Bonhoeffer goes on to point out, if we accept these gifts, doing so will cost us our lives, the lives we're accustomed to living. We cannot take up Christ without laying down our self-absorption and self-protection. There is a difference, Bonhoeffer shows, between "cheap grace"--anything goes-ism without personal transformation--and "costly grace," embracing Christ's gifts by laying down our whole lives in surrender.

Until we understand the difference between cheap and costly grace, to speak about Jesus as the Messiah is meaningless babble.

And so, Jesus doesn't want the healed leper to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah yet.

But there's a second reason that Jesus tells the leper not to tell anybody about how he had been cleansed. He wants the man to go through the certification process alluded to earlier and which is detailed in Leviticus 18 and 19. Remember: Jesus didn't come to abolish God's laws, but to be their pure and complete fulfiller. He expected the cleansed leper to abide by those laws.

v. 45: But the cleansed leper couldn't keep his mouth shut. Jesus' fame spread even more.

I hope to write more about the passage later in the week.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

"We tell our Christian brothers that any stone thrown against a house or a car was an insult to Muslims."

So says a prominent Sunni Muslim cleric from Lebanon about the anti-cartoon riots in his country. He vowed to track down Muslims involved in violence against Nordic embassies. Some in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine have tried to universalize the controversy over the Danish cartoons into a holy war. The repudiation of the rioting by responsible Muslim leaders indicates that it isn't that. I hope that those identifying themselves as Christian will remember that as well.

UPDATE: Elephant in Exile has an interesting thought on the over-the-top reaction of some in the Muslim community to the Danish cartoons.

Called Beyond Ourselves

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church during worship on February 4 and 5.]

Mark 1:29-39

I met a remarkable person last week. Her name is Shawna Dunn Lilly. As a teenager, Shawna became pregnant. Unable to provide proper care for her baby boy, she made the courageous decision put him up for adoption.

A few years later, by then married, Shawna became pregnant again and gave birth to a baby girl. Two subsequent pregnancies, however, were ended with abortions, which Shawna’s husband of the time demanded she undergo. Several years after that second abortion, Shawna became pregnant once more. This time though, when her husband demanded that she abort the child, Shawna refused.

This decision ultimately led to the breakup of her marriage. It was during these years of being a single mom with two daughters that Shawna returned to the Church and to a deeper relationship with Christ. One Sunday before worship, she saw an announcement in the church bulletin. A Bible study was being offered to women who had undergone abortions, but had never really processed their feelings about that experience. For the first time, Shawna realized that she was living under a cloud and she needed God’s light.

While Shawna felt forgiven for whatever mistakes she had made, she still felt herself to be under a cloud. She needed hope and healing. Like millions of women who have undergone abortions, she had been subjected to a medical procedure, but had been afforded no help in dealing with all the trauma that can ensue.

So, Shawna went to this Bible study and in the company of caring people with a shared experience and the power of God in His Word, she received hope and healing.

As time went on, Shawna began to volunteer at a place in another county that helped young women who had become pregnant who wanted either to give their children up for adoption or who wanted to learn how to be good parents. Every time she drove home from the place though, she would ask God, “Why don’t we have something like this in Clermont County, Lord?” Each time Shawna asked that question, she sensed God responding with another question, “Why don’t you start it?” Shawna knew she wasn’t qualified to do that, though. She didn’t have the necessary degree or certification. Still, God seemed insistent.

Ultimately, a number of people from her church and in the community all agreed that she needed to take charge of getting such a place off the ground in our community. For ten years, Shawna has been the executive director of A Caring Place. It’s a Christian ministry to young women facing daunting choices in their lives.

Yes, A Caring Place hopes that the women will choose to let the lives that have formed in their wombs come into this world. But it pursues that ministry without heavy-handedness or legalism.

In visiting their offices last week, I found it to truly be a caring place. Whatever our feelings about abortion, it’s good that we have A Caring Place in our community. It’s good that a woman of faith, shaped by difficult experiences but healed by a loving God, was willing to move out beyond her comfort zone to provide such a place for young mothers and fathers in our community.

Jesus’ call to discipleship, to a deeper and more devoted following of Him, includes a frightening call beyond ourselves.

In this, Jesus is not asking us to do anything more for Him than He has already done for us. We see this in today’s Bible lesson. It begins with Jesus visiting the home of His new follower, Simon. Once there, Jesus is informed that the mother-in-law of Simon is burning up with a fever. Jesus walks over to the woman, takes her by the hand and lifts her out of bed. At this, Mark tells us, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” It’s important that we not misunderstand this miracle or its aftermath. I used to read it and think, “What a ripoff! Jesus heals the woman and the first thing she has to do is work!”

But Bible scholars point out that when Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, He was doing more than restoring her physical health. In those days, it was seen as the privilege of the oldest woman in a household to run the show when guests arrived. The mother-in-law’s illness had sidelined her, turning her into an afterthought in her own home. She was marginalized. Jesus gave her back her dignity and her place.

Every human being needs dignity, the sense that their life matters. One of my favorite recent movies is Spanglish. Throughout much of the movie, a mother and grandmother played by Cloris Leachman, a one-time jazz singer, is treated with contempt by her daughter, played by Tia Leone. The mother is an alcoholic whose past included a profusion of lovers and multiple marriages. But when the daughter’s own marriage comes to a crisis point, the mother is the one whose good advice and common sense help the daughter save her marriage. Suddenly, the mother had her dignity and her place.

The first thing that Jesus calls you and me to do in moving beyond our comfort zones is to reach out to people who have been shoved into the corner by society. Young people: You can reach out to kids at school whom other kids call names or ignore and help them understand how important they are to God. All of us: We can become involved in programs like the Boys and Girls Club or our outreach to the elderly next month or A Caring Place and lift people up to experience the healing goodness of Jesus. Jesus calls us to reach out to the forgotten.

But that’s not the only way in which Christ calls us to move beyond our comfort zones. After Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law and a bunch of people from Capernaum, He got a good night’s sleep and then, before everybody else had awakened, woke up and found a quiet place where He could talk with God the Father.

That's a good habit for all of us to develop. This past week, at the invitation of President Bush, Bono delivered the main address--a sermon, really--at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Near the end of his speech, Bono said that a remarkable man had taught him an important lesson. Before, Bono said that when he prayed, he'd say things like this to God: "Lord, I have a new song out. Bless it." Or, "God, I have an idea. Bless it." But Bono's wise friend told him to stop it. "Stop asking God to bless what you do. Instead, ask God to help you to do what God blesses." God already blesses it when we love God and when we love our neighbor. God already blesses it when we serve others in Jesus' Name. When Jesus went out to the wilderness to pray, He was asking God the Father to empower Him to do all that is blessed.

A few weeks ago, I sent out an email in which I urged that every group that’s part of Friendship begin its times together with prayer. If Jesus needed the empowerment of God the Father to do what God called Him to do, how much more do you and I need that empowerment? Whether it’s a small group gathered to study God’s Word, our musicians gathered to practice for worship, or a group undertaking an outreach to the community, we need the Father’s help at least as much as Jesus did.

Over the course of his long ministry, some people have been dismissive of Billy Graham. “He’s not such a great preacher,” they say. Billy Graham actually agrees with them. But these critics miss the point. Billy Graham’s goal is not to wow people with his intelligence. His goal is to point others to Jesus Christ. Probably no person in history has pointed more people to Christ than Billy Graham. When asked what the secret of his amazing ministry has been, Billy Graham said that there were three main factors: Prayer. Prayer. And prayer.

Jesus has told us, “Without Me, you can do nothing.” But He also says that, “With God all things are possible.” To move beyond our comfort zones and live the life to which Christ calls us, we need to first, reach out to the forgotten and second, reach up to the Father in prayer.

But Jesus calls us to move out of our comfort zones in a third way. While He was praying, our lesson tells us, Jesus was interrupted by Simon and others. “Lord,” they tell Him, “there’s a whole gang of people waiting back in town. They want You to heal them too. This is a great PR opportunity. It’ll make you even more popular in Capernaum than You are.” But Jesus refuses to go back. Instead, He says, “I need to move on to other places.”

Jesus knew that in those other places, He would run into opposition and hatred and jealousy. Eventually, He knew that He would be villified and killed in those other places. It would have been easier to have stayed in Capernaum where everybody thought He was wonderful. But He had to leave this place of comfort because, He explains, that was why He’d come into the world in the first place.

For twelve-and-a-half years, this congregation worshiped in an elementary school auditorium. Throughout much of that period, we were involved in all sorts of outreach projects: feeding folks in Over-the-Rhine, building homes here in Clermont County through Habitat for Humanity, weekly Kindness Outreaches that touched more than 15,000 people.

Then came our push to get into this building. We’ve spent most of the past three years simply sighing with satisfaction.

This building is wonderful. It’s a comfortable place. But God hasn’t called us to lives of self-satisfied comfort. He has called us to a life, as the Bible puts it, of “faith active in love.” He’s called us to be servants of others and advocates of justice and bringers of the Good News of forgiveness and new life that comes to all with faith in Jesus Christ! The God Who left the comforts of heaven to serve and love us has called us to serve and love the world.

That’s why our upcoming Forty Days to Servanthood is so important. Starting on March 5, through a series of Wednesday evening Soup, Salad, and Servanthood gatherings and daily devotionals, we’re going to look at what it means to be servants of Jesus Christ. Then, on Easter Sunday, we’re going to all be commissioned to lives of deep servanthood as we together adopt a ministry in which we agree that in the power of Jesus Christ, we’re going to reach beyond our comfort zones, leaving behind the comfortable in order to fuflill God’s deeper purposes for our lives.

Jesus calls us all to move beyond the comfortable by reaching out to the forgotten, by reaching up to God for His help, and by leaving the comfortable to live for God’s purposes for us. May these three elements always be evident in our lives!