Saturday, May 13, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 7

The Third Commandment:
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God, and so we should not despise his Word and the preaching of the same, but deem it holy and gladly hear and learn it.
Anybody who reads the New Testament will eventually be struck by a seeming paradox in Jesus. He seems to both keep and break the Sabbath, as proscribed by the Third Commandment:
  • Like other good Jews on the sabbath, Jesus regularly went to synagogue to worship and hear God's Word. In fact, long after Jesus had been crucified and had risen from the dead, His Jewish followers, often spurned by their fellow Jews, after Jesus' example nonetheless kept the Jewish Sabbath.
  • But, by the lights of the Pharisees, a pious group of Jews who were in agreement with Jesus far more often than they disagreed with Him, Jesus also regularly broke the Sabbath, doing work. At times, in fact, Jesus seems almost to deliberately flout the Sabbath law. This was among the chief reasons the Pharisees joined the conspiracy to have Jesus killed.
What gives?

Jesus looked beyond what Martin Luther called the externals of the Third Commandment. He looked at what the commandment was really about. Luther observes that this command is about more than simply refraining from our usual labors for the sake of giving our bodies a rest. The people who spend Sundays in bathrobes, working the New York Times crossword puzzles could be said to be observing the Sabbath if that were the case.

But the substance of the commandment, what Luther might call its internalities, deals with something other than the doing of work. The commandment literally tells us to sanctify to make holy the holy day. This is what Jesus was talking about one Sabbath day when He healed someone, much to the consternation of the Pharisees:
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this. [Luke 14:1-6]
In a very real sense, Jesus in the very act of laboring at healing had sanctified the sabbath day by committing an act of compassion and grace.

In one way, every day is a Sabbath, a gift of grace from God. And followers of Jesus Christ are to add to the holiness of each day. Yet, we still have this command. So, why should we still, in 2006, keep Sabbath days? Martin Luther suggests that there are two good reasons:
We keep them, first, for the sake of bodily need. Nature teaches and demands that the common people...who have attended to their work and trades the whole week long...should retire for a day to rest and be refreshed.

Secondly and most especially, we keep holy days so that people may have time and opportunity, which otherwise would not be available, to participate in public worship, that is, that they may assemble to hear and discuss God's Word and then praise God with song and prayer.
He goes on:
This is not restricted to a particular time...for in itself no one day is better than another. Actually, there should be worship daily; however, since this is more than the common people can do, at least one day a week must be set apart for it...
Luther concludes by warning against a superficial, externally-oriented understanding of the commandment:
How does this sanctifying take place? Not when we...refrain from external work, or deck ourselves in garlands and dress up in our best clothes, but...when we occupy ourselves with God's Word and exercise ourseleves in it...
Think of it this way: Our weeks are cluttered with lots of busy-ness, some of it may even be essential. God commands that we declutter some time each week to join others in corporate worship and to pay heed to His Word. Paying heed means not just passively listening or reading God's Word, but like Jesus, actively living that Word and sharing it with others by our actions as well as our words.

I love these words from Luther:
...this commandment is violated not only by those who grossly misuse and desecrate the holy day, like those who in their greed or frivolity neglect to hear God's Word or lie around in taverns dead drunk like swine, but also by that multitude of others who listen to God's Word as they would to any other entertainment, who only from force of habit go to hear preaching and depart again with as little knowledge of the Word at the end of the year as at the beginning. It used to be thought that Sunday had been properly hallowed if one heard a Mass or the reading of the Gospel; no one asked about God's Word, and no one taught it either. Now that we have God's Word, we still fail to remove the abuse of the holy day, for we permit ourselves to be preached to and admonished but we listen without serious concern.
God doesn't want one-seventh of our weeks; He wants our whole lives. But He gives this commandment as a means of allowing us to be refueled on His Word; to help us cultivate the habit of paying heed to that Word; and to prod us to establish a pattern of acting on the promises and the commands of that Word. Luther writes:
Even though you know the Word perfectly and have already mastered everything, still you are daily under the dominion of the devil, who neither day or night relaxes his effort to steal upon you unawares and to kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts against all these commandments. Therefore you must continually keep God's Word in your heart, on your lips, and in your ears. For where the heart stands idle and the Word is not heard, the devil breaks in and does his damage before we realize it. On the other hand, when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understanding, new pleasure, and a new spirit of devotion, and it constantly cleanses the heart and its meditations.
Whether on a Sabbath day or during a time of rest, the most prominent element of our restfulness should be an attentiveness to God's Word that prepares us for our periods of work and activity. Steeped in the Bible, we're more prepared to make the right choices, to live in accord with God's will.

Those who worship weekly and turn constantly to God's Word keep the Sabbath...and every day...holy!

Armstrong Presents List of 'DaVinci Code' Resources

Bruce Armstrong at Ordinary, Everyday Christian, has presented a list of resources to help in understanding The DaVinci Code. The underlying philosophies of the writers represented on the list vary, as do their writing styles. So, you're bound to find stimulating reading that you'll like among the entries.

Church Leaders Who Talk More Than We Act

Guilty as charged and inspired by the same notion:
So often, Christian leaders just wear people out. We talk. We announce. We talk more. Sure, there is a time to talk. There is a time to announce. But--what is most important as a Christian leader or a Christ follower is to be a guy (or woman) who is living an authentic life before God. That is powerful. More importantly, that is real.

I want to be there--but I'm not yet. I want to follow Jesus--but some days I don't do this very well. Yet, I think to say this is not a liability. Imperfection does not mean that one's walk with Jesus is not authentic. In fact, it may communicate authenticity.

...There is something powerful about being God's person in the setting where you find yourself. I really believe that we could lose our church buildings, our programs, our organization, our offices, etc. and still be an authentic community of faith...
Read the whole thing. Thanks to John Schroeder and Milton Stanley to for leading me to this wonderful article!

By the way, there's a message in this not just for Christian leaders, but for all Christians.

Was Jesus Married?

Mark D. Roberts has been considering the evidence in an excellent series of posts this week. Mark is also considering the difference Jesus not being married makes. Mark is Harvard-trained and an outstanding writer and pastor.

Friday, May 12, 2006

NSA Collection of Telephone Data in the Post-Gutenberg-Dependent World

A few years ago, I was talking with a woman in her seventies who asked, "Mark, did you know that you can look up my house and its appraised value on the web?"

"Really?" I asked, unaware that her local county auditor offered this service. "That is so cool! It should make buying a house easier and linking buyers and sellers. It'll also keep the asking prices more in line with the values in their neighborhoods. And, it'll help people decide which houses they really want to see when they're in the market."

This woman, who's a septuagenarian, looked at me incredulously. I hadn't realized that when she first told me about the auditor's site, she meant it as an implicit statement of criticism.

"I just don't like people knowing my business," she said.

My guess is that our varied reactions are partly generational. Sixty- and seventy-somethings and younger folks still operating in a Gutenberg-dependent mindset are likely to look askance at the Information Age and the widespread diffusion of information once considered "private."

Others though, will see this new era as one that happily makes our lives and the sharing of useful data easier. For those of a younger age and for those more tuned into data bases, privacy, particularly in the face of world terrorism, is not as big a deal as it might have been to those whose parents hid money in coffee cans hidden under beds because they didn't trust banks.

This may be one reason that, at least initially, most Americans seem not to share the outrage expressed by some in Congress at the National Security Agency's tracking of domestic telephone calls since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

A Washington Post-ABC News Poll shows that 63% of the American people support the activity and that 66% report they would be untroubled by having their own calls monitored. For my elderly friend, such a reaction will be unfathomable. These results are particularly remarkable in light of two polls earlier this week showing near-record lows in support of the President.

But my guess is that without consideration of national security or feelings about the President's policies, the computer age has introduced a new ethos surrounding the whole notion of privacy, of what needs to be private, and of what one may feel comfortable about law enforcement--or the whole blooming world--knowing about our lives. One may raise legitimate questions about whether this shift in thinking is appropriate or not. But we don't seem to be as private as we used to be.

When one then adds concerns about the safety and security of America in the face of terrorism, I think you have the two main reasons that, at least for now, a landslide-size majority of Americans support what some decry as a violation of people's rights.

Instead of a Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 15:1-8

Regular readers of this blog know that I usually do between one and three "passes" at the Biblical text around which our congregation's weekend worship celebrations will be built. But this week, for some reason, I just didn't find the time to fit time in for these updates on my study notes based on the texts.

So, here instead, is a re-run of sorts: My response to a reader question which first appeared on the blog on April 11 of last year. I think that it will help prepare anyone who's going to be worshiping at a church that uses this text this weekend. (That should be most of the churches of the world, by the way.) The text is John 15:1-8. Here's a link to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) rendering of the text. Here's one to that of The Message.
Last week, commenting on the first of what has so far been a two-part series called, Fasting from Prayer?, a reader asked if I would explain part of a passage from the New Testament that I cited there. The place that the reader wondered about quotes Jesus as saying:

"If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." [John 15:7]

What, Derek wondered, does it mean to abide in Jesus?

I'll see if I can answer that question adequately.

First of all, one of the most important things you can do in trying to understand a Biblical passage is to consider its immediate context. It's important to pay attention to what precedes and what follows a particular passage.

Next, you should try to consider the overall theological emphases, literary conventions, and thought patterns in a particular book of the Bible. God inspires Scripture, but He delivers it through individual people with certain characteristics and unique personalities. The writings of John, for example, are very different from those of Paul, even though they both talk about Jesus and commend the same basic theology.

And of course, an overall understanding of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, can be helpful. For example, if someone suggested that a particular passage demonstrated that God was a frilled lizard, a knowledge of the Bible would prepare you to refute such notions promoted by an interpretation of just one verse.

Let's apply these three principles to Jesus' words in John 15:7. What does He mean by calling on us to "abide" in His words?

The immediate context is a passage of Scripture, part of Jesus' Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John. It begins with Jesus saying, "I am the true [alternative translation: real] vine, and My Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit He prunes to make it bear more fruit..." [John 15:1-2] Jesus spends several more verses developing this theme of His being the vine, His followers being the branches who are meant to bear fruit, and the Father being the vinedresser [alternative translation: gardener].

Father Raymond Brown, author of my favorite commentary on the Gospel of John, points out that what Jesus says in John 15:7 represents a break from His words in the preceding six verses. I'm not certain that I entirely agree. It's true that Jesus changes imagery. But I think that when He tells us to abide in His words, He's really amplifying what precedes the statement. That notion is upheld by the fact that in verse 8, Jesus goes back to talking about His followers as branches whose call is to bear "much fruit."

So, the evidence of the immediate context is that Jesus is creating an analogy between being branches who draw their sustenance and capacity for growth from the vine on the one hand, and being believers who abide in His words (and Whose words abide in them) on the other. Only branches that remain connected to the vine, Jesus, will live and bear fruit; only believers who stay connected to Jesus will live and find their prayers answered. At least, to this point in our consideration, that seems to be what Jesus means.

Next, we look at the overall emphases, themes, and conventions of the Gospel of John. (Because John is also the writer of the letters First, Second, and Third John, and the often-confounding book of Revelation, it's appropriate to look at those books for understanding individual passages in John as well.) To do this for the verse at hand, it's good to look at how certain key words that appear in our passage are routinely used in John's writings.

The first word I'd look at is abide itself. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the root of this word is menein. An equally good English translation might be remain. It comes up repeatedly in John's Gospel. To remain is to faithfully stick with a commitment. Of course, the ultimate example of faithfully remaining is Jesus, Who went to a cross, completing His mission of dying for us. It's in John's Gospel that we find the faithful Jesus saying as He dies, "It is finished," or alternatively, "It is completed."

The call of believers is to remain connected to Jesus, giving their lives to Him. There are good reasons for this. One is that He is the Giver of life. That's the point of John 3:16, the Gospel's most famous passage and the verse that Martin Luther described as "the Gospel [God's good news] in a nutshell." Remaining connected to Jesus gives us the power to live and do things. Jesus tells us, "Without Me, you can do nothing." To try to live or to convince ourselves that by our good deeds we will get life from God is as silly as thinking that a rocket can be launched without fuel. Unless the God we know through Jesus gives us life, we're dead.

Another key word in this passage is words. The specific word for words in the Greek here is hremata, the plural form of the word, hrema. It's only one of two words for word in the Gospel of John. The other, which appears near the end of many English words like psychology, geology, ecology, and so on, is logos.

Logos, in fact, is the word for word that John uses in the famous prologue to His Gospel in which He identifies Jesus as the "Word made flesh," God come to earth as a human being. Identifying Jesus in this way allows John to speak to his mixed Jewish and Gentile audience. In the Old Testament thought-world of the Jews, God was the utterer of the creative word that brought life into being: God said it and it happened, according to Genesis. In the thought-world of some Greek philosophy, the word was the impersonal originator of life, the first cause.

But, as Brown points out, John doesn't always use logos in this way. Sometimes, he uses this version of the word for word in the more pedestrian ways associated with the word, hrema.

And both words can sometimes be used to describe the commands of God. In fact, the commandments were commonly called, the ten words.

Brown says that it's no stretch to conceive of Jesus using the idea of Himself as God's Word for the human race and His words, including His commands, "interchangeably." I think he's right.

Finally, all that we've looked at so far seems consistent with the overall picture of God and of human relationships with God that is portrayed in the Bible.

So, what does Jesus mean in John 15:7?

Simply this, I think: The people who live and accomplish things of lasting value are the ones who remain connected to the only source of life that exists, the God we know through Jesus Christ.

Branches are only fruitful for as long as they keep drawing life from the vine. Of course, Jesus' analogy isn't a perfect simile. Branches cannot decide to tear themselves from the vine. God gives us that terrible freedom and people exercise it every day. (I have exercised it myself.) Thank God, we can turn back to Jesus, seeking forgiveness and be reconnected to Him.

I hope that this explanation helps, Derek.

One other thing. Anyone can do such an analysis of Biblical passages. I'm not a Bible scholar by a long shot. There are lots of good Bible concordances and commentaries that will help you do much of what I've just done here, even without your knowing any Greek or Hebrew.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Sherman, Set the Wayback Machine for January 21, 2005...

where you'll find this post analyzing President Bush's second inaugural address from the perspective of Christian faith. I was reminded of the post today. (Someone searched and found it this afternoon.)

While you're at it, check out Mark D. Roberts' excellent critique of the same speech, written several days later, linked here.

And now this from the biosphere...

Word of a heretofore unknown genus of monkeys and a new breed of bears in one day. (Thanks to Althouse and Moore, respectively, for leading me to these stories.)

Okay, So What About Swearing Oaths?

Last week, I met with the chairperson and several staffers from our county's MRDD Board. (In Ohio, each county has its own semi-autonomous boards overseeing local efforts to assist the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled and their families.)

I was discussing the possibility of my serving on the board. Because it's a governmental entity whose board members are appointed by a county judge, all the members take an oath of office.

"When I administer the oath," the chairperson asked me, "would you like to swear or affirm your agreement to it?"

It's a good question. One of our US Presidents, Herbert Hoover, was a Quaker who affirmed, but did not swear to faithfully uphold the Constitution. Quakers have historically taken the second commandment and Jesus' admonition not to swear as preventing them from taking oaths, whether to serve in governmental functions or to give testimony in court.

In light of my discussion of the Second Commandment from earlier today, it would seem that Mr. Hoover and his fellow Quakers had a point.

(An Aside: Richard Nixon, like Hoover, was raised in the Quaker Church. His mother remained a devout Friend all her life. But Nixon, in spite of his cultivation of Billy Graham throughout his political career, wasn't particularly religious. Having moved to New York to practice law after losing to Pat Brown in the 1962 California gubernatorial election, Nixon attended Norman Vincent Peale's Marble Collegiate Church, a Dutch Reformed congregation. His campaign literature and such sources as Joseph Nathan Kane's Facts About the Presidents always listed Nixon as a Quaker. But he had abandoned that denomination years before. This may explain why Nixon never hesitated to "solemnly swear" to uphold the Constitution. Questions about whether he actually did uphold the Constitution however, led to his resignation.)

My family attended a Quaker church when I was a boy and I deeply admire that tradition, one that's far more diverse than many people may realize. But I don't agree with them here.

In The Large Catechism, Martin Luther points out that it's to prevent the furtherance of lies that God forbids swearing, "yet Christ, St. Paul, and other saints took oaths." (Check out Matthew 26:63-64; Galatians 1:20; 2 Corinthians 1:23.) How to explain this seeming inconsistency about swearing? Luther says:
The explanation briefly is this: We are not to swear in support of evil (that is, to a falsehood) or unnecessarily; but in support of the good and for the advantage of our neighbor we are to swear. This is truly a good work by which God is praised, truth and justice are established, falsehood is refuted, people are reconciled, obedience is rendered, and quarrels are settled. For here God himself intervenes and separates right from wrong, good from evil...
Not surprisingly, I suppose, I think that Luther is right.

Pic #14 from Our Recent NYC Trip

On the right is Federal Hall, the statue of Washington marking the spot at which he took the oath of office beginning his first term. Framed in this beautiful pic, also by my son, P-Diddy, is Trinity Church. The NYSE is on the left.

Pic #13 from Our Recent NYC Trip

The yard, with gravemarkers going back more than two-hundred years, next to Trinity Church. It's a lovely spot.

Pic #12 from Our Recent NYC Trip

This too was snapped on the grounds of City Hall. It was a gloriously beautiful day!

Pic #11 from Our Recent NYC Trip

Do you wanna buy a bridge? Another P-Diddy photo, as are virtually all of these NYC pics are.

Pic #10 from Our Recent NYC Trip

The fat, middle-aged blogger from Ohio dares to show his face!

This is the entryway to the tavern where George Washington said farewell to his officers at the end of the American Revolution.

Shortly after this occurred, King George III asked a Briton recently returned from America what Washington would do now that he had led the colonies to independence. When informed that Washington intended to return to private life at Mount Vernon, George III responded that if Washington did that, he would be the "greatest man in the world."

What a remarkable guy Washington was! As I've pointed out many times on this blog, twice in his life, he walked away from the absolute executive power that would have been his for the taking.

This was an unprecedented act by a national leader in the history of the world. In a very real sense, Washington taught the world how to make democracy work.

(I wonder if Washington and crew were ever at the Fraunces Tavern for Happy Hour?)

Pic #9 from Our Recent NYC Trip

P-Diddy on Times Square!

Pic #8 from Our Recent NYC Trip

The New York Stock Exchange.

Most of these pictures were taken by my son, who has a nice eye, I think.

Pic #7 from Our Recent NYC Trip

As Buckeyes, we couldn't pass by this photo-op. Within a few yards of the New York Stock Exchange is the site of the old Federal Hall, the first capital building after George Washington was sworn in as president. The hall, in fact, was the site of Washington's first swearing-in.

This plaque appears prominently on the front face of Federal Hall. It commemorates the fact that one of the first congressional acts passed here was the Northwest Ordinance, creating the process by which Ohio and several other midwestern states were admitted to the union. Legislation chartering the Ohio Company, which facilitated Ohio's settlement also was passed here.

This area was teeming with people, many of them sitting on the steps of Federal Hall, taking breaks and visiting with one another.

In front of the New York Stock Exchange were fully-armed soldiers, machine guns in hand. That was a bit stunning. Nonetheless, people were going about their business and their lives.

Pic #6 from Our Recent NYC Trip

These are, I guess one would say, the artistically glazed roots of a sycamore tree that once stood on the churchyard grounds of Saint Paul's Chapel, now on display at Trinity Church, a few blocks away.

The tree was one of many on Saint Paul's grounds, which sets across the street from the site of the World Trade Center. A beam from the WTC flew into the tree after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Interestingly though, in spite of the proximity of the chapel and its grounds to the Center, only this tree was touched by any debris. The other trees appear to have shielded the chapel from any damage at all.

Saint Paul's functions as part of the Episcopal parish centered at Trinity. Both facilities have fully functioning ministries and are the sites of worship and remain open for prayer throughout the day.

Pic #5 from Our Recent NYC Trip

A fat middle-aged blogger from Ohio whose identity is not being released at this time stands at the grave site of Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton was only forty-seven years old when he died (some say he was forty-nine), killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, then Vice President of the United States. (Wait! The Vice President shot somebody? It's hard to imagine, isn't it?)

Hamilton is, as I've asserted rhapsodically on this site before, an extraordinary person. If the term genius can be applied to anybody, it most certainly can be to him.

I was a bit disappointed in the relatively poor condition of the monument. This is one of the heroes of American history, a creator of the free enterprise system, an ardent apologist for the passage of the US Constitution, and an insightful theorist and practitioner of democracy. He is certainly more deserving of our attention and accolades than his nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, an able propagandist and a slimy practitioner of the worst political arts.

The tomb sets in the churchyard of Trinity Church. The gravesite next to that of Hamilton and his wife is Robert Fulton's.

By the way, Hamilton's wife was seven years his senior and survived him by fifty years!

[For more on Hamilton, read here and here.]

Pic #4 from Our Recent NYC Trip

One of the Calders on display right now on New York's City Hall grounds. The building and grounds are just a few blocks from Trinity Church, Wall Street, and the World Trade Center site. It's Le Chien en Trois Couleurs (The Dog in Three Colors), which Calder sculpted in 1973.

Pic #3 from Our Recent NYC Trip

New York's City Hall at lunchtime last Friday reminded me of county court houses and the State House in Columbus in that, just as at those places, there were lots of people--especially men--sitting around, talking, and eating their lunches.

It's a beautiful building, at least from the exterior views. On the lawn was a display of ten sculptures by Calder...very cool!

Pic #2 from Our Recent NYC Trip

Bowling Green, the place where the remarkable Alexander Hamilton, seventeen years old and only in New York from Saint Croix for a short time, delivered a stirring speech advocating independence from Great Britain.

Hamilton, the hustling immigrant, has to qualify as central casting's idea of the prototypical New Yorker...and American.

This park was the site of a large statue of George III, which New Yorkers brought down, Baghdad/Saddam-style, once the Revolution began. They later melted the likeness down and made musket balls. The same thing was apparently done with the little balls that once adorned the tops of the wrought iron fence posts you see here.

Pic #1 from Our Recent NYC Trip

My son, P-Diddy, a most excellent traveling companion.

This was taken close to Battery Park, on the southeastern tip of Manhattan Island. It's the site of the remarkable Castle Clinton which has been in turn, since 1812, a fort, a concert hall, an aquarium, a receiving area for arriving immigrants (later supplanted by Ellis Island), and after nearly succumbing to a wrecking ball during the "urban renewal" craze of the 1950s, restored to its appearance as a fort designed to fend off the British during the War of 1812. People wishing to visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, clearly visible from Castle Clinton, embark from there.

Egyptian Blogger Posts from Jail

See here.

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 6

You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice witchcraft, lie or deceive by His name, but call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks. (from The Small Catechism by Martin Luther)
Imagine for a moment that you're the parent of a teenage boy. He's going to take a class trip and you decide that for the two days he's away, he should be allowed to use one of your credit cards. You explain, "You're only to use it for meals, a souvenir, bus and subway tokens while you're there, and to pay for your room when you leave." The boy takes the trip and when he does, hands the card back to you.

But a few weeks later, you nearly have a heart attack when you open your credit card bill! Junior evidently took advantage of the WiFi in the hotel coffee shop. From his laptop, he'd used your credit card number to buy all sorts of stuff at ebay and while he was at it, to lose a lot of money playing several hours of online poker.

Of course, you're furious! When you confront your son though, he totally doesn't get it. "I thought you loved me," the boy keeps saying. "Of course, I love you," you try to explain. "But you still massively misused a privilege I gave you."

God gives us access to His "credit card." We're able to use His Name. God gives it to us, as Luther points out, so that we can:
  • call upon Him in every trouble,
  • pray to Him,
  • praise Him for Who He is, and
  • give thanks to Him for His blessings
Any other use of His Name but these is an abuse of the privilege of knowing it.

Recently, the people of our congregation prayed for a person who was having surgery. The doctors said that there was a slim chance the person could survive the procedure. We all called out to God, both in our public and private prayers.

Of course, when we pray, as Christians we always submit to the will of God. God can say, "No." (As well as maybe, wait, and yes!) But to know that we can talk with the Creator of the universe when we call out to Him is an amazing privilege. As I write this, our friend is doing well and we continue to pray for healing. But I'm also now using God's Name to express my thankfulness!

It's a huge privilege to be able to use God's Name. Readers of this blog know that I regularly use God's Name here as a way of sharing the Good News of a God Who has demonstrated His love for us by going to a cross and rising from the dead, taking our punishment for sin, and opening up eternity to all who turn from sin and follow Christ! Being able to share all of this and call God by Name is a privilege, too. It's a way of praising God.

But whenever we use God's Name for any purpose other than the four ways Luther so insightfully identifies, based on the teaching of Scripture, we're taking His Name in vain, a term that means to speak the Name of God casually, idly, presumptuously, or uselessly. To take God's Name in vain is to engage in a kind of identity theft: We steal God's identity for our own purposes, rather than His.

There's a particularly horrible way to use God's Name, one of which I've been guilty...and more than just once...

After becoming a Christian as a young man in my twenties, for the first time in my life, I experienced that oneness with God that Christians enjoy. It gave me a confidence and a peace in my dealings with others that I'd never experienced before. When you know you're in sync with God, you're freed of trying to prove yourself to others and freed to become your best self.

Shortly after God began making these changes in my life, I scheduled a lunchtime meeting with an old friend. But as the scheduled time got closer, I found I simply didn't want to go. As the hours rolled by, I mentally waffled on whether I should honor my commitment or not. I couldn't decide if I should call this person up and cancel our meeting. Ultimately, I decided not to decide and just kept working at my desk through the hour we were supposed to meet.

A few hours later, my friend called me up and said, very kindly, "Sorry I missed you." I was in deep now and so, I feigned both forgetfulness and regret. "Oh, I'm sorry," I told him. "I completely forgot about it!"

And then I unconsciously added a few words that before I was a Christian, I never would have thought of using, words that seemed like a clever way to buttress the credibility of my tale of forgetfulness. "Swear to God," I lied. Only later did I realize what a terrible thing I had done and I asked for forgiveness.

Jesus once said that if we have to swear in order to convince people that we're telling the truth, especially if by our use of God's Name we enlist God as a co-conspirator in our lying, we don't have much credibility anyway. "Let your answer be Yes or No," Jesus says.

Good counsel.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Speaking of Egyptian Oppression...

...Egyptian blogger Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam is in custody for demonstrating and speaking out for an independent judiciary in his country. Glenn Reynolds provides details and if you scroll down, you can find where you can write seeking the blogger's release.

Censorship is a Bad Idea...Everywhere

Yesterday, I linked to an article detailing Chinese government efforts to suppress freedom of speech on the web.

Here, Rambling Hal, a blogger in Jordan, details overt official acts of censorship in Egypt and in Jordan.

In Egypt, release of the movie, The DaVinci Code, is being blocked. I told Hal, "As a Christian, I take exception to the untrue 'facts,' things which in an introduction to The DaVinci Code and on his web site which Dan Brown based his novel. I also have said that it would be good for people to go to other movies when the film based on the novel is released." But censorship of this kind is always wrong! (If you want to call it censorship, I do believe in protecting minors or other vulnerable folks from titillating materials.)

In Jordan, a women's magazine planned on publishing an article on gay rights. It has been ordered pulled by the government. Whatever one's beliefs about the morality of homosexual behavior, such government censorship of discussions of it is wrong.

Censorship is a bad idea. As a Christian and as a student of history, I believe that the the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ is most likely to be received when the marketplace of ideas totally open and fair. The freer people are to consider alternative ways of thinking, living, and believing, the more compelling Christian faith becomes. I believe in freedom of speech then, because the more unfettered speech and thought become, the more likely people will be to follow Christ.

Only authoritarian regimes afraid of having the weaknesses of their ideologies exposed, whether those ideologies are secular or religious, bother to engage in censorship.

I'm praying for ever more freedom for people in oppressed nations.

A Brit Looks at America's Culture of Giving

BBC correspondent Matt Frei says:
Americans give to schools, hospitals, libraries, galleries and the poor like no other country in the world.

Last year, American citizens gave more money to victims of the tsunami than their government did.

Yes, charity can be written off against tax, but it is also hard-wired into the psyche of a nation founded by pilgrims and enriched by private enterprise.

It is impossible to imagine modern America without philanthropy, because so many of the institutions funded by the state in Europe are financed by private citizens in this country...

...Whether it is the quest for a legacy, the desire to change the world, the determination not to spoil one's children or simply the tax code, Americans - wealthy and not so wealthy - are giving their dollars away by the lorry load.

And the rest of the world has a long way to catch up.
Read the whole thing.

Giving has always been part of American culture, a clear legacy of our Christian roots. May it continue!

Read here about the role of giving in the Christian life.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I Still Like Simple Single-Author Blogs

Jan, at TheViewfromHer, comments on the changes happening in the blogging world. Many blogs, like that of Michelle Malkin, are becoming multimedia feasts involving the talents of many different people.

This is in line with another big trend to which Jan alludes: group blogging.

I understand why some bloggers would prefer such an approach, feeling that being one contributor among several will decrease the pressure on them to produce interesting posts and perhaps, enhance those posts' quality. But, for the most part, I find group blogs a bit disconcerting; I like the idiosyncracies and peculiar emphases of a single voice.

In the meantime, another of my Godblogging colleagues, Charlie Lehardy of AnotherThink, has announced that in addition to his personal blog, he'll soon be participating in a group blog.

Back in June, Ann Althouse had an excellent post on the group-blog trend. The comments I made there still express my view of the phenomenon:
Frankly, Ann, because of the amount and diversity of original writing you do on your blog, I've always thought of it in the same way, on good days, [that] I think of my own: A group blog written by an individual.

But because they're written by individuals, they have unique voices which may more easily allow people to connect with them.

Few group blogs seem to foster this. They tend to overwhelm one with content and to under-communicate for lack of a coherent voice.

There are exceptions, of course. But this seems to be the case with most group blogs.
I liked Ann's response:
Mark: Thanks. Excellent point. That expresses exactly the problem I'd be concerned with if I group-blogged. I can just look back at the things I wrote on this blog when I was guest-blogging on Instapundit to see that. I wouldn't simul-blog Halloween over there. I wouldn't do multi-photo posts (with the exception of the Kerry rallly). I couldn't say quirky things about "American Idol." Or if I did, I'd have this extra layer of thinking about whether it's right. And if I had a partner here trying to do a similar mix with me, it would necessarily change the mix even if they tried to do a similar mix. I'd have to think about them thinking about what constitutes being the appropriately in tune with me and that would change me.
Group-blogging and multimedia blogs built around blogging superstars are here to stay, of course. So, too, I think, are simple blogs by individuals. Let thirty-million flowers bloom!

"Our job consists of guidance, not control"

Oh, yeah?

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 5

THE FIRST COMMANDMENT: You shall have no other gods.
What does this mean?
We should fear, love and trust in God above all things. (from The Small Catechism by Martin Luther)

We may think that this commandment is archaic. There are, after all, very few people we know who actually bow down to objects from nature or things made by human beings. Even the atheist with no belief in God would agree with the Christian that idol-worship of that sort is nothing but primitive superstition.

But those aren't the only kinds of gods we can have for ourselves. In another Catechism, one written for priests and theologians, Martin Luther says insightfully:
What is a god?...A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing other than to trust and believe him [it] with our whole heart...
One's god is whatever is most important to us.

A woman I met years ago told me the story of what happened to her after her oldest daughter died of leukemia at age two. She and her husband had another daughter who was a year younger. Because of the loss of the older baby and her overwhelming fear that she would lose the second child too, she was overly-protective. She rarely let the child out of her sight and showered her with attention and gifts.

One day, about a year after the first child's death, the woman was visiting with friends. Suddenly, she realized that her daughter was gone, nowhere to be found in the house. They discovered her at the bottom of the friend's pool. She'd been there for a few moments and it was doubtful that she could survive.

You can imagine the mother's agony! But then something happened as she paced in an emergency room waiting area, offering up desperate prayers to heaven. "As I prayed," she told me, "I sensed God telling me, 'You shall have no other gods before Me.'"

The woman said she felt that God was telling her that she had made her child or being a good mother her deities. She spent each day anxiously pursuing one or the other of those gods, trying to placate the unattainable demands they placed on her life, putting her trust that a healthy child or being a good mother would fill the void that her grief and irrational guilt had created.

She realized that while her grief would never go completely away, only one God could fill the hole in her soul. It was the God over whom she had no control and Who could only help her if she stopped her frenzy and let Him love her.

The gods we put ahead of God may be our children, our country, our careers, our reputations, our hobbies, our pleasure, or any number of otherwise good things. But when we allow anyone or anything other than the God we meet in Jesus Christ--the God Whose revelation of Himself is chronicled in the Old and New Testaments Testaments--to be our deity, we're crowding the one true God out of our lives, blocking His blessings, hampering His infinite capacity to help us be the people we were made to be.

This commandment has little to do with chunks of wood or stone.

It has everything to do with His wanting a relationship with us.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Corporate Confession of Our Sin is Good for the Soul...

...of the entire congregation. When, in our corporate worship, we acknowledge that we haven't loved God with our whole hearts or our neighbors as we love ourselves, we humble ourselves together and ask for God's forgiveness together.

Together, we stand exposed before the throne of God and together, we receive the empowering assurance that in Christ, the sins of repentant sinners are freed to be our best selves and we can be God's ambassadors for good--God's good--in the world.

Corporate confession and forgiveness militates against the arrogance--spiritual and otherwise--to which our still very human wills are inclined. They remind us that no one is personally worthy of entrance into God's kingdom apart from the gracious act of Jesus Christ on our behalf and that nobody is more important in the eyes of God than anybody else.

Corporate confession reminds us that the person in the next row who we may be inclined to disdain is just as loved and just as forgiven by God as we are.

Corporate confession also reminds us to make confession of sin a regular part of our daily prayer lives. Martin Luther once observed that the problem with "born again Christians" is that they're not born again enough. Apparently, in Luther's days, there were Christians of this description who thought that if they confessed their sins just once, the battle was over.

But, Peter reminds us in the New Testament that our violation of love for God and love for neighbor--which in turn violates the Ten Commandments, which are all about love for God and love for neighbor, the central importance of relationships in which human beings are called to live--is a constant possibility for us as we live on earth. We need to remain diligent in our commitment to following the God we know through Jesus Christ at all times. As someone who has not always remained diligent, I know that temptation and sin--with sin's sorrowful disruption of our relationship with God, its crushing blow to our self-respect, and its blocking of blessings God wants to give to us--can't be resisted in our own power. We need to return to
God for forgiveness and help in resisting temptation all the time. That's why Peter writes:
Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith... (First Peter 5:8-9)
In public confession during our corporate worship, we're reminded that God forgives the repentant. But more than that, together we experience that reality and the inner peace and joy that goes with it:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:1-5)
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (First John 1:-9-10)
Please don't misunderstand: I'm not here advocating the public laundering of our particular sins for all the world to see. Corporate worship isn't Oprah or The Jerry Springer Show. Usually, confession of specific sins must happen in one's private confessions or in a counseling relationship. A parading of one's sins in public worship can easily degenerate into an egotistical bid for being noticed, whether in providing others with shock value or in wowing them with abject--and all to narcissistic--submission to humiliation. Public confession, as should be true of all public worship, is never about us; it's always about God.

[This discussion has been triggered by this and this.]

These Apple Ads...

crack me up. I especially like it that the "PC" character bears more than a passing resemblance to Bill Gates.

Links to First Four Installments of 'Christian Faith: The Basics'

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 4

[In this series, I'm exploring the basics of Christian faith, using the structure of Martin Luther's Small Catechism. In its most widely-used format, it's composed of five chief parts, each part built around a specific topic: The Ten Commandments; The Apostles' Creed; The Lord's Prayer; The Sacrament of Holy Baptism; and The Sacrament of Holy Communion. Of course, the entire Catechism is meant to summarize the Bible's teachings; Lutherans have always believed that the Bible is the authoritative source and norm of our life, faith, and practice.]

We can trust the promises of God because of the way He gets involved in our lives.

In the last post of this series, I showed that before God issued the first of the Ten Commandments, He made a breathtaking promise. "I am the Lord your God," He said.

But how could the people to whom God first gave the commandments know that He would keep those promises?

God gives the answer in the very verse in which He makes the promise:
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery..." (Exodus 20:2)
"You can believe that I will be your God no matter what," God told the ancient Hebrews, "because I'm the One Who miraculously freed you from your centuries-long bondage to the Pharaoh.

"I'm the One Who sent the ten plagues that finally caused that stone-hearted, egotistical ruler of Egypt to let you go.

"I'm the One Who, after the Pharaoh changed his mind about the decision to set you free and was chasing after you with his armies, made a way for you to escape through the Red Sea where there had been no way."

God certified His promise to be the Hebrews' Lord by pointing to His past involvement in their lives.

Centuries later, God would give the whole human race reason to believe that He will be our steadfast Lord. It happened when God Himself walked the earth in the person of Jesus Christ. He voluntarily accepted the punishment of death we deserve for breaking our relationship with Him by sinning against Him, equivalent to a man dependent on an oxygen tank to live willfully cutting the hose leading to his lungs.

Through Christ, God gets involved in our lives, showing us that the promise of God's presence now and in eternity is real and can be counted on. In the New Testament, Paul expresses it this way:
...God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. (Romans 5:5-7)
Through Christ, we have the assurance that the only thing that can break our relationship with God is our willful turning away from Him and His will for us...expressed in the Ten Commandments.

We can trust the promises of God because of the way He gets involved in our lives.

Egyptian Blogger Arrested...

for advocating an independent judiciary. (Thanks to Instapundit for leading me to this article.)

Rambling Hal has more.

Freedom for Egyptians has lots more on the fight for an independent Egyptian judiciary.

"A Day of Joyful Grief"

Jan talks about it here.

Kos Appears Right for the Wrong Reason

Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas, writing in today's Washington Post all but predicts that Hillary Clinton won't get the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. I think that he's right. In fact, I think that Clinton will withdraw from the race long before the primaries and caucuses begin.

But I don't think that the Senator will fail to get the Democratic nod for the reason that Kos cites. He says that she's too much of an insider. He apparently believes that some web-savvy pol from beyond the Beltway is going to gain the nomination because latter day-Deaniacs (or their "netroot" successors) will deny the nomination to an establishment Dem.

My own judgment is that rank-and-file Democrats, the folks who vote in primaries and participate in caucuses, are going to use one criteria more than any other in deciding who they'll support for president in 2008: Electability. They're so desperate to elect a successor to George W. Bush that they'll nominate any Democrat who seems able to take them to the Promised Land.

This expedient attitude means that they won't be wedded to ideology. They won't be inclined to join a lemming march built on ideologically consoling rhetoric.

Neither will they pick an old favorite unacceptable to a majority of the country. Dems love Hillary Clinton, but they know that the rest of the country doesn't share their high opinion of her.

If Hillary Clinton were an insider who could win in 2008, Dems would nominate her in a heartbeat. After all, she's got the money, the organization, and the name recognition. But insider or not, she also has a ton of baggage.

I still think that the Dems will nominate Mark Warner in 2008. Unlike Hillary, he's electable.

Comforted and Called by the Good Shepherd

[Message shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, May 6 and 7, 2006.]

John 10:11-18
Back when I was about ten, my whole family went, as we did every year of my childhood, to the annual picnic of a lodge to which my grandfather belonged. It was an all-day event and was held at a country club that also had picnic shelters, horseshoe pits, softball fields, a playground, and a dance hall.

After dinner, when everyone was getting ready to head for the dance hall, I asked my parents if I could stay on the grounds and hang out with one of the kids I’d met there. They said, “Yes”; so, off I went. Several hours later, with the sun down and the lightning bugs flashing all around, my new friend was long gone, back with his parents in the dance hall. But I was still on the playground with a handful of other kids, unwilling to give up on the day.

I'd just incited five or six other kids to rev up one of those push-and-board merry-go-rounds one more time and we'd all jumped on board, the thing whirring around at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour, when suddenly, without warning, a big arm yanked me off. It was my father's arm. “Your mother and I have been worried sick!” Dad told me. “When that other kid came back to the dance hall, we had no idea where you were. Your name was announced over the PA system three times.” I went back to the hall with Dad, apologizing all over myself.

Now, I suppose that once I'd turned up missing, my parents could have taken an entirely different attitude. “Well,” they could have told each other, “we’ve got the other two kids. We can afford to lose one.” But that wasn’t their attitude because every child is important.

In today’s Bible lesson, Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd.”

In the history of God’s people, of course, some of the biggest heroes from the Bible were shepherds. And in the Hellenistic culture in which everyone around the Meditarranean would have been conversant, kings were often seen as leaders who shepherded their people.

But, as I’ve explained before, in first-century Judea, where Jesus lived, shepherds had unsavory reputations. They were people from the wrong-side of the tracks and often seen as dishonest and low-brow.

Maybe this is why Jesus adds a modifier, calling Himself “the Good Shepherd.” He explains that, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus Christ laid down His life and then took it back up again for the express purpose of giving everlasting life to all who will renounce their sin and ask Him to take control of their lives.

The Good Shepherd is there for us no matter what.

He will chase away and warn us against the wolves in this life--the devil and the people and the temptations and the habits and addictions that might tear us away from God.

And He will keep us close to the heart of the Father.

But why does Jesus do all of this? For the same reason that my father yanked me off of that merry-go-round: Every single one of us is important in the eyes of God.

And if we will let Him, the Good Shepherd will lead us, as Psalm 23 says, even through the valley of the shadow of death.

This past week, while driving to a meeting, I heard a radio interview with a man named Gilbert Tuhabonye. He recounted how, some thirteen years ago, as an eighteen year old student at a boarding school in his native Burundi, in central Africa, he awoke early one day, intent on doing well on tests he had in Chemistry and Biology.

What he didn’t know was that the night before, the President of Burundi had been assassinated. The President was a member of one of two major tribes in Burundi, the Hutu. Hutus were sure that a Tutsi had murdered the President and they were out for revenge.

Hutu students on Tuhabonye's high school campus were soon joined by large numbers of their parents and townspeople to undertake a murderous rampage against all the Tutsi students, including Gilbert. Some of the Tutsi students were bludgeoned to death. Some were hacked with machetes. Many others were set on fire, burned alive.

Although horribly burned himself, Gilbert was the only student to survive. As any of you who have ever known a burn victim can attest, recovery is excruciatingly painful. This was the case for Gilbert. Once an award-winning track star, he had to learn to walk again.

There were times when he wanted to die. He even tried to take his life once. But, deep in his soul, he sensed the Good Shepherd tell him, that he had to live to tell his story and to tell others about how the God we know in Christ can lead us and take care of us through even the most horrific circumstances.

Three years later, Gilbert Tuhabonye was an alternate middle-distance runner for his country in the 1996 Olympics. Later, he was offered a track scholarship to Abilene Christian College in Texas. Today, he’s a track coach in Austin who tells others about the Good Shepherd.

There’s nothing more comforting in the world than knowing that Jesus Christ is our good shepherd. But Jesus tells us in our lesson today that He isn’t there just for those of us already in His "sheepfold." Jesus says: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

When my kids were small, I prayed, as I suppose all parents pray, “Lord, please let me live long enough to raise my children. I don’t want my wife to have to raise them by herself and I don’t want them to go through the trauma.” Now, tragically, we all know parents who prayed that prayer and for reasons known only to God, the answer was, “No.” But, after my kids were raised, I sometimes wondered, “What am I still around for? What do you want me to do, God?”

When Gilbert Tuhabonye struggled with such questions, he sensed God telling him to simply share his story, to tell others about how the God he knew through Jesus Christ, had reached out to him in a scene of indescribable pain to lead him to a faith that is now impacting thousands of people.

Thank God, most of us have never gone through and never will go through what that young man endured. But each of us has a story to tell.

We can tell the world about how, when we surrendered our lives to Jesus Christ, He began to lead us and stand with us and give us comfort and hope in every circumstance.

We all can tell the story of a God Who, unwilling to lose us to sin and death, died and rose to give us life with Him forever.

Jesus once said that when He was lifted up--when people like you and me shared the story of His grace and power and promises of new life with others--He would draw people to Himself.

Through you and me, people can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling Him to follow.

There are thousands of people in our community who need the Good Shepherd just as much as you and I do. When we lift Him up among our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, and others, telling them His story and the story of our love affair with Him, they too will be drawn to Him.

Who have you told about the Good Shepherd lately? To whom have you lifted Jesus up so that He could draw them to Himself?

Jesus calls everybody who believes in Him to be a witness.

You may think you don’t know enough or you’re not holy enough. But that’s not true.

On Friday, my son and I spent the day on Lower Manhattan in New York City. One of our stops was Trinity Church, an important place in the early history of our country.

In the middle of the churchyard is a statue that rises like a pillar with a crucifix at the top. On each of its four sides are stacked, one on top of the other, small sculptures depicting three different Biblical figures.

On one side, there are statues of David, Jacob, and Moses. My son laughed, commenting on what a fine bunch that was:
  • David was an adulterer and murderer;
  • Jacob was a dishonest schemer; and
  • Moses was a murderer who questioned God.
But they each heard the call of God in their lives. They each turned from their sin. God forgave all of them. And God protected them from the ravenous wolves of evil and the devil so that they could walk into eternity their souls washed clean and their heads held high as God’s own children.

So can anybody today who turns from sin and trusts in God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ.

Listen: God has no perfect witnesses and never has. Our call is to let others experience Jesus through our imperfect lives. Our call is to live the simple truth that Jesus’ death and resurrection show us that everyone is eternally significant to God.

To belong to the Good Shepherd, Jesus, means two things for sure:
  • It means, first of all, that we're comforted with the assurance of God's presence in our lives throughout the uncertainties of this world and the certainties of eternity.
  • It means secondly, that we're called to reach out to others with the Good News of this God Who wants all people to come to Him.
So, how about it? This week, make it your aim to share Jesus Christ with one spiritually disconnected person. Ask God to show you the person with whom you’ll share the best news the world has ever heard. Ask God to present you with the right time and the right words. Then, open your mouth and let the Good Shepherd use you to call someone else into His Kingdom!