Saturday, June 17, 2006

German Ambivalence About Nationalism

Callimachus at Done with Mirrors writes about the demands of a German teacher's union that the national anthem not be played for fear that it might arouse nationalistic feelings. He then traces the history of the anthem, which was composed during the Weimar Republicn in 1922, eleven years before Adolf Hitler came to power. The Nazis used the anthem, with their own peculiar and hateful spins. But the song itself, Callimachus suggests in an excellent piece, is benign. It could even be helpful to the Germans.
It's unlikely that modern Germany, with its rapidly declining birthrate, will ever again be the threat to European security that the swelling nation of 70 million was in 1940. A call for national togetherness and identity today seems a relevant thing when the danger is not Germany crushing neighbors under its boot, but rather German culture and identity itself dissolving into a Euro-mash.
I have written several pieces on my observations of the depressed and depressing culture that is bringing many Germans down and of the need for spiritual and national renewal there. See here and here.

Friday, June 16, 2006

"Bloomberg Stokes Speculation About Presidential Run"

That headline in yesterday's New York Sun caught my eye as I stood in a line at JFK Airport.

How much of this is Michael Bloomberg really stoking speculation about a presidential run? And how much of it is the New York Sun trying to stoke Michael Bloomberg to stoke speculation about a presidential run?

And how exactly would that set with New York City's other 2008 Republican wannabe, Rudy Giuliani? (Not to mention another potential NY Republican presidential candidate, Governor George Pataki?)

Of course, questions about the reactions of Republican presidential hopefuls in relation to a possible Bloomberg candidacy may be all wrong. Bloomberg, as the Sun piece points out, has only been a Republican for five years, a conversion that coincided with his decision to run for mayor after a lifetime as a Democrat and a career as a billionaire mogol.

His recent rhetoric and activity suggest that he might just be interested in running for President as an independent.
"We've got to have a political leadership, at every level of government, capable of hearing both sides, accepting what is true in what they say, and acting on it," Mr. Bloomberg told an audience of several hundred people yesterday at a conference hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Bloomberg has been denying that he wants to run for president, but at an appearance in Connecticut during the weekend, he said that anyone planning to run would deny it. The mayor visited Washington five times in 12 weeks earlier this year, and he's recently been spotted cultivating national newspaper reporters.

Yesterday, he spoke out on a variety of national issues, from gun control to federal aid formulas.

"The federal responses to avian flu, to the shortage of flu vaccine, or to other crises we've faced in recent years, have been episodic and disjointed," Mr. Bloomberg said. "They illustrate the lack of the kind of national public health infrastructure, at the federal, state, and local levels, that our era demands.

"Neither political party is blameless," Mr. Bloomberg said, offering AIDS policy as an example. "Talk to one set of advocates, and they insist that the answer to stopping the spread of HIV is distributing more condoms and setting up more needle exchange programs. The other side believes just as passionately that the solution to preventing the spread of HIV lies in persuading people that they can't just have sex with whomever they want, whenever they feel like it.

"The truth is, both sides are right - and we've got to have a political leadership, at every level of government, capable of hearing both sides, accepting what is true in what they say, and acting on it," the mayor said.
Bloomberg stands little chance of winning the GOP nomination--he's as out of the mainstream of Republican thinking as Giuliani without being a 9/11 hero, the latter attribute being the only thing putting his name in play among Republicans. But the New York mayor would look like a waffler or a mere political opportunist if he switched back to the Democratic Party at this point. So, if he really is interested in running for President, a run as an independent probably makes the most sense for him.

There are already some folks trying to tap into the electorate's oft-expressed disgust with both parties. But it's still doubtful that an independent could be elected in 2008.

Michael Bloomberg no doubt has the confidence and the money for an independent run at the White House. But whether he could be elected is a huge question. Another question is this: Does he even think he'd like to run? If the Sun article is a trial balloon, its likely failure to float will render those two questions moot in short order.

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury once told Walt Disney that he should run for mayor of Los Angeles. Disney was incredulous. "Ray," he said, "why should I be mayor when I'm already king?"

Bloomberg is already appreciated in New York and has one of the most important jobs around. With that, why, I think he'll ultimately wonder, would he want to be President?

[Thanks to Andrew Jackson of for linking to this post.]

[Thanks also to Article6Blog for linking to this piece.]

If TR Were Alive Today, He'd Be Blogging

Near the end of our Thursday tour of Theodore Roosevelt's book-filled house, I turned to my wife and commented, "Were he alive today, Roosevelt would be blogging." "Oh, no doubt!" she exclaimed. "And he would be at the forefront, way ahead of everybody!"

Theodore Roosevelt was the most accomplished and prolific author-president. Only Jimmy Carter and Woodrow Wilson have come close to him in this category. (Although, as a writer, none of our Presidents can match the lyricism of Abraham Lincoln.) Like Carter, TR also was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American to be given this award. And like Carter, Roosevelt's interests as both a person and a writer, were diverse.

But the political figure with whom TR has the most in common as an adventurer and author would have to be Winston Churchill. Churchill always read and wrote, as did TR. (Indeed, for the cash-strapped Churchill, his journalistic writing was what allowed him to keep and add to his beloved Chartwell Estate. TR never faced such money worries.) And, both of them proved their mettle as soldiers, TR in the Spanish-American War and Churchill, who escaped enemy imprisonment while fighting in and writing about the Boer War.

Interestingly, I read somewhere--I can't remember where--that TR once met the young Churchill and didn't care for him. Someone, it may have been the President's daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, suggested that the reason for this curious reaction from Roosevelt may have been that the two were much too alike.

It's shocking to consider that Roosevelt, the youngest man ever to ascend to the presidency--he was 42 when William McKinley was assassinated--and always the practitioner of a life of robust activity, only lived to be sixty. (His fifth cousin-once removed, Franklin Roosevelt, was only 63 when he died near the beginning of his fourth term as President.) But TR managed to pack more life in his sixty years than most of us will with half-again as much time on the planet.

Of course, TR started off with decided advantages: wealth and connections. Money alone freed him to do things that the rest of us, even today, may only dream about. But, as my wife and I were saying, his advantages make Roosevelt's dogged and unmatched performance in what he called "the arena" all the more remarkable. The scion of a rich man had no need to lead the strenuous life, challenging himself in many ways. But that's precisely the life Roosevelt chose to lead.

No one in public life gets into the arena for solely altruistic motives, to be sure. Thirty years ago, I read John Blum's study of TR. There, Blum suggests that Roosevelt even deluded himself about his motives. He wanted power, Roosevelt told himself and others, because of the good he could accomplish for the people. That was true. But it was also true that in 1919, the year of his death and ten years after he had stepped down from the presidency, Roosevelt, still brimming with ambition for power, was the frontrunner for his party's presidential nomination, almost two decades after he had been made McKinley's vice presidential running mate by those hoping to end his career.

After his own hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, had been in office a short time, prosecuting more antitrust cases than the trustbusting Teddy, Roosevelt nonetheless picked a fight with Taft, trying to wrest the 1912 Republican nomination from the sitting President. When the Republicans wouldn't nominate him, Roosevelt took the nomination of the Progressive Party and so, handed the White House to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats.

TR's love of power also caused him to, at times, play fast and loose with the Constitution. Our tour guide today told a story I hadn't recalled reading or hearing before. Speaker of the House Joe Cannon was asked what he thought of Mr. Roosevelt. He was a fine fellow, he said. But to TR, the Constitution was about as meaningful as a marriage license is to a tomcat.

Roosevelt made no bones about having taken the Isthmus of Panama to build his canal, for example. While Congress debated whether he should have done it, he boasted, he would get the canal built.

Beyond Roosevelt's desires for power as a thing in itself or as a tool for helping people, there was another motive for his continuing to be in the arena until the end of his life: He loved the spotlight. Alice Roosevelt Longworth once observed, “My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.”

Like his distant cousin, Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt confounded and enraged his opponents by his capacity to get the attention--and the affection--of so many people. In the body politic, he was a force of nature they tried mightily to contain, but rarely did.

If, magically, eighty-seven years after his death, Theodore Roosevelt could reappear, you can bet that he would be blogging. He loved the limelight. He was interested in everything--birding, military strategy, poetry and literature, history, conservation, hunting, urban renewal, ranch life, police work, Naval history. He was a writer and propagandist of the first order. And seeing blogging as a way to further his political interests and agenda, he couldn't resist being a blogger.

But not just any blogger! As my wife rightly says, he would be the best in the blogosphere, dazzling all with his insight, erudition, breadth of interest, boyish inquisitiveness, and his amazing capacity to charm, challenge, endear, and infuriate his readers...all at the same time.

[My son, Philip, presents his reflections on our trip to Oyster Bay and on Theodore Roosevelt here.]

[Thanks to Hugh Hewitt for linking to this post. And thanks to Mark Olson, who has linked to the post on two blogs here and here.]

[Thanks also to Mark D. Roberts, one of my favorite bloggers, for linking to this piece.]

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Why There's Been No Posting Today

My wife, son, and I got to do something today that we've long wanted to do. We visited the home of Theodore Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill on Oyster Bay in New York. The day was gorgeous and our National Park Service guide was outstanding. I hope to share some pictures later.

(My son's employment with an airline makes these occasional jaunts possible.)

Flippo the Clown--Bob Marvin--Has Died

Michael Meckler writes of the death of a Central Ohio legend, Bob Marvin, who for many decades was Flippo the Clown on WBNS-TV in Columbus.

Meckler is obviously younger than me, only remembering Marvin as the host of afternoon movies that aired prior to the 6:00 local news. But I remember a long period before that, when Marvin was on the air for only one hour, from 5:00 weekday afternoons, hosting 'Popeye' cartoon shorts.

Marvin was one of those TV characters who could be appreciated by adults as well as children, the clown costume notwithstanding.

He had been a mainstay in the Columbus area for years before donning the make-up, having played in the Big Band of my grandmother's cousin, Chuck Selby (an unsuccessful candidate for Franklin County commissioner one year, by the way).

Marvin's wise-cracking goofiness was a part of my childhood through college years in Columbus. I met him several times, usually at personal appearances he traveled to in his Isetta, a small car that had one door that opened where the windshield and the steering column were. As a child, I lived for hearing him announce my birthdays on his show or watching him showcase my crayon-drawings of him, no doubt among hundreds of thousands of such portraits he received through the years. I never liked clowns, but I loved Flippo!

A friend of my mother-in-law, a man who was a personality on WBNS during Marvin's long era, went to see the former TV clown at the care facility where he lived before his death. Predictably, the spontaneously zany Flippo chafed under doctor's orders and confided his intentions to eat whatever he wanted once he got out of that place. It wasn't to be.

[See these reports from The Columbus Dispatch and from ONN as well.]

[Thanks to Michael Meckler for linking to this post.]

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Note on the 'Christian Faith: The Basics' Series

First of all, let me say that, dolt that I am, I have only today realized that I accidentally gave this series the same title of a book of which I'm fond, written by Walt Kallestad. Fortunately, I don't think that titles are copyrightable. But anybody who's read this series so far knows that I don't take the same approach as Kallestad does in his excellent book. (You'll also note that he's a far better writer than I am.)

I may change the title of this series later on. But for now, I'll stick with this one.

Here are links to the first nineteen installments of the series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14 (Oops...there was no Part 14)
Part 15
Part 16
Part 17
Part 18
Part 19

[Thanks to Andy Jackson over at for linking to this series. Andy is quite generous about linking to other bloggers and that's just one of many reasons why his blog is among the best around. I go to his site every day because he links to all sorts of useful and interesting information.]

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 19

Up till now in this survey of the basics of Christian faith, we've been looking at the Ten Commandments, the foundational laws of God that Jesus distilled in two succinct principles:
  • Love God
  • Love Neighbor
"On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets," Jesus said. These commands are the core of God's will, plan, and purposes for our lives. There's no way to sufficiently emphasize how important they are to God.

But there's also something you should know regarding the Bible's teaching about God's law. The New Testament book of Galatians puts it this way: "Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for 'The one who is righteous will live by faith.'” (Galatians 3:11)

To be justified means, in this connection, to have an excuse for taking up space in the universe, to have the right to live in the kingdom of God.

According to the Bible, which is God's Word, no one is capable of justifying their continued existences in this world or the next on the basis of performing the requirements of the Ten Commandments. The New Testament book of Romans, among other places in the Bible, asserts that "no one is righteous," that word righteous, in the original Greek, being the adjectival version of the verb, justify. We can't do enough good things to ever fulfill God's commands to love God and love neighbor.

This is true even for people who love God and want to do His will. The first-century preacher Paul admits:
I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I've tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn't that the real question? (Romans 7:22-24, The Message translation)
I think that it is the real question. And happily, God provides the answer. As Paul goes on to put it:
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. (Romans 7:25, The Message)
In fact, going all the way back to the beginnings of Old Testament history, no person ever justfied herself or himself in God's eyes. Not since sin beclouded human behavior and culture has any human being been capable of completely shaking sin from their souls. And since the presence of one iota of sin in us is so repugnant to God as to prevent us from having fellowship with Him--from having our existences being justified, we needed God to send us a lifeline. That's what God has done in Jesus Christ!

Paul explains it this way in a passage that's usually read in the churches of my Lutheran tradition on the last Sunday in October every year:
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
So, what then is the point of all of God's commandments?
  • First: In them, God confirms something we already knew to be true.
The law, the Bible insists, is written on our hearts. In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis talks about this stubborn notion of right and wrong evident across cultures throughout human history, as a clue about the meaning of life. Through the commands, God confirms that our hunches are right: There is a right way to live and it's about living in a community of love with our creator and our neighbors.
  • Second: In the commands, God shows us that there's something wrong and we can't fix it ourselves.
Lewis summarizes our dilemma at the end of the extraordinary first chapter of Mere Christianity:
These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.
Intrinsic in Lewis' summary is the insight of Martin Luther that God holds the commands before the human race like a mirror in which we can see ourselves as we truly are. Through them, we know that we don't measure up to what we know in our bones is the way human beings are meant to live.
  • Third: The commands then create what I would call a healthy despair.
Despair is, literally, hopelessness. When our hopes are falsely based, despair can be wise. There's a scene in the movie, Spanglish, in which the mother of a woman whose life is on the brink of total disaster tries to help her daughter. "Lately," she tells her, "your low self-esteem is just good common sense." Once we've come face-to-face with the false bases on which we have hoped, we are sensible enough to have become wide open to another, better possibility.

When God's law drives us to the despairing insight that we cannot justify our existences or feel whole or be reconciled to God and others based on our efforts to be righteous or perfect or beautiful or powerful or essential, we're driven to the only place and the only person Who can justify us: The Savior Jesus, Who died on a cross and rose from the dead, for us.

When we let it, the law of God drives us to Christ, Whose perfect obedience to the law and the will of God opens up eternity to us.
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. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
"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. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:16-18)
  • Finally: God gives the commands as a guide to those who have experienced justification through their faith in Jesus.
Once God's grace has changed you from an enemy of God to His friend, you want to do what you can to please Him.

One of the most intriguing passages dealing with the impossibility of keeping God's commands comes in the New Testament book of Acts, which tells the story of the Church from the day the risen Jesus ascended to heaven until about thirty years later. Non-Jews--Gentiles--had begun to believe in Jesus Christ. This created a problem in the minds of the first Christians, all of whom were Jews. No one they knew of had ever enjoyed a relationship with God without being a Jew, which for them meant obeying the many laws of Judaism, from circumcision of all males to many dietary restrictions. So, some of the Jewish Christians, understandably, argued that Gentiles who came to faith in Christ had to be Jews before they could be Christians.

A council was held in Jerusalem to decide on the matter. After some prayer and discussion, the apostle Peter spoke up. In the interest of comity and unity, he hoped that the Gentiles would abide by a few simple guidelines, not as a means of justifying themselves or proving their faith, but out of consideration to their Jewish brothers. But Peter (and the whole council) rejected the idea that by obeying laws, either Gentiles or Jews could make themselves right with God.

Peter reminded his fellow Jews that they'd never had much success at keeping the law themselves. I love Peter's words, in which he refers to when God chose him to be the first of the early Christians to share the Good News of Jesus with non-Jews:
"My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:7-11)
When we let God's commands drive us to Jesus Christ for true and enduring hope, then they've done their work.

Happy Flag Day!

Here's some Flag Day patriotic reading from past Better Living posts:
What is the American Dream?

Our Best Presidents?
The Rest of the List

Some Thoughts on George Washington
On Alexander Hamilton

Habits of the Heart:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

The Promise and the Perils of Democracy:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

[Thanks to Andrew Jackson of for linking to this post.]

Warren, Wiesel, and Other Religious Leaders Issue Call for US Renunciation of Torture

Pastor Rick Warren and Holocaust-chronicler Elie Wiesel are among the prominent religious leaders who are signatories to a statement being issued by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Claiming that the soul of the nation is at stake, they're calling for the US government to totally renounce the use of torture against foreign combatants or terrorists.

The text of the statement, which is appearing in newspapers around the country is printed below. Decide for yourself what you think of it:
Torture Is A Moral Issue
A Statement of the National Religious Campaign against Torture

Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions hold dear. It degrades everyone involved --policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation's most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.

Torture and inhumane treatment have long been banned by U.S. treaty obligations, and are punishable by criminal statute. Recent developments, however, have created new uncertainties. By reaffirming the ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as well as torture, the McCain amendment, now signed into law, is a step in the right direction. Yet its implementation remains unclear.

The President's signing statement, which he issued when he signed the McCain Amendment into law, implies that the President does not believe he is bound by the amendment in his role as commander in chief. The possibility remains open that inhumane methods of interrogation will continue.

Furthermore, in a troubling development, for the first time in our nation's history, legislation has now been signed into law that effectively permits evidence obtained by torture to be used in a court of law. The military tribunals that are trying some terrorist suspects are now expressly permitted to consider information obtained under coercive interrogation techniques, including degrading and inhumane techniques and torture.

We urge Congress and the President to remove all ambiguities by prohibiting:
? Exemptions from the human rights standards of international law for any arm of our government.
? The practice of extraordinary rendition, whereby suspects are apprehended and flown to countries that use torture as a means of interrogation.
? Any disconnection of "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" from the ban against "torture" so as to permit inhumane interrogation.
? The existence of secret U.S. prisons around the world.
? Any denial of Red Cross access to detainees held by our government overseas.

We also call for an independent investigation of the severe human rights abuses at U.S. installations like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now --without exceptions.
[Check out Charlie Lehardy's interesting comments on this post.]

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Jordanian Blogger Disappointed with Anti-Zarqawi Demonstration

Writing of yesterday's Amman demonstration against four Jordanian deputies who had expressed sympathy for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Ahmad Humeid says:
In a number of ways, the demonstration was disappointing. Although I found myself agreeing with a lot of the banners held up, the demonstration felt like a ‘bussed-in’ affair (i.e it felt like the usual ‘pro-government’ gathering). The audience consisted mainly of tribal representatives (which is ‘interesting’ as one blogger put it), but I would have liked to see more diversity and a representation of Amman’s people.

We are also seeing ads of ‘condemnation’ in the newspapers and lot of ‘declarations of allegiance’!

And the four deputies have been arrested and it seems they will be tried in front of the State Security court, on grounds of ’stirring up discord’.

I honestly think this is not the right response.

What the four deputies did (and what one of them said) was unbelievably insensitive and disgusting. It can be argued that it makes them apologist of Zarqawi type terror. But using the State Security court against them will make them seem as victims of a government controlled process of score settling with the Islamists (as some Islamists are already claiming).

Regardless of any real or perceived process ’score settling’, the Islamists need to understand (and some of them apparently do) that there is a real feeling of disgust among a sizable segment of society and the media...
Apparently, the Jordanian government finds it tough not to manipulate public opinion and to instead, let people form their own ideas. From reading a sampling of Jordanian blogs, one can see that there is genuine moderation that rejects the nihilism of Zarqawi associates. These Jordanians don't want their outrage co-opted by their government or anybody else.

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Second Corinthians 5:1-17

[Because of a recent minor surgery and for other reasons, I've not done this lately, but I try each week to help the people of our congregation and of other churches that use the lectionary, to prepare for weekend worship by taking several "passes" at the lesson on which worship will be built. This week, I try to resume that practice by taking a look at Second Corinthians 5:1-17.]

The Bible Lesson:
1For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— 3if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 4For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— 7for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. 11Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences.

12We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

General Notes:
1. One of the most important general rules for studying a passage from the Bible is one to which I've referred many times: Context helps explain content. In other words, the general themes of a book; the identity of its writer and its original recipients; and the historical circumstances in which a book was written can all play an important role in helping us to understand what a writer means to say. I find that understanding the various contexts of a passage of Scripture adds to its power, casts out confusion, and helps me to avoid reading into a passage what shouldn't be taken from it.

2. Paul founded the church at Corinth in the Roman province of Achaia, in Greece. Corinth was an important city. Acts 18:1-11 tells about how Paul started the congregation there when he first proclaimed there the Good News of new life as the free gift to all with faith in Jesus Christ.

3. Paul had a stormy relationship with the Corinthian church, but also one of great affection. It appears, in fact, that he had greater love for this congregation than he had for any of the others he founded or nurtured.

4. The book we call First Corinthians was a letter from Paul to the Corinthian church, probably written from Ephesus (in Turkey) in which he addresses a whole host of doctrinal and ethical issues.

5. After First Corinthians was written, Paul had returned to Corinth for what he described as a "painful visit" (Second Corinthians 2:1). He didn't go back because he thought that would prove to be even more painful. Instead of going to the church there, he wrote an apparently scathing letter, copies of which haven't survived. (Second Corinthians 2:4) In it, it's thought that Paul upbraided the church for many things, calling them to repentance. He evidently waited anxiously for some time for them to respond and was ultimately assured by his friend, Titus, who he had sent with his angry missive, that the church at Corinth still held a high regard for Paul.

6. This letter comes after that and is filled with gratitude for the Corinthians' reconciliation with him, as well as discussion of an offering he's taking for the church at Jerusalem.

7. Of major importance in our particular passage though, is Paul's concern to underscore the legitimacy of his ministry. William Loader writes about it in this way:
The key to understanding these chapters of 2 Corinthians is to recognise that Paul faces criticism because of his ministry. It is personal and probably also directed against his particular theology. His opponents who have inflitrated Corinth sought to undermine him at a number of points. They apparently make much of their successes. They live "victorious Christian lives", whereas Paul shows many signs of being weak and vulnerable.
It's a sad story that continues to this day: There are preachers who forego references to unpleasant things like repentance for sin, death of the old sinful self, and the reality of difficulties in this life, painting a triumphalistic picture of Christianity. Such preachers, of course, can draw big crowds and fat wallets. They, in turn, interpret their "success" as a sign of God's favor. Meanwhile, down the street is the preacher whose life isn't perfect and who expresses no confidence about her or his own merits, and is portrayed by the successful preacher as a failure.

At Corinth, preachers who flashed their success around were making inroads into the church, causing some to question the legitimacy of Paul's ministry.

This lesson is Paul's ringing assertion that we live by faith and not by the things we can see, handle, or control. He says here, as he does in several other places in the entire letter, that his confidence is in Jesus Christ and what Christ has done for us, no matter what may befall him in this life. He also asserts that it's only in eternity, when this "earthly tent"--our bodies--have been destroyed and we are in eternity with God that we'll be clothed in the immortal temple in which all believers in Jesus are destined to live.

I hope to give specific commentary in a later pass at the lesson.

Monday, June 12, 2006

How Unraveling the Human Genome Makes God Plausible...Scientist

Once upon a time, I was an atheist. My argument against God's exitence, in retrospect, went something like this:
Science shows us how life came into being and approximately when. Therefore, there is no God.
Of course, my conclusion didn't follow from my premises and the entire argumment, of course, proved nothing.

So far as I can tell, this is the argument against God advanced by many who claim to be either atheists or agnostics.

Yet, history is filled with examples of brilliant scientists who also believed in the existence of God. Awed by the elegant admixture of complexity and simplicity that they saw in the world, thrilled by the "thoughts they thought after God," many scientists have looked at creation and come to echo the words of the Old Testament poet: "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork." (Psalm 19:1) Many scientists today believe in God as well.

Add Francis Collins, the director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, to their number. Notes Collins, who has a new book called The Language of God coming out in September, "“One of the great tragedies of our time is this impression that has been created that science and religion have to be at war."

In a Sunday Times of London interview, Collins explains that uncovering the human genome gave him a “glimpse at the workings of God."
“When you make a breakthrough it is a moment of scientific exhilaration because you have been on this search and seem to have found it,” he said. “But it is also a moment where I at least feel closeness to the creator in the sense of having now perceived something that no human knew before but God knew all along.

“When you have for the first time in front of you this 3.1 billion-letter instruction book that conveys all kinds of information and all kinds of mystery about humankind, you can’t survey that going through page after page without a sense of awe. I can’t help but look at those pages and have a vague sense that this is giving me a glimpse of God’s mind.”
Collins believes that evolution is simply a mechanism which the God revealed in the Bible used to create life, a belief shared by millions of Christians and recently advanced by the Vatican.

The Times article explains how Collins came to faith in God:
Collins was an atheist until the age of 27, when as a young doctor he was impressed by the strength that faith gave to some of his most critical patients.

“They had terrible diseases from which they were probably not going to escape, and yet instead of railing at God they seemed to lean on their faith as a source of great comfort and reassurance,” he said. “That was interesting, puzzling and unsettling.”

He decided to visit a Methodist minister and was given a copy of C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which argues that God is a rational possibility. The book transformed his life. “It was an argument I was not prepared to hear,” he said. “I was very happy with the idea that God didn’t exist, and had no interest in me. And yet at the same time, I could not turn away.”

His epiphany came when he went hiking through the Cascade Mountains in Washington state. He said: “It was a beautiful afternoon and suddenly the remarkable beauty of creation around me was so overwhelming, I felt, ‘I cannot resist this another moment’.”
And what about my old arguments against God?
Collins believes that science cannot be used to refute the existence of God because it is confined to the “natural” world. In this light he believes miracles are a real possibility. “If one is willing to accept the existence of God or some supernatural force outside nature then it is not a logical problem to admit that, occasionally, a supernatural force might stage an invasion,” he says.
The fact is that while science can open one to the probability that behind creation there is a Creator, one can only believe in this God by being open to His revelation of Himself. This is precisely what Christians believe happened when God invaded our world in the Person of Jesus Christ:
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)
[Thanks to Hugh Hewitt for linking to this piece.]

[See my series on Why I Believe Christianity is True:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six]

[Thanks to Mark Congdon for linking to this post.]

Amman Sit-in to Protest Pro-Zarqawi Deputies' Statements

360East, a Jordanian blog, announces that there will be a peaceful demonstration at the Parliament Building in Amman on Monday. It reports that "a-sit in will be held by the relatives of Amman bombing victims will be held today Monday at 11 am, to protest the ‘pro Zarqawi’ behavior of the four Islamic Action Front deputies."

Here in the US, it's important to realize that many in the Muslim and Arab communities are as offended by senseless violence and terrorism others in the world are. Many Jordanians particularly feel victimized by al-Zarqawi, along with many Muslims in Iraq.

See here also.
And here.

[UPDATE: Here's a brief follow-up report on the demonstration.]

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Meanwhile, the Chinese Government...

...continues to hold Hao Wu, a pro-democracy blogger and filmmaker. (See here for background.) Little are known of his circumstances, according to this June 2 dispatch.

Pray for Hao Wu's release and contact the Chinese embassy.

The Prospects of Democracy...and the Only Long-Term Guarantee of Success for Any Democracy

By the way, the imprisonment of democratic activists in places like Egypt, as well as the almost gleeful response to the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi among many Muslims is indicative of a simple fact: The war on terror in which we in the West find ourselves engulfed is part of a larger civil war, sometimes violent, sometimes political, sometimes economic, within Islam.

There are those within Islam, represented by people like Osama bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, and others, who believe that democracy is opposed to Islam. Regimes like those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt appear to use such notions to maintain their hold on power. However, there have been successful democratic regimes in Muslim countries in the past.

I believe that democracy is the best form of human government, of course. But as a Christian, I believe that no democracy can long be sustained if the bottom line for all voters is, "What's in it for me?" Like John Adams, I believe that in the end the long-term success of democracy is rooted in a surrender to the God made known in Jesus Christ, Who loves sinners as they are and reconstructs their lives and consciences from the inside out.

How You Can Help Imprisoned Egyptian Blogger

Egyptian blogger Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam has been in a prison in his home country, along with 46 others, since early May. Their crime? Demonstrating on behalf of a free and independent judiciary in his country.
Glenn Reynolds links to Alaa's latest blogging post from prison, a disturbing reflection on what might happen to him and his fellow democracy activists should Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak die. (Mubarak, you'll recall has been Egypt's president since the assassination of Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981.) Writes Alaa:
We've been playing with this question for a while now, mostly as a joke, but sometimes an irrational fear grips me.

He is old and senile enough, and i'm sure millions are actively praying for his sudden death.

Normally I'd be happy, his death is no solution for Egypt but it's bound to shake things up and spark an interesting sequences of events.

But now that I'm in jail it's a scary thought. It would take no less than 3 months for the dust to settle and who knows what will be the result of this power struggle. Most likely no one but immediate family will remember us until it is over.

In my mind most people will continue living their lives normally. The huge bureaucracy will chug along just fine, but all security organs will be paralyzed.

In my mind no officer will wake up the next day and head for his post. Which means prison will be abandoned.

The problem is, our cells are locked from outside...
This is precisely the sort of speculation you might expect from a man who has been locked up in an oppressive regime's prison. The fear must be palpable and my heart goes out to him!

For more background on Alaa's cause and plight, go to these links, where you'll find more information: here, here, here, and here.

In one of the links, you'll find information on how to contact the Egyptian embassy in Washington, asking for the release of Alaa and all others arrested in the early-May peaceful demonstration for democracy.

In years gone by, I have been active in letter-writing and prayer campaigns on behalf of the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa as well as the freeing of Namibia by South Africa. Believe me, your emails and letters will contribute to the freeing of these prisoners and to the eventual establishment of democracy in Egypt.

But nothing you can do will contribute more to those two ends than humbly and submissively asking God to intervene in the Name of Jesus Christ. So, even before you write your emails, right now, at the keyboard, offer up a prayer. (See here and here.)

So, please:
  • Write to the Egyptian embassy
  • Pray for the freedom of Alaa and the peaceful demonstrators for democracy in Egypt...and for that democracy to come into being
It can happen! It will happen!

How Faith Triumphs Over Fear

[Message shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, for Holy Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2006.]

Romans 8:12-17
Fear, it seems, is a common element of life these days. And to be honest, there’s a lot to be afraid of: Terrorism; the war that continues to go on in Iraq; the increasing costs of health care that threaten family savings; a culture that seems to have lost its way when it comes to moral values and common sense.

It often seems that today, people are ruled by their fears. Recent polls show that most American’s don’t believe that their children will have better lives than they do. That’s never been evident in American history. We Americans have always believed in a better future. But fear seems to have taken hold of us.

This is sad because fear is such a destructive thing. It’s even possible to be frightened to death. Back on January 17, 1994, the famous Northridge/Los Angeles earthquake hit. More than one-hundred people literally died of fright that day, according to a cardiologist, Robert Kloner, of the Good Samaritan Hospital in L.A. According to his research, “excessive fear can cause sudden cardiac death. In many cases the terrorized brain triggers the release of a mix of chemicals so potent it causes the heart to contract so fiercely it never relaxes again.”

Most of our fears are irrational, of course. But some may be founded in fact. My colleague Jim Dinkel used to tell his father, also a pastor who at the time was facing many harsh critics in his congregation: “Just because everybody’s after you, Dad, doesn’t mean you’re paranoid. Sometimes people really are after you!”

But to yield to fear, to allow it to control our lives, is more than psychologically and physically destructive. Fear is the opposite of faith. In today’s Bible lesson, taken from what I consider to be the greatest chapter in one of the greatest books in the Bible, the apostle Paul writes about the very human tendency to fall into fear even after we’ve come to faith in the God we know through Jesus Christ. He writes:

“So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ...”

Now, when Paul speaks here about “flesh,” he’s talking about the world’s ways of doing things. It describes all that we do in order to build up our self-esteem, gain acceptance from others, and even, to placate God. We can be enslaved to the fear that that system breeds, Paul warns us.

I heard a radio report about the World Cup yesterday. The reporter said that beyond the competition on the field, this is a big-stakes game between two major world powers: Adidas, the traditional soccer sponsor, and Nike, the up-and-comer in the futbol world. Each company is spending about $1.5-billion on World Soccer Cup-related sponsorships. And how will they try to make good on their investments? Through commercials that make billions of young people the world over afraid that if they’re not wearing three stripes or a swoosh, they won’t be cool. If they pick the wrong brand of tennies, they’ll be second-class citizens on their high school campuses.

Adults are prone to such fears, too. I’ll never forget the true story of the guy who lived here in the West Clermont School District. He was at an orientation meeting for parents of second grade boys about to embark on their peewee football careers. There was a Q-and-A period and this guy asked, “What percentage of the children who go through this program end up in the NFL?” There was no pressure on that guy’s kid, was there? All because his father feared that if his peewee didn’t eventually make it the NFL, his poor little life would be a bust!

The world’s fear system also drives a lot of people when it comes to religion. Their faith isn’t a joyous response to God’s goodness and love, an appropriate use of the gifts God has given them to love God and love neighbor. Instead, they see God as a cosmic commander who must be placated by the doing of certain grim duties: making it to worship often enough, apologizing when they’re wrong, obeying the law. God certainly loves it when we regularly worship, take responsibility for our wrongs, and act as good citizens. But these things don’t constitute faith.

So, two simple definitions:

Fear is something that we do, something we do to ourselves. And it’s ultimately destructive

Faith is a gift from God, something God gives to those who open their hearts, minds, and wills to Him. And it gives life.

Fear is a roiling emotion that causes us to act defensively or in panic.

Faith is the calm assurance that we are accepted by God as we are.

Faith is the certainty that God accepts and transforms sinners into His friends.

Faith is the belief that no matter what, God is bigger than our problems, bigger even than death, and that when we belong to God, all ultimately will be well.

Faith is the God-given certainty that the Lord we know in Jesus Christ, Who has conquered sin and death, will stand by our sides in all circumstances, granting us peace today and life forever with God tomorrow!

I know all about fear. It still haunts me at times. But I have learned that faith in God overcomes fear.

Many of you know that I long suffered from stage fright, for example, something that could be deadly for a pastor. And I’ve known other fears in my life: In years past, I’ve often been afraid that Friendship wouldn’t make it. I was afraid of being a lousy father. I felt fear when my kids first learned how to drive and they hit the streets by themselves for the first times. Back when I was a teenager, I remember waking up in the middle of the night many times, terrified that I would never find a wife with whom to share my life.

But I have also learned how faith can displace fear. It’s a simple formula actually based on today’s Bible lesson: I cry out to the Father, in the Name of the Son, and receive the power of the Holy Spirit.

Repeat those three fear-destroying truths after me now:
  • I cry out to the Father
  • in the Name of the Son
  • and receive the power of the Spirit.
Every time we trustingly interact with God in this way we come in contact with one of the great mysteries of God: the Trinity, the reality that God has been revealed to the world as one God in three Persons. A few moments ago, I told the kids who had come forward for the Children's Message that I would explain the Trinity more fully to them once they got to Catechism class (in the sixth through eighth grades). But the fact is, I've never been able to explain the Trinity very well. Mostly because I don't fully understand it.

I remember when I was a boy of about eight, I asked my pastor, Reverend Blackburn to explain the Trinity. He said something like, "Well, you know, Mark, if you look at an egg, it has three parts--the shell, the yoke, and the white. And yet all three parts are one egg."

I sort of grunted in acknowledgement, but he could tell that his answer hadn't really helped me to get it. So, he tried again. "Think," he told me, "of water. Water can come in three forms: liquid, ice, and steam. But it's still water. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But they're all of the one God. Does that help?" It did...sort of.

Years later, I'm thirty and I'm about to be ordained and Reverend Blackburn is one of the clergy there to participate in the service. Just before it started, I turned to him and said that back when I was eight, I'd asked him about the Trnity. What, I wondered, would he say to explain it to me today? "Well, you know, Mark," he began, "if you look at an egg..."

I don't fully understand God. I suppose that if I did, I would be God...and I know that I'm most definitely not! Instead, my call and your call is trust this God, to have faith in this God, Who has been made known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In fact, when you cut to the chase, you learn that faith is trust in God. It’s not something that you and I can manufacture or generate. We can generate fear. We can very easily find reasons to be afraid. But faith is something we can only receive and it only comes from the Father, in the Name of the Son, Who sends the Holy Spirit to us.

When that happens, we have the capacity to cope and hope and live and know that God is with us always!

Fear is the belief that we must face life and eternity alone; faith is the certainty that in Jesus Christ, we have been adopted as God’s children forever.

I remember one of the key moments of my life when the truth about faith in God began to sink deep into my soul. I was a young pastor, visiting a retired farmer and his wife in my first parish. “Pastor,” the farmer told me, “you could hardly be a farmer if you didn’t have faith. You have to trust that God will send the right amount of rain every year. You have to trust that He’ll send the right amount of sunshine. And you have to trust that, in those years, when the sun and the rain don’t come in the right proportions, God will take care of you until next year. And even after all the years of good and bad crops here, He promises to meet you in eternity.” That man taught me that when you’re in the hands of an eternal God, there is always another good tomorrow!

Paul says in our lesson today that, “When we cry, “Abba! [a word that means daddy] Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

We need never live in fear! The God we meet in the risen and ascended Jesus Christ is just a prayer away. We have the assurance that as we
  • Cry out to the Father
  • In the Name of the Son
  • and receive the power of the Spirit
that the God Who so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will live with God forever, will also fill us with a faith that stands all the tests of this world and will carry us into eternity!

[The motif of fear v. faith is well modeled in a wonderful message on this text by Pastor Mike Foss of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Burnsville, Minnesota.]