Saturday, June 24, 2006

"Jesus is Not a Republican"

First of all: Amen to that! I've said that before. Jesus is also not a Democrat.

In an article in the Chronicle of Education, evangelical Christian and scholar Randall Balmer excoriates the the ties between the Religious Right and the Republican Party. These ties, he suggests, have deadened the sensibilities to right and wrong, to Jesus' call to a countercultural concern for the poor, and to a consistent pro-life ethic, among that portion of the evangelical community that has joined this political marriage.

Worse, Balmer seems to say, it has sidetracked big chunks of Christ's Church from its central mission: Sharing the Good News of Christ and helping people to grow in their relationship with Christ.

While not agreeing with every single thing Balmer says in his essay, I do think that, by and large, the Religious Right's engagement in politics has tarnished the image of Christ and the Church and risked subordinating the Gospel to earthly political philosophies. Religious liberals have been guilty of the same things in the past, in my estimation.

Among the most important statements Balmer, a church historian who teaches at Barnard College, makes, are these:
Religion functions best outside the political order, and often as a challenge to the political order. When it identifies too closely with the state, it becomes complacent and ossified, and efforts to coerce piety or to proscribe certain behavior in the interests of moral conformity are unavailing...

...By the late 1970s, the leaders of the religious right felt their hegemony over American society slipping away. One reading of the religious right is that many evangelicals believed that their faith could no longer compete in the new, expanded religious marketplace. No wonder the religious right wants to renege on the First Amendment. No wonder the religious right seeks to encode its version of morality into civil and criminal law. No wonder the religious right wants to emblazon its religious creeds and symbols on public property. Faced now with a newly expanded religious marketplace, it wants to change the rules of engagement so that evangelicals can enjoy a competitive advantage. Rather than gear up for new competition...the religious right seeks to use the machinations of government and public policy to impose its vision of a theocratic order.

But pluralism is a good thing. It keeps religious groups from resting on their laurels — or their endowments, in the case of mainline Protestantism — and makes them competitive in the marketplace of ideas...

...America has been kind to religion, but not because the government has imposed religious faith or practice on its citizens. Quite the opposite. Religion has flourished because religious belief and expression have been voluntary, not compulsory. We are a religious people precisely because we have recognized the rights of our citizens to be religious in a different way from us, or even not to be religious at all. We are simultaneously a people of faith and citizens of a pluralistic society, one in which Americans believe that it is inappropriate, even oppressive, to impose the religious views of a minority — or even of a majority — on all of society. That is the genius of America, and it is also the reason that religion thrives here as nowhere else.

As I argued in my testimony as an expert witness in the Alabama Ten Commandments case, religion has prospered in this country precisely because the government has stayed out of the religion business. The tireless efforts on the part of the religious right to eviscerate the First Amendment in the interests of imposing its own theocratic vision ultimately demeans the faith even as it undermines the foundations of a democratic order that thrives on pluralism.

Jesus himself recognized that his followers held a dual citizenship. "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's," he said, "and to God what is God's." Negotiating that dual status can be fraught, but it is incumbent upon responsible citizens of this earthly realm to abide by certain standards of behavior deemed essential for the functioning of the social order. Much as I would like all of my fellow Americans to be Christians or vegetarians or Democrats, I have no right to demand it. The leaders of the religious right have failed to observe even the most basic etiquette of democracy.

Is there a better way? Yes, I think so. It begins with an acknowledgement that religion in America has always functioned best from the margins, outside of the circles of power, and that any grasping for religious hegemony ultimately trivializes and diminishes the faith...
My own Lutheran tradition provides tragic examples of what's wrong when the Church becomes tied to political power. During the Nazi era, the Lutheran Church there effectually functioned as an apologist for what Adolf Hitler did.

Today, there are no Nazi terror regimes in Germany. But the state churches--Lutheran churches--there and throughout Scandinavia are, to a frightening extent, theologically bankrupt and largely empty on Sunday mornings. Numbers don't equate to faithfulness, of course. But a Church that's in bed with the government and with political power gets confused about Who its Lord is.

As a person long interested in government, history, and politics, I know how intoxicating and alluring political contests and political victories can be. I even ran for the state House of Representatives here in Ohio two years ago. But I was careful to say that I wasn't running as a "Christian candidate" and my central issue was trying to fix the scandalous public school funding formula in this state, helping public schools hardly being the sort of thing the Religious Right embraces. (FYI: I'm a Republican.) In retrospect, though, running may have been a mistake on my part.

But no matter how many elections you win, no matter how many pieces of legislation you see passed, and no matter how many judges you get appointed to the Court, the coercive power of government will not change people's hearts, minds, and wills. Those things cannot bring them to faith in Jesus Christ, change their eternal destinies, or alter their attitudes about life, God, or neighbor.

So you get a ruling that allows the display of the Ten Commandments on the Court House lawn. But Christians know, first of all, that the law doesn't save a person from sin and death. So, is that a battle worth waging? I don't think so.

So you get Roe v. Wade overturned. As much as I would like that to happen, unless people's ways of looking at life undergo transformation, hundreds of thousands of abortions are still likely to happen. In his essay, Balmer says, "I have no interest in making abortion illegal; I would like to make it unthinkable."

The Church is to call people to faith in Jesus Christ, not micromanage public policy or get involved in the Punch-and-Judy show that passes for political debate.

There will be times when the Church will feel compelled by Christ to speak out on public issues. Such statements should be rare and as has generally been true in Church history, usually not on the sides of those who possess the power.

If you've ever read C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, you know that it tells the story of the losing war fought by the last king of Narnia and two earthly compatriots to save the fictional realm of Narnia from the darkness of evil. In the end, though, the world which the Christ-figure of those books, Aslan, had created and blessed for many thousands of years, ended.

Lewis wrote this, in part, as a way of conveying a truth about our world. This God-created and God-blessed planet will some day end. That end will prove that all our victories, political or otherwise, may have some short-term importance, lasting perhaps five or six centuries if we're lucky, but they will have little ultimate importance.

Politics is important. Every individual Christian should see it as their responsibility to be an informed and active citizen. But what politics does is seldom of ultimate importance.

The Church is to be about ultimate things: The eternal destinies of those who need Jesus Christ. (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8)

I would rather ensure that one person is not made to face a Christ-less eternity by my failure to be about the business of the Church than to pass a law or get a court judgment that forces a county to erect or maintain a monument to the Ten Commandments that most people--Christians and non-Christians--will pass by and ignore.

Our priorities can get screwed up...mine included. Just a few moments ago, as I was writing this very post, there was a knock at my door. A husband, wife, and their little girl dressed in what we used to call "their Sunday best," were here from the local Jehovah's Witness outpost. They wanted to invite me to some convention in Dayton. I told them that I was a Lutheran pastor, not as a way of beginning to tell them about how much Jesus Christ loved them and wanted a relationship with them, but just to get rid of them. God forgive me! God have mercy on me!

We Christians too easily get sidetracked. For the sake of people like that family, living in the darkness of the Jehovah's Witness movement and millions of other people who need the Good News of Jesus Christ, we need to ask God to help us to get back on track again!

Heaven, I'm sure, is just waiting for us to utter that prayer...and to tell the world about Jesus!

[You might also be interested in my critique of President Bush's January 20, 2005 Inaugural Address here. In it, I analyze whether it could be characterized as a "Christian" statement, as many said it was.]

[UPDATE: In the comments, I respond to one reader who, I fear has misunderstood my intent in this piece:
Balmer is critical of GOP policies and gives a litany of his concerns.
I meant my comments not to be a commentary on the Republicans, but on the Religious Right.

Pols will generally do anything they can to build their coalitions. If the Democrats could win over big-name evangelical Christian leaders and paint themselves as the party of the Christian faith, they would do it without hesitation. The idea for these folks, of either party, is to get votes and have power. Period.

My point is that it's wrong to allow the Name of Jesus Christ be used to legitimize any earthly political philosophy, even ones with which we may be sympathetic. It also sidetracks the Church from its fundamental mission.]

Friday, June 23, 2006

This Cracked Me Up

I love most modern art. But I can see how someone exposed to dadaism, for example, could have made this embarrassing mistake.

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 21

In a recent post, I talked about how I once considered myself to be an atheist. I then explained the argument I made against God's existence back in those days:
Science shows us how life came into being and approximately when. Therefore, there is no God.
One doesn't have to be a logician--or a rocket scientist, for that matter--to see that my conclusion didn't follow from my premises. The questions science seeks to answer and often does answer are what I call mechanical questions:
  • What...does the universe look and act like?
  • How...does the universe work?
  • When...might it have come into being?
Those are important questions. But answering them, even if science one day answers them exhaustively and to everyone's satisfaction, won't answer two other questions:
  • Who...made this universe?
  • Why...does the universe exist and why are we part of it?
After I was exposed to people whose lives were clearly marked by the faith they had in the God they saw in Jesus Christ, I came to believe that my position as an atheist was based on far more nebulous grounds than their Christianity was.

They could point to a God Who had, over the course of many years revealed Himself to a people--the Jews--and nurtured them to become what Martin Luther called the crib for the Baby Jesus. He, in turn, by His life, death, and resurrection revealed Himself to be God. The Christians I became acquainted with could point to a real God working in the real lives of real people. (See here and here.)

I, on the other hand, could only assert, "All this universe, with all its incredible intricacy just happened." When I saw God working in the lives of the people of what became my church home, the late-Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Columbus, Ohio, my notions of the world being the result of some happy accident emanating from the cosmic ooze became entirely too implausible.

I realized that I couldn't explain where the cosmic ooze came from. It simply stood to reason, as the scientist who led the human genome research team who was cited in that earlier post concluded, that there was a Something or a Someone behind this world of wonders. As I put it in one of my songs:
Every cake must have a baker
Ev'rything made must have a maker
But who is the Maker? The first article of the Apostles' Creed, a confession of faith to which billions of people have subscribed, says that it's the God of the Bible. More specifically, it asserts that it was the First Person of the Triune God, although the other Persons, the Son and the Holy Spirit were involved: God the Father. But was all of this just made up?

No, in fact, I think this God has revealed Himself to us. More on that in the next post in this series.

[Note: By the way, not only did Canadian rocker Bruce Cockburn use the phrase, world of wonders, as the title of a great song, the late Canadian writer, Robertson Davies, wrote a novel of that name. Two other things the two have in common: they're extraordinary artists and both confessing Christians.]

A Chance to Help with Mississippi Gulf Coast Rebuilding

Over the weekend, my wife, daughter, and I went to Columbus to help celebrate Father's Day with my dad. While there, one of my brothers-in-law and I picked up his son, my nephew, who was returning from a mission trip to Mississippi. There, he and a number of young people from far-flung churches helped rehab homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

He reported that most of the homes in the neighborhood in which they worked were not yet habitable. When his father asked him what he learned, his answer was simple and meaningful: "That I've got more than I need. And I complain too much." Pretty good for a teenager, huh? (Pretty good for a person of any age.)

This reminded me of how much is yet to be done to help those whose lives were disrupted by last year's hurricane season. Then, I saw this from Dan at A Slower Pace. He's headed down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to help with rebuilding, too. There, he links to the church and agencies with which he'll be volunteering. He's looking for prayers and sponsors. Contributions will go through his church. So, what you give is tax-deductible.

If you're like my nephew and know that you have more than you need, pray and consider sponsoring those who are sharing Christ's love very practically with hammers, saws, and paint brushes. If it isn't to sponsor Dan, then look for other opportunities to help.

Whatever you feel moved to do would be great!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Mark Roberts Writes More on This Week's PCUSA Decisions

Go here.

Medical Bills Totally Paid By Christian Strangers?

Check out this report from CBS. Here's the web site of one of the Christian organizations behind this development. Intriguing. If this works and is all on the up-and-up, it's very cool.

Ask the Average American What They Think About the World Cup Elimination...

...and they're likely to respond, "What's the World Cup?"

Feingold's Presidential Prospects in Light of His Two Divorces

Ann Althouse cites the generally uninteresting and uninformative answers given by Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold in a GQ interview. Althouse compares his responses to those of a kid when asked, "How was school today?"

Near the end of her post, she cites the exchange between the interviewer and Feingold on the impact his two divorces might have on his 2008 presidential prospects. The interview is in bold, Althouse's comments not:
[GQ:] Let’s talk about this twice-divorced thing.

[RF:] Sure.

[GQ:] How much of a political liability do you think it will be?

[RF:] I have no idea. If it is, so be it. That’s up to the people to decide.

What can he say? It is what it is. Which is, obviously a big political liability.

[GQ:] What’s it like to be a single senator?

[RF:] It’s new to me. You sort of end up working a whole lot. There’s a tendency to let the time get ?lled up. So I’ve been very careful—

[GQ:] So you’ve become less social?

[RF:] No, probably more social, in the sense that because you don’t have a spouse—see, when you’re married, you really feel an obligation to spend all that available time with your spouse if you can. I’m able to spend more time with more people now. I’m reconnecting with a lot of people and old friends.

[GQ:] Dating?

[RF:] Um, that’s, uh, classi?ed?

[GQ:] Are there women throwing themselves at you?

[RF:] I certainly wouldn’t say that. [smiles] I’m not gonna say that.

[GQ:] You know, there’ve been some legendary single senators.

[RF:] Yeah, I know. I’m not aspiring to be in that hall of fame.

You're not going to get anything good out of him on questions like that, but his initial response was telling. He just plunges himself into work. Or is that what he's always done -- which could explain two divorces. Note how he reacted to the question "So you’ve become less social?" I think that was purely political. His answer to the previous question may have been quite honest. That "less social" question, though, set off an alarm and he rushed to protect himself. No way does he want to be perceived as a reclusive loner. Obviously, he's got to put a lot of thought into how to present himself with questions like this if he's going to run for President.
My thoughts:
It's difficult to know what impact divorce has on people's presidential prospects these days.

Nelson Rockefeller's very public divorce and rapid remarriage seemed to decimate his chances of nomination by the Republicans in 1964.

Yet, four years later, the divorced Ronald Reagan was a viable contender for the nomination. But by that time, he and wife Nancy had been married for some time. The circumstances of his divorce and remarriage [awhile] later were very different from those surrounding Rockefeller.

My guess is that divorce is only a liability to a candidate if it appears she or he has taken a cavalier attitude about [marriage] and learned nothing or matured little in the intervening time. (How one explains Bill Clinton's ability to pass muster with voters on this score is a little beyond me. But then, if you look up Clinton in the dictionary, the definition is "anomaly." And, of course, in spite of their problems, the Clintons have stuck with each other through thick, thin, and thin.)

Feingold is in much the same position as Newt Gingrich, both multiply divorced. (And of course, in Gingrich's case, there have been allegations that he was particularly cavalier about both the marriages and the divorces.)

The bottom line, I suppose is that voters are interested in candidates' personal lives to the extent that they display patterns of thinking and behaving that give clues about maturity, judgment, and trustworthiness.

As increasing numbers of Americans themselves experience divorce, there will be increasing acceptance of candidates who have been divorced. Beside Reagan, several recent major party nominees have been divorced and remarried; Bob Dole and John Kerry both fit in this category.

I think it's good that Americans appear to have eschewed the legalism that once prevented a divorced person from being seriously considered for the presidency.

But if a multiply divorced person's past gives indications of untrustworthiness, immaturity, or poor judgment, voters may decide against that person as presidential material.
Of course, none of this says anything about Feingold's prospects based on political issues, apart from personal questions.

[Thanks to Article6Blog for linking to this post.]

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Roberts Begins Discussion of PCUSA Vote on Ordination of Practicing Homosexuals

While America's Episcopalians were deciding not to change their stance on elevating practicing homosexuals to the position of bishop, delegates at the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA), were voting effectually to allow gays not intending to practice chastity to be ordained.

But, says PCUSA pastor, Bible scholar (Harvard-trained), and blogger, Mark Roberts, his denominational body acted in a schizophrenic body on the day of the vote. In another vote, by a lopsided majority, the PCUSA convention also reaffirmed its Book of Order, which specifically prohibits the ordination of clergy who intend to engage in unchaste behavior.

Writes Roberts:
The combination of these votes looks almost schizophrenic to anyone not familiar with the peculiar dysfunctionality of the PCUSA. On the one hand, the General Assembly voted by a strong majority (405-92) to leave the so-called "fidelity and chastity" section of our constitution intact. In plain language, the Book of Order of the PCUSA states that all ordained officers in the church must practice "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness" (G-6.0106b). This is a standard that, until today, every leadership body in the church was expected to apply without exception to every leader and potential leader. Period. This is what the General Assembly reaffirmed with a resoundingly favorable vote.

Then there's the other vote. The same General Assembly voted by a 298-221 margin to accept a portion of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Report (PUP Report) that allows governing bodies certain leeway in how they apply the standards of the Constitution. To put it in a nutshell, the rules state clearly that persons who engage in sex outside of marriage may not be ordained. But, according to today's action of the General Assembly, leadership bodies are now free to decide whether they must follow the rules or not. So, on the same day we Presbyterians reaffirmed the rules with a strong positive vote, and then voted to allow people not to follow the rules. See what I mean? It's almost schizophrenic.
Near the end of his post, Roberts asks:
So, in light of the General Assembly vote to accept the PUP Report, is it time for biblically-committed Christians to leave the PCUSA?...
For anyone who cherishes her or his theological tradition, such questions are frightening to consider. That someone like Roberts, able and charitable, even raises the possibility of leaving his denominational home demonstrates the seriousness of the crisis now confronting that part of the Body of Christ known as the Presbyterian Church, USA. Read the whole thing, the first part of a new series. (My guess though, is that Roberts is committed to staying and standing firm, speaking the truth in love.)

(By the way, the stance of my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is that if persons who identify themselves as being gay or lesbian commit to living chastely, they may be ordained. Orientation to what the Church still regards as sinful behavior is a wrong basis on which to disqualify one for ordained ministry. After all, all people are oriented to at least one thing the Scriptures identify as displeasing to God. But if a person intends not to abide by this discipline of the Church, they may not be ordained. Ordination is not a right, but a privilege, conferred by God, mediated through the Church.)

[Thanks to John Schroeder of Blogotional and Rick Moore of Holy Coast for linking to this piece.]

What I'm Reading Right Now

Usually, I'm reading four books at any given time. I enjoy doing that because, for one reason, it keeps my mind fresh and for another, the interplay of ideas from different books from different disciplines incites the creative juices while fostering a sensitivity to connections I might not otherwise see. But it's been awhile since I talked about what books I was reading. So, here's my current list ...
  • I'm slowly making my way through James C. Davis' The Human Story: Our History from the Stone Age to Today. Davis taught history for thirty-four years at the University of Pennsylvania. His focus during those years was on European history, especially on the city of Venice and the lives of ordinary Europeans. But it's clear that Davis also spent some time teaching survey courses, covering the gamut of human history.
This excellent book--accessible, informative, fast-paced--is the result. I've already cited several things from Davis here and here. When I bought The Human Story, I expected little. But my low expectations were unwarranted. It's fantastic!
  • H.W. Brands' Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times is the book I'm currently reading aloud to my wife on our driving trips. (She's the one behind the wheel, by the way.) I have to confess that I'm not an Andrew Jackson fan. But, true to the promise of the subtitle, Brands paints an interesting and vivid picture of both Jackson and the early American frontier from which he sprang. The United States was a blank vista that white men of ambition were able to conquer and nobody was a more assiduous conqueror--military or political--than Andrew Jackson. I still don't like him, but Brands is a fine writer who informs his reader as he entertains.
  • Most weeks, I spend a few hours studying in the library of a local Roman Catholic seminary. Their reference books help me to prepare my sermons and other writing. The library is on summer hours now, open only in the afternoons. Last week, I arrived a bit early and sauntered down to a room that houses books that have been donated to the seminary, but which the library can't use. There, I found a book I cited in my message last Sunday: Three Priorities for a Strong Local Church.
Written by the fine evangelical pastor, Roy Ortlund, the book delineates three deceptively simple priorities around which Christian congregations (and individual Christians) should build their lives: loving Christ; loving Christ's people in the Church; and loving the world. These three principles are rooted in Scripture and Ortlund does a good job of flushing out how churches, leaders, and individuals live out those priroties.

Joseph F. Girzone, forced more than twenty years ago to retire as an active priest for health reasons, has nonetheless become a best-selling author and speaker. Girzone is most famous for his novel, Joshua, later turned into a film starring F. Murray Abraham.
  • Right now, I'm reading his book called Trinity: A New Living Spirituality, which I cited in this post. I'm about halfway through Trinity and so far, what I admire most about it is that rather than trying to explain the Triune God as a theological doctrine, Girzone sets out to help the reader experience the ways in which God has revealed Himself as one God in three Persons. (He also demonstrates, as my seminary professor Ron Hals did in his book, Grace and Faith in the Old Testament, the consistency between the God revealed in Old Testament times and Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, as seen in the first century.) It's a book brimming with warmth.
  • Mark Dahle is a Lutheran pastor in southern California, who I met last year. (And wrote about here.) Dahle has a new book out about healing, called simply, How to Pray for Healing (and what to do when nothing happens). Actually, I'm now in the process of re-reading the book, attempting to digest it fully.
Rooted in a ministry of healing he's been conducting at his congregation in La Jolla, Dahle offers practical tips on how to pray for healing, some of them a bit different from what one might expect. But his entire approach appears to be Biblically-based, as one would expect of a Lutheran who confesses the Bible to be the authoritative source and norm of his life, faith, and practice.

Dahle has self-published the book, which can be purchased by check for $10.00, the check payable to "How to Pray for Healing." The address: PO Box 8309, La Jolla, CA 92308.

I'm still trying to figure out what I think of Mark Dahle's book. If you read it, let me know your reaction.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Egyptian Blogger to Be Released Tomorrow

Imprisoned for participating in a peaceful demonstration for an independent judiciary in Egypt, blogger Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam will reportedly be released tomorrow. This comes from his wife, who has been contacted by authorities. Prayers and correspondence with the Egyptian authorities have apparently had their desired effect! It's nice to get good news from the Middle East.

(For background info, see here.)

This Blog Title Leaves No Doubt About the Writer's Position

The name cracks me up.

Pray for the Families of Menchaca and Tucker

One can only imagine the agony being experienced by the families of the two young US soldiers, kidnapped, then apparently tortured and killed by some group in Iraq. Any parent will readily imagine the depths of their sorrow in the wake of these brutal murders. A group linked to Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility.

Please pray that God will comfort and encourage these two families and give them strength for all the days and years ahead,

Kid Brother Makes Debut in Film

A few months ago, my brother, comedian and speaker Marty Daniels, filmed his part in a movie, a mockumentary about stand-up comics. A veteran actor asked him, "How many films have you been in?" "Including this one?" Marty asked. "Yes." "This would be the first one."

I've just received a press release about the premier of the film, Open Mic'rs. Here's the release:

Press Release
Columbus’ very own MARTY DANIELS has landed a small speaking role in the upcoming film OPEN MIC'rs. MARTY DANIELS will be making his silver screen debut in this film already receiving great reviews on Tuesday, August 15, 2006 at Drexel Gateway Theater in Columbus OH. (1550 North High Street, Columbus OH 43201 614.545.2255) Comedian and Public Speaker MARTY DANIELS is available for interviews via phone, internet or in person in the Columbus OH area. Marty is excited about this opportunity and hopes to work with director GARY WOOD on future endeavors. Marty enjoyed having a part in this film as he loves satires such as “Spinal Tap” and “A Mighty Wind”.

“OPEN MIC’rs” is a “mockumentary” which features “Caddyshack’s” star Cindy Morgan portraying a jaded celebrity judge who helps the owner of a local comedy club select a new emcee from an eyebrow raising group of would be yucksters. Cindy will play a fictionalized version of herself. “It’s going to be a riot” she says, “It cracks me up when I hear what people think I’m all about, so playing a version of the stereotype should be very…uh, liberating.” CINDY is available for interviews via phone!

The husband and wife team – Mia Lee Bauman and Chris Bauman (of ComedySportz) take the stage. They couldn’t turn down the opportunity to make fun of his early career as an open mic comedian. Open Micr’s plays to their strengths as improv comedians as director Gary Wood gives them free reign to embellish the script.

MTV’s Landon Lueck is also in this film in the tradition of “Best in Show” and will be making a special appearance on Tuesday, August 15, 2006 at Drexel Gateway Theater. LANDON is available for interviews via phone!

The list of stars goes on and on…..Dave Dugan, John Joseph, Artie Widgery, Gavin Goode, Apollo Bacala, Joe Urban, Jim Peterson, George Starkey, “Tonight Show” veteran Hank McGill and many more take the stage in the competition. HANK MCGILL is available for interviews via phone!

The accomplished writer and director, GARY WOOD is available for interviews via phone or email. Mr. Wood’s first production SAVING STAR WARS has won several awards and we expect OPEN MIC’rs to be even more successful.

We look forward to your support with the independent film OPEN MIC’rs and with our local professional comedian MARTY DANIELS.

Visit: to learn more about the film.

Visit: to purchase tickets.

Visit: to reserve laughs for your next event.

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Second Corinthians 6:1-13

[Each week, to help both the congregation I serve as pastor and me to prepare for worship, I present at least one look at the Bible passage around worship will be built. Because we at Friendship Lutheran Church use the lectionary most of the time, the passages explored often correspond with those used in many other churches. So, I hope that these pieces help others get ready for worship, too.]

The Bible Passage: Second Corinthians 6:1-13
1As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

11We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. 12There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. 13In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

For some general comments on Second Corinthians, a letter written by the first-century preacher and evangelist, Paul, see my first pass at last weekend's lesson, also taken from that book. This explains the general context of this book and of this particular section of it.

General Comments:
1. Five verses, coming at the end of Second Corinthians 5, intervene between the end of last week's Bible lesson and the start of this week's. In those verses, Paul asserts that the new way Christians have of looking at life--no longer dazzled by possessing the visible things which die, focused instead on the unseen things that are eternal, is a gift from God. It amounts to freedom from death and freedom to live as God designed human beings to live.

We are, Paul goes on to assert, ambassadors of God's new creation to the old one. Our mission is to make the reconciliation between God and sinners God affords us through Jesus Christ known to everyone. It ends with this ringing assertion about what God has done through Jesus Christ:
For our sake He [God] made Him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. [Second Corinthians 5:21]
Jesus, Who was sinless, bore the punishment for sin which we deserve, death, so that we can have a right relationship with God and so live with Him forever. (See also Romans 6:23)

2. Following the principle of "context helps us understand content," the last five verses of chapter 5 set the table for our lesson. Paul says that as "we," he and his ministry team, which includes the young pastor, Timothy, don't accept God's charities--His grace--without allowing it to change the way you live.

3. From there, Paul quotes from Isaiah 49:8, to say that now, today, is the time when God's saving action in Christ has blessed us and now is the right time to respond to His grace through lives that reflect that grace and Christ's presence in our lives. Paul would have no patience for "someday, I'll" Christians, who resolve that "once things have settled down" or "once [you fill in the blank] happens," I'll devote myself to following Christ and expressing my faith in my living.

4. Bryan Findlayson summarizes, accurately I think, the theme of these verses:
Paul now calls on his readers to not only accept his ministry among them, but to accept the content of the ministry, namely, the gospel. "We urge you not to receive God's grace in vain", 6:1 - "Open wide your hearts", 6:13. So we have in our passage for study, an appeal for a genuine acceptance of gospel truth.
The greatest frustration for any pastor is not to be spurned by others, painful though that is. The greatest frustration comes in being personally accepted, even loved, by those they serve, yet seeing their congregation and community, through their lives and attitudes, spurn or ignore the new life in Christ for which the preacher is an ambassador.

This was the frustration faced by Paul. Writes Findlayson, quoting another source:
v1. The living God has acted toward lost humanity in Jesus Christ to give life so that we might live no longer to ourselves but live for God, 5:15. Paul and his team labor to this end. He now calls upon his readers to accept "God's grace" (God's free gift of the benefits of Christ's death and resurrection) operative through his ministry. He is calling upon them to accept "his gospel" and his ministry. Obviously the Corinthians made an initial response to the gospel, but "their practice did not measure up to their profession as Christians, their lives were so inconsistent as to constitute a denial of the logical implications of the gospel, namely that Christ died for them so that they may no longer live to themselves but to his glory", Hughes. [italics added]
5. Paul, no doubt still stinging from the dismissal he received from so-called "successful" preachers, then delivers eight verses in which, from various angles of vision, he authenticates his ministry. Again, based on Findlayson's excellent look at the passage, those angles are:
  • Externals (vv.3-5): Paul endured many of the difficulties encountered by Old Testament prophets who spoke God's truth, but whose lives were dogged by opposition and suffering.
  • Internals (v.6): Paul strove to live ethically, according to certain holy and internalized values, none of which the world may value that much.
  • As a preacher (v.7): Paul spoke truthfully, employing not his own power--he admits his own weakness, but God's power.
  • In the paradoxical life that befalls all who seek to be faithful (vv.8-10): Paul receives, as Findlayson, points out, both "acceptance and rejection." Jesus promises us eternity and His presence with us now; He doesn't promise us smooth sailing. Paul's experience of both elements of Christian living authenticates his faith, no matter what his critics may say.
6. Paul expresses complete compassion for those in the Corinthian church. He also expresses vulnerability, admitting his weaknesses and difficulties. Unlike those preachers who portray themselves as being flawless and together, Paul asks for prayer and admits of his sufferings. He can do this because his confidence isn't in himself, or in a technique; his confidence is in the God we meet in Jesus Christ.

There is great risk in Paul's authentic ministry. Some will recoil at a minister who admits to chinks in her or his armor. But since the only people Christ can save from sin, death, and purposeless living are those honest enough to admit their own flaws, needs, and weaknesses, such preachers and such Christians, generally, will attract others willing to make an honest leap into the hands of God. It's only in admitting our vulnerability and letting Christ be our Protector and Savior that we can unforced and unpretentious peace in our lives.

Through his honest admission of weakness and earnest dependence on Christ, Paul invites the Corinthian church to a similar openness to God's grace. Chris Haslam notes:
They [Paul and his team] have laid everything (their innermost thoughts) on the table to the Church (v.11). He loves without limits all at Corinth--even his opponents who do not love him. May his critics grow up ("children," v 13) and imitate his love.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 20

Every week in churches at worship around the world, one of three creeds--or statements based on them--are recited and confessed. A creed is a statement of belief, the word being rooted in the Latin term, credo, I believe.

The three statements are the Apostles' Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed was composed by a council (or conference) of the early Church to address issues of contention. But both the Athanasion and Apostles' Creeds are of more obscure origin.

Tradition long held that the Apostles' Creed was composed by the group of followers designated by the New Testament as apostles, Greek for sent ones. They were given special responsibility by Jesus to lead the early Church and rightly pass along the Good News about Him. (For the Good News, or the Gospel, in a nutshell, see John 3:16.)

It's highly unlikely that the Apostles' Creed was composed by the apostles themselves. But it is clear that every line of the Apostles' Creed reflects the faith taught in the New Testament and various forms of it go back to at least the second century. Martin Luther said of the Apostles' Creed, "Christian truth could not possibly be put into a shorter and clearer statement." And John Calvin noted, "We hold this to be beyond controversy that the whole history of our faith is concisely and in distinct order stated in it; on the other hand, it contains nothing which cannot be supported by sound testimonies of the Scriptures."

We began our look at basic Christianity by discussing the Ten Commandments, as Luther does in The Small Catechism. Following his pattern, in the next few installments, we're going to look at this succinct summary of Christian belief about God, the Apostles' Creed, paying special attention to the Scriptural basis for each statement in it.

One thing to note right away is that the Creed is composed of three parts, or articles. Each one deals with a Person of the one God, as the Bible reveals that there is one God in three Persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus the Christ), and the Holy Spirit.

For all its simplicity, then, the Apostles' Creed takes us to the very heart of the mystery of God, a mystery we can never fully understand, but can learn to appreciate. As Joseph F. Girzone notes in his book, Trinity: A New Living Spirituality:
The Trinity is not a theological definition. It is the very nature of God. It is the God we worship. God revealed himself to us through Jesus, not so he could be imprisoned in a theological concept to be memorized as a condition for baptism. He revealed himself to us because he loves us and wanted to share himself, his inner self with us, so we could come to know and love him as he is. [italics mine]
In the Apostles' Creed, we celebrate the mystery of God and His love, we confess God as He has revealed Himself to us, "God in three Persons, blessed Trinity."

[Links to the first 19--actually, 18--installments of this 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]

Post Looks at Impact of Internet on Journalism

The lead opinion pieces in today's Washington Post online edition look at the impact of the web, particularly of blogs, on mainstream journalism ten years after major mainstream publications began posting content on the web. In the lead piece by Jay Rosen, Associated Press head Tom Curley says that big media was at first unsure about how to see internet technology.
"When the Web was born as a commercial content enterprise back in the mid-'90s, we thought it was about replicating -- that is, 'repurposing' -- our news and information franchises online," Curley said. "The news, as 'lecture,' is giving way to the news as a 'conversation'."

The earlier idea of re-purposing content was not innovative, but it was rational and cost-effective. The Web is flexible. It can "kinda/sorta" replicate an older format, if that's the goal. It's useful as a cheap, fast mass delivery system. "Trusted brands," the thinking went, could establish trusted sites, and transfer their reputations to the new medium.

Newspaper, radio, television ... Web! It made sense at the time. But in the 10 years following the birth of, the Net and its publishing platform, the World Wide Web, have proved harder to master, scarier to get wrong and more thrilling to get right than expected. Wilder, and discontinuous with the past in a way those coming out of traditional journalism never could have imagined.

Simple example: The Net radically shifts principles of news distribution as all sites become equidistant from the reader.
While I think there's a lot of grandiose and self-congratulatory talk from the blogging world, asserting that bloggers are morally superior to mainstream journalists and that the world doesn't need mainstream media to get information about the world--both assertions being absurd, it is true that the "equidistance" of web platforms and the conversational quality of blogging change the ways that people receive, digest, and discuss information. It also makes many more people disseminators, packagers, and interpreters of information.

Rosen lists the varied impacts of the internet on news-distribution as including the following elements:
  • The "closed" system of gates and gatekeepers has been busted open.
  • A new balance of power between producers and consumers exists.
  • Sources have more power to sidestep journalists.
  • The Net exploded the universe in press criticism.
  • The Net has exposed "group think" in journalism.
  • Legacy media's overconfidence has been disrupted.
Rosen concludes his piece by saying, "To survive you have to be open. That's where disruption in the news business looks a lot like renewal." Read the whole thing, along with the other pieces on the topic in the Post's opinion section today.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Living By Faith, Not By Sight

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, during worship celebrations on June 17 and 18, 2006.]

Second Corinthians 5:1-17
A man I know has had a hard life. After he and his wife were given two children healthy in every way, they had a third child. There were problems from the beginning and it soon was determined that their son was both mentally and physically handicapped. Shortly thereafter, they learned that the man’s wife had a disease that would first, cause her great suffering and then, take her life.

These would be crushing blows for most people. Yet this entire family bore their challenges with faith and life-affirming cheerfulness. The man is a pastor. He’s also someone of deep humility, generous judgment, and simple kindness. When you speak with him, you notice how infrequently he uses the word, “I”; his focus seems to be on letting God love you through him.

Knowing all of this about him, you can understand how angry I was when I got wind of the ill-treatment to which he was subjected some so-called Christians and in some anonymous letters he received. “If you were a good Christian,” these people said, “these terrible things wouldn’t be happening to you.”

For some people in the Church, a person like this man is a threat. They’ve decided not to live in the Kingdom of God, but in a sort of spiritual la-la-land. He threatens their false view of life with God.

True Christians like I believe my friend to be, know that life in this world isn’t perfect. When we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, the bad things in life don’t go away. Jesus promises us many things--forgiveness of sin, everlasting life, an eternity of perfect peace and goodness beyond the grave, the tools to cope with tough situations and to make good choices, and the presence of the Holy Spirit through this life, among other things. But Jesus never promises that life before the grave, life here on earth, will be trouble-free. Nor does He promise what the world counts as success.

Scholars tell us that the New Testament book of Second Corinthians was sent by the first-century preacher Paul to the church in the Greek city of Corinth in order to correct people like those who penned those anonymous notes to my friend. In the decades since he had come to faith in Jesus Christ, Paul had traveled thousands of miles to tell others about Christ and to start new churches in different parts of the Mediterranean basin. He also endured all sorts of hardships: shipwrecks, beatings, lashings, imprisonment, evil gossip. In the eyes of the world--and maybe, of some in the church at Corinth, Paul wasn’t what you’d call a success. If Paul were living today, you can bet that if he announced his retirement as Bill Gates did this past week, it wouldn’t have been a Page One-story. In fact, it wouldn’t even make the paper.

But apparently, back in first-century Corinth, there were preachers who had all sorts of success--money, fame, entree with the movers and shakers in that important city. They condemned Paul because his life wasn’t filled with success, because he admitted his imperfections and weakness, because he experienced pains and diffculties.

It's a sad story that continues to this day: There are preachers--one of whose name I won’t mention, but whose initials are Joel Osteen--who forego references to unpleasant things like repentance for sin, death of the old sinful self, and the reality of hardships in this life, painting a triumphalistic picture of Christianity.

Such preachers, of course, can draw big crowds and fat wallets. They 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.

And it isn’t just preachers with imperfect lives whose faith gets maligned like this. A man watched his wife die from cancer. When that happened, he became an even more devoted follower of Christ than he had been before. A friend of his, a skeptic, asked, “How can you possibly believe in God after what’s happened to you?” The man explained that the perfect life doesn’t come until we’re in eternity with Christ. Then he said, “We’re not there yet.”

That man knew the truth of something Paul wrote in this book just before the section that makes up our Bible lesson for today: “...what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” He trusted that the risen Jesus Who came back from death could be counted on to keep all who believe in Him in His heart and line of vision now and in His kingdom in eternity!

In today’s lesson, Paul says that we live by faith, not by sight. The things that we can see all will die. We live instead by faith in the eternal God we can’t see.

This isn’t as irrational as some might think. We often trust in the reality of things we've never seen. Since I was a boy, I’ve wanted to visit Sagamore Hill, the Oyster Bay home of Theodore Roosevelt. This past Thursday, my wife, son, and I boarded a plane that took us to JFK Airport in New York City. Then, we rented a car and traveled across Long Island. We went down some winding roads. It wasn’t until we took a turn away from a blind curve and ascended a hill that we looked to our right and saw the very home I’d seen in pictures ever since I was a little boy! For almost 53 years of living and for 99% of our trip there, I hadn't seen Sagamore Hill. But I and my family believed it was there. Not until the very end of our trip was our belief rewarded by actually seeing and walking through the place.

No matter what happens to us in this life--no matter if the world dismisses us as failures, Paul says that our Spirit-given capacity to believe in the Savior we cannot see right now is God’s guarantee--God's earnest payment--that the heavenly home we long for is real and that if we stick with Him, we will one day see God and His eternal kingdom.

That’s what Paul is getting at in the ringing opening verses of our lesson: “For 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.”

The question before each of us, Paul says, isn’t if we’ve enjoyed success and ease in this life. The object of life isn’t to be comfortable. The object of our life is to be faithful to the One Who died and rose for us. “So whether we are at home [with God] or away [from God],” Paul writes, “we make it our aim to please him.”

Pastor Ray Ortlund says that the life that pleases God really boils down to three simple priorities:
  • Loving Christ
  • Loving Christ’s people in the church
  • Loving the world.
I know it’s like third grade and I did something like this last week, but repeat those three priorities with me now:
  • Loving Christ
  • Loving Christ’s people in the Church
  • Loving the world.
That’s not a formula for success, a roadmap for acquiring things we can see, things that are all going to die, rust out, or fade away.

But those three things--loving Christ, loving Christ’s people in the Church, and loving the world--do compose a formula for faithfulness. And the full beauty and value of faithfulness will only seen by those who follow Jesus when we reach eternity.

Until then, our call is to walk, with confidence and joy and hopefulness, not by sight, but by faith.