Saturday, July 22, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 25

We've been exploring what Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son tells us about God the Father.

Here's a third thing it tells us: The Father throws a party every time a sinner turns away from sin and comes back to Him to receive life.

This is a point Jesus drives home throughout Luke 15. The tale of the rebel son and his waiting father comes as part of a trio of stories told to the religious in-crowd of Jesus' day. They had asked, accusingly, why Jesus hung out with the ne'er-do-wells of society: extortionists and prostitutes and other unsavory characters. Jesus explained that these folks were lost, people who had wandered far from God, and He was in the business of going to them in order to bring them back to the God Who loved them and wanted to give them life. That was His job.

The first story in the trio is about a shepherd who has 100 sheep, loses one, and risks all just to get the one back. When he comes back, the once-lost sheep slung across his shoulders, he invites his friends to a celebration.

Next, Jesus talks about a woman who loses a single coin. She turns her house upside down to find it, checking between and beneath the sofa cushions where everything from popcorn to pocket combs always seem to go, until the coin is found. When she finds it, she too contacts the neighbors and invites them all over for a party.

In the story of the runaway son, the father kills the fatted calf--something saved for only the most special of occasions--and invites all the neighbors for a big blow-out.

"This is what happens," Jesus tells us, "whenever one of you turns away from sin and returns to God."

We've said that God our Father is nothing like the earthly fathers the people in Jesus' original audience would have experienced. We've also said that He's a Father Who cares little for His dignity when it comes to begging us to come back to Him. And He's a Father Who has a celebration when we, his lost and rebel kids, come back home to Him.

But we need to be careful that we don't take the Father for granted. He is still the King of the universe and not to be played for the chump!

Years ago, I remember a man telling me how he thought life worked. (Always beware of people who tell you how they think life works. They're almost always wrong. The only such statement you can trust comes from those who point to the Bible as the only reliable record of God's self-revelation and tell you, "This how God has revealed life works.") This guy told me: "I think all of us get to do whatever we want and then, on our deathbeds, we tell God we're sorry and He lets us into heaven."

This cynical approach reminds me of something George Bernard Shaw once said: "I love to sin. God loves to forgive. It's really an admirable system."

There are several things to be said about viewing God as some indulgent uncle.

First, the Father's desire to forgive sin, to be reconciled with us, doesn't make His a soft touch. We need to go back to Him. If the son hadn't turned back to the father, there would have been no forgiveness, no reconciliation, no party. This turning back is what the Bible calls repentance.

Second, we have no guarantees about the circumstances of our deaths. So, to bank on our being able to repent before drawing our last breaths is a the highest-risk gamble we can make.

Third, repentance of the kind this guy spoke to me about is, I think it's safe to say, less than authentic.

The gracious acceptance that God extends to the human race through Jesus Christ is free. But, as one great Christian thinker, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, put it, accepting the eternity of forgiveness and love God offers as a free gift will nonetheless cost us our lives. Repentance entails emptying our hands of all the little gods--including ourselves--on which we are prone to build our lives and to instead, rely on only one God, the God revealed as Father, Who sent the Son to call us back home.

Repentance is sort of like being thrown overboard while and holding onto an anchor that will surely drag us down until we let go of it and grab hold of the rope extended to us from the helicopter hovering over head. Repentance is more than grasping God's forgiveness then, it's also letting go of all that would otherwise kill us.

(The fellow who said he would put off repenting until he was on his deathbed also misunderstood what sin is. I'll address the nature of sin in a later installment of the series.)

In the next installment: What the older son in Jesus' story shows us about God the Father.

[Here is the link to the previous installment of the series.]

Friday, July 21, 2006

Ballew Reviews Criteria for Just War...

...and asks, "Is the Iraq war just, or Israel in Lebanon? Does our definition of a just war need to be re-defined in light of jihad and radical Islam?" Read the whole post, which also appears here.

By the way, a military chaplain I knew twenty-five years ago, who formerly worked at the Pentagon, and has an advanced degree on military strategy, wrote a provocative inquiry into whether the preemptive war in Iraq conformed to just war theory. It appeared in a military journal here. Agree with him or not, it's good for Christians to wrestle with such questions.

[Mark Congdon links to this post, quotes extensively from Franklin Wester's paper, and adds some interesting thoughts here. His particular focus is the relevance of the just war theory's principle of imminence as a reason for preemptive attack. It's interesting stuff.]

Al-Jarallah Fixes Blame for Current Conflict on Syria and Iran

Ahmed Al-Jarallah is editor-in-chief of The Arab Times. He pours contempt on the proxy war against Israel, the US, and in effect, the rest of the Arab world by Syria and Iran:
PEOPLE of Arab countries, especially the Lebanese and Palestinians, have been held hostage for a long time in the name of “resisting Israel.” Arab governments have been caught between political obligations and public opinion leading to more corruption in politics and economics. Forgetting the interests of their own countries the Hamas Movement and Hezbollah have gone to the extent of representing the interests of Iran and Syrian in their countries. These organizations have become the representatives of Syria and Iran without worrying about the consequences of their action.

Recently Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier and bombed Israeli settlements with locally manufactured missiles. Soon Hezbollah followed suit, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. Both these organizations claimed they had kidnapped Israeli soldiers to exchange them for Arab prisoners who are being held in Israeli jails. The fact that Hamas and Hezbollah gave the same reason for kidnapping Israeli soldiers gives us a glimpse their agenda, which is similar to the one followed by Syria and Iran in their conflict with the United States.

While the people of Palestine and Lebanon are paying the price of this bloody conflict, the main players, who caused this conflict, are living in peace and asking for more oil from Arab countries to support the facade of resisting Israel...
Read the whole thing. (HT: All Things Beautiful)

"The observatory itself is wonderfully tacky..."

Terry Teachout talks about a trip to the Empire State Building with a niece. It's a beautiful piece of on-the-fly blogging that includes this paragraph:
I hadn’t been to the Empire State Building for a number of years, and I’d all but forgotten how charming it is. It opened its doors in 1930, and the streamlined d├ęcor is as redolent of the Thirties as a Pullman sleeper or a Jimmy Cagney movie. The observatory itself is wonderfully tacky—the only thing missing is a dirty-water hot-dog cart—and the view is as spectacular as advertised. I talked Lauren’s ear off, pointing out every landmark I could think of: Central Park, Radio City Music Hall, Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, the UN, Macy’s, even the dear old Flatiron Building. I also showed her the hole in the skyline that was created by the destruction of the World Trade Center. It’s easy to miss, so much so that you wouldn’t know where the twin towers once stood if you didn’t know where to look. I overheard a father pointing out Ground Zero to his son, and remembered the night I brought Lauren’s parents to Windows on the World for a drink, long before the sunny morning when the face of New York was changed utterly by the hand of evil.
New York has been changed by 9/11. But I can report after two recent trips there, it's still very much New York. I love the people and the city!

1984 Redux

Annie Gottlieb, Ambivablog, recounts a CNN interview with a woman in Tyre who blames Israel and the US for starting the current conflict in Lebanon. She goes on to claim that Hezbollah prevented Israel and the US from destroying Lebanon.

Asks Gottlieb:
How do you make any headway against an a priori belief like that?
Read the whole thing.

If Christians Are Isolated from the World...

how can we share the good news Jesus sent us to share? Check out this challenging post by Justin Taylor. Then read these words from the risen Jesus, delivered just before He ascended into heaven.

Historic Israel and the Modern State Bearing That Name Are Not the Same

Eric Williams presents two distinct Biblical Christian arguments meant to show that. For my money, the second is the most convincing one.

The modern state of Israel has every right to exist. But that right is not rooted in the Old Testament covenant, in my estimation.

Ironically, one of the Scripture lessons appointed for use in churches around the world this weekend includes verses cited by Williams: Ephesians 2:11-22.

Proportionality, the Suffering of the Innocents in Lebanon, and Israel's Need to Destroy Hezbollah

[What I present here is a prayerful rumination and no program. More and more in my life, I find that I can pray about things much more effectively than I can offer solutions.

[I'm sure that people I respect of every opinion will find reason for taking offense at what I say here. So be it. I'm just asking God to reveal the truth to us all.]

Even if we don't agree with the poltical critque found in Robert Fisk's Independent column about the war being waged in Lebanon right now, he provides some sense of the agony being endured by the innocent Lebanese. Fisk, as you'll see if you read the whole thing, has been living in and reporting from Lebanon for thirty years.

I was particularly struck by a conversation he reported having with an Israeli woman:
I am back on the sea coast when my mobile phone rings. It is an Israeli woman calling me from the United States, the author of a fine novel about the Palestinians. "Robert, please take care," she says. "I am so, so sorry about what is being done to the Lebanese. It is unforgivable. I pray for the Lebanese people, and the Palestinians, and the Israelis." I thank her for her thoughtfulness and the graceful, generous way she condemned this slaughter.
Civilian casualties, of course, result in part from trying to wage war on stateless enemies that blend in with a country whose government is either too weak (Lebanon) or too unprincipled (the Taliban regime in Afghanistan) to disgorge or destroy them. Hezbollah must be dealt with as surely as Bin Laden and his henchmen must be dealt with.
But how many innocents must die in the meantime?

How might their suffering be minimized?

How might the international community support and encourage the innocent?

How might the infrastructure of a nation infested with thuggery and terrorism be protected so that the innocent can build their fragile nation?
No matter what our position on this current war--or on any war--the first question I posed must haunt us: How many innocents must die?

I know that it haunts me, even as I think that those who are raising the question of proportionality about the current conflict are mostly getting it wrong.

I accept this tenet of proportionality. No nation should seek war and when war starts, its response should be proportionate to the attack precipitating that response.

But determining proportionality must surely entail more than toting up how many were killed or how much damage was done in the initial attack, as some--including Fisk--suggest. Certainly proportionality must entail understanding the level of threat intimated by the attack. The initial attacks by Hezbollah on Israel indicated an exponential growth in the group's capacity and will to menace the innocents of another country, those living in Israel.

A humanitarian crisis that will haunt the world for a long time to come is unfolding in Lebanon right now. The world community will have to respond.

In an imperfect world in which we are often given imperfect choices, I don't see how Israel can avoid waging war on Hezbollah.

But I wonder--prayerfully and with admittedly limited knowledge--whether the innocents in Lebanon can not be spared more of the suffering which has been their lot for so long.

I'm praying that terrorists will be stopped. I'm praying that the innocents will not suffer any more. I'm praying that these two prayers, seemingly mutually exclusive at this moment, will both prove acceptable to God.

(HT: Rambling Hal)

Lebanese War Presents Twin Challenges to Bush Administration

In his Washington Post column today, David Ignatius well summarizes the twin challenges posed by the current war in Lebanon:
The challenge for the Bush administration as the Lebanon war explodes into its second week is just that -- to keep faith with Siniora and his Cedar Revolution, even as it stands by its close ally Israel. This isn't simply a question of appearances and public diplomacy. Unless Siniora's government can be strengthened, there is little hope for achieving the U.S. and Israeli goal of bringing Hezbollah's guerrillas under lasting control.
If you regularly read blogs from the Middle East as I do, you know that many pro-US Arab bloggers are furious with Hezbollah for initiating this conflict. (As well they should be.)

But their reactions range from agony for the Lebanese people and its fledgling renewed nationhood to fury with the Israelis for attacking the Lebanon, rather than Syria.

The complexity of those reactions conveys something of the complexity of the challenge before the Bush Administration right now, quite apart from the complicating factors of the global war on terrorism and the ongoing war in Iraq.

In an imperfect world where governments are necessary, innocent peoples and sovereign governments, like those in Israel, have the responsibility to defend their people from attack and terror.

And in that same imperfect world, innocent peoples and fragile democracies, like those in Lebanon, deserve the support and encouragement of the family of nations.

That's the tightrope between two imperatives which the Bush Administration is walking right now. I have little idea of how it best should do that. But I'm praying that it negotiates the rope in a way that supports both Israel and Lebanon in their critical times of need.

Read Ignatius' entire column.

The Need for Friendships

One reason I decided to name the congregation I serve as pastor Friendship Lutheran Church, was a conversation I had with a man shortly after I'd arrived to start the church. He was a personable guy, a deeply committed Christian, and someone who had served in churches in every place he'd lived. After I'd talked about how churches ought to be communities in which people discover relationships with Jesus Christ and with others, he turned to his wife and said, "You know, I really don't have any friends."

Recent news stories suggest that we all, on average, have fewer and fewer friends.

One reason for this sad state of things, Jan of The View from Her says, might be that we have so elevated the value of sexuality that friendship has become devalued. Jan writes of the recent rumors about talk show host Oprah Winfrey and her friend, Gayle King:
this sort of thing sends me from zero to infuriated in 2.5 seconds flat. We live in a culture that values and measures relationships only by their sexuality. In doing so, we've eliminated the many deep and nuanced meanings of the word "love"...

...we've lost all knowledge or awareness of the "high" concept of love, or the classic idea of Love, or of Beauty. David loved Jonathan so much it says they were one in spirit. I presume this might mean they were completely single-minded in their thoughts and feelings and and in total agreement about things they liked to do. Men especially suffer in today's culture, as it seems a close, loving friendship will always be suspect.
Read the whole insightful thing.

I once knew a doctoral student in Psychology who was doing his thesis on where people turned for help and counsel when they hit snags in their lives. His research showed that those who had a strong network of friends to whom they could turn experienced far greater and more rapid "healing," as self-reported, than those who relied solely on professional counselors. This isn't to say that counselors aren't doing useful, even essential work. They are. But strong friendships act as strong preventative medicine, often negating the need for consulting counseling pros.

A few days ago, I was chatting with someone about my twenty-two years experience as a pastor. The first six were spent in a tight-knit farming community in northwestern Ohio, the last sixteen in a suburban Cincinnati community. One observation I made immediately about my current setting in contrast with the former, was that back there, even people who would be ignored and marginalized here, had caring friends whose love, concern, and acceptance wore the jagged edges off of what could only be described as weirdness.

In tight-knit communities, people who are ignored in our suburban or urban environments, feel included and are thereby less likely to develop emotional or psychological problems. When they do develop such problems, they're more likely to enjoy the support of a strong network of family and friends.

Jesus' command that we love God and love neighbor is an invitation to forge strong relationships and to even, dare I say it, love our friends. And when two women (or two men) love each other, it doesn't necessarily mean that they're gay, in spite of our hypersexualized society's inaccurate and relationship-killing assumptions. It may only mean that they're friends...and therefore, healthy.

[Read what Pastor Jeff at Conblogeration has to say about this same story here. Thanks also to XWL, whose comment led me to Jeff's excellent insights.]

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Model 28500

My wife and I are planning on having our master bathroom remodeled soon and so, we planned a rather strange family outing. We invited my expert fixer-upper brother-in-law to accompany us for dinner at Chipotle, followed by a cruise through potential bath fixtures at our local Lowe's. Our son and our daughter both decided to go with us, mostly I suppose, because my wife's brother is such fun company.

We'd finished the planned portion of the evening's festivities when my wife asked if anyone wanted to go to the Goodwill Industries store next door. Inwardly, I cringed a bit. I've never shopped at Goodwill before. But we were, outwardly at least, all amenable.

To my amazement, I found some treasures: a 1942-vintage hardbound version of Lloyd C. Douglas' The Robe for three bucks, a VHS edition of the Best Picture of 1966, A Man for All Seasons (for a buck), and a 1949-EP with eight Christmas songs by Bing Crosby, also a dollar.

But our most amazing acquisition may be this atomic clock, for six bucks.

My wife had been thinking about getting an atomic clock for awhile. Many of the teachers at the school where she works as the librarian have the clocks in their classrooms, allowing them to have the accurate time, something which school clocks, which are notorious for breaking down, can't provide.

When we got home, she stuck a battery in the clock and sure enough, it took off. But it wasn't showing the right time. "Maybe it takes awhile," she speculated. I looked the clock up on the web. The manual was there, pointing me to buttons for each of the major continental US time zones. The moment I hit it, the hands began whirring round and round until they stopped on the exact time as transmitted by satellite from the Atomic Clock of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, Time and Frequency Division in Boulder, Colorado.

I had what I suppose can be characterized as a hayseed moment, one that will seem goofy to future generations who may blow the cyberdust off of this blog in say, two or three minutes from now. Remembering a line from an old Paul Simon song, I said, "We live in an age of miracles and wonders!"

Hayseed-like or not, it really is amazing when one considers it: A satellite hundreds of miles above the earth picks up a signal from Colorado and then sends it back down to receivers in clocks in elementary school classrooms and libraries here in the Midwest, making it possible for students (and teachers) to take their lunches and recesses at precisely the right times.

Thousands of such applications have come about from the human exploration of space, whether through manned or unmanned vehicles.

It was on this date in 1969 that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the surface of the Moon, one of many astounding achievements since we first moved out into space. I hope we keep going into space. An infinite number of miracles and wonders no doubt awaits us if we do.

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Ephesians 2:11-22

[Each week, I present as many updates on my reflections and study of the Biblical texts on which our weekend worship celebrations will be built as I can. The purpose is to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, get ready for worship. Hopefully, it's helpful to others as well, since most weekends, our Bible lesson is one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

For the first pass at this lesson, presented earlier in the week, see here. It provides a general overview.

Now, for some verse-by-verse comments...

11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—
(1) Circumcision, of course, was the entry rite for males into the Jewish faith. In ancient times, baby boys were circumcised eight days after their births. When the term uncircumcised was used by Jews, it had, at its worst, a derogatory tone. At best, it was a designation of not being in covenant with God and therefore, having no standing with God.

(2) The author of Ephesians, echoing words found in First Peter, calls on the Gentile Christians at Ephesus to remember that before they came to faith in Christ, they had no standing before God.

(3) Here, the writer seems to totally ignore that God had instituted circumcision among the Jews (Genesis 17:11-14). Instead, he sees it as a human action and thereby, inferior to the spiritual connection that Gentile believers have with God through faith in Christ. More on this later.

12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
(1) Because the Gentiles were formerly without Christ, they were alienated from the only way it had previously been possible for one to have a relationship with God: being part of the commonwealth of Israel.

(2) Those terms aliens and strangers were among the terms used by historic Israel about outsiders. Although aliens and strangers were, according to Old Testament law, to be treated with respect and neighborliness, Israelites understood that they weren't part of God's people. First Peter picks up on the aliens and strangers motif to describe the status of Christian believers in the world, out of place because our real home is with God. More on that later.

(3) The New Interpreter's Bible points out the connection between this passage and Romans 9:4-5, where Paul enumerates the privileges associated with being part of God's people. Here, the author is saying that because the Gentiles hadn't been Jewish believers, they enjoyed none of the privileges associated with being reconciled with and close to God.

(4) The concept of "commonwealth of Israel" is most clearly seen in Deuteronomy 5:1 and Isaiah 65:9.

13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
(1) Only Jesus Christ affords the privileges that come with reconciliation and closeness to God that formerly only belonged to Jewish believers in God under the old Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.

Bryan Findlayson puts it simply:
Membership in God's eternal family is now [simply] a matter of grace through faith in Christ.
(2) An important point made by several commentators and which is clear from a simple reading of it: Christians don't inherit these blessings by becoming part of the Jewish faith. If at former times, one way of living was with God as part of the family of Israel and another way was apart from God as a Gentile, in Christ, God has given a third way for all people. We become reconciled to God and to each other through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, Who died for the sins of all.

William Loader puts it this way:
This is not about incorporating Gentiles into Israel. It is about bringing both, together, to God. The reason why Gentiles now belong is not because they have been given something which the Jews already had; it is because God has done something for both which both needed. [italics added by me]...

Both Jews and Gentiles are now members of something new. There is a new household of God, a new building, a new temple. So with imagery drawn from Jewish tradition the author nevertheless celebrates a third reality which is beyond Israel and beyond Gentiles. The author celebrates the church as a community of people who have new access to God. Christ is the cornerstone; the Christian apostles and prophets are the foundation stones. We are the building which is ever growing.
(3) The Old Testament idea of Gentiles being "far off" from God can be seen in many places, including: Deuteronomy 28:49; First Kings 8:41; and Jeremiah 5:15.

(4) Unlike some similar passages in Paul's New Testament writings, no effort is made to analogize circumcision and baptism, even with the mention of circumcision that appears here. Instead, oneness with God happens by faith in Christ. There is no sacramental or ritual element to inclusion in the new family of God. In fact, the writer of Ephesians appears to disdain rites altogether.

14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
(1) Christ effects reconciliation for those with faith in Him not only in our relationship with God, but with each other. Jew and Gentile Christians were, the writer of Ephesians was saying, reconciled to each other.

(2) Through Christ, Bryan Findlayson notes, God "has created...a new people of God."

15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,
(1) This is the most troubling verse in the entire lesson. As I pointed out in my first pass, Jesus Himself never claimed to have come to abolish the Old Testament law, but to have fulfilled it.

I wanted to fudge this point by putting words or thoughts in the mind of Ephesians' author, saying that he was referring to Israel's ritual law, rather than to the Ten Commandments. But several commentators assert that I don't have that luxury.

Yet Jesus' death on the cross and its atoning value, something asserted constantly in Ephesians, becomes meaningless apart from a sense of what C.S. Lewis called "the law of human nature," the notion that there is something wrong in the human race. That something is our inability to conform to the very notions of right and wrong to which all of us, to one degree or another, subscribe.

I doubt though, that the writer of Ephesians wanted to say that the Ten Commandments' prohibition of murder or idolatry, for example, were no longer valid.

My guess is that this verse should be read as refuting the assertions of some Jewish Christians that conformity to rituals given in the Old Testament had to be followed for salvation to be complete, even under the new covenant established by Jesus. Even in Old Testament times, after all, salvation only came by faith in a gracious God. The prophets kept calling ancient Israel to faith in God, claiming that they had wandered like sheep from their shepherd or like an adulterous lover from her husband, precisely because it was possible to get all the rituals right and not have faith. This was why Jesus called the Pharisees He encountered "whitewashed tombs," having the look of life with God about them, but being dead inside because they believed not in God, but in their laws or in themselves and their own rectitude.

But there were laws that existed for those who were part of God's family. In upholding salvation by grace, the writer of Ephesians may have given an exaggerated version of the significance of those laws. He wanted people to understand that conformity with laws, even those from God, can not bring us salvation. Only faith in Christ can do that.

Of course, in this interpretation I could be completely and totally wrong.

16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
(1) Bryan Findlayson writes of this and verse 15:
The purpose of Christ's work on the cross was to reconcile a family of believers with the living God. Christ's death on the cross serves to reconcile us with God and with each other, particularly, Jewish believers with Gentile believers.
17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
(1) The entire human race is given a single access point to God: Jesus Christ. Notice here that we see the Son (he), the (Holy) Spirit, and the Father.

(2) The Spirit is the One Who makes faith in the unseen Christ possible. Paul writes:
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (First Corinthians 12:3)
(3) The Old Testament had always anticipated that what God started with the descendants of Abraham would eventually be taken to the whole world:
Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord; and I will heal them. (Isaiah 57:19)
Martin Luther said that Israel was the cradle in which the Savior of the world was lain. When Jesus the Savior fulfilled His mission, all the world was given access to God and eternity.

(4) According to The New Interpreter's Bible, the phrase, have access, would have reminded the original recipients of this letter of efforts by many in Asia Minor, where they lived, to gain access to powerful imperial persons. But what these influence-seekers strove to gain with piddling public officials through their efforts, God gave for free to all with faith in Christ: access! And not access to some political honcho who would soon pass from the scene, dead or replaced, but access to the God of the universe Whose word stands forever and Who, in Christ, had conquered death!

19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,
(1) The New Interpreter's Bible also notes:
Access to a powerful person often implied entry into an impressive building.
It also says that cities in Asia Minor sought Rome's favor by building temples Emperor Augustus. Others built temples in order to gain access to gods.

The thrust of the final verses of our lesson is:
  • that we cannot gain access to the transcendent through temples built with hands (or the rituals of our hands, cf. v. 11), but only through Jesus Christ, and
  • that God has made peace with us and among those who believe in Christ that destroys old walls of enmity and misunderstanding.
(2) In fact, those of us who are part of God's household, are really bricks built into a living temple. This is a motif that appears also in First Peter.

20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. Launches

Dr. Andrew Jackson has gathered a stable of twenty writers for the launch of a brand new blog, As Andy explains in the launching post:
This group blog is primarily about the Kingdom of God and its relationship to American politics and public policy. We believe that our biblical faith should inform our political engagement, and not be artificially separated from it.
I will be a contributor to the content of My interest in this subject primarily revolves primarily around empowering Christians to make their own decisions and not in advancing a particular political agenda.

I may also occasionally contribute posts on the faith lives of past US presidents, an area I hope to one day explore in book form. Exploring this topic may help to inform some of our considerations of what role, if any, faith should have in the selection of our political leaders as well as in the policies they pursue.

The intent is for to continue through the 2008 campaign for the White House, providing a place where Christians can discuss their participation in politics throughout what promises to be a truly interesting presidential election year.

I'll continue to post here as well.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

What Prospective Event Might Warrant "Moon Landing" Treatment Today?

Tomorrow brings the thirty-seventh anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. I may write more about this tonight or tomorrow.

July 20, 1969, saw another major event, though. Ironically, it involved the brother of the President who had, several years earlier, called the nation to send an American to the Moon and bring him back safely again. That other event was the accident on Chappaquiddick Island that saw a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, drown when she was the passenger in a car driven by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, youngest brother of President John Kennedy.

The nation was so understandably focused on the amazing feat of astronauts landing and then walking on the lunar surface that at first, little attention was paid to the Chappaquiddick tragedy. It was an under-the-fold front page story on the day after the landing, the latter event causing newspapers to use headlines the size of those that announced the end of World War Two in 1945.

Landing on the Moon certainly deserved that kind of attention and celebration. What events today would warrant similar treatment?

See these pieces:
An Anniversary That Can Fuel Our Dreams
Fame and the Man on the Moon

Elliptical Thoughts on Fear of the Crowd

I climb onto the elliptical machine at our local gym, set it on the Fat Burn mode, and start my workout. Moving my arms and legs, I watch the monitor display my rapidly increasing heart rate. But I don't really need the monitor to know that. I can feel my heart nearly bursting from my chest as its beating intensifies.

For some reason, at that moment, I recall an experiment that was done with Johnny Carson, late and long-time host of The Tonight Show. Backstage one night before he was introduced, Carson was linked to a heart monitor. I remember the results which, a later search of the Internet, confirmed, in a piece on public speaking written by author Ross Shafer and appearing on Chris Widener's web site:
In the late 80's, Johnny Carson had been on TV for 25 years. He played tennis several times a week and had a resting heartbeat of about 65 beats a minute. As a part of a routine physical exam, a doctor hooked Johnny up to a heart monitor; just prior to him going through that familiar Tonight Show curtain. Ed McMahon announced, "Heeerrres Johnny!" And Johnny's heart rate jumped to 160 beats a minute!
What, I wonder, as I near my target heart rate on the elliptical, would have evoked such a response from a seasoned professional like Carson, the king of late night TV, who presumably could have phoned in his performance? Several things may explain it.

One might be that even after all those years, he was still nervous standing before a crowd. I can identify with this. Even after twenty-two years as a pastor, there are times today when I become almost paralyzingly nervous before a worship celebration, a presentation, or a sermon.

To this day, I find it necessary to ask God to help me remember that what I'm about to do isn't about me, it's about Him and about the people He wants to touch with His grace. (I'm sure that if I didn't do this, all my sermons and presentations would be disasters.)

This leads to a second reason behind an explosion of jitters even in someone like Johnny Carson. We "performers"--comics, talk show hosts, singers, actors, politicians, lecturers, teachers, professors, preachers--all want to make good impressions on others. "Paul has always wanted people to like him and his music," Linda McCartney once told CBS News' Bernard Goldberg. This, after the former Beatle had already become the wealthiest and most successful entertainer of all time.

Insecurity may also set our hearts beating wildly before we stand before a crowd. We preachers like to tell our parishioners that we're interested only in an "audience of One," the God we commend to others. But the fact is that, at some level, we also want to be accepted by our hearers. Or at least by some of them. And truth be told, we want these things not just because we hope (and pray) that our hearers will accept our message. We too, like affirmation. (But woe to the preacher who becomes addicted to the approval of the crowd. The minute that happens, she or he is worthless as a communicator of the Gospel!)

I can also think of a third reason for communicators' jitters. A seminary classmate of mine, one of the most gifted preachers I have ever heard, once told me, "It's okay to be nervous. That's the Holy Spirit, don't you know?" Whether the Holy Spirit can be blamed for some instances of stage fright, I can't say. I'm certain though, that the nervousness that can strike even the most experienced of public communicators often stems from a passionate desire to do well as a fear of doing poorly. (I've told the members of my parish, in all candor, that one prayer I occasionally offer is a simple one: "Lord, help me not to scew up!")

Last night, the New York Mets sent 22-year old Mike Pelfrey to the mound against my Cincinnati Reds. Pelfrey, considered one of the best young pitching prospects around, had a rocky first start. Although he won that game, he was a bit wild, a fact attributed by Mets manager Willie Randolph to nervousness over pitching in the bigs. He did well last night, beating the Reds, 8 to 3.

Chances are, Pelfrey was no less nervous for his second start than he was for his first. In fact, if Johnny Carson is any indication and Pelfrey has anything like a similar commitment to excellence, he'll have the jitters before every single start of what promises to be a long career. But, as someone has said, the key to excellence is learning not to try swatting your butterflies out of existence, but teaching them to fly in formation. That's a lesson good for more than just public speaking; it's good for all of life where fear and worrying can be one of our greatest enemies.

In my experience, it's only when we rely on the God Who's above and beyond us that we find the capacity to face our fears and, in spite of our beating hearts, reach toward being our best selves.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Wow! What a Ride!

[This message was shared with those gathered at a memorial service for Sharry, who died this past week. She was the mother of a member of our congregation. The service happened earlier this evening.]

“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’”

This anonymous saying was Sharry’s philosophy for living. And while God, of course, means for us to rest along life’s way, I think it’s a pretty good expression of what life with God is meant to be like.

Jesus once told the parable of a Master who went away on a business trip, leaving three different servants with three different amounts of money to manage. Putting it in our own terms, to one servant the Master gave $10,000.00 to manage, to the next: $5,000.00, and to the last: $1000.00. When he got back, this boss was glad to learn that the first two servants had doubled the funds he’d entrusted to them. He was displeased to find out that the third guy, concerned that the Master was harsh and exacting, played it safe. He buried the $1000.00 in the ground and then, when he saw that the Master was back at home, hurriedly dug it back up and handed it over to the boss.

One translation renders the last part of Jesus’ telling of the parable in this way:
"The master was furious. 'That's a terrible way to live! It's criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.”
This isn’t a story about playing the market or setting up savings accounts. (Although even our capacity for earning money is a gift from God which we're use wisely and well.) The topic of the story, though, is much broader than that. It's about living, a very good topic to consider as we celebrate Sharry’s life, mourn her passing, and celebrate her resurrection.

God has a lot more than a measly thousand bucks invested in you and me. He has invested Himself in us.

He did that first when He made us. The Old Testament book of Genesis tells us that when God made our ancient ancestor, Adam, God breathed the breath of life into Him. Imagine that: We’re filled with the life of God! God has given some of Himself to us. That must be partly what the Bible means when it says that we were created “in the image of God.”

But even after it seemed that God’s investment had gone bad with sin, God didn’t give up on us. He came into our world in the Person of Jesus Christ to die and rise for us. Jesus invested His life on a cross in order to give us the forgiveness that brings all who follow Him new leases on this life and the certainty of eternity with God! It’s that certainty in which Sharry is living today in the very presence of the Savior Jesus in Whom she believed!

Jesus’ investment in us gives all who follow Him the freedom to live life to the max, to dance and revel in the joys of life, to bear the difficulties of life with faith and hope, and to dare to live and love no matter what our circumstances.

Today, as Sharry's family and friends celebrate her life and mourn her passing, there is no better piece of advice I can give you today than that which I derive from Jesus’ parable and Sharry’s faith and motto: Gratefully take the gifts of life, forgiveness, hope, love, and new life that Jesus Christ invests in those who believe in Him and live with God boldly, joyfully, and thankfully to the fullest!

Take the free gifts God has granted you in Christ and be the person God made you to be. If you and I will do that, I think we have every reason to expect that as we enter heaven, we will hear our Lord say, as I’m sure He said to Sharry a few days ago, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Churches and Politicking

This Associated Press article reports:
The Internal Revenue Service has been warning churches and nonprofit organizations that improper campaigning in the upcoming political season could endanger their tax-exempt status.

In notices to more than 15,000 tax-exempt organizations, numerous church denominations and tax preparers, the agency has detailed its new enforcement program, called the Political Activity Compliance Initiative, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday.

Under the initiative, the IRS plans to expedite investigations into claims of improper campaigning, no longer waiting for an annual tax return to be filed or the tax year to end before launching a probe. A three-member committee will make an initial review of complaints and then vote on whether to pursue the investigation in detail.
I'm glad that the IRS is cracking down on the political activities of churches. This has concerned me for more than thirty years, going back to when I was a young political activist and learned, to my dismay, that a pol in whose office I then worked was going to between three and five churches every Sunday morning in order to campaign. (I was a Democrat in those days and that was far more common practice by Democratic candidates than it was by Republicans. The opposite appears to be the case today.)

Some churches and candidates try to fudge their violations of these laws by presenting the campaigners only in their present capacities as office-holders, not as candidates for office in a current election. That's happening here in Ohio again this year.

In my estimation, that's not only illegal, it's also ethically improper. As I wrote here, in response to the Texas governor signing two bills into law in a church gym:
When I ran for the Ohio House of Representatives last year, I was careful that no reference to my campaign invaded the worship services of our congregation. (One well-meaning person brought it up during the announcements one Sunday morning and after I explained that I deemed that inappropriate, he never mentioned it again. A fund-raiser was also held there. But we open the facility to virtually all community groups and would allow any political candidate not advocating hate to use our facilities. We feel that God has given us our building and we want to share it with others. While the congregation does not charge for the use of its building, my campaign paid the congregation for the building use anyway.) I never would countenance a candidate for public office speaking during a worship celebration at our church or to in any way, use the church for political purposes. Not only is this illegal under federal law, it's inconsistent with the mission of the Church.
There are times when the Church may feel called by God to make statements on public issues, when God's command to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God will clearly mandate speaking out. It may also need to clarify relevant Biblical material in order to help Christians prayerfully consider public issues and the responsible exercise of their citizenship. (I tried to do something like this, for example, in my recent series on immigration.) But whether in its efforts to be either prophetic or informative, the Church should never back specific parties, candidates, or ideologies. Churches and pastors who do this risk putting Jesus Christ and His Gospel in a position of subordination to human philosophies.

I frankly have questions about whether churches should have non-profit status in the first place. Such status, administered by the wrong people, has the potential for being used as intimidating leverage on churches. However, under current law, it's clearly illegal for churches to endorse candidates or parties.

Even if it were legal, I don't think that it's Biblically defensible.

[Thanks to Andy Jackson for pointing to the AP story.]

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Ephesians 2:11-22

[Each week, I present as many updates on my reflections and study of the Biblical texts on which our weekend worship celebrations will be built as I can. The purpose is to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, get ready for worship. Hopefully, it's helpful to others as well, since most weekends, our Bible lesson is one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

The Bible Lesson: Ephesians 2:11-22
11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

General Comments:
1. For general introductory comments on the book of Ephesians, look here.

2. The specific issue being addressed here is one which dogged the early church. It was this: How were Gentile believers in Jesus Christ to be viewed by Jewish Christians?

The Council at Jerusalem had long ago agreed that in order to become Christians, Gentiles didn't have to first become Jews. The notion that this might be required of new Gentile believers in Christ may seem bizarre to us today. But in fact, it would have been an almost natural assumption for the Jewish Christians to have made. After all, no one had ever really known the God of the universe apart from the laws and rites of the Jewish faith.

What the first Christians--Jews and Gentiles--came to see was that it had always been God's purpose to cultivate the Jewish people as His own witnesses in the world in order to cast a light on the nations. When Jesus, the light of the world, came and died and rose, historic Israel achieved the zenith of its purpose. The early Church came slowly to understand the task to which the risen Jesus called them: To move out into all the world and share the good news that all people--Jew and Gentile--may be eternally reconciled with God by faith in Jesus Christ.

One of the perennial arguments made against any new initiative in churches today is found in what are often referred to as the seven last words of any church meeting: We never did it that way before. For the early Jewish Christians, even those who could accept the decision of the Council at Jerusalem that Gentiles didn't have to go through the hoops of Old Testament ritual in order to be welcomed into the Christian family, there was another issue. How could they keep from treating these Gentiles as johnny-come-latelies, as spiritual also-rans, as second class citizens?

3. The author of Ephesians began giving his answer to this question in what was last weekend's Bible lesson: Ephesians 1:3-14. In the opening verses of chapter 2, he also says that "once" the Jewish and Gentile Christians were all in the same spiritual boat, even those who may have observed Jewish ritual. They all had lived "in the passions of [their] flesh."

We read a phrase like that today and because of our contemporary obsessions, assume that the author is saying that the Ephesian Christians were once sexually promiscuous. While that may have been part of what happened in their former lives and such behavior may have resulted from their one-time "passions of the flesh," much more is meant by the phrase.

In Paul's writings (and Paul-influenced writings, as some scholars believe this book to be), the flesh refers to the entire short-sighted world view that craves immediate gratification of my own personal desires, God and other people be hanged.

The Jewish and Gentile Christians of Ephesus alike had lived in the Kingdom of Me, our lesson says.

4. Unwilling to see us eternally separated from Him, the inevitable consequence of living in that Kingdom of Me, God created a new access point to Him, a single means of reconciliation with Him: Jesus Christ.

5. The words of our lesson are meant to remind all the Christians at Ephesus of their common dependence on the charitable love of God (what the Bible calls grace) through which sinners, Jewish and Gentile, are able to turn from their sin, believe in Jesus, and so be given life.

6. All of this is not dependent on obedience of law, but on Christ and our faith in Him.

If that were all the author of this passage said, all his Christian readers, ancient and modern, could nod their heads in agreement as though they were listening to some self-evident platitude. (Even though salvation by faith in a gracious God is absolutely revolutionary and life-changing!) The problem is that he asserts that God has utterly abolished the Old Testament law.

In his commonly acknowledged writings, Paul never made such a claim and was, in fact, an observant Jew his whole life. (A fact that argues against Paul being the actual author of Ephesians and in favor of it being authored by a later disciple of the apostle.)

Jesus explicitly says that He hadn't come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.

Can the assertion of this weekend's Bible lesson be reconciled with this statement by Jesus?

I think it can be when one considers the principle to which I've returned again and again in these "passes" at Bible lessons: One can best understand content when one considers context.

Evidently, by the time Ephesians was written, the Church had moved beyond the core issue of whether Gentiles could be Christians or whether they needed to become Jews first. But it's equally evident that some of the Jewish believers regarded the Gentile Christians as being not quite up-to-snuff because they didn't circumcise their males or follow other Jewish ritual law. Some may have, in fact, attached significance to obeying these laws--keeping a kosher table, sacrificing a lamb on Yom Kippur, and so on--in the whole economy of salvation.

In that sense, the writer of Ephesians was right. In Christ, as the New Testament book of Hebrews eloquently affirms, God had abolished the old ways. Christ makes it possible for all who believe in Him to live in the assurance that He has fulfilled the law and paid the price for our sin for all eternity. While every Christian is called to live in obedient response to the gift of new life they have through Christ and therefore, is called to both avoid deliberate sin and to live in an attitude of "daily repentance and renewal," no one should lay new laws or guilt trips on the believer in Jesus Christ. We are free!

7. Finally, one of the great overarching themes of this passage is reconciliation. Jews and Gentiles are, in common, reconciled to God by one means alone, Jesus Christ. Since we are all commonly dependent on God's charity (grace) in Christ, there's no room for arrogance or condescencion. In Christ, believers in Him are reconciled to one another.

The Church then, is much more than a human organization. It's a people once enslaved to the passions of their flesh, now free to be who God made them to be, reconciled in Christ to God and to each other, each individual a brick laid on the strong foundation of Jesus Christ and the proclamation of Him given by the prophets and the apostles.

Oneness with God and oneness in Christ are what the book of Ephesians wants all Christians to acknowledge and experience.

More on this passage later in the week, I hope.

Steve Taylor's 'Smug'

Now we go out to the desert for a great oldie from the 90s by one of my faves, Steve Taylor. You may have to crank this one up! Favorite line: "We love to be politically Koreshed."

Keane's 'Atlantic'

This is a weird video that makes no sense to me. It's filled with the obligatory bleakness that some, maybe even Keane themselves, associate with being "artistic." But I nonetheless love the sound of the song.

By the way, have you noticed the nautical theme of the videos I've linked to here lately? And I'm not really nautical by nature...actually have an irrational fear of water so "deep" that I've never even learned how to swim.

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 24

We've been talking about what it means to speak of "God the Father" and have been taking cues from what is probably Jesus' most famous parable, that of the Prodigal Son.

In yesterday's post, we said that the father in Jesus' story, representative of God the Father, lavishes blessings on his undeserving children. The parable tells us that this is what God does for us through Christ.

Here's a second thing that Jesus' story tells us: God the Father isn't overly concerned with His dignity.

Yes, God is to be reverenced above everything and anything. But God isn't afraid to cast aside propriety in order to pursue His passionate mission.

That mission, quite simply, is to woo His rebel children back into a relationship with Him. In Jesus' parable, the father, grateful for the return of his formerly rebellious boy, is then upbraided by the older son. How could he be so forgiving? the older son wonders. Undaunted, the father literally begs this son to join the party going on inside.

I'll have more to say on the significance of the older brother in a later post. The point to focus on at this point, though, is how heedless the father, our Father, is of things like dignity or of what the others might think. He's bound to love and welcome his children no matter what! So long as we're willing to turn away from sin (repent) and turn to Him, He is always ready to receive us.

No self-respecting Semitic father would have done what the father in Jesus' tale does. Lets' consider briefly what he does.
  • First, contrary to the customs of first-century Judea where Jesus tells this story for the first time, he gives the younger son an inheritance.
  • Next, he gives the inheritance even though this kid is unworthy of it.
  • Then, after he's gotten reports that the son has wasted everything on prostitutes and loose living, he still yearns for the son's return. One can picture him anxiously scanning the horizon all the time for any sign of the boy's return.
  • When the younger boy does return, the father lays all thoughts of dignity aside. He runs out to greet the boy and squeeze him in a bear hug long before the boy can even apologize.
  • Then the father throws a party for the boy!
  • And when the older son, filled with rectitude and indignation, learns that his father is throwing a party for the younger son, who he refuses to acknowledge as "my brother," he stands outside his father's house. But unwilling to give up on this goodie two-shoes, the father comes out and begs the older boy to come inside too.
This is the perfect representation of the God Who casts dignity aside out of consideration of His love for us. He's so anxious to call us back to Himself that He becomes one of us, dies on a cross for us, and rises among us to give all with faith in Him new life!

In fact, many people recoil in horror at such a picture of God. My late seminary mentor, Bruce Schein, served for twelve years as pastor of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. Some of the members of his congregation were Palestinians and often, he said, when those Palestinian-Christians tried to tell their Muslim friends and family about Christ, they couldn't get past their revulsion against a God Who would willingly and voluntarily make Himself weak to win us.

But it isn't just Muslims who obsess on this business of dignity and God. A man I know used to deride his daughter's faith, particularly whenever she wore a chain around her neck with a cross attached to it. "Don't you know what that means?" he would ask her. "It's the symbol of a God Who refused to be strong." The cross does symbolize a God Who refuses to force faith upon us, but lovingly woos us back to Him, even begging us to be with Him.

The God proclaimed by the Bible always arouses mixed reactions and it always will. Speaking of the reactions of many of his fellow Jews and of many non-Jews (referred to as Greeks or Gentiles) to Jesus' cross, the instrument by which God wins those with faith in Christ back to Him, the first-century preacher Paul writes:
...the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (First Corinthians 1:18)
God the Father lays what we call dignity aside and begs to surrender to the Savior Who died on a cross. He will not force us to follow. But when we do follow Christ, a celebration will begin that lasts for all eternity!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 23

One of the things Christians mean when they describe the First Person of the Trinity as Father, of course, is that God is the Creator of the universe.

But something more of what we mean by the term is conveyed by Jesus in His parable (or story) about a runaway son, his obedient brother, and the father who loves them both. In it, the father is a metaphoric stand-in for God the Father. I'm going to spend a few days "unpacking" this story to show what kind of Father God is.

The story is found in the New Testament book of Luke, chapter 15, verses 11 to 32. Here's the story in its entirety, as rendered by Eugene Peterson in his masterful translation/paraphrase, The Message:
11-12Then he said, "There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, 'Father, I want right now what's coming to me.'

12-16"So the father divided the property between them. It wasn't long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.

17-20"That brought him to his senses. He said, 'All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I'm going back to my father. I'll say to him, Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.' He got right up and went home to his father.

20-21"When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: 'Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son ever again.'

22-24"But the father wasn't listening. He was calling to the servants, 'Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We're going to feast! We're going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!' And they began to have a wonderful time.

25-27"All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day's work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, 'Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.'

28-30"The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't listen. The son said, 'Look how many years I've stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!'

31-32"His father said, 'Son, you don't understand. You're with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he's alive! He was lost, and he's found!'"
So, what does this story tell us about God, the Father?

It tells us, first of all, that He's a very different sort of Father than existed in first-century Judea where Jesus first told this story.

In those days, fathers passed their property onto only one son, the oldest. The father in Jesus' tale had a different plan. Both of his sons were to receive an inheritance. Presumably, if he'd had twenty sons, each would have received an inheritance. And if he'd had daughters, they too could have received a piece of the lavish pie.

God the Father, Jesus is saying, has an inheritance He wants to give to all His children, to the whole human race. The apostle Paul talks about this inheritance repeatedly in his New Testament letters. It refers to the blessings of forgiveness, of life with God now, and of new, everlasting life which all with faith in Jesus Christ are given.

God the Father is lavish in blessing those who turn to Christ with a spiritual inheritance that never ends.

As we consider the charitable, forgiving love extended by the father in Jesus' parable, a very different picture of God from that of the always-angry judge begins to emerge for us. No wonder theologian Helmut Thielicke disdained the traditional title for this parable, the Prodigal Son. He thought, quite rightly I think, that a better title is the parable of the Waiting Father. God, wanting to lavish blessings on the repentant, is the key to anybody's life being turned from rebellion against God's rule of love to embracing it...and Him.

More on this parable in the next installment of the series.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Audio Adrenaline's 'Ocean Floor'

And now, for your further listening and viewing pleasure, one of my favorite songs by Audio Adrenaline, 'Ocean Floor.' AA is now on its farewell tour, owing to the need for lead singer Mark Stuart to hang it up before losing his voice completely. This is an awesome track.

I've seen this band in concert four times through the years. They continuously got better and better, musically, lyrically, and as performers.

The last time we saw them was especially memorable. They asked everybody fifty or older to join them onstage as they sang the classic tune, Free Ride. At the time, my wife was fifty and I wasn't yet. But she told me that there was no way she was going onstage without me. AA were the headliners of a big show at King's Island Amusement Park which we attended with out church's youth group. The crowd amounted to about 3000 and it was a real rush to be up on stage singing with a rock band!

'Valerie' by the Zutons

Okay, the lyrics are really dumb. But the song is great!

Isn't the Z-shaped prison a cool touch?

Macca's 'No Other Baby' Video

It wasn't until a few months ago, during a trip through Half Price Books, that I picked up Paul McCartney's Run, Devil, Run. That 2002 release initially didn't attract me because it was made up of oldies the young Macca enjoyed during his musically formative years in the 1950s along with faux-50s tunes of his own composition.

That is the project's make-up. But it works fantastically. McCartney loves the 50s music and pours the sort of passion into their performance here often thought lacking in his own original material through the years. This music is his first love and it shows.

Joined on a number of tracks by one of his favorite lead guitarists, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame, and a sterling band, virtually every track is a gem.

Surprisingly though, one of the two tracks I enjoy most is an old skiffle tune, 'No Other Baby.' In the liner notes, we're told:
The most obscure song on the album. It was released as a single in 1958 by a British skiffle group The Vipers. "I've no idea how this one got so embedded in my memory..." [McCartney says] "I never had the record, still haven't.
Here's the video. See if you don't find the tune as infectious as I do.

A funny thing about this video is that it seems to confirm McCartney's love of being photographed or filmed shaving. You see him doing this in pics that appear in the largely-forgettable Red Rose Speedway (1973). He shaves in the Say, Say, Say video with Michael Jackson. He shaves here.

Maybe Macca sees shaving as a decidedly masculine thing to do. Or, maybe he secretly wishes that he and not George Harrison, had been given the shaving seen in A Hard Day's Night.

Anyway, tell me what you think of the song.

'Honor Suicides' Prevent Turkish Integration Into EU

Turkey, home of a largely secular democratic state since the 1920s, stands as Exhibit A for those who believe that nations can be both predominantly Muslim and democratic. That may be. But Turkey also proves the difficulty associated with that happening.

Turkey still deals, for example, with a conservative form of Islam that mandates the murder of young girls for manifesting natural and innocent interest in the opposite sex.

Now, the potential prison sentences for would-be murderers have become so daunting that parents are actually encouraging their daughters to commit suicide. "Honor suicides," they call them.

Turkey, which has been seeking membership in the European Union for some time, is being told by the EU that such practices must be brought to an end first. The Turkish government is trying, apparently, but these barbaric traditions are proving stubbornly resistant to change.

Annie Gottlieb has excerpts from a disturbing article and adds a few comments of her own.

Big Pharaoh's Thoughts on Latest Appearance of Hezbollah Leader

In a post called The New Nasrallah, he writes:
Nasrallah's voice tone was the first thing I noticed when he appeared on TV today. I didn't pay much attention to what he was saying, I was only attracted to his tone of voice and his composure. I was seeing a new Nasrallah. The Hizbollah leader was speaking in an unusually soft voice that was mixed with exhaustion and bewilderment. Yes he was issuing threats and promising more surprises, but the Nasrallah I saw today was very different from the one I know. Gone was the powerful voice, the machismo, and the wide eyes. Today's Nasrallah was confused, soft, and vulnerable.

I believe the new Nasrallah is not just the result of the Israeli bombardment, but of the fact that he finally realized he dragged Lebanon to a terrible war and many Lebanese, as well as almost all Arab governments, won't forgive him for that.

I know Hassan Nasrallah, and he wasn't the same man I saw today.
One can only hope that Nasrallah, all Islamofascists, and most importantly, their potential adherents are coming to realize that they are on the wrong side of history.

The Big Pharaoh is one of several blogs I read in order to get a feel for varied opinion in the Middle East. Another one I visit daily is Rambling Hal.

Aiming for God's Aims for Our Lives

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship on July 16, 2006.]

Ephesians 1:3-14
We were talking after dinner at the home of friends recently. “I realized that I was really aging,” the woman who was hosting us said, “when I looked at my hands and thought, ‘Those are my mother’s hands!’” I was a bit surprised to hear this because I’d had a similar experience a few years back. Looking at my own hands, I saw those of my father.

Even if we wanted to, it would be tough for us to run away from our heritage. Genes are perseverant things!

This was driven home for me back when my Grandfather Daniels died. My wife, who had never met him, went with me to Bellefontaine for the funeral viewing. We walked into the old Kennedy Funeral Home there and discovered that several other viewings were happening at the same time. The place was packed and there were no signs indicating whose viewing was where.

So, I went in one direction and my wife went in another as we tried to find the right place. A short while later, my wife beckoned me to come to where she’d gone. I walked over to her, where she was pointing into a crowded room. “This is it,” she said. I looked around and told her that I didn’t recognize anybody there.

“Mark,” she told me. “Look around. Most of the men are about 5-8, 5-9. They have prominent brow ridges and they all stand talking with their arms folded over their chests, their upper bodies tilted to one side. If that isn’t a bunch of Daniels men, I don’t know what is.”

Sure enough, she was right. Others might not have seen it. But anybody familiar with the Daniels family could pick it out as my wife had. Each of us has the marks of our family relationships.

This is no less true when it comes to our relationship with God. When we have a close relationship with the God we meet in Jesus Christ, there will be certain marks that will show us and others that this is so.

Today’s Bible lesson tells us that those who follow Jesus Christ are, “blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing.” Jesus enters the lives and characters of those who surrender to Him and their lives, sometimes faintly, sometimes stongly, bear His marks.

The most distinguishing characteristic of those who surrender themselves to Christ is that they, more and more, live for God's purposes.

And what are God's purposes for us? As I pointed out in the first reading of our 40-Days to Servanthood emphasis during this past Lenten season:
God’s goal for your life is for you to be like Jesus. God has set apart every person He’s called to follow Jesus Christ, in the words of the New Testament book of Romans, "to become like his Son, so that the Son would be the first among many brothers.”
This doesn’t mean that God wants you and me to become mindless clones of a first-century Judean carpenter. It means that He wants us to manifest the character traits of Jesus through the prisms of our own personalities, abilities, experiences, and relationships. If you’re a teacher or a parent, your call is to strive being the kind of teacher or parent Jesus would be. If you’re a bricklayer or an engineer, an accountant or a janitor, your call is to let the likeness of Jesus permeate how you do your work and live your life.

But you can’t hope to do this if you resolve to do it under your own power. Jesus was the perfect, sinless coming of God into our world. And unless I miss my bet, there isn’t a single perfect, sinless God in this whole room today! We only start to look like Jesus when we claim the spiritual inheritance that our Bible lesson for today talks about. We’re told:
In Christ, we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of Him Who accomplishes all things according to His counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live to the praise of His glory.
God’s aim is to help us become like Christ, to bear the marks of our closeness to Him. Our aim is to use the blessings God gives those who believe in Christ to glorify God.

Years ago, I heard a preacher talking about his young daughter. From her earliest years, she was smitten with acting on a stage. At first, he thought this was just a passing phase, something she’d get over once she’d grown older. But the realization hit him that she was wired for a career on the stage when, one night, after they had prayed together, she began to tell her father about rehearsals for the school play. “You know, Dad,” she told him with unvarnished enthusiasm, “when I’m up there, that’s when I feel the most alive!” She’s an actress today, letting Christ live through her and glorifying God in the way she uses her talents.

Pastor Mike Foss talks about two people from the twentieth century, one of whom sought significance in the eyes of the world and came up empty, the other who sought to glorify God, focusing on Christ, and found significance. He says, “Few of us recall the name, let alone the accomplishments and wealth of Howard Hughes. Here was a man at the epicenter of his generation. He dated movie stars and hobnobbed with presidents and earth shakers. He became one of the wealthiest men in the world...and is forgotten. On the other hand, many of us still know the name and can picture the face of Mother Teresa. She renounced wealth and human achievement for the sake of caring for the poorest of the poor. Yet, God raised her up to travel the globe and meet with presidents, prime ministers and earth shakers. All because she lived for eternity.”

God wants all of us to make similar discoveries about ourselves. This is the pathway to real significance. The only people who find significance and fulfillment in their daily lives are those who have their minds fixed on eternity, whose lives are focused on the God we meet in Jesus Christ!

Mother Teresas are one in a million, for sure. But each of us can live each day for God’s purposes. I often think of we Christians as God’s insurgents, sent by God to give people glimpses of the power and eternal destiny God gives to all with faith in Christ. But unlike those other insurgents, our weapons aren't bombs or force. Our weapons are things like prayer, worship, reading Scripture, service, acts of kindness, love of enemies, and forgiveness. As we use these tools, we become more like Christ, God is glorified, and the one Martin Luther identified as “our old satanic foe” is undermined and destroyed.

A young woman was soaking some rays on the beach one day when a little boy in his swimming trunks, carrying a towel, came up to her and asked, “Are you a Christian?” She was surprised by the question, but answered, “Yes, I am.” Then he asked her: “Do you go to church every Sunday?” Again, her answer was “Yes!” “Do you read your Bible and pray every day?” “Yes!” At last the boy sighed with relief and said, “That’s great! Since you are a Christian, will you hold my 50 cents while I go swimming?”

I’ve shared with you before that back in the days when most of our friends weren’t believers in Christ, my wife and I were usually the first people they called when they got into scrapes in their lives. It wasn’t because we necessarily had any answers; we usually didn’t. (We still don't!) It was because whenever we run into scrapes in our everyday worlds, we have a natural inclination to try to get in touch with eternity...or with those who try to keep in touch with eternity themselves. We know, deep in our hearts, that to make it through everyday life, we need an eternal God! We know that life is best when we live for God's aims and not our own.

And living for God's aims, glorifying Him through our lives, can be such a simple thing. This past week, I met a guy with the office supply firm from which we lease our copier. The old lease was up and I needed to sign a new contract. We had a full, if rather brief, chat, Jeremy and I. I learned about where he grew up, where he played college football, how he met his wife, where they live, and that they have two little boys, aged two years and eleven months. Before he left, I said, "Since you live close-by, I would be remiss not to tell you that if you and your family don't have a church home, you're always welcome here!" He thanked me, but said that they were part of another congregation, up in Milford.

Years ago, I might not have felt comfortable doing asking someone I hardly knew to worship with me. And I can also tell you lots of stories of times when I failed to invite people in this way. But the point is that if we make ourselves available to Him, God will give us ways, small and big, to glorify Him. And nothing glorifies God more than inviting our friends, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers to follow Jesus with us!

By faith in Jesus Christ, you are part of God’s family. Today and every day, ask God to help you to aim your life toward His aims, to let Christ live in you and so be empowered, in your own unique way, to give glory to the God Who made you and promises you eternity. It’s when we aim our lives Christ-ward that we start to look Christ. It’s then that our lives take on real meaning. Amen!

[Thanks to John Schroeder for linking to this post.]

Does This Guy Violate Lawn Mowing Etiquette or What?

Right now, it's 7:37, Sunday morning. I'm finishing up my breakfast, getting ready to head over to our church's building for worship. For the past ten minutes, I've been listening to a neighbor mowing his lawn!

Apart from qualms that some might have about laboring on the Sabbath, what is this guy thinking? (By the way, I labor on the Sabbath each week.) After all, some people--even Christian people who've attended Saturday afternoon or evening worship celebrations--might like to sleep in on Sunday mornings. That's tough to do once a 6.5-horsepower Briggs and Stratton has started grinding outside your window!

And it isn't like this is a special case. This guy mows his lawn every Sunday morning that the grass is growing, always about this time.

Granted, most of us in hyper-humid Cincinnati are ensconced in our houses, windows shut tight, air conditioners purring. And, obviously, he doesn't really bother me personally. But the people who live directly beside this guy must have the most un-Christian thoughts when he revs up his mower.

Does this guy violate lawn mowing etiquette? Or am I overreacting?