Saturday, August 12, 2006

I Love These Pictures


The Lebanese War Subjected to an Armchair Historian's Analysis

It won't please the Christian Zionists who were, bizarrely hoping for Armageddon, but the United Nations passed a ceasefire resolution for the conflict in Lebanon yesterday. Both the Israeli and Lebanese governments have agreed to it. It calls for the deployment of an international peacekeeping force of some 15,000 in a buffer zone between the two countries.

Of course, Lebanon was not a combatant in this fight. So, that leaves a big question regarding the resolution's implementation:
"The Lebanese government has fully endorsed the resolution," said a senior State Department official. "It remains to be seen: Will Hezbollah behave as a Lebanese entity and assume a place in the political process or continue to be a proxy for foreign governments?"

But U.S. officials said they believe that at least some members of Hezbollah have endorsed the ideas in the proposal because Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora won unanimous cabinet support -- including from two Hezbollah ministers -- for the deployment of an expanded U.N. force.
Assuming that the ceasefire can now be put in place relatively incident-free, there will begin a time of postmortem analysis of this conflict, something I find fascinating as a student of history. And there are any number of questions to be answered:
  • What was Hezbollah thinking when it initiated this conflict?
  • What was Hezbollah trying to achieve with its attack?
  • Given Israel's initial stated goal of destroying Hezbollah, why did it rely so heavily on the imprecisions of air power and why did it engage in a kind of non-sequitur war that seemingly ignored that the real powers behind the Hezbollah attack were most immediately, Syria, and more remotely, Iran?
  • Why, when the Arab League had condemned Hezbollah's original attack on Israel, did the Israeli government not seek to work with its Arab neighbors to put pressure on Hezbollah for the return of its kidnapped soldiers, rather than resorting immediately to war that put innocent civilians--Israeli as well as Lebanese--in the crosshairs? Why did Ehud Olmert's government botch an historic opportunity?
  • What explains the massive failure of Israel's usually sterling intelligence in failing to learn either of Hezbollah's extensive battle plans or its military capacity?
One lesson that comes through clearly from this conflict is that military power, even overwhelming military power, can definitely be used to impotent effect.

The wisest stewards of massive military advantage, like Dwight Eisenhower, the greatest US President of the last half of the twentieth century when it comes to diplomatic and military strategy, have always known several things:

The first thing they've known is that the implied use of force often accomplishes more than its actual use. "Power is what people think you have," my Ohio State PoliSci prof, Jim Kweder, used to tell us. (Poli Sci 265, Winter Quarter, 1972) Had the Israeli government exercised some patience, it might have been able to exert prevailing, massive pressure on Hezbollah through Arab countries already condemning the group's actions and so, driven a wedge of disunity within the ranks of Israel's historic enemies.

Israel could have implied that it would use its military against Hezbollah or its sponsors--and actually done so, if it appeared that Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt would not maximize pressure on Hezbollah--and gained the release of its soldiers as well as the dismantling of the group's military apparatus without firing a shot.

When major military powers allow themselves to be suckered into armed conflict with inferior forces, as happened to the United States in Vietnam and to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, they subject those forces to unexpectedly high casualties. Guerilla fighters who are underestimated going into a fight see anything other than being annihilated as victory. So does the watching world. It's what I call "the emperor has no clothes" effect. It lessens the influence and security of a great power and emboldens its enemies if it doesn't achieve its stated military goals.

The second thing which the wise stewards of military power know is that once a decision has been made to fight, nothing necessary for victory must be held back. In America, this notion is a key component of the Powell Doctrine. As summarized in a terrific Newshour resource:
...the Doctrine expresses that military action should be used only as a last resort and only if there is a clear risk to national security by the intended target; the force, when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the force used by the enemy; there must be strong support for the campaign by the general public; and there must be a clear exit strategy from the conflict in which the military is engaged.
The Ehud Olmert government never seemed to know exactly where to hit its enemy, relied heavily on the imprecisions of air power to go after that enemy, and had an announced exit hope without having an apparent strategy.

Donald Sensing believes that the war in Lebanon has been a disaster for the Olmert government and will lead to the Prime Minister's replacement by Benjamin Netanyahu. That would likely signal a move away from the policies of Ariel Sharon, who understood the ticking demographic time bomb that will make Israel itself an Arab state unless it divests itself of territories once seized from its enemies. Netanyahu appears to want to ignore this demographic imperative, thus guaranteeing that Israel's very existence will be a taunt and constantly in danger.

When Hezbollah attacked, Israel had every right and responsibility as a sovereign state, to protect its citizens. But the Olmert government also then had a choice about how to defend Israel. It could have employed the implied use of force, striving to isolate Hezbollah on the one hand, or gone after the terrorist group with overwhelming force, on the other. Either option could have been legitimately supported and pursued. But the government there chose neither one. Now, after enormous loss of life in both Israel and Lebanon and after giving Hezbollah a PR-windfall, the Israeli government has severely crippled Lebanon's nascent democracy and filled Lebanese of all stripes with renewed hatred for Israel.

I'm just a preacher who's a student of history, but it looks like a recipe for another war to me.

[Thanks to Annie Gottlieb of Ambivablog for linking to this piece.]

[Thanks also to Stubborn Facts for linking to this post.]

[I appreciate that Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice has also linked here.]

Friday, August 11, 2006

I'm Thankful...

...that the intelligence and law enforcement communities of Great Britain and Pakistan, with reported assistance from those of the United States, thwarted the plot to kill thousands on commercial flights from the UK to the US. I pray God's continued help to all efforts to bring safety and peace to our world.
"How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death" (Psalm 13:1-3)

I'm praying for the innocent victims of war in places like Israel and Lebanon. Bring peace soon, O Lord!
For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10)

The Ziggurat at Ur

The Washington Post has a piece on a visit by US Army engineers to the ancient tower at Ur, built some four-thousand years ago.

It accurately mentions that the enormous edifice, used for worshiping a Chaldean deity, is located at the site of the ancient city from which Abraham, father of the Israelites, came. But the article says little substantive about the ziggurat or of the civilization that produced it. It was the product of what's referred to as the Third Dynasty of Ur, extant from about 2060 to 1950 BC. According to Bernhard Anderson:
Ur-nammu, the founder of the dynasty, made Ur a thriving commercial center and adorned the city with an impressive ziggurat or tiered temple-tower...But [this] Sumerian revival was brief...
The empire was conquered and a succession of powers tried to take control over the area, eventually seeing a semi-nomadic people populate it. Among these people were the Amorites and from them sprang the Hebrews and Arameans, the stock from which Abraham and family issued.

But of more interest probably is that ziggurats were widely used in Mesopotamian cultures, both as places of worship and as symbols of the strength of kings and peoples. (It's interesting to consider how often structures ostensibly erected to honor deities are little more than monuments to the egos or power of rulers or their peoples. Saint Peter's in Rome, built during the papal reign of Leo X, comes to mind. My wife and many friends of mine have reported how beautiful the buildings there are and how repulsed they were by their excess.)

Many scholars believe that the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) was a ziggurat and that in the recounting of its story, the semi-nomadic Hebrews were expressing their disdain for the arrogance of settled peoples who put their trust in buildings, arms, force, wealth, or human ingenuity. When the Hebrews first told it, they were condemning the haughtiness of Canaanite culture they encountered as they moved closer to their ancestral roots, following the period of their slavery in Egypt. The story, which I believe was true, was also a way of reminding the seemingly powerless Hebrews that God was greater than the armies they faced and that He alone deserved their worship, praise, and allegiance.

Even today, we human beings build proud towers. Not all of them are made with bricks and mortar. Some are the psychological and spiritual edifices of arrogance, prejudice, superstition, or legalistic religion. Others are made of money and power in various forms.

Even if the towers we erect stand for several millenia, we human being don't stand nearly as long. At least we don't here on earth and don't eternity without the intervention of God. But this God revealed in Jesus Christ can give us life beyond our death, a life that will last long after the last ziggurat, skyscrapers, and stock portfolios have passed out of existence.

First Peter, a letter written by the apostle to early Christians in what is modern Turkey, speaks to all Christian believers, even those of us around today, when it says:
Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth [that is, by believing in Jesus Christ and allowing Him to take up residence in our lives] so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

For “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” That word is the good news that was announced to you. (First Peter 1:22-25)
Towers may be destroyed by hateful enemies or felled by our own arrogance. But people enlivened by God's Word of affirmation and new life, available to all with faith in Christ, have life that cannot be taken from them!

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

Thursday, August 10, 2006

"What pitiable creatures we have become"

Charlie Lehardy writes:
Ethicists have long warned that embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning will inevitably lead to a technology where babies are "farmed" and "harvested" for the organs and cells they can provide to adults. Clearly, that day has arrived.

Our enlightened culture has jettisoned its belief in the Christian concepts of the sanctity of human life and the promise of life after death. Fear of death has thrown us into a perpetual state of panic about illness and aging. That panic will drive us to cross any and every ethical line in order to stave off the end.

What pitiable creatures we have become.
Read the whole thing.

Happy Anniversary, Jan!

Today is the first anniversary of Jan's blog, The View from Her. Congratulations, Jan.

OK Go-Here It Goes Again

Just for the fun of it. Thanks to Impacted Wisdom Truth.

Third Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

The first two passes at this weekend's Bible lesson are here and here.

In this post, we'll take a verse-by-verse look at the passage.

4:25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.
(1) Walter Taylor sees the lesson before us as a single unit composed of seven exhortations, each of which "brings out the implications of putting off the old humanity" and putting on the new creation we've become by faith in Christ.

There is, as we have seen in other areas addressed in the book of Ephesians, an already given/but more to be taken element operating in this passage. That we are children of God and members of Christ's body is an already accomplished fact of God's grace, imparted through Christ and mediated through Baptism. Yet, just as we are free to embrace or repudiate our natural lives and the disciplines needed to fulfill their promise, we are free to fully live the life of a Christian, which includes full participation in the Church, the Body of Christ, or not.

In all of these exhortations, we're called to repudiate vice and embrace virtue in gratitude to Christ for new life, for the welfare of the one community to which all followers of Christ belong, or in deference to the Holy Spirit.

(2) The New Interpreter's Bible sees the section of Scripture of which our lesson is a part as being organized slightly differently. It calls 4:17-32 a single unit (excluding 5:1-2) and entitles it, Two Ways of Life. The section begins, in verses 17-24, by contrasting the "futile" life styles of Gentile unbelievers, the life styles formerly lived by the majority of Ephesian Christians, who were Gentile converts, to life with Christ.

In it, Paul--or whoever wrote Ephesians--encourages "you Gentiles" (2:11) to separate themselves, not socially necessarily, from "the immorality of the Gentiles." The grace of God, granted in Christ, has given these Gentile converts a privilege once only enjoyed by the Jews, a relationship with God. Paul's purpose is to school the Gentile converts in what it means to live in community with God and other believers and not as indviduals answerable only to their own desires.

(3) In encouraging believers to put off falsehood, Paul seems to have in mind not using lying as a means of gaining advantage over others. This is the cunning way of the world. Believers in Christ are called upon, as Jesus put it, be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. In other words, Christians aren't to be naive. But they're called to voluntarily refuse to employ their clear-eyed understanding of the world in underhanded ways.

(4) In speaking of being "members of one another," Paul is saying that this advice deals specifically with how Christians--Gentiles and Jews--are related to one another. All Christians are part of the Body of Christ and for one portion of the body to treat the other with cunning calculation is destructive of everyone. Whenever Christians mistreat one another, both spiritual fratricide and spiritual suicide are being committed.

(5) Note the pattern we mentioned yesterday in this passage:
  • Vice (Don't do this)
  • Virtue (Do this)
  • Reason (In this case, the reason is our being part of the Body of Christ)
(6) Put away, in the Greek apotithemi, can mean put off, lay aside, put away and can be seen as the action of jettisoning an old habit.

(7) This virtue, like many enumerated in this passage, is not necessarily unique to Christianity. But the reasons given for jettisoning the old way of life and for embracing the new creation are all uniquely related to faith in Christ.

26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil.
(1) Anger, in and of itself, is not inherently bad. Jesus, Who didn't sin, for example, became angry and sometimes expressed frustration with people, even with those to Whom He was close.

(2) The problem with anger is that it can lead us to sin. This happens when we let anger fester and we begin to harbor hateful feelings toward others. Such bitterness, Jesus tells us, is a violation of the Fifth Commandment, "You shall not kill." (See here.)

(3) The problem with allowing conflict to go unresolved within the Church is that it gives the devil an opening in our lives. Jesus outlines a procedure by which Christians are to resolve conflict here. Such a process is not to be entered into lightly and notice, too, that it's triggered when one member of the Body of Christ feels that another one has sinned against them. For the ordinary dust-ups that happen when people live together in community, forgiveness is essential.

28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.
(1) This list of exhortations is very similar to a similar set in Colossians 3, except when we come to this verse.

(2) Paul speaks a lot about working with one's hands in his letters, maybe because even though he was an apostle, he made his living as a tentmaker.

(3) The motivation for working hard is that it affords one the ability to help others. Taylor: "The goal of work is not acquisition but contribution."

29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.
(1) The Biblical tradition frequently discusses the power of our words. It reminds us that we can bring healing with what we say: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver," says Proverbs 25:11. But it also tells us of the harm we can do: "...the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell." (James 3:5-6)

The Eighth Commandment tells us to not use our words to bear false witness against others. Martin Luther reminds us that the command is intended to do more than to keep us from telling falsehoods about others:
We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.
(2) Even when we need to say something critical to fellow believers, our motive should be to build them up, to encourage them.

(3) And what is our motive for adopting the virtue of being encouraging to others? To avoid grieving the Holy Spirit. It's the Holy Spirit Who calls us to faith, gives us the capacity to believe, provides believers with words and actions by which they tell others about the new life that comes to all with faith in Christ, and most importantly, "calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith." So, when we misuse the gift of speech to be malicious toward fellow believers, we disrupt the unity the Church and this saddens Him.

This is a unique motive for a virtue, peculiar to Christians. Who but a Christian cares whether the Holy Spirit is saddened or not? Yet for us who are part of Christ's family, this is serious business.

31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
(1) The vice to be avoided is malice, which is ill will or spite. The virtue is forgiveness. The motivation is that we have been forgiven by God in Christ. When He taught what's known as the Lord's Prayer, Jesus said, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

(2) It's true, as the old saying puts it, that if two people agree on everything, at least one of them is irrelevant. But it's also true that forgiveness is the thing that sustains all relationships, even through periods of disagreement. This is no less true of God's Family, the Church, than it is of any other grouping of people. In fact, it's more true, especially because the Church is charged with the most important mission in the world and has the power of God and the example of Christ to draw on in living our forgiveness for one another.

5:1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

(1) Our memory verse for the week...and powerful stuff!

Follow Up on 'So, What Are We Going to Do About It?'

In this post, I discussed a recent study that demonstrated that young people who listen to more explicit music are more inclined to have sex earlier.

One commenter questioned which was the chicken and which the egg, a legitimate query. But notice that the young people were followed over a period of years and efforts were made to isolate music as a factor.

Another suggested that the study reflected a conservative bias that caused the researchers to simply find what they were looking for. But what initially interested me about the study was the fact that it was conducted by the RAND Corporation, routinely written off by conservatives as having a more liberal bias.

Another commenter sensibly said that the real problem is dysfunctionality in families, not the music. I absolutely agree. Dysfunctional families create psychological and spiritual vacuums in young people. Those vacuums will get filled in one way or another. The worse the family situation, the fewer positive supports children have, the more likely they will be to fill those holes in their souls with expressions that will build up their self-esteem and sense of connectedness with people. Alcohol and drug abuse, anorexia and bulimia, and uncommitted sex are all among the religions young people will adopt when they're living in dysfunctional environments. If a kid lives in a functional family, even a steady diet of misogynist music is unlikely to cause her or him to adopt promiscuity as a life style.

I didn't mean my original piece to be a rant against popular culture or "demon music." Asking music producers and distributors to exercise greater introspection when it comes to sexually explicit material is no substitute for the more basic things that need to happen to bring an end to sexual profligacy among teens.

I still feel that it's important for us, on behalf of kids who live in dysfunctional families in which no adult figure truly cares, to speak to the music producers and distributors about being more responsible. But here are some of the more basic things we need to do:
  • We need to pray for the young people of our country.

  • We need to ask God to open their hearts and wills to the message that they're not worthless garbage or mere physiological flotsam. The message of a lot of the sexually explicit music is that they're nobodies who only become somebodies by subordinating themselves to fleeting sexual thrills. Young people need to know that they have intrisic worth and value. The Bible says that they were created in the image of God and they are part of the world for whom God Himself died and rose.
  • Related to this, the Church needs to give higher priority to ministry among young people.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is for teenagers, too. Jesus' promise to never leave them or forsake them can energize and inspire them, empowering them to live this life in healthy fullness.

Nothing we do will more certainly have a positive impact on young people and give them the psychological and spiritual capacity for making good choices with their bodies and sexuality than a relationship with the God we meet in Jesus Christ. As Gerald Mann puts it, in Christ, we know that we have God's "cosmic okie dokie," the love and approval of our Maker. The influence of peer groups dissipates when our primary peer group is composed of Christ and the Church.
  • We need to give support to agencies and organizations that help young people see the values and rewards of responsible living and that give them the support and encouragement of healthy, wholesome adults.
This is why I'm so sold on the work of the Boys and Girls Clubs. I must tell my Christian friends that B&G is an independent, non-affliated group. They have no religious agenda. That doesn't make it unworthy of your support, though. As a member of the board for our local Boys and Girls Club, I have seen how it changes young people's lives for the better. (See here.)
  • Whether you're a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or some other adult in a young person's life, LISTEN.
I've often recounted the true story of a little boy and his mother told by Dale Carnegie in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The mother sat with her son as he chattered away and he suddenly stopped. He looked and her and said, "I know you love me very much." "Of course I do," she said. But, what, she wondered, made him say that then. "Because you listen to me."

Throughout my children's growing-up years, my office was in my home and most days I was able to be here when they arrived from school. "How was your day?" I would ask. By the time they hit their middle school years, the immediate answers were usually rendered in monosyllabic grunts.

But later in the evenings, often in their rooms, before or after our nightly prayers together, they would answer my question. No doubt some of this late-night reporting on their days was a ruse to avoid going to sleep. But not all of it. They were answering my sincere queries about their lives when they were ready to do so.

It was, I'm sure, therapeutic for them. But what if my wife and I had never asked how they were doing? There are literally millions of kids in this country who are never asked how their days or their lives are going. One question, one listening ear, can make a huge difference in a young person's life. You don't need to be an expert on youth culture, or know how to use "hip talk." You simply need to listen compassionately.

  • Christians: Strive to live authentically for Christ.
This doesn't mean that you have to be perfect. Jesus Christ is the only perfect One to walk this planet since Adam and Eve fell into sin. But live in daily repentance and daily dependence on Christ. When you do, others will notice and want the same power and peace in their lives that you have.

Last night after a Church Council meeting, one man told me about receiving a note from an old high school friend with whom he had gotten reacquainted a few years ago. He'd brought this friend to a New Year's worship at our congregation when this old buddy visited recently, but they hadn't really discussed faith issues. In his recent note, the old friend wrote to our church member, "Thanks for your example of faith. I've joined a church and I'm trying to follow Christ."

If role models can have such an impact on adults, imagine the effects of an imperfect person striving to follow Christ on the children who observe them.

Who we are often speaks so loudly that people couldn't heart our words even if they wanted to. Take it from someone guilty of more than my fair share of hypocrisy and un-Christian behavior: The best moments in my life have come when someone--whether an adult or young person--has told me, "The way I see you trying to follow Christ and the difference he makes in your life has made me want to have Christ in my life, too."

When people have Jesus Christ as their Lord, God, King, and Savior, He begins to fill the low spots in their lives (He also brings down the lofty, selfish ones) and they begin to see themselves as they are: Children of God who don't need to cave in to a "prove yourself" culture and can instead enjoy the kinds of wholesome lives and relationships we all really want.
Write the record company execs to register concern about the impact of sexually explicit music on kids riven with spiritual vacuums? Absolutely. But the steps mentioned above are even more important than that.

Did the Writer Take a Vacation?

I was reading this article on how Americans are failing to take vacations, had finished the first page, and clicked to go to the second. But when I did, no second page. After realizing that she hadn't vacationed yet this year, writer Stephanie Rosenbloom must have decided it was time to book. Repeated clicks failed to bring up the last part of the piece. Oh, well: Have fun on vacation, Stephanie!

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 30

When we dare to believe, we find that the risen Christ is there.

One of my favorite passages of the New Testament might be one easily overlooked, whether you're reading it for the first time or if you've read it many times. It comes in the Gospel of Matthew's account of Jesus' resurrection. An angel tells several women who had come to anoint Jesus' lifeless body to go tell the other disciples that Jesus had risen from death. And then he says, "he is going ahead of you to Galilee." (Matthew 28:7)

Not only is Jesus alive again, the angel was saying, but you'll need to run to keep up with Him. Ever since then, Christians have been called, even when they've had their doubts, to take a step in faith toward the Savior they can't see.

Something amazing happens whenever people militate against their doubts about Jesus. The movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, has a scene that stunned me the first time I saw it. Indy's search for the Holy Grail has finally led him to it. But it lays beyond a deep chasm. There was no apparent way to get to the cup. Yet a cryptic clue seemed to say there was a way. Finally, Indy figured it out: To get to the Grail, he needed to take a step into the chasm, trusting that when he did so, he wouldn't fall, but somehow, be supported. He learned that every time he walked forward, another bit of bridge appeared, allowing him to walk right up to the cup he'd been after.

This is like the experience of those who dare to believe in the risen Jesus Christ. They find that He's there. They find, in fact, that He's out in front of us, leading the way.

Yesterday, I said that the first way we know that Jesus rose is the reliable testimony of five-hundred people who had seen Him and risked their lives to tell the world about His resurrection. But the second way we know He's there is that He proves Himself to all who dare to trust Him.

"When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is that very Spirit [of God] bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ..." (Romans 8:15-17) When, even with tiny faith, God's Spirit prompts us to call out to the God we meet in Jesus, it's a sign that our very spirits are dialed into the resurrected Jesus.

No one can claim Jesus as their God and Savior except at the prompting of God's Spirit, the New Testament says. Faith in a Man risen from the dead would be impossible without God's witness. Christians who have experienced the reality of the risen Jesus can identify with the words of a Bruce Cockburn song:
Somebody touched me
I know it was you
Our capacity to believe the Good News of Jesus in a world filled with bad news is confirmation that He is risen and living, an indication that Jesus' promise to be with us always is reliable.

A song sung by some of my evangelical friends ends with this line:
You ask me how I know He lives
He lives within my heart
When we dare to believe, we find that the risen Christ is there.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Bay's Intriguing Thought

Conservative columnist and military blogger Austin Bay advances an interesting thought about who should be the 2008 Republican nominees for President and Vice President, respectively: John McCain and Joe Lieberman. I don't endorse candidates around here...or parties, for that matter. But Bays' speculations are interesting.

The Clarett Tragedy Continues

Maurice Clarett led the Ohio State Buckeyes to the national collegiate football championship in 2002. But things have been all downhill for the once-promising running back ever since. He's had one run-in with the law after another.

After allegedly making an illegal U-Turn early this morning, he's said to have led officers on a high speed chase, resisted arrest, and was found to be harboring four loaded weapons in his SUV. Violence or threatened violence have figured in previous Clarett arrests.

Unable to make it in the NFL, Clarett is now on the roster of the Mahoning Valley entry in the Eastern Indoor Football League. But talk about enabling negative behavior! The team is known as the Hit Men. Their web sit glorifies gangsters of yesteryear and when you navigate through the site, clicking a new page sets off the sound of a discharging rifle.

Maurice Clarett's fall has been terribly sad. But in each step of the way, whether in the form of hometown backers, some of my fellow OSU alums, or a minor league football team, he has been almost encouraged in pursuing a self-destructive life style.

I pray for Clarett.

I hope that the Hit Men will change their name and their violence-lauding image.

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

[For a first look at this weekend's lesson, look here.]

General Comments
1. For a general overview of Ephesians, see here.

2. The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB) puts the text before us in context:
Ephesians expresses an understanding of Christian life that runs throughout the Pauline tradition. [The Pauline tradition is the undisputed writings of Paul, as well as of those associated with his school of thought.] Christians have been transformed in Christ. The Spirit of God works in the community of believers to effect a new way of life. At the same time, Christians must be actively engaged in strengthening what they already are...[Believers in Christ are part of] the body of Christ, which is still in the process of growing into its head [Christ].
3. The Biblical literary genre of our lesson is parenesis. It's composed of a series of exhortations to various ethical practices. The virtues commended in these exhortations are, generally speaking, not unique to Christian faith. What is unique about them is the reasons for the ethical behaviors commended. The reason given for adopting each virtue is rooted in the changed relationship with God that comes to us through Jesus Christ and incorporation into His community of faith, the Church.

As the NIB puts it:
Believers are to feel a particular concern for their behavior because it affects the holiness of the community.
This communal orientation, central to Old Testament and Jewish ethics as revealed to God's people by God Himself, was a new thing for the Gentile converts to Christian faith. Gentiles tended to be individualists and, as this and other New Testament passages show, driven by self-serving passions.

One can observe God's perfect plan for humanity in this. God birthed and cultivated a chosen people, the Jews, schooling them in His will for humanity, that we live in community with God and each other. The Jews knew that God wants to free the whole human race from our slavery to the deathly ways of selfishness and individualism, freeing us to live rooted in God and to each find our own strengths and gifts for the purpose of helping one another--and so, all of us--to become our best selves. After the Messiah had come in Jesus, it was the Jews who were able to teach Gentile converts to Christian faith what it meant to live in the living community of God, the body of Christ, as Ephesians calls it...the Church. This was one of the many gifts Jews were able to bring to the early Church.

4. My seminary professor, Wally Taylor, in his commentary on Ephesians points to a pattern that prevails in most of these exhortations--there are seven of them. The pattern is:
  • vice to be avoided
  • virtue to be embraced
  • motivation for adopting the virtue
More specifics on the passage in another "pass" tomorrow, I hope.

Links to 'Christian Faith: The Basics' So Far

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
Part 20
Part 21
Part 22
Part 23
Part 24
Part 25
Part 26
Part 27
Part 28
Part 29

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 29

Jesus wouldn't stay dead!

After dying as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the entire known world--Gentile and Jewish--Jesus rose again.

Jesus first appeared to the women at His tomb, then to His most important male followers, the eleven surviving apostles, as well as to the man who would soon be designated as successor to the betrayer, Judas. Paul writes that "he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles." (First Corinthians 15:5-7)

Jesus' resurrection was confirmation of several important facts:
  • While the world had thought that it had successfully ridded itself of God, the world was mistaken
  • While the world thought that it had decided the fate of God-in-the-flesh, Jesus in fact had died just as He had set out to do, at a day and time of God's choosing
  • Jesus had power over life...and death. All who turn from sin and follow Him are on the winning side of eternity
How do I know that Jesus rose from the dead?

One way I know is analogous to how I know that Neil Armstrong was the first person on the Moon, that Winston Churchill was the wartime Prime Minister of Great Britain, or that there was such a person as Aristotle. We have the testimony of reliable witnesses.

And how reliable were the witnesses for Jesus' resurrection? Very reliable when you think about it.

Here were more than five-hundred people staking their lives on the outrageous claim that an itinerant preacher who had been executed, the whole known world arrayed against Him, had risen from the dead. Considering that their Lord had recently been killed, these people had little apparent reason for insisting that He was alive again.

Even if they thought that Jesus had risen from death, they would have been better off keeping their mouths shut and so, not risking the same fate that He had suffered. There was certainly no power to be had by claiming that Jesus was risen. Nor money. In fact, they would almost certainly be consigning themselves to the margins of the world by sticking with their outrageous acclamation of a risen Savior.

No doubt when they were bold enough to declare that Jesus wouldn't stay dead, some people thought they were nuts, hardly the sort of opinion you want your neighbors to have of you...unless you're so convinced of the truth of what you say and of its importance for the world that you don't care what people think.

Others may have thought the early witnesses for Jesus' resurrection were simply a lot of liars, participants in a grand conspiracy. But to imagine that a conspiracy involving five-hundred people wouldn't eventually buckle defies logic and experience. Not one of those first witnesses of Jesus' rising cracked, though.

In the next installment, I'll tell you another reason why I believe that Jesus rose on the Sunday after His execution two-thousand years ago.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

[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.]

This week, for our first pass at the lesson, just a few quick items.

The Lesson: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Here's an article that gives a great overview of the passage and its themes. It's one of those things I read and think to myself, "I couldn't possibly put it any better than that!"

Finally, here's the memory verse for this week's lesson, the portion that I'm asking all members of Friendship to recite with me during worship...and to remember beyond this weekend:
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” (Ephesians 5:1-2a)
More on this lesson as the week unfolds.

Goose-Stepping Has Always Looked Silly to Me...

But it's evidently meant to be intimidating. Amibvablog considers the phenomenon she aptly describes as "fascist marching."

"We're squeezed between Karbala and Masada."

Walid Jumblatt, one of the leaders of Lebanon's Cedar Revolution, is fearful for his country's future and for the prospects of its nascent democracy.
"The fanatics have won the day," he said gloomily, as we drank sangria in a vaulted stone room lined with Oriental pillows. "The Israelis are arrogant and won't admit they've lost, but they have. Hezbollah can afford this tactic of burnt earth." "We're squeezed," he concluded, "between Karbala and Masada." Jumblatt allowed himself a slight smile for coining the expression and then sighed heavily. By invoking Karbala, the Iraqi city where the Shiite saint Hussein and his followers were massacred, Jumblatt was referring to the Shiite glorification of martyrdom. Masada, the hilltop fortress where ancient Israelites committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans, symbolizes the Israeli penchant for viewing every fight as a fight to the death.
Whatever one feels about Jumblatt's assessment or of the current conflict in Lebanon in general, one sees that it's riven with pain at every turn.

[Thanks to Ruminating Pilgrim for leading me to this piece.]

"I don't know who is right and who is wrong," she said. "All I know and hope and wish and pray for is that there is a cease-fire and peace."

So says Nada Abraham, a fourteen year old who lives in the Cincinnati area. She has been in Lebanon, dodging bombs, since the beginning of the war there.

"I want the keyboard!" "You can't handle the keyboard!"

The great thing about the Internet, with emails, instant messaging, and blogs, is that we can communicate instantly, even, in the latter case, putting our ideas before the whole world in a flash.

The bad thing about the Internet, with emails, instant messaging, and blogs, is that we can communicate instantly, even, in the latter case, putting our ideas before the whole world in a flash.

Yesterday, during a discussion on NPR's Talk of the Nation, a psychotherapist who has studied youth culture, said that usually, in their Internet-based communications, 'tweenagers are likely to be far more brazen in their sexual talk than they are in their interpersonal communications at school.

A similar phenomenon seems to happen among adults who email, IM, or blog. Their unaccustomed brazenness isn't necessarily sexual, although there's plenty of anecdotal evidence of that. But the brazenness many adults practice under cover of their PCs relates to politics. A whole army of net-users seems to feel no hesitation about saying the most outrageous, nasty things imaginable about pols with whom they disagree, things they would never think of saying--or would at least think twice about saying--in personal conversation.

Lanny Davis, Democratic operative, one-time aide to Bill Clinton, has a piece lamenting the role being played by Dem bloggers and emailers in the contest between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont in the Democratic US Senate primary in Connecticut. He writes, in part:
My brief and unhappy experience with the hate and vitriol of bloggers on the liberal side of the aisle comes from the last several months I spent campaigning for a longtime friend, Joe Lieberman...

The far right does not have a monopoly on bigotry and hatred and sanctimony. Here are just a few examples (there are many, many more anyone with a search engine can find) of the type of thing the liberal blog sites have been posting about Joe Lieberman:

• "Ned Lamont and his supporters need to [g]et real busy. Ned needs to beat Lieberman to a pulp in the debate and define what it means to be an AMerican who is NOT beholden to the Israeli Lobby" (by "rim," posted on Huffington Post, July 6, 2006).

• "Joe's on the Senate floor now and he's growing a beard. He has about a weeks growth on his face. . . . I hope he dyes his beard Blood red. It would be so appropriate" (by "ctkeith," posted on Daily Kos, July 11 and 12, 2005).

• On "Lieberman vs. Murtha": "as everybody knows, jews ONLY care about the welfare of other jews; thanks ever so much for reminding everyone of this most salient fact, so that we might better ignore all that jewish propaganda [by Lieberman] about participating in the civil rights movement of the 60s and so on" (by "tomjones," posted on Daily Kos, Dec. 7, 2005).

• "Good men, Daniel Webster and Faust would attest, sell their souls to the Devil. Is selling your soul to a god any worse? Leiberman cannot escape the religious bond he represents. Hell, his wife's name is Haggadah or Muffeletta or Diaspora or something you eat at Passover" (by "gerrylong," posted on the Huffington Post, July 8, 2006).

• "Joe Lieberman is a racist and a religious bigot" (by "greenskeeper," posted on Daily Kos, Dec. 7, 2005).

And these are some of the nicer examples.

One Sunday morning on C-Span I debated Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel on the Lieberman versus Lamont race. Afterwards I received a series of emails--many of them in ALL CAPS (which often suggests the hyper-frenetic state of these extremist haters)--that were of the same stripe as the blog posts, and filled with the same level of personal hate.

But the issue is not just emotional outbursts by these usually anonymous bloggers. A friend of mine just returned from Connecticut, where he had spoken on several occasions on behalf of Joe Lieberman. He happens to be a liberal antiwar Democrat, just as I am. He is also a lawyer. He told me that within a day of a Lamont event--where he asked the candidate some critical questions--some of his clients were blitzed with emails attacking him and threatening boycotts of their products if they did not drop him as their attorney. He has actually decided not to return to Connecticut for the primary today; he is fearful for his physical safety...
It seems that at their keyboards, drunk on the power of instantaneous communications, people of both the Right and Left have forgotten that the functioning of democracy depends on civility and mutual respect. One reason that Joe Lieberman was gaining in the polls as his primary campaign drew to a close, I'm sure, is the revulsion that many Democrats in the state felt over the nastiness, not of the campaign waged by Ned Lamont, but by the things written by his cyber-supporters about Lieberman.

Whether Lieberman was able to close the gap and can beat Lamont today remains to be seen. But I'm not making a political statement when I say that I'm sort of pulling for him. I hate to see the nastiness of this small army of mean-spirited cyber-pundits get rewarded.

[Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for leading me to Davis' piece.]

Monday, August 07, 2006

Has the Democratic Party 'Jumped the Shark'?

Dean Barnett, talking about the Lieberman-Lamont Democratic primary race in Connecticut thinks that it has. On Hugh Hewitt's site, he writes:
A ROUGH CONVENTIONAL WISDOM seems to be forming that if Ned Lamont wins tomorrow night, it will be disastrous for the Democratic Party. As Martin Peretz puts it in today’s Wall Street Journal, “If Mr. Lieberman goes down, the thought-enforcers of the left will target other centrists as if the center was the locus of a terrible heresy, an emphasis on national strength…The Lamont ascendancy, if that is what it is, means nothing other than that the left is trying, and in places succeeding, to take back the Democratic Party.” Concurring opinions, usually thoughtfully expressed, have seemingly come from every citizen of the mainstream, be they Republican or Democrat, with access to a TV camera or modem.

But they’re all wrong. The Democratic Party jumped the shark years ago. There’s nothing that will happen tomorrow, be it a Lamont rout or a Lieberman shocker, that will bring the party back to its senses. Similarly, there’s nothing that will happen tomorrow that will make the party any more insane, more angry or more destructive.

In short, regardless of the result, tomorrow will change nothing.
Barnett may be right that the Connecticut primary will change nothing tomorrow. In fact, I think that he is right, at one level, even though the headlines on Wednesday will call it a drubbing not only for Lieberman but also for Bush if the incumbent Senator loses.

But my study of history and current events over the past forty-plus years tells me that reports of the demise of the Democratic Party or of its capacity to appeal to mainstream America are entirely premature.

This "jump the shark" stuff reflects a dangerous attitude for any political commentator, particularly an overtly Republican one, to take. The Republican and Democratic parties have proven to be a bit like Freddie Krueger; they can come back at any time, especially when their opponents are contemptuous of them. To quote one of Mr. Barnett's phrase, "a little history is in order."

I well remember the rout experienced by Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican nominee for President in 1964. Goldwater carried only six states as he was swamped by Lyndon Johnson.

It represented the most recent in a long string of GOP defeats. From 1932 through 1964, Democrats won the presidency seven times. The Republicans won twice in that period and that was only because they'd reached beyond the ranks of standard-issue pols, nominating war hero Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. (By the way, I regard Eisenhower as one of our four greatest Presidents. The others: Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.)

Throughout the same thirty-plus year period that saw Democratic domination of the national elections, with few exceptions, both houses of Congress were also in the hands of the Dems.

After Goldwater's defeat, pundits of all stripes were declaring the Republican Party dead, members of a permanent minority who could never hope to appeal to the US public or break the Democratic stranglehold on Congress.

Yet two years later, a country increasingly disenchanted with a war that few wanted to fight--the War in Vietnam--and concerned about social unrest, Republicans elected lots of new members to the US House and Senate and to governorships around the country.

On one Tuesday in November, the Republicans seemed to grow a bumper crop of presidential prospects. Among the governors elected or re-elected that year and touted for the presidency were Reagan in California, Romney in Michigan, and Rhodes and Rockefeller re-elected in Ohio and New York, respectively. (Of course, Richard Nixon, once deemed politically dead, was a big winner that year, although on no ballot anywhere. But he gained lots of political IOUs from candidates for whom he campaigned tirelessly in 1966. Those chits would soon come in handy for Nixon.)

A cartoon appeared in newspapers and news magazines in the days after the Republicans' remarkable 1966 performance. It showed Lyndon Johnson in the same pose he had struck for news photographers some weeks before, when he had pulled up his shirt to display scars from recent surgery. Now, the cartoon-LBJ pointed to a different scar, this one labeled Republican wins from coast to coast. "It hurts from here to here," the caricature Johnson declared.

Two years later, on the strength of a Southern strategy conceived by Kevin Phillips and others, Richard Nixon was elected President, initiating the emergence of the Republican Party as the largely-dominant party for the past thirty-plus years.

But woe to any partisan who becomes complacent. Parties in power have a nasty habit of making policies that eventually incur the opposition of vast portions of the electorate, creating new opportunities even for the party that, a short time before, seemed to have "jumped the shark."

Complacency anout that is the best way for partisans to turn victory into defeat.

So What Are We Going to Do About It?

An Associated Press story talks about a story, a summary of which appears in the latest issue of the journal, Pediatrics:
Teens whose iPods are full of music with raunchy, sexual lyrics start having sex sooner than those who prefer other songs, a study found.

Whether it's hip-hop, rap, pop, or rock, much of popular music aimed at teens contains sexual overtones. Its influence on their behavior appears to depend on how the sex is portrayed, researchers found.

Songs depicting men as ``sex-driven studs" and women as sex objects, and which have explicit references to sex acts, are likelier to trigger early sexual behavior than those in which sexual references are more veiled and relationships appear more committed, the study found.

Teens who said they listened to lots of music with degrading sexual messages were almost twice as likely to start having intercourse or other sexual activities within the next two years, compared with teens who listened to little or no sexually degrading music.
None of this comes as any surprise, though some will try to explain away the study results' significance:
...researchers tried to account for other factors that could affect teens' sexual behavior, including parental permissiveness, and still found explicit lyrics had a strong influence.

However, Yvonne K. Fulbright, a New York-based sex researcher and author, said factors including peer pressure, self-esteem, and home environment probably are more influential than the research suggests.
Fulbright is right, I think, in saying that other factors, all of which relate in some way to family functionality, likely lay behind many teens' acceptance of misogyny, the objectification and subordination of women, the objectification of sex itself, and of non-committed sexual expression.

But surely the existence of family dysfunctionality should be more reason for society--and for the corporations and entertainers who cater to young people--to exercise greater wisdom about the music presented to kids.

Battling with low self-esteem and set adrift from strong, affirming familial ties, kids find their values where they may. Their situations call for society at large to act on their behalf.

The question this study raises is a simple one: What are we going to do about it as a society?

Of course, it would be wrong to infringe on the First Amendment rights of artists. The same amendment which protects their right to create misogynist music also protects others' right to speak a word from God and to worship Him. In America, we mutually agree to afford one another the opportunity to express themselves. Government censorship is not only wrong, I think, but also likely to be ineffective.

Rather, I think that the whole society needs to make it very clear to the mavens of the entertainment industry that we expect them to behave responsibly. We need to ask that they:
  • Stop objectifying males by portraying them as nothing more than sex machines
  • Stop objectifying females by implying that their worth resides only in the full expression of their sexuality
  • Stop linking sex with violent domination of males over females
  • Stop creating the expectation that sex is unrelated to commitment
Frankly, with the possible exception of my fourth bullet-point above, I can't imagine that every responsible group in American society couldn't or wouldn't wholeheartedly endorse these demands. Women's groups, pediatricians, the mental health community, educators, parent groups, the criminal justice system, social service agencies, and faith communities, including my fellow Christians, should all be able to get on board.

Of course, down the road, such demands might need to be given the teeth of a boycott. But for now, petitioning all of the major music and film distributors, asking them to take a responsible attitude toward the safety and well-being of our kids makes sense. If people are going to make money off of young people, they should--as surely as those who market food, drugs, and other products--be expected to not endanger them.

What do you think?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

In Spite of Loss...Reds Are Still in This Thing!

It isn't time for Reds fans to jump off the Roebling Bridge.

Nor is it time to give up on the relief pitching core assembled by Cincinnati's general manager, Wayne Krivsky.

My son, Philip, and I were at Great American Ball Park this afternoon to watch the Reds lose a heartbreaker to the Atlanta Braves.

The Reds were beating the Braves and their starting pitcher, future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, 4 to 2 going into the eighth inning. The Reds' starter, Kyle Lohse, turned in an impressive performance, but ran out of gas, necessitating bringing in bullpen help. Reliever Gary Majewski opened up the floodgates, leading to 4 Atlanta runs in the eighth.

(By the way, how does one get "Losh," with a long "o" as a pronunciation for a name which, in the original German would be pronounced "Losa," also with a long "o"? But the long "o" isn't the issue. I know of no language in which the letters "hs" are pronounced with the "sh" sound. It makes about as much sense as the French name, "Favre," which should be pronounced something like "Fahvra," being mongrelized as "Farv.")

Anyway, the Reds' loss was really discouraging, especially since the team is in definite contention for either winning the Central Division or the Wildcard race.

It was doubly disappointing for my son and me, who, contrary to a lot of Reds fans, have been big supporters of the July trades that saw the team deal away some of its more-than-ample offensive firepower in order to get some much-needed pitching help. (In years past, Reds teams have done well in the front half of their seasons, before the All Star breaks, only to fade as weak pitching began to give out.)

Today's post-game comments on the radio were full of the concern and questioning you'd expect after such a loss, I guess.

And though the Reds can ill afford to lose games in which they have leads going into the late innings, it is just one game. I remain convinced that Krivsky and the new ownership group led by Bob Castellini know what they're doing. The National League is ripe for the picking this year, with only one team consistently dominant, the New York Mets. The Reds can go to the post-season still and I still believe that it has a stronger bullpen that can help make that a reality.

On Monday, the Reds begin a super-critical series with the Saint Louis Cardinals. Now would be a great time for the bullpen to come alive!

By the way, Ken Griffey, Jr.'s home run today was a thing of beauty. He has the most perfect swing I have ever seen in my life. He now has 559 career homers. And just think: Not a single one has been 'roid-powered!

Growing Up...Together

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, during worship celebrations on August 5 and 6, 2006.]

Ephesians 4:1-16
There’s a phrase we use a lot in this country, one that expresses a prominent America value which I frankly question. In fact, I more that question it. I reject it altogether. The phrase: “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

But have you really thought about the image in that cliche? Is it possible for us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps?

The Eddie Bauer shoes I'm wearing today just happen to have straps on the backs of them. So, let me see if I can pull myself up with them. Nope, the most I can do is lift up my heels. I think it's safe to say that once my feet are in my shoes (or my boots), I am incapable of pulling myself up by my own bootstraps.

You may think I’m being unfair to take this phrase so literally. But I’m trying to make a point: To advance in life, to grow up requires a lot more than talent or effort. We need help.

As a high schooler, Steve Jobs got the attention of a major businessperson. Impressed by the young man’s enthusiasm, this businessperson, the Hewlett of Hewlett and Packard, he saw to it that Jobs had a job with his company. That apparently proved precisely the encouragement he needed. Later, in his parents garage, with his friend, Steve Wozniak, Jobs started a company you may have heard of: Apple, which produces things like iMacs and iPods.

To grow up or to advance in life requires a lot more than talent or effort. We need help. No one has ever pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.

This is no less true in our faith life. It begins, as Tiffany’s does this weekend, in Baptism. Baptism isn’t something we do. It’s something God does. Through it, we become recipients of forgiveness and the eternity Jesus won for us through His cross and resurrection. God comes to us in the water and the Word, claiming us as His own children, and calls to believe in Christ. But our Christian life doesn’t end there.

In our Bible lesson for today, the first century preacher Paul says that our spiritual goal as Christians is to grow up. As he puts it, we’re to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ...” The Christian life is a process of growing up to look and be more and more like Jesus.

But how do we go about growing up as Christians? In the same way we grow as people in other facets of our lives. A woman once told me that she believed in Jesus; so why, she wondered, did she need Church? You see, this woman didn’t understand that the Church is meant to be more than a maternity ward, a place where people are born again in Jesus Christ. It’s also a fellowship within which things like spiritual pediatrics, surgery, check-ups, and corrective therapies happen. She didn’t understand that the Christian life is a process, a series of surrenders to God and the changes He needs to make to help us grow more like Christ.

The sports pages of The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a profile on the Ohio State football team on Saturday. A particular focus was two members of the team considered to be Heisman Trophy candidates, Troy Smith and Ted Ginn, Jr.. These two have known each other and played together on teams since they were seven years old. I’m sure that when those two kids from Cleveland first got to know one another, pee wee league football coaches were salivating in anticipation of having them on their teams. But what if, over the past fifteen years, they had never received any coaching, never gone to a summer football camp, never gotten the advice of football experts like Ginn’s dad, a football coach? They’d still be playing like seven year olds and we wouldn’t be talking about the possibility of their being on a national championship team.

We grow up when others use their expertise, their influence, and their concern for us to help us, to teach us, to afford us the opportunities to make mistakes and learn and mature. Both the givers and recipients of such help need to be humble. Givers donate their help knowing that the more talented people they assist may one day outshine them. The recipients take help, acknlowledging that they don't know it all.

This humble interchange of mutual service is exactly what Paul was talking about when he wrote, “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

The Church is the body of Christ in the world, the community in which you and I are called to grow up, together. There are no “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” Christians. We need Christ and we need each other!

But what are the means by which this happens? What’s the workout regimen that God uses to help us grow up?

We do it in two ways.

First, by loving each other. I’m not talking syrupy sentimentality here. I mean, caring about each other when the chips are down and when it’s hard to care. I’m talking about love that’s more a matter of what we do than what we feel.

The second component of God's workout regimen for growing Christians is to use our spiritual gifts to help and challenge one another to keep growing.

A few years back, a newlywed couple started coming to our worship services, held in the Withamsville-Tobasco Elementary School gym. I went to visit them in their home. We had a wonderful conversation. At one point, I saw a guitar out of the corner of my eye and asked, “Who plays guitar?” The basic thrust of the fellow’s reply was, “I do...sort of.”

When I left that night, Laurel told Tim, “You’d better start practicing. I think you just got drafted to play guitar for worship.” That story, with variations for names and genders could be told and retold about the people of this congregation and of every Christian congregation for the past two-thousand years.

None of us can do everything. But when each of us who are part of the body of Christ, the Church, exercise our God-given gifts to serve the cause of Christ and each other, we all grow.

A man told me several years ago: “I don’t have any spiritual gifts.” I asked him if he believed in Jesus Christ. When he said, “Yes,” I told him, “Then you have at least one spiritual gift.” The Bible affirms that every believer has at least one gift that God has granted us not just for our benefit, but to help the overall ministry of the Church.

All believers in Christ are destined for the kind of greatness Paul talks about in our lesson today, the greatness of Christlike patience, humility, forbearance of one another, a commitment to living in the bonds of peace, and of loving one another enough to use our spiritual gifts for the glory of God and the ministry of the Church.

This past week, I re-read a story I'd read years ago in a book by the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum. It happened in a French monastery where only a few monks remained. The place was so empty, in fact, that the Church hierarchy was thinking of closing the place down and selling off all the property. The monks didn’t want this to happen. So, they prayed together about their situation. After doing so, one monk suggested they might want to get the advice of a Jewish mystic who lived nearby. One volunteered to approach him.

The next day, the volunteer went off to the mystic’s cottage and explained their problem. The mystic said he didn’t have an answer. A strong impression had come to him, though: He sensed that “one of the monks was destined to be a great man in the church someday.” The monks, when advised of the mystic’s words, thought that was all very nice, although it did nothing to solve their problem.

But in the ensuing months, the idea that one of them was destined for greatness began to work on them. Each wondered which monk was the one destined for greatness in the Church. They started to treat each other differently. They were more patient with each other. They bore one another’s weaknesses. They forgave each other. They encouraged each other. Visitors still used the monastery grounds for picnics. But over time, they all saw a different attitude among the monks. When they spoke with the monks, who had formerly been aloof, they came away encouraged and loved.

After a time, some of the families asked if their sons could apprentice under these monks. The monastery order began to grow rapidly. Today, it’s one of the most thriving, growing orders in all of of France. It started when the monks treated one another differently. They believed that each person had been crafted by the hand of God and they treated each other with the respect and love that the children of God deserve.

It reminds me of the story of Martin Luther when he was a boy. He had a teacher who, each time he entered the classroom at the beginning of the day, bowed to all of his students. Teachers in those days never treated their students with respect. So, this was really different! When asked why he bowed to his students, the teacher explained that to them that one day, they would likely become great men. He simply wanted to give them the respect they were due. That man had no way of knowing that one of the greatest theologians in all of Church history was among his students. But it's just possible that his gesture played some role in giving the young Luther the confidence he needed to become that great theologian!

Let me tell you something I have learned after twenty-two years as a pastor: Churches grow numerically when their members grow spiritually. And spiritual growth begins with a commitment to love and grow together and to finding and using our spiritual gifts, when we render love, respect, and mutual service to one another.

None of us can really pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But within the fellowship of the Church, God wants to lift us toward becoming all that He made us to be, all that Christ died and rose to help us become. Within the fellowship of the Church, find your gift and use it to lift others up. We all will grow when we do that. It’s a wonderful way to live!