Saturday, September 23, 2006

All the King's Men

Has anybody yet seen the remake of All the King's Men? The 1949 film version of Robert Penn Warren's fictionalized telling of Huey Long's story is so great, Broderick Crawford's performance so perfectly outsized, that I can't imagine why we need a remake.

The reviews I've read and heard have not been positive. Penn, a method actor whose performances are usually more understated, psychological studies, hardly seems like the ideal choice to play Willy Stark and so far, most of the reviewers seem to agree.

Let me know if you've seen the movie and if you liked it or not.

Americans More United Than Often Thought

In spite of the ferocious spinning done by both the Right and the Left, especially on blogs, recent reactions to the visits and outrageous statements of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, demonstrate that Americans have more in common with each other than is often thought.

I've never been much of an Anderson Cooper fan. But when he interviewed Ahmadinejad the other day, he refused to take any stuff. He asked the Iranian leader about his absurd claim that the International Atomic Energy Agency hadn't found his country to be guilty of violating international accords by developing technology needed for nuclear weaponry--something hard for the IAEA to do, since Ahmadinejad's government won't allow inspectors access to their enrichment facilities. Ahmadinejad tried to dodge it, but Cooper pressed the issue. With a smile, Ahmadinejad asked if Cooper was simply reflecting the position of the US government. No, said Cooper, unlike Iran, in the United States, we have a free press.

Cooper, in his interview, as was true of a number of US foreign policy scholars who met with Ahmadinejad under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations, also called the Iranian to account for his asinine assertion that the Holocaust never happened.

When Chavez ambled around New York City to criticize the President of the United States, Democratic congresspersons Charles Rangel and Nancy Pelosi condemned both the Venezuelan and his American hosts. Americans have every right to challenge their Presidents' policies. And of course, the leader of a foreign nation is allowed to make critical comments at the United Nations. But to come into the US and do so or for groups within our country to give aid and comfort to such lying thugs is unconscionable. Kudos to Rangel and Pelosi for saying so!

An old song from the Fifties, Honey Hush, starts out with the immortal words, "Come into this house, stop all that yakity yak." That's precisely the message that Americans of all stripes seemed to be giving two troublemaking foreign presidents last week. That was good!

(By the way, if the United States and the rest of the West weren't addicted to oil, do you think anybody would give a rip about what Mahmoud and Hugo have to say? Without oil money in their coffers they would be consigned to the sidelines of history where they belong.)

Lehardy on Benedict's Lecture...and a Few Additional Thoughts

Charlie Lehardy, one of the best bloggers around, points out that there really is no reason for Muslims or anyone else to have taken offense to Pope Benedict XVI's passing reference to Islam during his lecture in Regensburg:
The Pope was not bashing Islam but making an illustration of an important difference between Islam and Christianity: Muhammed taught that violence and bloodshed were tools Allah would use to spread the faith; Christ taught that God expects us to live at peace with all men, in love and humility — even unbelievers.
Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten once pointed out that Muslim leaders and those representing other faiths frequently become frustrated with Christian theologians with whom they have interreligious dialogs. Too often, these people told Braaten, Christians were apt to soft-pedal the uniquenesses of Christian faith or the claims of Jesus to be the way to God. "Stop doing this," representatives from other faiths said. "What's the point of a dialog if Christians aren't accurately representing our faith?"

The Muslim religious and political leaders who whipped the uninformed masses into a frenzy of hatred last week would apparently not be in sympathy with erudite, reasonable Muslim leaders Braaten cited.

Pope Benedict, rightly or wrongly, made a statement, quoting somebody else in passing. A statement in response from members of the diverse Muslim community, as part of a civilized dialog, was appropriate. The torching of churches, death threats against the Pope, or the murder of a nun were not appropriate.

We Christians believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, Who offers forgiveness of sin and everlasting life to all who turn from sin and trust in Him as Savior and Lord. We hope--we pray--that all will experience the new life we believe Jesus gives as a gift of grace to those who believe in Him. If people don't agree with our confession, that's okay. But violence and irrationality aren't okay!

Lehardy points out that Islam and Christianity make competing truth claims. But that's no license for people in either camp to try to bully others into staying mum in expressing their belief.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Fourth Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

[To see what this is about and to read the first pass at the lesson, go here. The second and third passes are here and here, respectively.]

[Continuing the Verse-by-Verse comments...]
7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
(1) To humble ourselves by submitting to God is not a submission to humiliation. Those who subordinate themselves to God acknowledge God's greatness and receive His power for living. First Peter 5:6 says, "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time." By bowing to the God we meet in Jesus Christ, God lifts us up to become our best selves, the people we were made to be. (Haslam)

(2) Resisting the devil is precisely what Jesus had to do in the wilderness. We can be thankful that He did. Jesus' resistance to sin allowed Him to go to the cross as the perfect sinless representative of the human race, accepting our punishment for sin and winning eternal life for all who believe in Him.

More on temptation and resisting it here.

8aDraw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
(1) This is one of ten imperative statements made in vv. 7-10.

(2) There's a great promise here: God will come to those who ask for Him to be with Him.

(3) We also see something about the nature of God: God will not force Himself on anybody.

Thinking About 'Victimhood'

Reading Steve Chandler's outstanding book, The Story of You, has got me to thinking about how we often excuse ourselves from living, convinced that circumstances have prevented us from being the people we want to be.

I wrote a bit about this topic here. (The post is called, How Much Wallowing is Cathartic?)

But do yourself a huge favor: Read Chandler's book. I don't agree with everything he says here. But there's a lot of truth to be soaked up from its pages.

By the way, Chandler isn't the author mentioned here. I've never met him.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Working on a Book Proposal

I've just finished spending another hour working on a book proposal. This has been going on now for several weeks and the process is an interesting one, not what I would have expected at all.

In my mind, I guess, I'd pictured a book proposal being a simple matter of a cover letter, a first chapter, and an outline for the rest of the book.

But the literary agency to which an author-friend of mine gave my name wants a lot more than that. The agency, which specializes in representing Christian writers, asks its prospective authors to tell them about their ministries, their life histories, and their goals as part of their book proposals.

I think this is good for several reasons. One is that considering all these things sharpens the prospective author's focus.

But second and more important for me, in any case, is that it reminds me that any book I write should serve a greater purpose than making money--highly unlikely for any book, from what I read and hear--or to afford me the opportunity to express myself. Bach used to write, "To God alone be the glory" on every piece of music he composed. Believe it or not, one of the things I pray each night before I close my eyes is that the things I write, including the things I write for this blog, will glorify God. I pray that any book I write will do the same thing. If that isn't my intention, I'd better just bag the whole idea.

But one set of questions that the literary agency wants me to answer in my book proposal made me laugh. "How have your previous books sold? Through what distribution channels? How many?" I want to answer simply, "There's a first time for everything." Maybe they'll agree.

Third Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

[To see the first and second passes at this week's lesson, go here and here.]

[Continuing the Verse-by-verse comments...]

3:18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
(1) Arrogance, which is giving first priority to anyone or anything other than God, naturally results in hatred, envy, conflicts, and disputes, as James will soon discuss. But rightness with God (righteousness) causes peace to flow into the lives of those who put God first. This doesn't mean that our lives will necessarily be peaceful or that everybody will like us. But it does mean that we will be able to look into the face of God and look at our own faces when we gaze into a mirror. We will have peace with God and peace with ourselves when we lay aside the arrogance of idolatry.

(2) On righteousness, look at Matthew 5:6. You might also be interested in this message about the passage.

(3) On being a peacemaker, look at Matthew 5:9. You might also be interested in this message about the passage.

(4) Chris Haslam points out that:
This verse is reminiscent of the association of wisdom, peace and righteousness in the Septuagint translation of Proverbs 3:9 (Honour the Lord with your just labours, and give him the first of your fruits of righteousness), 17-18 [Here, the common Biblical anthropomorphism of portraying Wisdom as a feminine character is employed.]; 11:30 and of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:9: “‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’”).

(5) As will become clear, this verse is a bridge between what has preceded and what will follow, summarizing an old theme and introducing a new one.

4:1Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?
(1) One Christian author refers to all human life as a journey of desire. I think that he's right. Made in the image of God, we have a desire for limitless living. But because of our alienation from God--a state of being that the Bible calls sin, we seek to fulfill our desires with things that seem to give us life, but only end in death. These cravings are what lay behind all of our addictions and every sin that we commit. We want the things that only God can provide. But, arrogantly unwilling to submit to God's rule over our lives, we try to fulfill our desires for God and the things of God with other things.

[These posts contains some musing on our "journey of desire," which you might find interesting: here, here, and here.

2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask.
(1) The Ninth and Tenth Commandments deal with coveting.

(2) James shows how different sins relate and lead to each other. Here, coveting, a violation of either the Ninth or Tenth Commandments, maybe both, can also lead to a violation of the Fifth Commandment's prohibition of murder.

Martin Luther said, rightly I think, that to violate any of Commandments 2 through 10 was really a violation of the First Commandment: "You shall have no other gods before Me." When we violate any of the commandments, we're giving priority to our will and judgment over against the will and judgment of God.

3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
(1) So much of what we ask of God, James says, is simply for our own pleasures. It isn't that God doesn't want us to experience happiness. He does. But many of the pleasures we want are like the buzz experienced by an addict or an alcoholic. It lasts for a little while and then goes away, often painfully so. Then, it takes even more of the stuff to give a buzz.

Ask, James says. But ask for the right things, for the right reasons.

Here's some of the content of a handout I shared on Monday night with a group looking at Mark Dahle's new book on healing. While healing:
A Few Thoughts for First Gathering,
How To Pray for Healing (and what to do if nothing happens)
September 18, 2006

1. Luke 11:5-13
Jesus tells us to ask.

2. John 15:12-17
Jesus promises that the Father will give us anything for which we ask. But there appear to be two preconditions:

a. That we live in love for others in the Church. (John 15:12)

b. That we live in love for God. (John 15:12)

[Do these two conditions remind you of anything? Matthew 22:36-40. We are to love all people. But the new commandment Jesus gave in John 15 is to love those within the covenant community, the Church, and so authentic the life Christ is living within us.]

[Note: Love isn’t defined as an emotion, but as a set of actions. Think: Obedience. cf. James 2:20]

3. First John 5:14
We can be bold in our praying, trusting that God grants prayers offered in Jesus’ Name which reflect His will.

(2) James has already discussed the importance of asking God for things in prayer, specifically for the wisdom to live rightly. (James 1:5)

(3) One more note on pleasure, this from Loader:
It is not wrong to want pleasure. It is not wrong to ask. That is the part of the point of 3:3. The message of the good news assumes we have such desires and that they can be legitimate in themselves. After all, the good news is that there is a way where our desires, God's desires and others' desires - at least what God desires for them - can jell together into a peaceable unity. Christians who deny this and pretend that they are not engaging in a relationship with God partly out of concern for themselves, are playing games.
I hope to present the final pass at this weekend's lesson tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

[To see the first pass at this Bible lesson, go here.]

Verse-by-Verse Comments
3:13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.
(1) As we've pointed out several times in the weeks we've been looking at James, wisdom is God's gift to those who submit to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. (What it looks like is discussed in James 3:17.)

(2) The verse begins with a rhetorical question and is followed by how one can be seen as wise and understanding. In the kingdom of God, greatness isn't measured by who pushes others around the most, but "works" that display "gentleness born of wisdom."

This is similar to a point made by Jesus in a famous incident recounted in Matthew 20:20-28:
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
(3) Chris Haslam notes that the word gentleness, prayte in the original Greek of the New Testament, is found in:
  • Galatians 5:23 (Note the link between gentleness and self-control; without the help of God and His gift of wisdom, we're under the control of the demonic.);
  • Galatians 6:1 (Even the correction of those who have wronged others in the fellowship of the Church is to be done with gentleness);
  • Ephesians 4:2;
  • Second Timothy 2:25;
  • Titus 3:2;
  • First Peter 3:16 (Our witness about Jesus Christ is to be done with gentleness and reverence for those whose views may be different from our own.)
  • Matthew 5:5 (The word translated as meek is the same one that's rendered as gentle here.);
  • Matthew 11:29.
The gentleness that comes from surrender to Jesus Christ contrasts with the physical and emotional violence which is the world's standard operating procedure. The world's way doesn't work, James asserts. Besides, we have the capacity, through Christ, to live differently. So, why, he wonders, would Christians live according to the wisdom of Satan, rather than the wisdom of heaven? As he observed in last week's lesson, "My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so!" (James 3:10)

For a fuller understanding of this rich Biblical term, see here.

14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
(1) William Loader notes:
The wisdom of James continues with a challenge to the hearers not to embrace a polarising and fractious stance towards people. Many people who most want to be known as wise are anything but peaceable. History abounds with people who think they are right and are prepared to die or kill for their truth. On the other hand, James is not advocating that Christians become doormats. Clearly the writing itself shows that the author is assertive and prepared to challenge others.

The gentleness being advocated is not abdication of responsibility. It is an attitude which comes from a different kind of purity (3:17). That purity consists not in pure doctrine nor in pure anger, but in pure love. Notice how the author contrasts the two approaches in 3:15 and 3:17. Wisdom is about purity and purity is about wholeness, singleness, oneness. That oneness is held together by being full of compassion and produces genuine goodness towards others (3:17). There is no phoney-ness. The word righteousness (which also means justice and goodness) rightly belongs here. Rightness or righteousness is about being in right relationship with God and with oneself - and so also with others.

Notice that the author is not just giving a moral lesson about fractiousness and division, but addressing it at its roots. The image of fruit, used already in 3:12, reappears in 3:17 and in the image of sowing in 3:18. Wisdom comes from above (3:17). It is an echo of that Jewish tradition, first attested in Proverbs 8, that wisdom is like God's companion and makes visits to earth seeking people in whom to dwell. As such this wisdom is sometimes identified also as God's word and as God's Spirit. Christians drew on this image when they identified Jesus as the Word who came down to his own (see John 1:1-14; Colossians 1:15-20 and also Hebrews 1:1-4...). Here in James the image is used as it was in the Jewish tradition: of wisdom. It was a way of speaking of how God comes to people.

All this means that the matter of whether you take a compassionate attitude towards people and behave accordingly is much more than a matter of doing what is right or being good. It is about embodying the wisdom which comes from God; it is about embodying God. Notice the the chief thing about God is being found in such compassion. The opposite leads to disintegration and chaos, as 3:16 suggests.
(2) In its willingness to yield, the wisdom described by James is akin to Paul's description of love, not an emotion, but a way of life:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (First Corinthians 13:4-7)
Of course, any objective perception of our human nature will lead to the conclusion that, in our own power, we can't love or be wise. (James says that, "all of us make many mistakes" [James 3:2] and, echoing the Old Testament, Paul asserts that all have sinned, falling short of glorifying God [check out Romans 3].) This is why dependence on Christ is essential.

More verse-by-verse comments tomorrow, I hope.

In Contest Between Democracy and Autocracy, So Far It's Not a Thai

Trite though it is, when I read about the bloodless coup that yesterday removed Thailand's pime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, from power, I wondered if his second name was Thai for Sinatra. If so, the billionaire has probably belatedly realized that, in politics, you can't always do things your way.

By some accounts, Thaksin, a former police official who made a fortune in telecommunications, had seen his landslide election victories as license for doing anything he wanted, abusing human rights, and bungling a conflict with a Muslim insurgency. On top of his autocratic impulses, the deposed prime minister also felt no hesitation about using his power to add to his fortune or to skirt financial disclosure laws.

Though perhaps Thaksin is a bad man, it's hard not to feel sqeamish about this coup--or any coup. I'm always wary of people who claim to act in extra-constitutional ways in order to save constitutional democracy. (I note too, that the coup leaders have said that they will take one year to draft a new constitution.)

But the most disturbing thing I've read about this coup is a statement from a Thai professor. Referring to the seventeen previous Thai coups that have occurred since 1932, Somjai Phagapasvivat said, "This coup will be different from the previous coups. Before, it was done in the interests of the military. This time, it was a necessary pre-emptive strike given the violent polarization of Thai society."

Several thoughts about this statement:
1. When is a coup legitimate? Is it ever legitimate? And if a coup can ever be legitimate, is "polarization" a sufficient justification? After all, polarization, is just another word for difference of opinion. That's supposed to happen in a democratic state.

I realize that in less mature democracies, the ability to challenge the kind of incipient autocracy of which Thaksin was allegedly guilty may not be strong. But was it necessary for a military which had refrained from coup-making for fifteen years and had operated under the current constitution for nine years to once more harm democratic development by interposing its will on the political process?

2. More disturbing was Somjai Phagapasvivat's use of the term "necessary pre-emptive strike" to justify the coup. Pre-emption is always undertaken on the bases not of what has happened or of what clearly will happen, but of what may happen.

The United States has the attention of the world, from enemies as well as friends. I wonder if one of the unintended consequences of the US war in Iraq, a pre-emptive action designed to prevent the regime of Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction, is that it has given rhetorical cover for all sorts of pre-emptive actions that may or may not be appropriate.

One final point. Democracy has become the preferred style of governance in the twenty-first century. But in order for democracy to work, there must be a social infrastructure in place.

That infrastructure must incorporate:
  • an understanding of the delicate balance between rights and responsibilities that allow democracies to work
  • a culture of respect for differences of opinion
  • the confidence that grievances can be redressed
  • education as to the functioning of one's government
  • a reasonably informed electorate
I also believe, like John Adams, that the long-term prospects for democracies are buttressed by a culture that is dependent on God and committed to the love of neighbor. But this isn't something that can be or that should be forced on people.

Absent this infrastructure, democracy has no chance of functioning or of being coup-resistant. The lack of such a cultural framework may help to explain why Thailand and other countries are lurching toward democracy so fitfully.

[You might also be interested in reading:
The Promise and the Perils of Democracy
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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

[See this for a profile of Thailand]

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 3:13-4:3a, 7-8a

[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: James 3:14-4:3a, 7-8a
3:13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

4:1Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly...7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you...

Some General Comments
1. For general comments on James, found in the past several weeks' first passes at lessons from the book, go here, here, and here.

2. There are times when the selected passages for the lectionary (the plan of Bible passages appointed to correspond with the Church Year) appear to make little sense. Rather than being motivated to expose worshipers to the maximum amount of Scripture, the creators of the various lectionaries sometimes seem to want to avoid controversy or simply to pare down the sizes of readings. (In some cases, the second apparent reason is completely acceptable to me!)

In some narrative passages, legitimately, the lectionary sometimes skips verses containing not directly germane to the incident being highlighted.

This weekend's lesson jumps around quite a lot. In this instance, I completely understand. Most notoriously missing from what seems like it should be part of our lesson is this passage:
4Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:4-6)
This is a great passage and it is germane to the focus of our lesson. But it requires some unpacking for modern listeners and readers to see that. It would mean lengthy explanatory asides if this were the text on which preachers decided to preach. And if preachers decided to not preach on the text, only having it read, during worship, it would cause a lot of confusion, a seeming incongruity in the passage.

These three verses allude to Old Testament imagery with which the first century Jewish Christians James addressed would have been familiar. Here, James is accusing early believers in Christ not of adultery, but of idolatry.

Many passages in the Old Testament compared the relationship between God and His people, Israel, to that between a husband and a wife. Consider:
Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.

For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man’s youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:4-8)
God deemed Israel's going after other gods--engaging in idolatry--as a sort of adultery, faithlessness to God:
The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and played the whore there? And I thought, “After she has done all this she will return to me”; but she did not return, and her false sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce; yet her false sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom so lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her false sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in pretense, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 3:6-10)
(See also Ezekiel 16:38)

The New Testament applies this same imagery to Christ--God enfleshed--and to the Church: Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is His bride. Take a look at these passages: John 3:29; Revelation 18:23; 19:7; 21:2; 21:9; 22:17; Matthew 9:15; Matthew 25:1-13.

2. Idolatry, a violation of the First Commandment, is adulterating our relationship with God, either by replacing God with another focus for our lives or by trying to force God to share His rule over our lives with other gods. Either act, James says, is one of arrogance in which we try to impose our will or our wisdom on God, as opposed to submitting to God's will and wisdom.

James says this won't work: Either God will have all of us or God will have none of us. We cannot be doubleminded, to use James' terminology from chapter 1. Wisdom resides in understanding Who God is and who we are. To understand God is to willingly stand under God.

3. We see another presentation of James' dualistic understanding of human life here. The key question confronting us all, as The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB) points out, is whether we will live by God's wisdom or by the counterfeit wisdom of the world? The latter, as was true of the serpent in the garden, is demonic "wisdom" from hell.

4. Two great points from NIB.
Point one:
The moral choice facing humans is also a choice between religious allegiances.
The implication of this assertion is stunning: When we choose to live our lives on the bases of what's in today's daily horoscope or to treat another with disdain, we're as guilty of arrogant idolatry as the person who decides to substitute God's will with their own by taking another person's life, having sex outside of marriage, or using God's Name for anything other than "prayer, praise, and thanksgiving."

There are no little sins. But, thank God, there are no sins that cannot be forgiven those who come to the Father in the Name of Jesus Christ to seek forgiveness.

Point two:
Arrogance is the self-aggrandizing manifestation of envy that creates the desire to have that will stop at nothing to acquire what it seeks (4:2)...envy leads inevitably to social unrest (3:16), battles, and wars (4:1). Ultimately, envy leads to murder (4:2)...This is...the arrogance God resists (4:6).
More tomorrow, I hope.

Will Radical Islam Dare to Mix It Up in the Peaceful Marketplace of Ideas?

Anne Applebaum writes of Pope Benedict's lecture in Germany and the violent reactions to it by some Muslims:
[We don't all] need to rush to defend or to analyze this particular sermon; I leave that to experts on Byzantine theology. But we can all unite in our support for freedom of speech -- surely the pope is allowed to quote from medieval texts -- and of the press. And we can also unite, loudly, in our condemnation of violent, unprovoked attacks on churches, embassies and elderly nuns.
I agree completely.

It seems to me that we all can also affirm that free speech and acts of love--not fire and violence--are the appropriate means for persuading others of the legitimacy of our religious belief.

Christianity arose during a Roman era in which there were many religious options. Christian faith took root in an often hostile environment without violence or the threat of violence and frequently, in the face of violence perpretrated against its adherents.

The Gospel proclaimed by Christians won people over with that blend of love and logic that lives in those whose lives are built on God's revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ and who are empowered by a living Savior.

In pluralistic cultures where everybody has freedom of expression, I'm convinced that Christian faith can win most people's hearts and minds. Evidently, those radical Muslims burning effigies of the Pope, threatening his life, supporting terrorism, or torching churches, don't have the same confidence in their faith. They believe in the power of human effort and violence; my faith is in God and His capacity to change lives for today and for eternity.

In the New Testament book of Acts, the first-century preacher Paul stood in chains before a menacing king to explain his faith in Jesus Christ. I wrote about this incident to my friend, Richard Lawrence Cohen, here:
Dragged before authorities, including a royal named King Agrippa, Paul proceeded to tell his own personal story to them, how he, a Pharisee once bitterly opposed to the Christian proclamation, had come to faith in Christ, and the difference this new relationship with God had made in his life. He went on for some time when Agrippa said to him [I'm paraphrasing], "Paul, in so short a time, do you propose to make me like you?" Paul said, "Whether it takes a short or a long time, yes, King Agrippa, I would love for you to be like me...except for these chains."
I want to see all people come to faith in Jesus Christ because I believe that Jesus is the Savior Who died and rose for all people; because unlike other world religions, Christianity takes our alienation from God and goodness seriously and offers reconciliation with God not by our puny human efforts, but by our faith in what God has already done for us in Jesus. I want to see everybody become a Christian and I make no bones about that goal.

But I don't want that to happen by coercion. In fact, it can't happen by coercion. For one thing, that would be contrary to the Bible. Indeed, the Bible teaches that the greatest power on earth is exhibited in those who may be perceived by others as being weak. That's because when we stop relying on our own power, we are filled up with the power and goodness, grace and love of the God-Man Who died and rose and still lives, Jesus the Christ!

But conversion cannot come by coercion primarily because it violates common sense: You can get someone to say they've become a Christian or Muslim by holding a gun to their head--as happened with Fox correspondent Steve Centanni while he was recently held by a radical Muslim group. But true conversion is a matter of the will, the heart, and the mind being transformed by faith embraced voluntarily.

Violence and the threat of violence may win a few battles along the way. But those who employ violence to push their religious ideas--whatever religion they may claim to be following--only show the impotence of their faith, the lack of security they feel about its validity, and the poverty of their ideas.

So, if radical Muslims engaging in destructive temper tantrums right now really want to win the world to their faith, they need to lay down their torches, indict the murderers they've been harboring, stop their threats, and mix it up peacefully in the marketplace of ideas, demonstrating compassion for others, authenticating their faith by loving their neighbor.

In that marketplace of ideas, I'm convinced that Jesus will shine as the way, the truth, and the life and the only way to the Father. And I don't need to threaten anybody to convince the world of that truth.

Do radical Muslims have the same confidence about their faith? So far, the answer appears to be an emphatic no.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 34

The Holy Spirit is the creator of the Church.

People often wonder what was unique about Jesus of Nazareth. After all, He taught people to do unto others as they would have done unto them, a universal truth taught by virtually every major world religion, in one form or another. (A prime bit of evidence that the Bible's assertion that God, His nature, and His will are known by all.)

And in teaching that God's greatest command is that we love God and love neighbor, Jesus was merely underscoring the teachings of the Old Testament going back to the two tables of the Ten Commandments.

Except for one teaching, what made Jesus unique was not what He said, but what He did. In dying as the perfect, sinless representative of the human race, He accepted our rightful punishment for sin and in rising, He opened up eternity to all who believe in Him. Though Jesus was the greatest teacher in the history of the world, Christians don't have faith in His teaching. We have faith in Him.

But what was that one unique idea that Jesus taught? It comes in John's Gospel where Jesus says, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

How is that unique? Isn't it just a reiteration of the Great Commandment? No. Here, Jesus is saying that by way of His death and resurrection, a new community is going to be created, a community composed of Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) who share a common belief in Him as God and Savior and share a common mission to share His love with the world. The love shared by this community of faith is to be the primary witness to the world about the life-transforming Good News of Jesus. This community is the Church.

Christians are blessed to be members of this community and by expressing Christ's love in words and deeds, they invite others to be part of it.

An old story says that a man was convicted of a crime for which the punishment was death, though it was never clear to people if the man was actually guilty. A friend of the man fell before the king's feet, begging that his own life be taken instead of that of his friend. "My friend has a wife and children who need him," the friend implored. "But I am widower without children. Please kill me and not my friend, sir!" Overwhelmed by the love this man bore for his friend, the king pardoned the first man, released the second, and then asked, "May I ask a favor of you two? May I be your friend as well? I would feel privileged to be part of such a community of love!"

The Bible records that the early Christians so loved one another that others, like that king, wanted to be part of their community of love. "See how they love one another," they said in amazement.

On Pentecost Day, fifty days after Jesus' resurrection and ten days after He ascended to heaven, the Holy Spirit gave birth to the Church, a community of love and a family of believers that will live for all eternity. It's in such a community of love and family of believers that my former atheism withered and died and new life in Christ took root in me!

"That'll show them for calling us violent."

Waleed Aly well conveys the ironic and indecipherably irrational reaction to Pope Benedict XVI's citation of fourteenth century dialog when he writes:
Let me get this straight. Pope Benedict XVI quotes the 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus asserting before a Persian Islamic scholar that the prophet Muhammad brought nothing new to the world except things "evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". Some Muslims clearly interpret Benedict to be quoting Manuel with approval, and take offence at the suggestion that Islam is inherently violent. The response is to bomb five churches in the West Bank, and attack the door of another in Basra. In India, angry mobs burn effigies of Pope Benedict. In Somalia, Sheikh Abu Bakr Hassan Malin urges Muslims to "hunt down" the Pope and kill him, while an armed Iraqi group threatens to carry out attacks against Rome and the Vatican.

There. That'll show them for calling us violent.
We must be careful not to think that these irrational reactions represent the majority of Muslims, of course. But is it too much to ask of some major Muslim leaders to say, "Hey, guys, he was quoting a fourteenth century conversation. Get a grip!"? Aly, who is a Muslim community leader in Britain has had the courage to say as much. (He also has some interesting insights on the role of the Pope as being more like that of a politician than a scholar, something he suggests that Benedict may not yet fully realize. And his distinction between the provocative and disrespectful Danish cartoons, on the one hand, and the Pope's unexceptionable reference, on the other, is good.)

(TY: David Vogel)

'Free as a Bird'

Can you name all the allusions to Beatles songs and events in this video?

I actually find at least ten more references not mentioned in the site to which I linked above, the best one devoted to these allusions I could find.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Keeping Feathers from Being Scattered to the Wind

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, during worship celebrations on September 16 and 17, 2006.]

James 3:1-12
A true story, one told by a pastor, Rick Eshbaugh, about a personal experience. One evening, he was alone with his kids, while his wife was out crafting porcelain dolls at a doll-making class. While he chatted with a neighbor on his front porch, the telephone rang. Eshbaugh’s son, Craig, then five years old, answered. “I was proud to hear Craig answer the phone promptly and politely,” he says. “[But] My pride [turned into embarrassment] as I heard my son’s response to the caller’s request to speak to my wife: ‘No [Craig said], my mom’s not here. She’s out making a baby. But my dad is here if you want to talk to him.’”

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been delving into the New Testament book of James to consider what happens once we've confessed that Jesus Christ is our Lord. How do we live our faith in Christ? Particularly, how do we live our faith in Christ as part of the eternal family of which you and I are a part, the Church?

So far, we’ve seen James address several problems that he’s observed among first-century Christians. The first was the way Christians were ignoring the practical needs of those who lived among them, particularly widows and orphans. Two weeks ago, after we’d considered James’ words, I was proud to see you all get involved in Clermont’s CASA for Kids, an organization that helps children sent to foster homes. Your response was incredible!

The next issue that James addressed, which we looked at last week, was the problem of how wealthy Christians treated those of lesser means. In my message based on James, chapter 2, I asked you to prayerfully consider making a generous offering to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s World Hunger Appeal during our Thanksgiving Eve service this year and to designate an add-on to your regular offerings in 2007, equivalent to the cost of two Big Macs per month per household, for the Hunger Appeal.

Today, James moves onto another practical issue for Christians and the Church: How we use the gift of communication and speech. Or, how we use our tongues, as James would put it. James was appalled at how Christians could use their mouths to praise God in worship one moment, pray to God for blessings the next, and then use those same mouths to run down other people who, just like us, are made in the image of God and for whom, also just like us, Jesus died and rose.

James wasn’t concerned with the innocent mistakes made by people like little Craig Eshbaugh when he told a caller that his mom was making babies.

Nor was he talking about the things we say that emanate from innocent ignorance.

(Although I suspect that James would agree with the maxim, "Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.")

No, James is talking about the use we make of speech that rips people down, that passes on gossip, that lifts us up at the expense of others, that hurts the fellowship of the Church in which Jesus commands us to love one another as He has loved us, speech that dishonors God.

James minces no words about the destruction wrought by our words or where their destructive power comes from.

And he says that without total surrender to Jesus Christ, the use of our speech will always be more reflective of hell than of heaven. Listen to some of what James says, this time in the translation of Eugene Peterson in The Message:
We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. [I certainly can identify with that!] If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you'd have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.

A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!

It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.

This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can't tame a tongue—it's never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! My friends, this can't go on.
It’s a story I’ve told you before and chances are that as long as you and I both live and are around each other, you’ll hear me tell it again: In Medieval times, a woman visited a monk. He was a man admired for giving holy, sensible advice. The woman realized, she said, that she had become a terrible gossip, the purveyor of hurtful words. What should she do? The monk told her to go through the village and bag all the goose feathers she could find. Then, she should lay a feather at the doorstep of every person about whom she had gossiped. After that, she should return to the monk.

The woman dutifully did what the monk directed her to do and returned to him. The monk said, "That's wonderful. Now go back to each of those doorsteps and collect the goose feathers you left behind. Then, come back here." When the woman returned for yet another visit to the monk, she reported that all the feathers had been blown away by the wind.

"That’s the point, of course," the monk told her. "We can be forgiven the sin of gossiping about others. If you repent for it, God surely will forgive you. Those you have violated may do the same. But no matter whether you are forgiven or not, the damage will have been done. Gossip spreads as though carried aloft by the wind and you can't bring it back."

When I look at my life, I find that almost every problem I’ve ever experienced has been caused by my intemperate speech, words used that denigrated or damaged others, words that told half-truths, words that conveyed hurtful speculation about the character or motives of others. I’ve repented for those things. But I realize that the damage done, like a bell that can’t be unrung, can never be reversed.

In his explanation of God’s Eighth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.” Not only are we not to lie about others, we’re to put the most positive spin on their actions and motives that we can. If we love the God Who loved us all the way to the cross, we’ll take the call to the right use of our words seriously.

But how do we do that? A few thoughts from one recovering misuser of speech to another.

First: We surrender our brains and our mouths to God, along with the rest of us. A good prayer to offer each day might be the one in Psalm 119:14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

Second: Before we open our mouths to share something critical of another, we should ask ourselves, “Does this help anything?” In a passage we explored earlier this summer, the apostle Paul says, “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.” (Ephesians 4:29)

Third: We ask ourselves another question: Would we say these words to Jesus Christ? In a very real way, whether our words build others up or tear them down, Christ hears every one of them. As Jesus once said, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.” Jesus has said that when we encounter others, we really meet Him. Do we think that Jesus wants to hear our gossip?

Finally, a word to all of you who, like me, have already scattered too many goose feathers to the wind. It can be appropriate for you to apologize to the people who have been hurt by your intemperate words. Although I must say, I don't feel fanatical about this. In my former parish, a woman told me that just the week before, she'd gotten a call from a man she'd dated forty years earlier. He wanted to apologize for something she had long forgotten from that period.

But what’s most appropriate when we misuse the gift of speech to run others down is to ask God for His forgiveness and for the power to keep our tongues under His control in the future.

“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold,” Proverbs 22:1 says. Those of us who are saved in the Name of Jesus Christ choose each day whether we will honor Christ’s Name or not by deciding whether we’ll care about the names, the reputations, of others as though they bore our names and reputations.

May we live in such dependence on Christ that we choose Christ’s way by letting Him control our mouths along with the rest of our lives.

[The story of Craig Eshbaugh is from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion.]