Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I feel so out of it...

because I almost never read this site.

"Churches, Elections, and the IRS"

Triggered by the investigation of a southern California Episcopal congregation by the Internal Revenue Service, Pastor Mark Roberts looks whether and how the Church might "speak truth to power" without violating either its Biblical mandate or the tax code. As usual, Mark's series is excellent and I urge you to go over and read each installment of this unfolding series right now.

Frankly, I have always been wary of the tax-exempt status afforded churches. (Although since it's available under present law, congregations would be stupid not to take advantage of it.)

I also have a problem with congregations that get involved with partisan politics.

But congregations and pastors do have an obligation to consider the link between public policy, good stewardship of the Christian's voting franchise, and faith in Jesus Christ. Roberts admirably explores this cluster of issues.

My own take on the October 31, 2004 sermon preached at All Saints Episciopal Church in Pasadena is that hardly qualifies for designation as a sermon, but not because it dealt with politics. To me, a true Christian sermon must in some way:
  • Convey the centrality of Christ's death and resurrection as the source of human hope
  • Rightly differentiate between law (God's commands, which demonstrate our alienation from God) and gospel (the Good News that human beings are able to be reconciled with God through faith in Christ and His gift of Himself to us)
  • Show people the path to reconciliation with God in the particular area being addressed
Whether the "sermon" in question violated tax law or not, I don't know. But that it failed to meet the above criteria and was little more than a set of "thou shalt nots" and "thou shalts" is, at least to me, obvious.

(By the way, every preacher gets off the track from time to time. One of the regrets commonly expressed by Billy Graham is that in his early career, he spoke too little of the law of God and too little of God's love.)

Biblical faith certainly has ethical implications. We are called by God to love God, love neighbor, and care for the gifts of God as sacred trusts. We seek to live with these our highest priorities, not to earn God's love, but in grateful response to it.

The sermon by the Rev. George F. Regas, which has triggered the IRS inquiry, seems a bit tilted toward the law, with little reference to Christ's cross and resurrection and the grace they bring.

Go read Mark's fantastic series.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 2 (David and the Well at Bethlehem)

Near the end of his reign as king of Israel, David, his nation's second and greatest king, his people, and the compiler of two Old Testament books, First and Second Samuel, were evidently in a nostalgic mood. They looked back on David's reign with gratitude...and probably, with wonder.

That David was imperfect was no secret. Yet, after being exposed as a murderer and adulterer deep into his reign, David had genuinely repented, had borne the consequences of his sin, and had turned back to God. In spite of his imperfections and possibly, because of the way he handled them, David was seen as "a man after God's own heart."

David's had been a turbulent life. As a young boy, he was famously pressed into the service of the often faithless, vain, insecure, and certainly neurotic Saul, the first king of Israel. David had felled the daunting champion of the Philistines, Goliath of Gath, with a sling, a rock, a sword, and his reliance on God. Later, David the musician, composer whose songs still inspire, soothed the depressed Saul with his psalms for God.

In his adult years, David, clearly marked by God to become Saul's successor, aroused the king's anger. For a time, he was forced to run like a hunted animal from Saul, perpetually in fear for his life. Yet, convinced that Saul was God's choice to lead His people, David refused several times to take Saul's life when he had the chance to do so.

Eventually, David became the leader of an army that augmented the efforts of Saul and his forces in the fight against the Philistines.

The Philistines were a people who occupied a swath of coastal territory hugging the Mediterranean, in an area later to be incorporated in what we today call Israel. So far as we know, the Philistines were descended from seafaring people from the island of Crete. (In fact, the Old Testament sometimes refers to them as "the people of the sea.") They had tried to invade Egypt during the reign of the Pharaoh, Rameses III, but were repelled. That was when they migrated to the spot they occupied when the people of God, promised this land, entered. There ensued a struggle for control that lasted a long time.

Seemingly a fierce and pre-literate people, the Philistines harassed the Israelites. Under Samuel, the last of the Israelite judges and under Saul, too, Israel achieved some military victories over the Philistines.

But it was under David that the Philistines were fairly subdued. That's why, to borrow Bruce Springsteen's phrase, "the little pretties" yelled, "“Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” (First Samuel 18:7)

This only enraged Saul more and David continued to live on the lam, hiding out in a cave at Adullam. But he wasn't alone there. First Samuel 22:2 says, "Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him; and he became captain over them. Those who were with him numbered about four hundred."

Yet, under David's God-dependent leadership, this bunch of malcontents and losers were forged into the core of a mighty and disciplined force that did what no Israelite army had ever been able to do, eventually confining the Philistines to a few cities that would ultimately become vassals of Israel. In a mostly disappointing book on leadership types, historian Garry Wills holds David up as an example of a charismatic leader, one who, seemingly without status and certainly devoid of the power of a state behind him, attracts people to follow him and sees them transformed in the process.

That comes through in the first of my favorite Bible stories. It's found in Second Samuel 23:13-17, sandwiched between recitations about the valiant acts of these losers-turned-mighty-ones. It remembers David's fugitive years and how, unable to be in his hometown of Bethlehem, he pines to taste the water from the well at its gates:
Towards the beginning of harvest three of the thirty chiefs went down to join David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the valley of Rephaim. David was then in the stronghold; and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem. David said longingly, “O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!” Then the three warriors broke through the camp of the Philistines, drew water from the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate, and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, for he said, “The Lord forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. The three warriors did these things.
Imagine the devotion to David of those three unnamed warriors! They risked their lives, breaking through the camp of their enemies, to draw water from the well for which David's homesick heart longed, and then, bring it back to him!

That in itself is moving enough. But what happens next is what often moves me to tears as I read this story: David refused to drink the water these men had offered their lives to secure. "Yahweh forbid that I should do this!" David said.

David recognized that what inspired his followers about him had nothing to do with him and everything to do with God.

This was no doubt why, when, much later in his career, he repented for his sins of adultery and murder, David had begged God, "take not Your Holy Spirit from me." (Psalm 51) David had watched God's Spirit leave Saul as the latter had become self-directed rather than God-led. He knew that his life as a leader would devolve to futility and meaninglessness without God working through him.

Leaders would do well to, in some ways, emulate David in the moment when he poured the water given to him by those three warriors onto the ground. He knew that they were responding not to him, but to the God Who had made his leadership inspiring and useful.

In fact, the very word used to describe David's action echoes that used of Jacob when he had poured a drink offering on a pillar at Bethel. (Genesis 35:14)

In speaking of "the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives," David was saying that it was for God and not for him that these men had actually offered themselves to secure the sweet water for which he'd so longed. And it was to God that He was bound to give this offering.

Reading the five verses of this story is all you need to know to explain the power of David's leadership.

And, I'm convinced, it's the only primer any leader today really needs. Its lesson is simple:
  • Glorify God
  • Cherish the people you lead
Everything else that might be said about effective leadership is mere explication of those two points.

NIE Report is Declassified

It's here.

Questioning NIE's Assessment That Iraq War Has Increased Terror Threat to US...

is Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan.

(Also see here.)

Monday, September 25, 2006

My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 1

The Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is filled with stories.

There are stories of God's people, both those of the first covenant, the one made with Abraham and his descendants in about 2100BC, and those of the second covenant, made with all people who believe in Jesus Christ.

There are stories told by prophets and preachers and by God-in-the-flesh, Jesus, which are known as parables: stories employing the common stuff of everyday life, but which have, rolling alongside them, a narrative about God's reign and how it works. (The word parable means, in a way, throw or roll alongside.)

In an ultimate sense, the main character in every one of the stories told in the Bible is God.
  • It's God Who creates the universe and humankind, initiating a special relationship with us in which He pours Himself into us time and again in countless ways.
  • It's God Who, after humanity fell into sin and away from Him, refused to give up on us, such is the toughness of His love and commitment.
  • It's God Who became one of us and lived out what is rightly called, the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.
Stories, especially Biblical stories, have power. As a preacher, I've watched crowds who, moments before were squirming and coughing and whispering and mentally wandering suddenly become quiet, intent, nearly breathless as they listened to a story.

Stories invite us to share others' realities. One of my sisters, after hearing me preach a sermon years ago, trying to explain the power of stories, told me, "I think people like to hear what happens in other people's lives. It makes them feel less alone, less weird." Stories demonstrate our common humanity and thereby, comfort us.

The stories in the Bible invite us to share in God's reality: first, the reality of human alienation from God, of God's grief over that, and of our need of God and then, the reality of newness of life that God has offered all who will turn from sin and let Jesus be the God and King of their life.

In a very real sense, when Jesus calls us to repent and follow Him, He's inviting us into a new story. Paul says that we become part of a new creation. Through Jesus Christ, the old story that ends in death is supplanted, the page is turned, and a new adventure, our relationship with our heavenly Father now restored, begins.

In this new story, Jesus' pilgrimage through death to new and everlasting life becomes our pilgrimage. Virtually all the stories in the Bible point us in some way to this wonderful Lord and to the eternity-ever-after He gives to all who believe in Him as a matter of divine charity, what the Bible calls grace.

My blogging will likely be light this week. But, as we go through this series, I'm looking forward to sharing some of my favorite Bible stories with you. Some will likely be well known to you. Others may not be. But each is a gem and as we look at them, I hope to show you why I say that.

I hope to come back here tomorrow to tell you the first of my favorite stories from the Bible.

How Did Trevor Hoffman Sneak Up on Us?

SwanShadow has a few ideas.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Words I Hate

Annie Gottlieb of Ambivablog talks about words she hates, most especially vlog, for video log.

She made me think about words, both high-tech and no-tech, that I hate.

From the online world, the one I most loathe is blogosphere. As I've written before, it looks like a world that would have been invented in the 1950s to suggest something futuristic. But like Walt Disney's Tomorrowland, it seems clunky and old fashioned rather than an apt description of something au courant.

But blogosphere is far less loathesome than some that have gained currency. One that seems to have gained legitimacy in recent years is the term suck, as in "That sucks." I hate, hate, HATE that word!

We all know the background of the term as an expression of denigration. Maybe its use in this way is in some convoluted way attributable to Bill Clinton. But, really, what's wrong with saying something like, "That stinks!" to describe a circumstance you intensely dislike. That would be far more accurate an expression of one's sentiments anyway.

I also hate words that are actually non-existent, except that their use has given them legitimacy. When people use the insensible word, irregardless, for example, they really mean regardless. (Or irrespective. Or no matter.) "Regardless of what we think, the government does what it wants to do." That's what the users of irregardless mean to say. Instead, by plugging a negating prefix onto the word, they're actually saying, "Regardful of what we think..."

Amba also mentions the term, WOT for War on Terror, sometimes GWOT, Global War on Terror. Apart from the the unnecessary expansion of initials, I see why these terms in themselves are so objectionable. Our war isn't on terror, after all. Terror is a tactic. You can't imagine Churchill calling on Great Britain to make war on U-Boats, for example. War had to be waged against Germany and the Nazis. The global war on terror is really a global war on terrorists, not on the tactic of terror.

But, on these and other words and usages I loathe, I'm probably swimming against the current. That really sort of stinks, doesn't it?

On That NIE Assessment

It apparently shows a consensus within the US intelligence community that the war in Iraq has made the country less safe from terrorist threats. Some will say the intelligence community got it wrong when it came to WMDs in Iraq and is therefore not to be trusted. Others will say that whenever officials say things their bosses don't want to hear--like the intelligence community telling the Bush Administration that the war in Iraq has harmed national security, their word is more to be believed.

What do you think?

And, by the way, how did this thing leak?

UPDATE: There's an extensive discussion of the NIE (and the NYTimes) in comments on Althouse's blog.

Intriguing Take on How US Should Handle Iran

Agree or not, interesting thinking.

Genuine Wisdom

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship celebrations on September 23 and 24, 2006.]

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8
Back when Muhammad Ali was heavyweight boxing champion of the world, he was supposedly a passenger on a commercial flight that developed some problems. As you know, Ali never appeared to lack confidence. The airline attendant announced that because of some turbulence, all passengers needed to fasten their seat belts. “Superman don’t need no seat belt,” Ali told the stewardess. “That’s true,” she replied, “But Superman don’t need no plane either. Fasten your seat belt.”

It’s a fine thing for us to have confidence. I believe that God wants us to feel confident in ourselves, children made in the very image of God. I believe that God wants those of us for whom Jesus Christ died and rose--the whole human race--to feel good about ourselves. But arrogance is an altogether different thing.

There are times when arrogance is funny, like when a pompous windbag gets his or her comeuppance. But usually, the arrogant desire to push others aside, to declare that we’re the greatest, or to get what we want at the expense of others is anything but funny. And yet, arrogance is one of the most common of all human behaviors.
  • You see it on the playground where girls and boys conspire to elevate themselves by marginalizing classmates who aren’t as fast or as worldly or as cool as they think they are.
  • You see it at the local PTA meeting, where thuggish moms put others’ kids down while speaking of the wondrous perfection of their own darlings.
  • You see it in the workplace where execs and exec-wannabes put little fictions in their reports so as to look like the next Jack Welch or make others appear to be incompetent oafs.
  • You see it among some retirees who, in the words of an old Jimmy Buffet song, “...quack about fishing; As they slug those rum drinks down; Discussing who caught what and who sat on his butt; But it's the only show in town.”
  • You see it too, in the contests among nations, each one seemingly intent on showing themselves more virtuous, powerful, and important than the other. (We saw a lot of nationalist posturing at sessions of the United Nations General Assembly this past week.)
The wisdom of the world says that pushing your way to the top is just the way things are supposed to be. But, James reminds us today, that isn’t the wisdom that comes from the God we know in Jesus Christ. And this me-first, pseudo-wisdom of the world has its consequences. James tells us:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind...
Followers of Jesus Christ know that arrogance is inconsistent with our faith. We know that it leads us to kill one another, if not literally, then with our words, actions, and attitudes.

We know, too, that Christ gives to all who turn from sin and follow Him the unshakable approval of God. We know that we have God in our corners forever, helping us to become our best selves. Yet the war in the gut that James writes about in our lesson today happens inside those of us who believe in Jesus Christ as much as it does in the guts of non-Christians.

Why is that? Why do we Christians refuse to allow the wisdom that God gives all followers of Christ, just for the asking, to guide our lives?

In his new book, The Story of You, writer and speaker Steve Chandler talks about how we all live out of certain stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Chandler is particularly anxious to show us how we sell ourselves short because we don’t believe that we are enough. We think that we’re not good enough, not worthy enough, smart enough, organized enough, fast enough, good looking enough, or charismatic enough.

Sometimes, these stories we tell ourselves result from stories others have told about us. When I was in the sixth grade, the Columbus Zoo held a contest. All the sixth graders in the city were invited to participate, designing a poster that would be used in one of their promotions. The winner's family also would receive a zoo membership. "We'll provide the poster board and material," my teacher, Mr. Jones (not his real name) announced. "Raise your hands if you'd like to get some materials so that you can enter the contest." I enthusiastically raised my hand. But Mr. Jones told me, in front of the class, "No, Mark. You can't enter the contest. You're not good enough at Art."

All of my classmates were angered by this comment and told Mr. Jones so right then and there. I'm no Picasso, but I think that if my classmates hadn't defended me at that moment, I might have believed Mr. Jones' "story" about me. Imagine how many children and adults have absorbed and accepted the false stories that others have told about them and the ways that doing so have prevented them from being everything God imagined for them when He fashioned them in their mothers' wombs!

We who are Christians often tell ourselves limiting false stories. I know Christians who think that they’re not faithful enough to get God’s attention. A man in my former parish, one who was about the most faithful person I'd ever known said to me once, "I'm not really much of a Christian, pastor." "What do you mean?" I asked. "You believe in Jesus Christ. You've sought God's forgiveness for sin. You seek to live according to God's will each day. God says you're good enough because you trust Christ with your life. It's only you who believe otherwise!"

James would say that all these stories about our unworthiness come from the devil. And because we believe those stories, we make a shamble of our lives, often compensating for our perceived inadequacies by adopting an attitude of arrogance.

But whether the stories we tell ourselves lead us to arrogance or inadequacy, the result is that we never tap into the power, love, and goodness of God to feel confident about who we are as children of God or really achieve the particular greatness that is the promise of every human life.

“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” James asks. “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You 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.”

Tragically, the terrible consequences of believing these false stories about ourselves can be seen not only in the lives of individual Christians, but also in the lives of many Christian congregations. Gerald Mann tells the true story of a pastor and his family who had something horrible happen as they were arriving in a new community where a local church had called them.

Just as they entered the town, their baby, the couple's only child had a seizure. They rushed him to the local hospital where all attempts to revive him failed. There, in the hospital waiting room where she’d gotten the horrible news, the mother was understandably distraught and screamed out to God, occasionally using profanity.

One of the nurses on duty was a member of the congregation. She told the congregational leaders how the grieving mother had initially reacted to the death of her child. Those leaders, in turn, went to their denomination’s area superintendent to say that because of how “unspiritual” the pastor’s wife was, they wanted a different pastor.

The superintendent told those leaders that the members of that church needed to learn what it is to be the church, a fellowship where imperfect people can share the strength and the power to live which the resurrected Jesus gives to all who believe in Him.

The congregational leaders didn’t like that answer at all. And so, the president of the congregation pulled the new pastor aside and said, “Well, I guess we’re stuck with you. But don’t you ever mention the death of your son or any pain you may be going through. We hired you to make us feel good, not to join you in your family’s difficulties.”

Here you had a congregation whose members believed a false story. They believed that if their pastor had an imperfect life, it would make their lives less perfect. He violated the story they were telling about themselves and they didn’t want him messing the story up by telling the truth that this life isn’t always perfect and that while followers of Christ aren’t always strong, we have a God to Whom we can go for strength and we have the Church in which we can be strengthened by God together.

The Church is the practical, real-life laboratory where Christ gives us new eternal identities born not of looking out for number one, but of letting Number One look out for us and where God’s children look out for each other.

But how does that happen? James says it happens when we ask God to help us own the humble confidence and self-assurance that belong to His children. It comes, he says, when we submit, we surrender to Christ. That’s when we quit having to prove ourselves, bask in God’s approval, and can look beyond ourselves.

“You do not have,” James says, “because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures...Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

In an old folk tale, a woman, like that pastor and his wife, loses her only child. She goes to the local holy man and asks him to bring the child back to life. He tells her, “Search for the home that has never known sorrow, and, in that home, find the magic mustard seed and bring it to me. Then we will have the power to bring your child back.”

The woman’s first stop was a luxurious palace. Sure that everything would be good and joyful there, she knocked on the door, explaining that she was looking for a home without sorrow. “You’ve come to the wrong place,” she was told. And then the owner of that palace recounted all the sorrows that he and his family had experienced in spite of their wealth.

The woman thought to herself, “Who is better able to help these people than I, who have had such misfortune of my own?” So, she stayed to comfort them. Later, she continued her search. She went from hovels to palaces and in each one, she got so involved in helping other people through their griefs that she was able to deal with her own. In forgetting about herself, she found healing and peace.

Arrogance destroys faith, fellowship, and hope.

Buying into false stories, whether they’re ones that tell us how great we are, or how insignificant we are, or how aggrieved we are, creates conflicts within us and creates our conflicts with others.

Humble surrender to Jesus Christ, allowing Him to enlist us in His army of love for God, love for neighbor, and respect for the earth that God has given to us...
  • builds faith,
  • enhances fellowship, and
  • fills us with hope.
The wisdom of hell says to look out for number one.

The wisdom of heaven says to look up to Christ.

One road leads to turmoil within and turmoil without.

The other, the road of following Jesus Christ, leads to peace in our souls and peace with others.

Which road will you choose? What story will you believe? On whose wisdom will you build your life?

[The story about the woman who goes from house to house is from The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2006.]

About Those Indonesian Riots

Back in my atheist days, I couldn't understand what possible justification Christians could offer for engaging in acts of lawless violence and revenge. I was particularly appalled by what some Protestants and Roman Catholics were doing to each other in Northern Ireland. Now a Christian for thirty years, I understand such violence and lawlessness on the part of "Christians" even less than I did.

Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven, a bumper sticker summary of the Christian's life tells us. And it's true. Christians sin every day. But to make the decision to riot or murder is to unrepentantly flout the forgiveness of God and to chase Him out of our lives.

Whether they feel oppressed by the Muslim majority or not, those Indonesians who claim to be Christians in order to justify their recent rioting are way out of bounds. Their actions are incompatible with the ethic of loving God and loving neighbor to which Jesus calls us.

Many Muslim leaders have been at pains to explain since September 11, 2001, that theirs is not a religion of violence. But the activities of various terror groups acting in Islam's name make it hard for much of the world to accept that.

The credibility of the Christian proclamation is also undermined when "Christians" embrace violence. Jesus' command to love God and love neighbor is hardly served by rioting.