Saturday, October 21, 2006

"If free speech is against the law, then arrest me."

Those are the words Steven Howards says he spoke to a Secret Service agent who asked him if he'd assaulted Vice President Dick Cheney. According to Howards, this was what happened when he encountered the Vice President in Colorado this past June 16:
Howards was in Beaver Creek because his kids were at piano camp. He arose that morning to the latest reports of U.S. and Iraqi casualties, prompting him to muse, "What a catastrophe this is."

While walking his older son, Koby, to a piano class, he noticed a small crowd on the mall. At its epicenter was Vice President Dick Cheney. At the time, Howards didn't know that Cheney was in town to attend a conference sponsored by former President Gerald Ford. Most of the people in the crowd seemed awed.

Howards was not. During his tenure as a lobbyist for the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C., he had seen a lot of big-shot politicos close up.

"There's this reverence accorded to elected officials, like they somehow have this brilliance that we all lack," he would say later. "I'm not saying you shouldn't respect these guys, but there's a big difference between respect and reverence."

As he watched Cheney "floating around, shaking hands," something inside Howards was detonated. "I simply couldn't, in good conscience, let this opportunity pass."

He approached the vice president and when the number-two man in the U.S. government turned to him, Howards said, "Your policies in Iraq are reprehensible."

Later, he would recall that he may have lightly touched Cheney on the arm or shoulder because, "I remember thinking, 'He's wearing silk.' "

The encounter was brief. In fact, according to Howards, his six words and one touch were the encounter. He kept walking with his son to rendezvous with his wife, Deborah, and younger son, Jonah. He'd done it. He'd made a statement...

As Howard recalls, "about 10 minutes" after he had registered his protest to Cheney, he was walking back across the mall to his rented condo, this time with 8-year-old Jonah in tow. A Secret Service agent (later identified as Virgil D. "Gus" Reichle Jr.) "popped out of the shadows, flicked his badge and asked me, 'Did you assault the vice president?' "

A little shaken, Howards explained what had happened, throwing in his editorial that, "If Mr. Cheney wants to be shielded from public criticism, he should avoid public places."

He also remembers saying, "If free speech is against the law, then arrest me."

Which is just what Reichle did.

Promptly handcuffed and being urged along by the agent, Howard says he told the agent that he couldn't abandon his young son. He says the agent responded, "We'll call Social Services."

By then, however, Jonah had reached his mother. Deborah Andrews was able to locate her husband as he was being lowered into a black sport utility vehicle. But when she asked where he was being taken, she says she got no reply.

Where he was going was Eagle County jail - to be charged with assaulting the vice president. He spent three hours in a sealed conference room, in handcuffs, buffeted among emotions of being "astonished . . . bored . . . ticked-off . . . anxious. Look, the whole thing - I gotta admit - was kind of scary."

By the time Deb paid his $500 bail, charges had been reduced from federal assault to state "harassment."
The charges were later dropped.

But Howards has filed suit against the arresting agent, claiming that his "First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated with 'deliberate indifference.'"

Irrrespective of one's views on the war in Iraq and irrespective of one's reaction to Howards' law suit, his arrest is disturbing. It has implications for everybody who has an opinion, whether that opinion has to do with politics, religion, science, whatever.

Some will automatically paint Howards' arrest as the action of an administration bent on repressing free speech.

Others will see it as the response to the fear and paranoia induced in a government agency charged with protecting the President and the Vice President of the United States by the events of September 11, 2001.

What do you think?

Harry Shearer and I Have a Little Tussle

Harry Shearer is a funny guy. I loved him in The Right Stuff as the bungling recruiter of astronauts and in other parts he's played through the years.

Shearer is also a bright guy, one with lots of opinions, some of which he expresses on The Huffington Post.

Today, he talked about his ideas on rebuilding the lives of those victimized by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I have some other ideas, which I talked about in the comments to Shearer's post.

I could be wrong. Shearer could be right.

(And I hasten to add that these are my ideas. I can't and don't claim that they have the imprimatur of God on them, just because I'm a pastor.)

But apparently I said something "wrong." Or, I was perceived as having said something wrong. One commenter claimed I was completely lacking in compassion.

Shearer himself accused me of being an "American," by which he meant that I had no sense of history or appreciation of the cultural heritage of New Orleans. He also called me a "global warming-determinist," though I had never mentioned global warming.

What interests me about this discussion is that it conforms to the very sort of discourse I so hate to see in the political world these days. If someone advances a nuanced argument that doesn't conform to the usual stereotypes and conventions of accepted political belief, then somebody feels compelled to shove it into a known--and disdained--box. It's easier to do that than to actually think.

You might want to read the discussion here.

Take the FP Quiz

Feel dumb too! (TY: Daniel Drezner)

On the road to the national championship...

nothing can be taken for granted:
At this point in an unbeaten season with his team ranked No. 1, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel is quite picky about the history lesson he teaches his Buckeyes.

Like this week, as they’ve prepared to play host to 31-point underdog Indiana, old history hasn’t been in the curriculum. He chose not to bring up Woody Hayes’ declaration after a 1951 loss to Indiana in his first season as Ohio State coach that the Buckeyes would never lose to the Hoosiers again. They’ve lost to them just twice since, in 1987 and ’88, but that was after Hayes had died.

But what Tressel has pointed out is the way Indiana, in the second season under coach Terry Hoeppner, has rallied the past two weeks for victories over Illinois and Iowa, the first time they’ve won two Big Ten games in the same season since 2001.

"In my mind this particular week I think you better pay close attention to how they’ve done a great job in their last two Big Ten games," Tressel said after practice yesterday. "Current history seems to be very applicable, because that’s who they are and that’s what they’ve done."
Go, Buckeyes!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Where to Go to Find More Bible Stories (and help with understanding them)

After reading the first five installments of my series on my favorite Bible stories, a reader from India asks to be guided to more Bible stories.

The first thing I would suggest is that you find an edition of the Bible that's easily read. The Message by Eugene Peterson is a well-written rendering of the Bible in modern language. It's more of a paraphrase than a translation. But because Peterson is both an Old Testament scholar and an accomplished poet, it's vivid and accessible. I would get an edition of The Message that includes a notation of the Biblical chapters and verses in the margins.

A book that tells the entire Bible in the form of a story is The Book of God, written by novelist Walter Wangerin. He really brings the stories alive.

Maybe the best books I could recommend are several by the novelist Frederick Buechner in which he simply tells some of the Biblical stories. Buechner has an eye for telling details that I myself might otherwise overlook. Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who might be a good place to start. (His profile of Jesus there brings tears to my eyes every time I read it!)

A Beginner's Guide to Reading the Bible might be a good little volume to have close at hand as you start to delve into the Bible. It explains how the Bible came into being, the various sorts of literature it includes, and some of the history behind it.

But there's no substitute for reading the stories of the Bible from the Bible itself. The best books of the Bible for stories are probably Genesis and Luke. It's in the latter book that Jesus tells His most famous fictional stories, called parables, including the parable of the prodigal son and the parable of the good Samaritan.

I hope this helps folks.

"How to Stay in Love"

[Author, speaker, and pastor Steve Goodier wrote this wonderful piece. To subscribe to Steve's emailed inspirations, go to his web site, here.]

After careful consideration and endless debate The Perfect Man has finally been named: "Mr. Potato Head." He's tan. He's cute. He knows the importance of accessorizing. And if he looks at another girl, you can rearrange his face.

Jean Kerr quipped, "Personally, I think if a woman hasn't met the right man by the time she's 24, she may be lucky." We become cynical about love, don't we? We're tempted to believe that real love is a myth, a long-term relationship is a marathon and romance is for kids.

One person said, "Marriage changes passion...suddenly you're in bed with a relative." But does marriage have to kill romance? Is marriage really nothing but a long banquet at which the dessert is served first?

I believe in love and romance. I believe it is something that can last forever, if it is carefully cultivated. Here are some tips for keeping romance alive and for staying in love:

FIND time to date. Time to be alone and tell each other of your love. You spent time alone at first...why did you quit? My wife and I get away alone every week. Just to refocus on each other. And to fall in love again.

UNDERSTAND what delights the other and make it happen. "The romance is over," says Marlys Huffman, "when you see a rosebush and start looking for aphids instead of picking a bouquet." Does she like to be surprised by flowers? Does he have a favorite dish or activity? Does she enjoy spontaneous affection? Know what brings pleasure to your partner -- and delight him/her!

NEVER forget why you got together in the first place. When you focus first on his faults you're not thinking about his strengths. When you're busy pointing out her imperfections, you're not enjoying those qualities that attracted you to her initially. Choose to appreciate that which first drew you together and your romance will grow.

The first letter of these three tips spells the word FUN. Have fun together. Laugh. Go on outings. Plan time to enjoy one another. Remember, "the family the PLAYS together also STAYS together"!

A woman from Charleston, South Carolina was overheard to remark that it was her 53rd wedding anniversary. When asked if she planned a special celebration, she smiled and said softly, "When you have a nice man, it really doesn't matter." I suspect they learned the secrets of staying in love.

Just in case you're not presently with Mr. or Miss Exactly Right, there ARE some things you can do to bring romance back into your life. And though your relationship may never be perfect, it CAN be perfectly wonderful.

"It's not about the argument, it is about how controversially one can word one's message."

So says Michael van der Galien. Look at the WSJ article to which he links and see if you agree.

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Hebrews 5:1-10

[For an explanation of what this is about and to see the first pass at this weekend's Bible lesson, go here.]

The Bible Lesson: Hebrews 5:1-10
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

A Few More General Comments:
1. The lesson is part of a larger section of Hebrews identified by many New Testament schoolars. It runs from 4:14 to 5:10. The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB) gives the section the title, Christ the Merciful.

2. In today's lesson, Jesus is identified as both the second Person of the Trinity, the pre-existent God and as our great high priest.

3. The first part of the lesson, vv. 1-4, portray what a priest is. The second part, vv. 5-10, show how Jesus conforms to this image. But, of course, as the sinless Savior Who died and rose, Jesus' priesthood places Him at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

4. Two psalms heavily influence this passage: Psalm 2, especially verse 7, and Psalm 110, especially verses 1 and 4.

5. This passage is similar to Philippians 2:6-11. The Philippians passage is thought to be an early Christian confessional hymn which Paul included in his letter to the Philippian church. (For more on that Philippians passage, see here and here.) The NIB rightly points out that both passages describe Jesus similarly: pre-existence; humilation; exaltation.

6. Based on Bryan Findlayson's summary of Hebrews' definition of what makes a priest a priest, I sum it up as being composed of three elements:
  • Purpose
  • Sympathy
  • Call
7. Jesus is seen as part of two Old Testament priesthoods, that of Aaron, the brother of Moses, and that of Melchizedek.

8. Melchizedek is a mysterious figure who makes only one actual appearance in the Old Testament. It happens at Genesis 14:17-20:
After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him one tenth of everything.
Now, there are several things to be noticed here:
  • Melchizedek is both a king and a priest, attributes that will, centuries later, be associated with Jesus. (Historically, Christians have confessed that besides being Savior/Messiah and God-enfleshed, Jesus is also a Prophet, Priest, and King.
  • He is a king of Salem, a word which, in various forms, means peace in both Hebrew and Arabic.
  • Salem would later become Jerusalem, the site of the temple and the place where God's presence was thought to dwell in the Holy of Holies.
  • Melchizedek brought bread and wine to Abram (soon to be re-named Abraham). Both are important elements in the Passover and in Holy Communion, the latter being the Christian sacrament which Jesus instituted at a Passover celebration just before His crucifixion.
  • In evident gratitude for being delivered from his enemies, Abram begins the practice of tithing--giving ten per cent of his income and property--toward the ministry of this priest of the Most High God. This was the bottom-line giving which all Hebrews were expected to engage in, beyond an additional 10% for the support of the poor.
  • Some Christians have held that Melchizedek was a prototype of Christ, some even suggesting that His was an early unheralded appearance of Christ in human form. I don't believe that. But the New Testament does say that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, an order that precedes any other Jewish or Christian priesthood.
  • Melchizedek's appearance at this point in the Old Testament narrative indicates that before God had forged a chosen people from the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, there were people who trusted in Him as the one true God all. (Paul even talks about people who act on the basis of faith in a God to Whom they've never been introduced here.)
9. So, what is a priest anyway? Here's a simple definition, drawn from Hebrews and other places in the Bible:
Priests stand up for people with God and they stand up for God with people.
While there are specially appointed priesthoods--and Hebrews doesn't disdain them, the fact is that all who believe in Jesus Christ and are baptized are part of His priesthood. Peter, at another place in the New Testament, puts it this way:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (First Peter 2:9-10)
Christians are called to be part of, in Martin Luther's phrase, "the priesthood of all believers." Of course, Jesus is our great High Priest, the One Who acts as a living bridge between heaven and earth, between God and us.

10. Jesus' priesthood was perfected through His crucifixion. This doesn't mean that there was something immoral about Jesus that needed perfecting. A better verb than perfect here would be complete. By fulfilling His mission of dying for us, the perfect sinless sacrifice for our sins, Jesus is now able to fully discharge His priesthood as our living bridge to God. Through Him, our prayers are answered and we receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life. Hebrews puts it this way near the beginning of this section of the book:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

Saint Louis Gets Into World Series with Seventh Game Win Over Mets

This is a real surprise to me. As Joe Buck pointed out last night, the Cardinals were a measly 22-28 in the last games of the season. They were streaky all year long. The Mets, on the other hand, were the best team in the National League from wire to wire. I had fully expected a New York subway series, given that the Yankees and Mets sported identical winning records, each tops in their leagues.

I'm sure that the conventional wisdom will make the Tigers the favorites and that may be warranted. But given their streaky year, the Cardinals could conceivably put together a monster streak and sweep the thing.

I've got no dog in this hunt, as they say, though I am glad that Detroit is in the series after a twenty-two year absence.

And, if my beloved Reds can't be in the Series, it's fun to see the Cardinals there for the simple reason that Saint Louis may be the best baseball town, with the best baseball fans, in America. (Boston is right up there, too.)

It's going to be fun to watch.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 5 (Foreigners Allowed)

According to the Bible, God called a particular man and woman, Abraham and Sarah, to become the parents of a particular child, Isaac, through whom a particular people would be descended. (All of which underscores the fact that God is not some nebulous deity removed from our reality, but a very specific God with a unique personality who cares about each of us individually.)

God would nurture His people in the knowledge that imperfect human beings can enjoy a relationship with God, not through what they do, but through His charity (or grace) that accepts those who turn from all other gods and the sin to which that leads and believe (or trust) in Him.

The people in question were the Hebrews, also known as the Israelites, and sometimes the Jews. Among the facets of this people's history, as recorded in the Old Testament, is the internal war--fought out among themselves and within themselves--over just what their status as God's chosen people meant. Was their chosenness the end of the story or had God chosen them not just to save them from sin and death, but for the sake of the world?

Two stories I believe to be true, each told in their own short books in the Old Testament, gave the ancient Hebrews the answer to that question, if they dared to militate against the very human impulse to xenophobia. They're two of my favorite Bible stories and they have decided implications for God's people in the Church today.

The first one is that of Jonah. To call Jonah a reluctant prophet would be an understatement. But his story, or at least one dramatic incident from his life, is told--with remarkable economy--in the Old Testament. Tradition has placed it among the books of the prophets, not because Jonah issued some ringing oracle from God. His sermon, if you want to call it that, was composed of one line. One measly line, delivered without conviction; delivered, in fact, with the hope that his listeners would not respond positively. Because he hated them.

What happened? God told Jonah to go a huge city of the ancient world, Nineveh, the capital city of the evil empire of Assyria, and tell them that their great, pervasive sin had earned God's anger and that they were going to be destroyed. But there were a few problems with God's call, as Jonah saw it.

First, as I mentioned, Jonah hated the Ninevites. Like Adrian Monk hates germs. Like Indiana Jones hates snakes. Like Kim Jung Il hates electricity, running water, and food for his people. Like the most horrible racist hates people of another race. Jonah hated the Ninevites.

Second, he knew the character of God. He knew that God never told people about their sins just to leave them wallowing in their alienation from God. Sin separates people from God. But God wants to build bridges so that our relationship with Him can be restored and we can gain full access to His power and life surging through us. God had good intentions for the Ninevites and Jonah didn't like that a bit.

The bottom line is that Jonah was afraid. Not afraid of the Ninevites or what they might do to him. Jonah was afraid that God would give his mission to Nineveh success, that he would give the Ninevites God's message, and that, without so much as a promise from God, renounce their sins, turn to God for forgiveness, and that God would actually forgive them. Jonah didn't want God to touch Nineveh with His love, he wanted God to kill the Ninevites.

So, instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah took off for the Mediterranean. Maybe if he took a cruise, God would either forget about this whole crazy mission of mercy or get someone else to do it. But Jonah forgot an important fact that I've emphasized on this blog time and again: Either God gets His way or God gets His way.

Next comes the most spectacular and for some people, difficult to accept, incidents in Jonah's story. While Jonah was on board the ship, a fierce storm rocked it. It was so bad that all passengers and hands began to wonder which of them had ticked off one of the many deities of the ancient world.

Jonah said, "It was me. I made the one true God of the world angry." He said that the only sensible solution was to toss him into the drink. The others were reluctant to do this at first. After all, this storm seemed to prove that Jonah was a fairly important figure; how would Jonah's deity feel about his being deliberately drowned? "You've got no choice," Jonah essentially told them. They threw him overboard and, in an instant, the sea was calm.

But what about Jonah? You need to know that nothing was viewed with greater terror by the ancient Israelites than the sea. The deep was a place of chaos and terror, in their minds. It was a place of death and evil, far from the light and presence of God. The first creation account in Genesis says that there was a primordial soup--a deep, thrashing, stormy, raging sea--over which God's Spirit moved to bring life and order into being. The sea, they thought, was the domain of monsters like the leviathan that threatened to engorge hapless travelers. Countless centuries later, when Jesus promised His first followers that they would be "fishers of people," it was a commission to lovingly troll the dark places of the world in order to scoop people out of sin and certain death into the presence of a Savior Who could give them new life.

So, Jonah may have been terrified. His terror was only beginning though. One of those big sea creatures came along and swallowed him whole.

There, in the belly of a fish, Jonah turned to God, asking for forgiveness. Miraculously, God had the fish vomit Jonah onto shore. And guess where he landed? Near Nineveh, the capital city of the hated Assyrians.

What Jonah must have looked like, his skin bleached white by the fish's stomach juices, or smelled like, is something I prefer not imagining. But it may be that his appearance and his smell gave credibility to his simple sermon: "Yet forty days and Ninebeh shall be overthrown."

What happened next is the secret envy of anyone who preaches God's Word:
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes [a sign of repentance, that is, of turning away from sin, and turning to God]. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Without any guarantees of forgiveness or of being spared being overthrown, the Ninevites repudiated their sin and humbled themselves before God.

But, as I said, Jonah didn't like this scenario. "I knew this would happen," Jonah told God and has a hissy fit.
"...That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Amazingly, God overlooked this temper tantrum...and didn't comply with Jonah's request, however tempting it may have been.

Instead he--and all of us--are left to witness the fact that God cares about all people. God wants all people to renounce their sin and come to Him. That's why Jesus would later come to the world to offer new life to everyone who believes in Him. This is the lesson of Jonah no matter if you think it's factual or not. It's a comforting--and a challenging--lesson.

I hope to tell the second story on this Foreigners Allowed theme in my next installment. There, I intend to unpack more of the implications of the two stories.

[Here are links to the four previous installments in this series:
David and the Well at Bethlehem
The Hebrew Midwives

[You can easily read the book of Jonah in a few minutes. But don't do it. Take some time to savor it: Jonah, chapter 1; chapter 2; chapter 3; chapter 4]

“Europe has tacitly accepted that from now on the freedom of satire is valid for everything but Islam.”

That's what a recent Italian editorial, cited by Hermann in an interesting and disturbing post called Let Timidity Ring, claims.

Is it true?

In the face of radical Islamic bullying and its aversion to democracy, pluralism, free speech, and mutual respect, has Europe acquiesced to fear and self-censorship?

Hermann thinks so, asserting that the current European mood is, Ich habe Angst, also bin ich, meaning I have fear, therefore I am. Read the whole thing.

Election 2006: God Help Us!

Our friend was agitated as my wife and I sat with her and her husband over dinner at a local restaurant recently. "I'm so sick of both parties, the Democrats and the Republicans," she said. "Who's going to look out for the interests of the common people? They're both so corrupt. They just look out for themselves. What we need is a new party: the Common Party."

Her husband chimed in that all politicians seem interested in is telling us how bad the opposition candidate is. He also said that he didn't like the nominee for governor of his own party and that he wasn't sure his opponent was any better.

These are Republicans who live in the reddest part of the red state of Ohio, an area that hasn't voted for a Democrat for any office at any level--except for an occasional township trustee--for as long as anybody can remember. George Bush got close to 70% of the vote here in both 2000 and 2004. Yet, this year my friends--and others--are considering voting against every incumbent for every office.

And if the conversations I have with folks in the community and the national polling about voters' attitudes about politics are indicators, our friends represent a strong and growing sentiment.

While this may superficially be read as the early warning signs of political realignment, I doubt the conventional wisdom that this year's election will bring a shift in partsian loyalties. By that, I mean that people may vote for Democrats because they'll be the handiest tools for saying they don't like the way politics is operating in America today. But they won't necessarily be declaring themselves to be Democrats.

The bottom line is this: Voters are, by and large, disgusted with the Republicans. But they're not enchanted with the Democrats either.

If they could say, "A plague on both your houses" and opt for a credible, compelling third party, they would cast their votes that way. But absent credible, compelling third parties, Americans hold their noses and cast their votes for candidates and parties they flat out don't trust.

While it's likely that the US House and maybe the Senate will go to the Democrats this year, I wouldn't be surprised if Republicans maintain their majorities in both bodies this election day.

The lack of other options means that folks are going to vote for either a Republican or a Democrat. But they won't be happy about it. And if they could, they'd like to avoid giving either party any encouragement.

I've been interested in politics all my life. Throughout the 70s, I was actively involved. I ran a congressional campaign in 1976. I ran for office myself two years ago. I'm no babe-in-the-woods naif.

I'm also a student of history. There have always been disgusting campaigns. But now, virtually every campaign ad, almost any political campaign speech, makes you feel the need to take a shower to wash away the filth.

No candidate is perfect because no human being is perfect. No party is going to "get it right," from our personal perspective, all the time. Compromise is an essential element of democracy and the first compromise we all must make is to vote for candidates with whom we don't agree on everything. People can live with that. But what people are finding hard to swallow these days is our kabuki dance politics, candidates employing formulaic taglines and predictable assaults on one another's character, none of which means a thing once they've gotten a sniff of K Street. (Or, in the case of Ohio, Broad and High Streets.)

This year, as in no other in my memory, the operative questions for most voters whose revulsion hasn't totally turned them away from our country's prostituted political process are these:
  • Who is the least objectionable?
  • Who do I distrust less?
  • Who repulses me least?
It's awful. God help us.

[Thanks to Bruce Armstrong of Ordinary Everyday Christian for linking to this post. He lists it as one of six things "you need to read this week." Wow, Bruce, I'm honored!]

[Thanks to Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice for linking to this post. Joe's site, with contributions from many folks other than himself, belies the notion that being a moderate means being wishy-washy. These are people with decided opinions on many contemporary issues. Those opinions just happen to be somewhere in the middle between the right and the left. It makes for interesting reading.]

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Hebrews 5:1-10

[Most weeks, 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 our Bible lesson is usually one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

The Lesson: Hebrews 5:1-10
1 Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” 7In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

A Few General Comments:
1. Hebrews is one of the most interesting--and potentially confusing--books of the Bible.

2. While it's often called a letter, Hebrews, in fact is a sermon or a lecture.

3. Traditionally attributed to Paul, he almost certainly was not its author. Whether examined on the basis of rhetoric, vocabulary, thought world, sentence structure, likely date, or presumed audience, nothing would indicate that Paul delivered this address.

4. In terms of language and knowledge, this is among the most sophisticated of New Testament books. Probably only two books attributed to John--the Gospel bearing his name and the book of Revelation--reflect an author as steeped in Greek philosophy and the Old Testament as does the author of Hebrews. In fact, Hebrews has a lot more in common with John's writings than it does with Paul's.

5. The earliest likely date for the composition of Hebrews is 70AD. It appears to address second-generation Jewish-Christians considering abandonment of faith in the risen Christ. By this time, Judaism was apparently more acceptable in the dispersed Roman Empire. In addition, overt persecution of Christians was beginning, with more widespread "cleansing" on the horizon.

Hebrews encourages Jewish-Christians to remain faithful to Jesus Christ, not only because He is, as Jesus says in John's Gospel, "the way, and the truth, and the life," the One by Whom the human race gains access to God, but also because:
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt. Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over. [Hebrews 4:6-8]
6. These early Christians felt themselves assailed not only by persecution, but also demonic attack. This latter reason lay behind why Hebrews speaks of the superiority of Jesus--and of human beings--over angels.

7. Throughout, Hebrews seeks to demonstrate that:
  • Jesus was both the second Person of the Trinity, the Three-in-One God before the beginning of history and the High Priest, called by God to that function during His time on earth.
  • God understands our suffering because in Christ, He has endured it Himself. He can sustain us in our suffering because He has suffered.
  • The Old Testament rituals and the temple gave God's Old Testament people copies of heaven by which they could, through faith, anticipate God's ultimate self-disclosure.
  • In Jesus Christ, God has fully revealed Himself and given all with faith in Him access to His help today, as well as to eternity.
More, including some discussion of the mysterious Melchizedek, tomorrow, I hope.

Suffering: Indispensable Component of True Success

John Schroeder reminds us of that in an outstanding piece inspired by yet another wise and insightful article by David Wayne, the Jollyblogger.

From Wayne:
Nowhere does God attach a promise to the gospel that it will make anyone successful, but He does attach many promises of suffering to the gospel. It follows that gospel driven leaders will be those who suffer well.
From Schroeder:
We are called to success, but not success as the world knows it, but success that starts on a cross.
Good, provocative stuff. Both Schroeder and Wayne are claiming, with good Biblical warrant I think, that suffering is not only inevitable in this life, but that it's an indispensable tool in God's efforts to help us become the people we were made to be.

Through suffering, we can learn dependence on God and human empathy, among other things.

I don't like to suffer in any way. I rail against God whenever suffering comes my way, even in its most mundane forms.

But the person tuned into God's purposes for her or his life can look back on times of suffering and failure and see how God uses such experiences to shape us. Through them, we can mature as people and as believers.

Go read David's and John's posts.

You might also be interested in reading this series, in which I tackle the reality of suffering:
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 1
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 2
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 3
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 4
The Light of the World!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"I could no longer nod my head to the misogyny or keep time to the vapid materialism of another rap song."

So says Washington Post writer Lonnae O'Neal Parker in an interesting piece that appeared in the newspaper yesterday. Parker concluded that she had to leave hip-hop behind and explains why. Her experiences with a genre she loves underscore the findings I discussed here not long ago.

I'm a white, middle class, fifty-something preacher. But in past years, I enjoyed rap music and have defended its legitimacy. Some fifteen years ago, in a conversation with friends, one woman, knowing what a music fan I am, asked if I thought rap music was around to stay. Before I could begin my answer, another person laughed dismissively and said, "Of course not." "No," I said, "I'm sure that it is around to stay. Like other musical genres that were once marginalized and brought into the mainstream, it'll stay as a stand-alone style and also be incorporated and fused with other styles." (Pardon my pride; I'm seldom so accurate a prophet!)

Rap and hip-hop's ascendancy was fine with me. I love it when tasty ingredients are added to our musical stew. Besides, I love hip-hop's energy, its innovative rhymes, and its rhythms.

But its ever-growing misogyny and materialism, traits it shares with much of today's guitar-driven rock, are destructive, making most of it un-listenable as well as a corrosive influence on the self-esteem and psychological well-being of young people.

Parker seems to agree with that assessment. Read all of her article.

Monday, October 16, 2006

What is Christian Art?

What constitutes Christian art?
There's a grand tradition of Christian art that includes people like Bach, Michelangelo, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, to name a tiny few.

But what made past works of art Christian? And what characterizes Christian art today? (If there is any Christian art today?)

In a post several days ago, Jan of TheViewfromHer, effectively slams contemporary notions of what makes art Christian as, essentially, legalistic, proscriptive, and frankly, not art.

She reviews some of the usual criteria that contemporary Christians seem to associate with art they describe as Christian. Reading them, you can almost feel the walls closing in, Jan effectively portraying what the Pharisaic guardians of contemporary Christian "art" claim to be the rules, presumably given by Christ Himself:
Christian Books. 1. Books written by Christian authors. 2. Can be about any theme, problem or storyline, but provide "Christian" solutions. Usually with Bible verses. 3. Printed by Christian publishers. "Secular" writers do not write Christian books. (Duh.) That's why books on the New York Times Best Seller List are not Christian. (With the exception of The Purpose Driven Life, which meets the criteria of numbers 1-3.) See, how it all starts to fit?

Christian Music. 1. The songs are about God. 2. The music is usually distributed by a Christian label. 3. The singer/artist is a Christian. Songs by a "secular" artist that may seem to have a Christian theme can be categorized as such only when re-recorded by a Christian artist. This is understandable, because they need to be specific about whose money they're targeting. Christian money, of course!

Christian "Art." 1. Contains a Christian symbol: cross, dove, or fish. 2. Contains a Scripture verse. 3. Has John 3:16 hidden somewhere in it. 4. Is only created by a Christian artist, because no one else would even think to include numbers 1-3 in a work of art. 4. Sold in Christian bookstores, because, well...of numbers 1-3.
There really are Christians who think this way and by simply and honestly presenting their thinking, Jan, a committed Christian herself, demonstrates how stiflingly silly it is.

Such strait jacketed notions are great if your goal is to create a hermetically-sealed religious subculture. But we Christians belong to a Savior Who has repeatedly told us to go into the world, to be the good news to our neighbor, to love others, and to care about the world God has given to us.

Those "rules" for Christian art forms are terrific, too, if you buy into the notion that all Christians have their lives together and that having come to faith in Christ, their primary task is to tell others how to live. Christians are the ones though, who have been given the courage by God's Holy Spirit to admit their humanity and their need for the God Who made Himself and His love known in Christ. There can be no self-righteousness in Christian art, because Christians know, as Martin Luther put it, we are all beggars.

The fact is that, like the rest of the human race, Christians have problems and conflicts. We face challenges and our lives aren't perfect. (The only difference between us and the rest of the human race is that we face these with a dependence on Jesus Christ.)

Any artistic expression that acknowledges the realities of life is far more likely to be Christian or to have Christian implications than some of the bland banalities that pass for "Christian art" these days.

That's because we Christians follow an incarnated God, a God Who has entered into our realities. When God took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, the Bible reminds us, He experienced everything we experience except that, because He remained sinless, He conquered sin and death for us. Jesus experienced fear, grief, anger, disagreements, disappointments, hunger, thirst, prejudice, disdain, internal conflicts, betrayal, the temptation to go against the plan for His life, and much more.

Real art, whether it mentions Jesus or quotes Bible passages overtly, may be Christian insofar as it deals honestly with such themes and issues. This past Friday, writing about the stifling definitions of what constitutes Christian art, Jan says:
[Considering the common criteria for] what today's Christian culture regards as the "Christian Arts" - literature, music, art, movies. Not very inspiring. No modern-day Paradise Losts or Mozarts or Sistine Chapels. Tragic. Shameful. We don't even know what we're missing because we don't recognize it anymore. Beauty and creativity all get watered down by rules and legalism and suspicion and modernist literal thinking into a gray morass of mediocrity. By rules and literalism I mean Christian art/literature/music must always be about God, or a "Christian" theme, include Bible verses, and provide closure with Jesus as the solution.

I'll be frank: those expressions are not art. They may be creative, and thought-provoking, and have a place in the Christian life. But true Art is something else entirely.

Jan then goes on to discuss what might be good definitions of Christian art:
1. It has to be excellent...

2. It does not have to have a purpose...God came up with the idea of useless beauty. [I love that line. It's so true!]

3. It does have to be true. This one gets a little stickier, and is where some "Christian artists" can get confused. Simply put, "true" is when something matches reality. Christian art must certainly be true. Stories and characters must match reality. Dan Edelen wrote an excellent post about literary characters. Real people struggle, and have conflict. They fail. They even curse. Yes, dammit, they really do. (And I'm not talking about movies that use the F-bomb in place of writing meaningful dialogue.) Real people sin. (gasp!) And truthfully relating the conflict of that sin and failure is truly Christian Art.

4. Non-Christians can create Christian Art...Human beings (saved or not) are all created in the image of God, and all bear the thumbprint of His creativity. Non-believers can certainly create something that is excellent, and true. Lost people expressing their "lostness" in a yearning for love and acceptance and meaning is very Christian. (We were all there at some point.) Don't split hairs about them not intending it for God. I think this is a pretty good example of them understanding God's invisible qualities (Romans 1:19-20).
Read both of Jan's posts (see here and here) on this important topic.

Christian art has the ability to touch all people at the cores of their beings. It avoids the formulaic, self-righteousness, and jargon.

Christian art breaks open truths about life without preaching.

And for it to be Christian art, it must be art.

Maybe there's always been precious little art that expresses Christian truth and sensibilities. But I can't help but feel that future generations will regard ours as a dark age, not because of that evil world from which we Christians seem to want to retreat, but because of the dearth of great art coming from Christians and because of the failure of Christians to recognize Christian themes in the great art being produced by non-Christians.

Jan does a great job with this topic. Make sure you read her blog every day.

[THANKS TO: John Schroeder of Blogotional for linking to this post. He observes that he doesn't see much in the way of Christian art in existence these days.]

Sunday, October 15, 2006

What Must I Do To Inherit Eternal Life?

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship celebrations on October 15 and 15, 2006.]

Based on Mark 10:17-31

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

This is the question brought to Jesus one day by a wealthy man. Now, of course, the accurate bottom-line answer is that there’s nothing we can do to inherit eternal life.

Eternal life is a free gift from a gracious God to all who believe in Jesus Christ. We simply choose to receive Christ and His gifts...or not.

Eternal life is a standing offer to all who turn from sin and let God save them.

But of course, just because I can receive eternal life doesn’t necessarily mean that I will receive it. The telephone on the wall at home and the cell phone I keep in my pocket means that I can talk with people pretty much anywhere any time. But when one of the phones rings while I’m using one hand to put dirty dishes in the dishwasher and the other to wipe off the countertop, something’s got to give. I can only get the call if I empty my hands and grab the phone.

The person who wants eternal life needs to learn a similar truth. As preacher Stacey Elizabeth Simpson put it a few years back, “What must we do to inherit eternal life? We must let go of all that we have and all that we do that gets in the way of seeing that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves."

Is there anything getting in the way of your seeing that there’s nothing you can do to save yourself? This is a healthy question to ask ourselves from time to time.

Jesus understood that what stood in the way of the questioning man receiving eternal life was the man's addiction to wealth. Mind you, it wasn’t his wealth that was the problem. It was how he related to his wealth.

Jesus observed that the man bought into the common assumption that having wealth meant that God loved you more and you were closer to God. Jesus stunned His disciples when He told them that it will be harder for a wealthy person to get into heaven than it is to cram a camel, the biggest animal any of them had ever seen, through the eye of a needle, one of the smallest openings they’d ever seen.

But don’t misunderstand. God’s people are allowed to be wealthy. Look at the Bible: Abraham was wealthy. So were Solomon, James and John, the sons of Zebedee; Lydia, the dealer in purple goods; Matthew; Joseph of Arimithea, who donated the tomb in which Jesus was buried; and probably Peter and his brother Andrew, because most fishermen were wealthy. Wealth isn’t the core problem Jesus addresses here. The Bible doesn’t teach, as some erroneously claim, that money is the root of all evil. It teaches that the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.

Wealth isn’t a sin. In fact, I think Jesus urges us to honestly make as much money as our talents and opportunities allow. That way we can provide for our families and give to the cause of Christ in the world, not only through the Church, but other agencies and organizations. That includes, as Jesus says in our lesson and in other places repeatedly, efforts aimed at helping the poor.

But when we let wealth define our lives, it becomes our god. And when that happens, we walk away from the true God Who gives eternal life as surely as the rich man did after his encounter with Jesus. Wealth is the most common religion of choice, our most popular addiction. No wonder Jesus talked more about money than He talked about heaven and hell combined.

The Christian recognizes that she or he is called to be a good steward, managing all of their time, talents, and treasures, as well as that portion of the earth over which they exercise influence, with awe and gratitude toward God.

So, how do we make sure that we exercise good stewardship over our money?

How do we ensure that we use whatever wealth we have in a way that expresses our awe and gratitude to God and that puts God first?

Jesus, through His words to the wealthy man, answers those questions for us in our lesson for today. No, He doesn’t necessarily want us to go sell everything we have and give our money to the poor. That was what the man Jesus met needed to do.

But for the rest of us, Jesus is making a larger point: To take hold of the free gift of eternal life, let go of the things that prevent you from doing that. This makes sense. If you were among those who jumped from the Titanic as it sank, you’d have preferred latching onto a life preserver rather than an anvil. Dependence on God will lift you up; dependence on money (or anything else) will drag you down.

Use your money (and your whole life) to glorify God; don’t let it (or anything but the real deal) be your god.

The next few weeks are critical to the life of Friendship Lutheran Church. You and I have opportunities to glorify God and to share Christ of which I pray you’ll take full advantage. I want to mention two of them.

First: October 29 brings Friend Day. It is critically important to the future of our congregation that you go to and invite your spiritually disconnected friends to be with us on that day. Not just because the church, like all living organisms, must either grow or die, but because it’s the very nature of one saved by God’s grace to want to share Him with others.

Don’t fall prey to excuses, the kinds of excuses I'm prone to make. "Oh," I tell myself, "the time isn't right." Or, "I don't have the right words." Or, "They'll just say, 'No.'" I’m sure that the Evil One loves it when we make excuses for not going into the world to share Christ. Prayerfully resolve today that you will be responsible for bringing one unchurched friend to worship with us on October 29. You can tell them that we’ll have some special music that day and that they’ll meet Jesus then.

Second: November 19 brings us to Consecration Sunday. Please make it a point to prayerfully consider how you will use your time, talents, and treasures in the coming year to glorify God through the ministries of Friendship Lutheran Church. Consider too, enrolling in Thrivent Financial Services for Lutherans’ Simply Giving program so that even on those Saturdays or Sundays when you’re unable to be here, your offerings for the work of God that we’re involved with at Friendship can go forward. Then, be with us on Consecration Sunday as we renew our dedication to our common mission out there in the world together.

What must we do to inherit eternal life?

We let go of those things that block God’s grace and power from our lives!

That includes letting go of the fear of having our invitations rejected and the fear of consecrating our time, talents, and treasures to Christ’s cause.

As we move toward both October 29 and November 19, prayerfully remember that, please.

[THANKS TO: Dan at A Slower Pace for linking to this message.]