Saturday, December 30, 2006

'Dinner for One'

Maybe the strangest New Year's Eve custom in Germany revolves around an old English music hall skit originally aired on the BBC more than forty years ago. Dinner for One airs repeatedly on German TV on the last night of the year, drawing family and friends around their sets before they begin their celebrations.

Dinner for One
is in English and it's in black and white. Frankly, it's not that funny. You'd think that those three things would guarantee that nobody in the post-modern world--especially the post-modern world of continental Europe--would care about it. But in 2001, when my daughter and I viewed the program with German friends and their neighbors as we prepared to welcome a new year with them, we noticed that they all knew every line by heart...and still delighted in them.

For the Germans in 2006, it's apparently "the same procedure as last year...same procedure as every year."

Hermann the German, one of the best observers of everyday German life, presented the skit on his site here, if you're interested.

Another Good Post on Ford...

from the always-interesting Pastor Jeff.

More Reflections on Gerald Ford

These from my blogging colleague, Danny Miller. (He was fifteen when Ford became president. I was almost twenty-one and newly married.)

Is Wind Energy One Way to Freedom from Oil-Dependence?


Three Egyptian Deaths...

bring Avian Flu fatalities to 157. Are we prepared in the US?

In the mail from Amazon...

When Did We See You, Lord? and A Short History of the American Revolution.

Both choices were inspired by our just-completed jaunt to Charleston, South Carolina. I'm sure that there will be some posts inspired by that trip, my first there. The first book was co-written by the Roman Catholic bishop of Charleston and I saw it at a bookstore there. The second book was featured at a gift shop operated by the city's preservation society.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford: Our Insurance Policy

Richard Nixon thought that Gerald Ford was his insurance policy. It turns out that the unassuming man from western Michigan was our insurance policy.

Reports circulated in mid-1974 that President Nixon, with evidence of his multiple violations of the Constitution, the law, and his oath of office mounting, had asked aides disdainfully if they could imagine that any member of Congress would proceed with impeaching or removing him from the presidency knowing that Ford would succeed him. When Nixon's first Vice President, Spiro Agnew, had been forced to resign in disgrace, the thirty-seventh President initially wanted to nominate John Connally to take Agnew's place. However, members of Congress, especially Democratic Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, told the President that Connally, soon to be indicted in federal court, couldn't be confirmed, but that he and the Senate were enthusiastic about Ford.

Nixon thought of Ford as a lightweight. Initially resistant to the notion of nominating him for Vice President, he came to view Ford as a hedge against having to resign the presidency. He simply couldn't imagine anyone seriously wanting to see Gerald Ford become President.

But in this as on many things, Nixon was wrong. When, after taking the oath of office on August 9, 1974, Ford announced that our long national nightmare was over, we heaved a sigh of relief. Gerald Ford was our generation's Harry Truman, a plain-spoken man who loved his country, did his best, and let the chips fall where they might. We needed a President like him after Vietnam and Watergate.

I'm writing this post from a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. It was at a fort visible from this spot that the greatest constitutional crisis of US history began with the attack by Rebel insurgents on Fort Sumter. The Civil War ensued, testing whether that nation or any nation, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, dedicated to the principles of the American Revolution could survive.

Throughout much of our national history, there have been those who have misinterpreted the theme of the American Revolution and of the American experiment. They've seen the cause of America as being solely centered on individual liberty or freedom, particularly their own freedom.

Ironically, people who see America in this way usually are the ones who most threaten the freedom they claim to value. Unbridled freedom can become what the Founders called mobocracy, the tyranny of "the free," exemplified for them in the terrors of the French Revolution.

The desire for freedom is certainly part of what motivated America's founding generation. Thomas Jefferson, a delegate at the Continental Congress that declared American independence from Great Britain, well-articulated the views of his countrymen when assigned the task of presenting the American brief to the world about which even schoolchildren today know.

It turns out though, that even Jefferson didn't fully understand the other theme which completed or fulfilled our revolution. Both James Madison, his protege, and John Adams, his friend and rival, had constantly to correct Jefferson, who never really got it. Because of his misunderstanding, Jefferson disdained the Constitution. While out of office, he saw it not as a compact which bound Americans together, but as a temporary and expendable document meant to fix the flaws in the Articles of Confederation, flaws he never fully acknowleged. While President, he viewed constitutional limits on his ideas about the republic and giving Americans a continent in which to expand their agrarian nation, as being inimical to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

But the Constitution had been made necessary because freedom without mutual accountability can lead to a weak and ineffectual nation, as happened under our Articles of Confederation, or to license and violence as it did in France.

During the Civil War, southern leaders insisted that they were fighting for freedom. They were, in a way: their "freedom" to enslave others and to allow states to legitimize the "peculiar institution" of human bondage which kept their rice and cotton plantations afloat. More than one-hundred years later, Nixon chafed under attempts to bridle his "freedom" as a chief executive to violate the Constitution, overstepping his presidential prerogatives and violating the freedoms of others.

This is the sort of thing that always happens when one of the two guiding US principles is forgotten.

What Adams, Washington, Hamilton, and to a lesser extent, Madison, saw was that the Constitution completed the American Revolution, balancing freedom with mutual responsibility and checks and balances.

Lincoln would later fully articulate and explain the twin components of the American experiment, seeing that the nation was birthed to be a republic in which liberty was wedded to the rule of law, institutionalizing mutual accountability.

Ford, unlike Nixon, understood and accepted these twin components of the American experiment. That's why, in the address he gave on taking over as President, Ford declared that his ascent to the presidency as the culmination of the Watergate crisis proved that our constitutional system worked, that ours was a nation of laws, not of individual people.

"I am the President," Nixon once declared, in a statement eerily similar to that ascribed King Louis XIV: "C'etat est moi." Ford knew better than this, seeing that no human being is above the laws that bind nations together.

This decent, principled man was precisely the prescription needed to affirm both freedom and responsibility as the essential elements of our national identity.

I didn't agree with Gerald Ford's decision to pardon Nixon, although I understood his desire to get the disposition of Nixon's life off the national agenda. Nonetheless, as I'm sure many commentators have noted today, Ford, in his understated way, restored our trust in government and the Constitution and ended the War in Vietnam. He unflinchingly made some of the toughest decisions ever made by an American President, all in an amazing two-and-a-half year period.

In his typically self-deprecating way, the former Michigan Congressman said of his oratory that he was a Ford, not a Lincoln. But with actions if not eloquence, Gerald Ford, like Lincoln before him, insured Americans' continued fealty to the two primary principles of our country's founding. That's no mean achievement.

[UPDATE: See here.]

[THANKS TO: Two of my favorite bloggers, Charlie Lehardy, for linking to this post and to Pastor Jeff for doing the same.]

[THANKS TO: Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice for linking to this post.]

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

I Plan to Be Blogging Again on December 30

(But you know how God laughs at our plans!) I'm taking a a three to four day hiatus from blogging. There should be plenty for you to read here, though.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts, the Whole Series

Here are links to all the installments of my recently completed series, Opening Your Spiritual Gifts:
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7
Day 8
Day 9
Day 10
Day 11
Day 12
Day 13
Day 14
Day 15
Day 16
Day 17
Day 18
Day 19
Day 20
Day 21

Monday, December 25, 2006

"You got soul!"

That's what James Brown told Russel Shaw.

Why No Christmas Eve Message from Daniels?

As I mentioned, we had our Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship last night. And I did present a message. But it wasn't my message.

Instead, I resumed an old practice of mine, presenting an adaptation of something put together years ago by the late Roland Bainton. Bainton was a Yale history professor whose specialty was the Reformation. (He was also a fine caricaturist and a collector of Reform-era prints, by the way.) Bainton collected all of the Christmas sermons preached by Martin Luther and distilled them into a single, seamless sermon. Bainton's finished product was rather long. So, about twenty years ago, I pared it down for use on Christmas Eve. Except for about three Christmas Eve celebrations in the intervening years, I've used it ever since.

Even though Luther died in 1546, his preaching still works because of his particular genius as a communicator: the capacity to take sometimes complicated truths and make them accessible, rooting them in the daily experiences of people.

This ability, of course, was closely related to the entire project of his life as a theologian, pastor, and thinker. Luther wanted all to know that God had made Himself accessible and known ultimately through Jesus Christ. Through faith in Christ, all can know peace with God and have life with God forever.

Making Christ accessible to all, no longer the exclusive purview of theologians or priests, is what lay behind so much of Luther's work, including The Small Catechism, explaining the faith to families; his translation of the Bible into German, the catalyst behind standardizing the German language; and his reform of the Mass, making it what worship was intended to be, the work of God's people. (The term from which we get the word liturgy means work of the people, indicating that worship isn't a spectator sport, but something in which all of God's people are to be involved. And, of course, worship is meant to be the Jesus-Follower's way of life, not just something done once or twice a week.)

Of course, this emphasis was wedded to the Reformation Martin Luther set off in the Church when He insisted that God's favor, forgiveness of sin, and eternal life cannot be earned. They are free gifts from a gracious God to all who believe in Christ. (See here, here, and here.) (Without Christ, there would be absolutely nothing to celebrate at Christmas!)

I first did my distillation of the Bainton adaptation of Luthers Christmas sermons on a typewriter, long before I owned or had access to a computer. It's from the same typewritten sheets I produced back then that I read last evening's message.

Maybe one day, I'll re-key it and post it here.

[To get to my multi-part series on the basics of Christian faith, based on Martin Luther's Small Catechism, see here. To see The Small Catechism, go here.]

Glen VanderKloot: Christmas Expectations, Christmas Realities

[This is the Christmas Eve message of my colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot. To subscribe to Glen's daily inspirations, send an email to; simply type SUBSCRIBE on the subject line.]

It seems like everyone has expectations for Christmas. Some of these expectations are realistic, many are not.

What do you expect for Christmas? What about you? Are you expectations realistic, or not?

Kids and lots of adults are expecting - presents. Sometimes they are expecting something that is just never going to happen.

One child put on her list that she wanted a chimpanzee adopted from the Jane Goodal Foundation - cost $1000. Not gonna' happen!

One woman staying at a shelter was adopted by a church for Christmas. She put on her Christmas list: bath towels, wash cloths and a karaoke machine. Not gonna' happen!

Often soldiers in war zones hope and expect a Christmas truce. May happen, but probably not.

Many families are expecting family unity, reconciliation and behavioral change. May happen, but probably not.

All the characters in the Christmas story had expectations.

Mary and Joseph expected to get a room at the inn in Bethlehem. But there was no room in the inn!

Mary expected a much more favorable environment than a barn for her son to be born - but that is where she gave birth.

The shepherds expected to see in Bethlehem what had been told them by the angel. And they did!

The wise men expected a prince - born to royalty and wealth. Instead they found a baby born to peasant parents.

The wise men expected to find a baby who would be a king - not a baby in the manger.

The wise men expected Herod to be a man of his word - but God warned them in a dream that he was not.

It seems like everyone had expectations for Christmas. Some of these expectations were realistic, many were not.

What about you? What do you expect for Christmas? Are you expectations realistic, or not?

It turned out that the expectations for that night in Bethlehem just were not important. It turned out that whether their expectations were realistic or not was not important.

For independent of whether their expectations were met, everyone in the Christmas story was changed. They could not come to the manger, into the presence of Almighty God, and stay the same. How God changed
each of them was much more significant than their expectations or even the realities they discovered.

Mary was changed as she treasured in her heart all that happened.

Joseph was changed as he acted in faith accepting Jesus as his son, marveling at all that had happened.

The shepherds were changed, leaving the manger telling everyone what God had done and praising and glorifying God.

The wise men were changed as they bowed down, worshipped and gave gifts to the Baby Jesus.

The same is true for us. Our expectations do not matter.

What does matter is whether we open ourselves to Jesus and let God change us. We cannot come to the manger, into the presence of Almighty God, and stay the same.

Are we ready to let God change us?

Are we ready to treasure in our hearts the Christmas story?

Are we ready to act in faith and marvel at all God does?

Are we ready to tell everyone about Jesus, praising and glorifying God?

Are we ready to bow down and worship the Christ Child?

Are we ready to let Jesus be the focus not only tonight, but all nights?

Are we ready to turn over our lives to Jesus?

Are we open to receive the love, peace and forgiveness that God offers to us in the Christ Child?

These are the questions that matter.

As you come to the manger tonight, may God change you into all that he desires you to be. Amen

I Feel Good

I hope that James has reason to sing that right now.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

I Love Christmas Eve!

In just a few moments, I'll be driving to our church building to get ready for tonight's Christmas Eve Candlelight worship. This is really my favorite service of the year, the best part of Christmas for me.

Near the end of the service, I'll read the prologue to John's Gospel while everyone in the sanctuary holds a candle. Then, by the same candlelight, we'll sing the Austrian hymn, Silent Night. (Stille nacht, heilige nacht...)

Silent Night well evokes the understatedness of the first Christmas. Like all true things, I think, the importance of the first Christmas was mostly unseen and unrecognized by the people of Bethlehem and the surrounding territory. It could be perceived only through the eyes of faith, though none of it happened in secret. (That remains true to this day.)

God did choose to send an angel choir to announce the birth of the world's Savior to some shepherds. But isn't that just like God? I mean, for Him to send word to shepherds.

He's always choosing the lowly, the despised, the victims of prejudice, injustice, and poverty to be His witnesses.

It makes sense when you think about it: the proud and powerful, the people who think that their wealth makes them all that could hardly be counted on to take notice of the birth of Jesus, let alone tell the neighborhood. They would be too dazzled with themselves and their baubles to care. It's easy to live in denial about one's need of a Savior when your ego and your pockets are stuffed. Not so for those who live in poverty or deal with the pain and difficulties of life or know that the world isn't theirs to control. People like this have always been the ones to lead the rest of us in true worship of God.

That's probably why Jesus said that it would be harder for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. It isn't that a wealthy person can't hear and respond to God's call to own up to our need of Him. Abraham, patriarch of God's people, the Hebrews, was wealthy. It's just harder for the wealthy to surrender to God because of having so much more to surrender.

Mary seemed to know all of this, impoverished girl as she was, and it's reflected in the words she spoke to Elizabeth in the Bible lessons most Christians heard together as they worshiped today:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
I love Christmas Eve because, in a single event, God telescopes everything about Himself and everything He thinks and feels for us.

God isn't removed from us. He becomes one of us, a baby who soils His diapers.

God doesn't disdain stuff. He made it and wants to redeem His children and in fact, all creation.

God doesn't come to wow us, but to save us from our sin.

The child was laid in a stone feeding trough in a barn that was probably a cave. Later, wise men from the East would bring, among other things, myrrh, a spice used to anoint the dead. Jesus' very birth foretold His sacrificial death. It also hinted of something else that would happen in a cave: the resurrection of Jesus' flesh, the undeniable guarantee that all who turn from sin and follow this Savior, even if they die, they will rise again with Jesus and live with God forever.

Christmas tells us how much God loves us and how much those with faith in Christ have to look forward to, here and in eternity.

"I am so glad each Christmas Eve, the night of Jesus' birth. Then like the sun, the star shone forth, and angels sang on earth."

And the song will go on forever and ever, world without end. Amen!

What's Different About Being a Christian?

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church of Amelia, Ohio, during morning worship--celebrating the Fourth Sunday in Advent--on December 24, 2006.]

Luke 1:39-55
Recently, I read about a pastor who took aback the members of his congregation by asking them, “What have you done today that nobody but a Christian would do?”

When I thought about that question when I first read it and considered my day, I realized that I’d done a lot of good things: I’d done my work dutifully, volunteered in the community, cared for my family, said hello to my neighbor, paid my bills, done the banking.

But how many of those were things that only a Christian would do?

What about the way I lived that day indicated that Jesus Christ was my Lord and highest priority?

What have you done today that only a Christian would do? My answer to that question shames me. I realize that sometimes, whole days go by in which what I do has very little about it that’s distinctively Christian about it.

And we Christians are meant to be distinctive. The term the Bible uses for this distinctiveness is holy.

Holy people are those who have been saved from sin and death by confessing their sins, turning from them, and entrusting their eternal lives to Jesus Christ. Being holy, very simply, means letting Jesus Christ enter our lives and rule over us.

Notice what being holy doesn't mean. It doesn't mean being perfect. It doesn't mean looking down one's nose on others.

Our Bible lesson for this morning tells us something about a young girl named Mary. The Bible teaches that Mary, like other believers in history, wrestled with doubt. Mary had all sorts of experiences confirming that the child she was bearing was the long-promised Savior-Messiah. But in spite of all these signs, Mary’s human sinfulness--our inborn penchant to think that we are the universe's highest authorities and this world is all there is to living--would lead her to deny Who Jesus was.

Once, when Jesus was twelve, you know, Mary, Joseph, their friends, and their extended family went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. As they headed back to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was with someone else in their party. But after they discovered that Jesus wasn’t with them, they hurried back to Jerusalem. Mary said scornfully to Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this?” But Jesus, reminding her of Who He was, responded, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Later, after Jesus had begun His public ministry, He started to encounter opposition and death threats. And even Mary and her biological children seem to have entertained doubts about Jesus. When others questioned Jesus’ sanity, they tried to get him away from the crowds, maybe as a way of sparing Him the death which He had come to endure for us all. In this instance, too, Mary allowed her fears and her sin to overcome her faith.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on Mary. Saints, holy people, are sinners who believe in Jesus Christ and so, receive forgiveness as a free gift from God. In this, Mary is a good model. She was among the first to believe, however hesitantlly and imperfectly, that Jesus was the Savior of the world. She was the first to welcome Him into the world. (In her case, welcoming Jesus into her very womb!) Like most people of faith, she wrestled with unbelief. And like all people of faith, she looked forward confidently to spending eternity with the Lord born in a barn Who lived, died, and rose for us all.

Our lesson recounts what happens when Mary, the virgin pregnant with Jesus, visits Elizabeth, the post-menopausal wife of the priest Zechariah who is to give birth to the prophet who prepared the world for Jesus’ arrival, John the Baptizer. At the end of it, Luke records the words of Mary, spoken to Elizabeth, words patterened after those of an Old Testament figure, Hannah, spoken by her after she learned that she would become the mother of the priest, judge, and prophet Samuel.

In Mary’s words, called The Magnifcat, for the first three words of her speech in its Latin translation, Mary rejoices in three things. I hope that they're three things in which you will rejoice as you celebrate Christmas this year.

First: God blesses us even in adverse circumstances, sometimes through them. In the years that followed, Mary would endure the gossip of those who claimed that Jesus was an illegitimate child conceived in the usual way. She would also watch her son being murdered for the sins of the world, a punishment He didn’t deserve, accepted on behalf of a world that didn’t appreciate Him...and which to this day, doesn’t appreciate Him. Mary must have been filled with dread as considered what pain and grief lay ahead of her. Yet, in today’s lesson, Mary called herself blessed because she was given a role in God’s plan for the world.

You and I have roles in God’s plan, too. And our roles are just as important as that of Mary. I learned recently of a couple in our community. The husband is fighting cancer. They go together regularly to a local hospital where the husband receives his treatments. The staff are amazed by this couple because they use the treatment times as an opportunity to tell others about how Christ is helping them through and to invite them to worship with them. Mary welcomed Jesus and all the problems He brought to her, something only a Christian would do. And only a Christian invites others to follow Christ, the way this couple is doing.

Second: Mary’s song affirms that God is for us. More than four-hundred years had passed between the last prophecy of the Messiah and Mary’s pregnancy. But generations had dared to believe that the God Who acted in the past would act again and He would act for all who believed in Him. They believed, as Mary affirms, that God especially works to bring down the arrogant and to lift up the humble.

Our call is to let the world know of God’s preference for those humble enough to know they need God to fill them and God’s condemnation of those too proud to admit their need of God. You and I are called to lift up those laid low by sin, by poverty, by injustice, by loneliness. You and I can find many opportunities to do things that only Christians can do when we fight against these ills and let others see Christ in us.

Finally: Mary’s song shows us the beauty and the power of a life given over to service to God. A peasant girl from a Third World country gave birth to the Savior! In 2007, you can follow Mary’s lead and strive to give yourself to the cause of Christ completely.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one: the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap, and being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Shaw almost had it right, I think. We can reduce ourselves to feverish, selfish little clods. We can be pathetically self-absorbed. I know that I can be.

But Christians know that God will never throw us on the scrap heap, though hell will be filled with people who turned from Christ and so, voluntarily threw themselves on the scrap heap.

We know too, that, with the power of God’s Spirit, we can be more than a force of nature; we can be supernatural weapons of an eternal God.

And we know that God can use us for a cause greater than all!

Mary learned that the life of a Christian, a holy if imperfect life devoted to Jesus Christ, isn’t always easy.

But it’s blessed, it’s joyous, and it’s filled with the peace and assurance that comes from knowing that we belong to God forever!

It’s a life filled with prayer, worship, service, and witnessing in the Name of Jesus Christ are four things which only Christians can do.

These are the things that Mary did. They're the lifestyle components of everyone who has ever confessed belief in Jesus Christ. Absent these elements, our lives are really indistinguishable from the rest of the feverish little clods who complain that the world doesn't bow to them, their desires, and their whims.

You can tell that a forgiven sinner is walking with Jesus Christ when, in Jesus' Name, they...
  • pray
  • worship
  • serve
  • witness
Only Christians do these things in the Name of Christ. Only Christians do these things with the strength and grace of Christ involved in them. In the power of the God we know through Jesus Christ, let’s do these things that only Christians can do. When we do, we’ll live Christmas the whole year through!

Okay, Explain This to Me

Writes Pastor Jeff:
The same rabbi who demanded a large menorah be put on display at Sea-Tac Airport got Washington's Governor to light a menorah in the statehouse. When a local real estate agent asked to place a creche next to it, the state turned him down, fearing that a creche might give too strong an impression of government support for religion -- as opposed to, you know, the Governor lighting a menorah in the statehouse...

Look -- I don't care if you put up a Menorah on government property as a sign of inclusion and equality. My faith doesn't need a show of government support. But this does raise the question of where you draw the line: How many displays are you going to allow? What ones? Who decides?

And to have the Governor light a menorah and then disallow a nativity scene does seem more than a little discriminatory. Why can the state express support for the miracle of Hanukkah and not the miracle of the Nativity?

To paraphrase Seinfeld:
"And this offends you as a Jew?"
"No, it offends me as an American."

I would prefer taking down all religious holiday displays off public property -- even Christmas trees -- rather than having the state express approval for certain religions.
Like me, Jeff is sick and tired of hearing Christians bellyache about a "war on Christmas." Jesus never promised that He would be any more welcome now than He was on the night of His birth or the day of His crucifixion. But it is more than a little weird that the symbols of one faith are acceptable and those of another aren't.

Read the whole thing.