Saturday, January 06, 2007

"Who is going to turn on the LIGHT?'

My friend, mentor, and colleague, Ron Claussen, has some good thoughts on Epiphany on the blog section of his web site. A sampling:
On that first Epiphany, the LIGHT of the Star led these Gentiles to be filled with LIGHT at the manger so that they could reveal that LIGHT to the Gentile world, a world that was lost in darkness and sin. Look at our world. Don’t wear blinders, don’t try to hide from the fact that we live in a world of darkness, of sin, of depression and loneliness, a world where it is so much fun and so easy to serve Satan. I believe that right now, on this Epiphany or on whatever day you read this, our Heavenly Father is asking, Who is going to turn on the LIGHT?"
Read the whole thing.

[For more about Ron, read here.]

"A prayerless soul is a Christless soul."

So said the great preacher, Charles Spurgeon, cited in a wonderful post from Bruce Armstrong at Ordinary, Everyday Christian. Spurgeon continues:
Prayer is the lisping of the believing infant, the shout of the fighting believer, the requiem of the dying saint falling asleep in Jesus. It is the breath, the watchword, the comfort, the strength, the honour of a Christian. If thou be a child of God, thou wilt seek thy Father's face, and live in thy Father's love.

Pray that this year thou mayst be holy, humble, zealous, and patient; have closer communion with Christ, and enter oftener into the banqueting-house of His love. Pray that thou mayst be an example and a blessing unto others, and that thou mayst live more to the glory of thy Master. The motto for this year must be, "Continue in prayer."

Read the whole thing.

Thoughts on Faith and Politics from N.T. Wright

Wright is one of the most eminent of contemporary Christian theologians. Tod Bolsinger quotes him (and Andrew Jackson links):
Our Western culture since the 8th century has made a virtue of separating out religion from politics. When I lecture about this, people will pop up and say, “Surely Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world.” And the answer is no, what Jesus said in John 18 is, “My kingdom is not FROM this world.” That’s “Ek tou kosmou toutou.” It’s quite clear in the text that Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t start with this world. It isn’t a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It’s from somewhere else, but it’s for this world.

Happy Epiphany Day!

January 6 is the oft-overlooked Epiphany Day.

On the calendar of the Church Year, this is the day set aside to celebrate the arrival of the wise men (magi) from the East, who brought gifts of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh," hailing Jesus as the world's Savior.

Historically, Epiphany was the day on which many Christians exchanged gifts, something we've now pushed back to Christmas Day on December 25. (Friends of ours, when their children were small, were visited by Father Christmas on the night before Epiphany. He brought gifts for the children that night, which they opened on the morning of January 6. It always struck me that Father Christmas was shrewder than the red-coated guy with the fat belly. Unlike Santa Claus, Father Christmas apparently took advantage of the after-Christmas sales for these gifts opened by the children on Epiphany morning!)

The word epiphany is a transliteration of a word appearing in the original Greek of the New Testament. Epiphane means to shine upon. (To transliterate a word means to take it over into a new language, largely unchanged, maintaining the same meaning.)

On the first Epiphany, a star shone upon the place where the Christ Child was living, guiding the magi to Him. Matthew is the only one of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection to recount this event.

It's interesting to note that the first Epiphany occurred some time after the first Christmas, in spite of our penchant for collapsing the two events into one crowded night at a Bethlehem barn. According to Matthew, after Jesus' birth, Joseph and Mary and the baby took up residence in Bethlehem for awhile. Matthew tells us that the wise men found the child not in a barn, but living, along with his parents, in a house.

Another indication that some time passed between Jesus' birth and the events of the first Epiphany is the order given by Herod after the wise men revealed the nature of their mission in Judea. He ordered the killing of all males two years of age and younger. (You can read Matthew's account of the first Epiphany here.) It was apparently thought that the birth could have happened quite a bit before Herod personally spoke with the visiting magi.

On the church calendar, Epiphany comes at the end of the traditional, Twelve Days of Christmas. As the song of the same name reminds us, there was another tradition, particularly among Christians in the British Isles, of giving small gifts throughout this twelve-day period. (With five gold rings being an apparent favorite. I'm kidding.)

January 6 kicks off an entire season of the Church Year known as Epiphany. It runs until the beginning of the Lenten season. During Epiphany, the Gospel lessons recount the early manifestations of Jesus as God-in-the-flesh. In other words, they look at key moments when Jesus was shown to be "the Light of the world." Through Jesus, the pure, undefiled Light of God shines on the human race.

The Sundays that fall within the Epiphany Season are bracketed by two events in which the light of heaven shines in particularly notable ways:
  • Tomorrow--and today for those of us who have worship on Saturdays as well--the Gospel lesson will be about the Baptism of Our Lord. (This year, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 will be the account read in most churches. By the way, as Pastor Brian Stoffregen points out, while there are only two accounts of Jesus' birth and its attendant events--like the first Epiphany--in the New Testament, there are six accounts of His baptism.)
  • On the last Sunday of the Epiphany Season, we will celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord. This remembers the time when Jesus, accompanied by His key disciples, Peter, James, and John, went up on a mountain and was transfigured before them, His appearance being dazzlingly pure, and Jesus was seen speaking with two Old Testament figures from centuries before, Moses and Elijah.
Epiphany is a great set-up for the Lenten Season. Lent, a time of spiritual renewal and preparation for Easter, ends with Good Friday and Holy Saturday, commemorations that remember, respectively, the day on which Jesus was killed and the one on which He lay dead in a Jerusalem tomb before rising on Easter Sunday morning.

Epiphany explains why the world spurned and killed Jesus. It does so by explaining Who Jesus is. We human beings are presumptuous, you know. Adam and Eve were lured into sin because they wanted to "be like God." Jesus wasn't killed because people didn't know He was God; He was killed precisely because humanity knew He was God and we human beings had a chance to bump off the competition, freeing us from the obligation to love God or love neighbor.

The events recounted in the Gospel lessons of the Epiphany Season make clear the legitimacy of Jesus' claim to be God, the very claim that caused the religious leaders of first-century Judea, the political leadership of the Roman Empire, represented by the governor, Pontius Pilate, and the masses from throughout the Mediterranean Basin gathered in Jerusalem on that fateful Passover weekend to want Him dead.

C.S. Lewis says that in the manifestations of His God-ness and the claims of Deity that Jesus makes about Himself, we are left with three choices:
  • We may decide that He's a liar.
  • We may conclude that He's a madman.
  • We may decide that He's telling the truth.
Epiphany presses us to accept the third choice. If that's the case, then we have little alternative but to join Thomas, the disciple who doubted Jesus, and fall down before Jesus and worship Him as our "Lord and God."

Happy Epiphany!

[I mean for this piece to be a companion to the first pass at considering this weekend's Bible lesson at our congregation. You can find it here.]

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Jan is tired of church as usual...

and has some good ideas on how to mix up the pitches.

Proof That All People Can Learn to Live Together in Peace

This was snapped this past Thanksgiving, a few days after the Big Game. Pictured is the husband of one of our nieces. He's a big fan of a school to our north. I'm an alum of a different school, as you can see.

By the way, for the sake of setting the record straight, I was pulling for Michigan in the recent Rose Bowl game. I always root for the Big Ten in bowl games.

Yesterday, our county's commissioners declared January 8 to be Scarlet and Gray Day. That's an amazing thing because around here, in the east Cincinnati suburbrs, there aren't that many Ohio State fans. There are more backers of Kentucky, University of Cincinnati, Xavier, and even, Indiana University.

From Our Recent Charleston Trip

This photo was taken by a friendly fellow-traveler during our trip to Charleston, SC between Christmas and New Year's.

Pictured from left to right are my sister-in-law, a brother-in-law, me, my wife, my mother-in-law, and another brother-in-law.

Behind us, but not visible in the pic taken on a beautiful, sun-washed day, is Fort Sumter, the place where South Carolinian rebels attacked the Union forces there, the opening salvo of the tragic Civil War.

In Charleston at that time, there were important people who didn't want to see the Union dissolved. They included William Aiken, one-time South Carolina governor, whose home is preserved.

Living Water in a Graveyard...But It Doesn't Come from the Fountain

It's in words you'll find on the plaque set in the ground next to the drinking fountain in the graveyard at Saint Michael's Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina. I love it! (The words are those of Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob near Sychar, found in John 4.)

Can't We Do Better Than This?

Several months ago, I reported on the relatively sad condition of the gravesite of one of the most important figures in US history, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton is buried in the graveyard of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, New York City.

During a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I saw an even more shameful sight: The gravesite of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a signer of the US Constitution, in the graveyard of Saint Michael's Episcopal Church.

Saint Michael's seems like an active parish with a commitment to prayer and ministry. I was impressed with the small sampling I got of the congregation's life while I was there. I also was extremely impressed with the generally good condition of the building and grounds. The members are to be commended for doing such a great job and for being so inviting to their community and to visitors like me. They clearly seem to believe that a church isn't a building, it's people who follow Jesus Christ and I think that's awesome!

But I was disappointed by the electrical box dwarfing the marker on Pinckney's grave. Pinckney was important not only as a signer of the Constitution, but as a respected and important figure from our country's early history.

It may be too much to ask churches, with their frequent shortage of funds, to keep up the graves of important historical figures. Across the country, many townships and other localities often take over the management of graveyards when churches can no longer afford the upkeep. (We had a reverse situation in my former parish where, in addition to the large cemetery contiguous to our building facility and grounds, we managed manage a township cemetery. The township indicated they didn't have the resources to take care of it and long before my time in that community, asked our church to take on the responsibility.)

But maybe some modest federal appropriation could be set aside to make sure that the graves of our Founders and Framers and other important figures from our history don't fall into shameful decreptitude.

The United States was the first country to decide itself into being. Thirteen disparate colonies decided to declare their independence and later, as newly independent states, decided to form themselves into what they hoped would be an indissoluble union devoted to the twin principles of American nationhood: freedom and mutual responsibility (or community). Other nations have usually come about through an evolution rooted on language, culture, or religion. Many have come into being by force of arms.

But the United States is rooted in certain principles and ideas to which free people--at first only white men of property--gave their mutual consent. From the time of our founding, we've been in often painful process of becoming the nation the Founders and Framers, partly in spite of themselves, envisioned. (Also see here.)

Because there's nothing inherent about the continued existence of the United States, nothing intrinsic to us as one race, religion, or clan, an awareness of our History is essential. Every generation must know how this country was, building on Lincoln's evocative phrasing, brought forth, dedicated to certain principles which, unless respected and kept, will cause the country to devolve to chaos.

Sadly, it seems that much of what passes for civic education in our schools and universities--and especially in our families--these days, is as decrepit and untended as Pinckney's Charleston gravesite.

Too many take this country for granted, failing to recognize the uniqueness of America and how important it is that we keep remembering what this country is all about. If we don't remember America's past, we are bound to lose its future.

On the brick wall outside Saint Michael's graveyard, there's a plaque noting that within the burial sites of both Pinckney and John Rutledge, another signer of the Constitution, can be found. You see the plaque pictured above. I was glad to see it. But can't we do better in remembering our past?

Pinckney's second cousin, Charles Pinckney, was another signer of the Constitution. He isn't buried at Saint Michael's.

[THANKS TO: John Schroeder of Blogotional for linking to this post.]

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

"Some people say that's too good to be true. Well, it's true. Archie is very special."

That's Steve Luke, speaking of his college teammate and roommate, Archie Griffin in a recent article. Griffin won two Heisman Trophies while playing at The Ohio State University.

Woody Hayes once said that Archie Griffin was a better human being than he was a football player. And that was saying something, because Hayes also said that Archie was the best football player he'd ever seen.

The source of Griffin's achievement, humility, and strength of character probably can be seen in this from his brother, Ray, himself a two-time All American at Ohio State:
"He would get up in the morning and would pray on his knees for 45 minutes before he went to school," Ray said. "I'm not exaggerating. He would be bobbing his head. He was having a strong conversation with the Lord, I'm telling you."
So, where's all this good press coming from, an article in The Columbus Dispatch. No, The Palm Beach (Florida) Post. Ohio State's Buckeyes vie for the national championship against the Florida Gators on January 8.

Archie Griffin is a tremendous human being. But I'm sure that he would say that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the God he follows.

Only One Life Preserver Needed

[This is the latest of my columns written for the Community Press newspapers.]

A few years ago, a group of us rented and then paddled canoes down the Little Miami River. Although I've always had an irrational--probably neurotic--fear of water, I found myself enjoying our little adventure.

Then it happened, the thing I'd dreaded and that I'd convinced myself wouldn't happen: I got tossed from my boat.

Because of my fears, I never learned to swim. The first time I went into the drink that day--it happened several more times--I did exactly what anyone like me would do in such circumstances: I thrashed like a madman.

But after a few moments, I realized that for all my thrashing, which was doing me no good, I was nonetheless bobbing along in the water. My life jacket had turned me into a pontoon boat! I wasn't going to drown.

With a few strokes of my arms, I propelled myself back to the canoe and threw myself on board, soggy jeans, wet tennis shoes, and all.

I could have thrashed until my arms gave out. But I couldn't save myself. Only the life preserver did that.

You know, there are lots of things people try to depend on to save their lives, whether "saving their lives" means protection from futility, from hopelessness, or from cold, lifeless death.

But there's only one life preserver that can save us from these things.

I cringe when I hear people say at funeral viewings, "He must be in heaven. He was such a nice man." Or, "Look at all the great stuff she did."

It also bothers me to know that some people bank their lives on the sayings of some gurus or holy men.

Or that others believe that the latest fad, the flavor of the month, is the closest they can get to being saved from all that haunts us as human beings.

If we depend on any human being or any humanly-generated idea, to give us life, hope, purpose, or joy, we're fooling ourselves.

As I say, it's been revealed to us with complete clarity that there is only one life preserver that can give us these things.

The earliest Christians, the ones who had physically seen and touched the resurrected Jesus Christ, risked their earthly lives to tell others the good news that our life-killing selfishness--what the Bible calls sin--can be forgiven and that new life beyond the grave or the fear of the grave is a free gift to all who will trust Jesus Christ with their whole lives. This trust is what Christians call faith.

Once, when the first Christians were told by powerful people not to speak of Jesus again, they said that they couldn't comply with that order. They explained why: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Like those first Christians, I believe that Jesus, the God of the universe Who became one of us in a single human life of love, grace, truth, and sinlessness, is the only life preserver, the one who gives life that lasts forever.

Jesus once told a grieving woman, "“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." (John 11:25-26)

In 2007, I invite you to let the God-man Jesus to be your life preserver. Let Him give you a life of joy that begins now and lasts forever. Allow Him to connect with you through the fellowship of a local church and a life in which you daily and deliberately depend on Him all the time. Jesus, the life preserver, will never let you down!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Few Thoughts of Mitt Romney...


First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

[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 Bible Lesson: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

General Comments
1. We saw some of the verses that comprise this lesson just a few weeks ago. (See here and here.) That was on the Third Weekend of the Advent Season. Advent, as you'll recall, is the season of spiritual preparation...for the Christmas celebration of Jesus' birth and for meeting Jesus, whether in our daily lives, the ends of our lives, and the end of history.

The Gospel lessons for the second and third weekends of Advent each year deal with the ministry of John the Baptizer. John's ministry entailed preparing the people of Judea for the revelation of God's Anointed (Messiah means Anointed), Jesus.

Luke 3:15-17 was part of our lesson on December 17.

2. This year's Christmas season ends with Epiphany Day, which happens on January 6. That's the day on which Christians have traditionally celebrated the arrival of the wise men (the magi) mentioned in Matthew's narrative of Jesus' birth. You'll remember that they followed a star to the house in Bethlehem to which Joseph, Mary, and the child Jesus had briefly moved after the Savior was born.

The word Epiphany means shine upon. Of course, the star shone upon the world to announce the birth of Jesus. But more significant than the light of the star is how it revealed Jesus to be God in the flesh.

Epiphany Day kicks off a season in which the Gospel lessons appointed for each weekend deal with the events which revealed who Jesus was and is. The First Weekend after Epiphany's Gospel lesson always deals with the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer.

3. Interestingly, in Luke's Gospel, from which our lesson comes, there's no actual narration of Jesus' baptism. I hope to talk more about the peculiarities of Luke's telling of the story of Jesus' baptism tomorrow.

4. For some basic information on Luke's Gospel, see here.

Alec Baldwin on Gerald Ford

A generous appreciation of the thirty-eighth President...and a critique of all, Democrats and Republicans, bitten by the Presidential Bug.

(MID-POST UPDATE: Charlie Lehardy points out that Baldwin may paint with too broad a stroke. Charlie's probably right. But I do think that our presidential politics has taken an onerous road ever since the 1988 campaign, when Lee Atwater advised George H.W. Bush. Atwater later publicly repented for his savagery. But legions of political functionaries, from both parties, have mimicked him ever since. Often, good, public spirited candidates acquiesce to such gutter tactics, especially in federal and statewide elections. None of us is perfect, of course. But in the intervening years, too few have emulated the two gentlemen who vied for the presidency in 1976, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, who of course, became dear friends. At least at the presidential level in recent decades, ambition has seldom given way to decency or civility. It's a shame!)

Baldwin can be strident and over-the-top in some of his political comments. But several of his Huffington Post posts have been generous and fair. See Democrat Baldwin's take on campaign criticisms of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger last fall.

A Great Book to Help You in 2007!

[This is a re-run post. But read on, please!]

My mentor, friend, colleague, and one-time parishioner, Ron Claussen, has written and published a book of devotions called What? God...You Want Me To Do Something?

Back when I was a new pastor, called to serve a church in northwestern Ohio twenty-two years ago, God blessed me big time: Ron was serving a neighboring parish composed of two congregations, each about three miles from me. The day after I arrived on the scene, he visted me and gave me the best advice on being a pastor I've ever heard. "Love the people," he told me.

Whenever I was disappointed that I wasn't proving to be the Lutheran version of Billy Graham, packing them in Sunday after Sunday, or when the grey winter skies, so prominent on the flat farmland that surrounded us, brought me down, my wife co-conspired with Ron. She called him and said, "Ron, it's time" and unaware of their conspiracy and amazed by his providential timing, I received a call from Ron, who asked, "Want to go out to lunch today?" Because of his listening ear and his solid Biblical counsel, I always felt better after those lunches!

The area where we served in northwestern Ohio included the most-heavily Lutheran county in the United States, Henry County. (The building facilities of the church where I served as pastor, Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Okolona, Ohio, set on the line between Henry and Defiance Counties.) We used to joke that you couldn't spit without hitting a Lutheran there and Lutheran church buildings dotted every hamlet and just about every other country road. Each congregation was close to being packed to the rafters on Sunday mornings. Because there were such strong ties among those churches and because unlike the rest of us, Ron had taken the time to figure out how everyone in a four-county area was related to each other, he was known and beloved by every member of every one of those churches. We pastors thought of Ron as our "bishop" and of ourselves as his assistants.

But it wasn't just the Lutherans who sensed the powerful presence of Christ and His love in Ron. Congregations of several different denominations facing pastoral vacancies harbored the hope that maybe they could cajole Ron into becoming their pastor. He also had an easy way of relating to non-believing people, an authentically friendly manner that earned their confidence and their trust.

When he became development director for the Filling Memorial Home of Mercy in Napoleon, Ohio, a Lutheran facility for severely and profoundly mentally retarded children and adults, churches and individuals from throughout our area became more deeply involved in volunteering and financially supporting the institution. On a bigger stage, Ron shared Christ's love and "loved the people." They, in turn, saw the Filling Home as a great way to share the love of Christ with those in need and, at the same time, support the ministry of a pastor they had come to revere. (One of the auxiliary blessings that flowed from Ron going to the Filling Home is that he and his wife and family joined the congregation I served as pastor!)

Ron has retired and now confined to a wheelchair as the result of being victimized by polio back in 1952, he still is loving the people. He has an active email ministry and has, as I've mentioned, written and published What? God...You Want Me To Do Something?

I heartily recommend What? God...You Want Me To Do Something? for you to help you grow in your life of faith. It's composed of 52 weekly devotional pieces that each conclude with a challenge to the reader to compose their plans for living the devotion over that seven day period. The devotions, in other words, are a lot like Ron: A terrific communicator of the Good News of Jesus Christ, his life has always nonetheless been his greatest witness.

With a new year just started, think of how you and all the people in your family who could use this wonderful book. Ron reports that some folks have purchased it to send to loved ones serving in Iraq, a great idea!

Getting your own copy of Ron's book will be a bit of a challenge. You can't, unfortunately, order it from Amazon. But the effort you take will be worth it. Here's how to get it:

(1) If you live outside of Ohio, send a check for $13.75 to Ramblings from Ron Ministries. (That's $12.00 plus shipping and handling.)

(2) If you live in Ohio, send a check for $14.50 to Ramblings from Ron Ministries. (That's $12.00 plus shipping and handling, plus sales tax.) For accurate record-keeping, please note your county of residence on the Memo line of your check.

(3) Be sure to note your return address on accompanying piece of paper.

(4) For every additional book, add 50-cents to cover shipping and handling.

(5) Mail your orders to: Ramblings from Ron Ministries, 24544 Kammeyer Road, Defiance, Ohio 43512.

There is nobody I respect more in pastoral ministry than Ron Claussen. He is the gold standard, as far as I'm concerned. Do yourself a favor and buy his inspiring book: What? God...You Want Me To Do Something?

And, no, I don't get a cut for talking about Ron's book. But I do get to play a small part in expanding the ministry reach of a great pastor and friend!

[UPDATE: Ron now has a web site, with a blog. The link is here.]

Monday, January 01, 2007

Wow! Fred Astaire Was Cool...

He won Ginger Rogers over with his dancing in The Gay Divorcee. (Back when gay meant, well, gay, as in numbers one through four here or as in this song.).

As implausible as it would be for mere mortals to win a girl with their dancing, it totally made sense with Astaire. Astaire was amazing! Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the greatest dancers of all, once put it this way: "No dancer can watch Fred Astaire and not know that we all should have been in another business.”

Some Reactions to Saddam Hussein's Execution

...more to come, maybe.

Steve Martin

Hal, a Jordanian and a Muslim, says "good riddance" but finds the whole thing ghastly.

Steve Martin makes no comments about the execution itself, but satirizes any impulse toward eulogizing the Butcher of Baghdad.

Dean, who blogs at Hugh Hewitt's site, views the execution as an unmitigated triumph of right and says that Iraq and the world should thank the United States for the opportunity US capture of the former dictator gave the Iraqis to hang him.

[UPDATE: Marc Schulman, based on his reading of The New York Times' rundown of all that led to Saddam Hussein's execution, has some questions.]

[ANOTHER UPDATE: The Ambivablogger owns her ambivalent feelings about Saddam Hussein's execution:
I thought my feelings about this were simple -- he's an evil man, his continued presence is a provocation, good riddance -- but the more I read about it, the more complicated and strongly feelings become.

Reading about European scruples and vapors about the death penalty, my gut instinct is that there is something barbaric and bloodthirsty about our majority American attitude toward it that is young and healthy, while there is something etiolated and vitiated about the sophisticated shrinking from wanting to see someone like Saddam pay the ultimate price. If anything, his death by hanging was too quick and merciful. A tyrant can take hundreds of thousands of lives, and ruin millions more, yet has only one of his own to pay.

...reading about the execution itself, how rushed and politicized it was, I see that it was not an act of justice in any sober sense but an act of sectarian revenge and triumphalism by the Shi'ites. Many in the execution chamber acted like vigilantes at a lynching...
Also make note of the varied reactions to Amba's post in the comments section.

Many different reactions continue to swirl around the execution of Saddam Hussein.]

All About the 'Get a Mac' Guys

Several years ago, we bought a Mac.

It happened because a friend of ours, an Apple enthusiast and a then-recently hired part-timer at the local Apple store, had been lobbying us to come over to the Mac side for a long time. He'd watched us struggle through one PC after another for several years and wondered why we kept putting ourselves through a constant succession of crashes, viruses, and easily-gobbled-up memory.

As I thought about it, I wondered why we kept hanging around in PC World, too.

So, we took the plunge and bought a modestly-priced Mac. I couldn't believe the difference! The Mac is incredibly user-friendly, packed with possibilities, loaded with more than sufficient memory, and thus far, insusceptible to viruses. I'll never buy a PC again!

Because I'm such a "true believer," I love the 'Get a Mac' ads featuring a Bill Gates-looking character known as the PC Guy and a jeans-wearing twenty-something who presents himself as Mac.

But who, I asked this morning, are the guys behind the guys?

As usual, Wikipedia had my answer. Mac is actor Justin Long, who has appeared in the TV series, Ed, and in the movie, Dodgeball. He's also set to play in a Die Hard movie, where he'll play a hacker.

PC is a really interesting fellow, a writer, a poet, and a humorist, sort of a next-generation Garrison Keillor, only hipper, with a liberal dash of Professor Irwin Corey thrown in. What's really cool is that he's also a blogger. His name is John Hodgman, author of The Areas of My Expertise.

An actor and a funny Renaissance man...and I'll bet they both were already using Apples before they got the 'Get a Mac' gig, making them both considerably smarter than me, though I'm learning.

[BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE: Below see the cheesy promotional video for John Hodgman's book...]

As You Begin the New Year...

check out my six-post series on goal-setting from a Christian perspective:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Happy 2007!

The news over the past few days has been grim in many ways. But as we begin a new year, I thank the readers of Better Living for showing up and for commenting in the past year. I also ask you to join me in praying for a new year in which people experience the peace, hope, and purpose God wants the entire human race to experience. God bless you!

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Glen VanderKloot: Ending Strong, Starting Right

[My friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot presented this message to the people of his congregation, Faith Lutheran Church of Springfield, Illinois. You can subscribe to Glen's daily inspirations by sending an email to, typing SUBSCRIBE in the subject line.]

Author Dr. David McLennon tells a story of his very first job in a small town general store. This was before malls and supermarket chains. At age thirteen he was hired as a handy boy. He would sweep the floor, bag items for customers, stock the shelves. On one particular Saturday, he recalled, he heard the owner say to one of the clerks, "It's that time of the year again. It's time to take inventory."

Dr. McLennon wrote that this was a word that had not yet entered into his vocabulary. When an opportune moment arrived, he went up to the older man and asked, "Sir, what is an inventory?"

Patiently the owner explained that it was a time when you made a list of everything that you had--from groceries on the shelves to wrapping paper and string. Still somewhat puzzled, the young McLennon then asked, "Why?"

The owner responded, "Well, it's easy to forget exactly how much you have each year. Every now and then you have to take an inventory just to see what all you have."

That little story sums up what New Year's is all about. It is a time when each of us needs to take an inventory of our life. Because it's easy to forget exactly how much God has given to us, we need to take an inventory, just to see all that we do have.

Taking inventory allows us to end strong and start right. This is what we always want to do: end strong, start right. These two go hand in hand.

Often we see a race in which one of the runners starts out very strong, yet be so weakened by the end of the race that he finishes far behind. One alone isn't enough. We need to do both: end strong, start right.

Ending strong. Jesus said, "Stay with it. That's what required. Stay with it to the end. You won't be sorry... (Mark 13:13 The Message)

We always want to end strong, especially at the end of life. We see a wonderful example of this in Stephen. He was one of the first deacons in the church. He also is one of the first Christian martyrs. As he was being stoned to death, he called out, "Lord Jesus, please welcome me!...Lord, don't blame them for what they have done." (Acts 7:59-60 CEV)

Stephen died as he lived - faithfully. He ended strong. Let us live our lives faithfully every day so that someday we can say along with St. Paul, "I have fought well. I have finished the race, and I have been faithful." (2 Timothy 4:7 CEV)

Starting right. One day a woman who was very depressed about the conditions of the world decided to go shopping. She went into a mall and picked a store at random. She walked in and was surprised to see Jesus behind the counter. She thought it was Jesus because he looked just like the images she had seen at church. She finally asked, "Excuse me, are you Jesus?"

He responded, "I am."

She asked, "Do you work here?"

Jesus replied, "No I own the store."

Now the woman was quite curious and asked, "What do you sell here?"

Jesus answered, "Just about everything. Feel free to walk up and down the aisles, find what it is you want and then come back and we'll see what we can do for you."

So the woman did just that. She saw that there was peace in families, no more war, no hunger or poverty, and no more drugs. There was harmony, clean air, careful use of natural resources, honesty in politics and government. There was no AIDS, cancer, hurricanes, tornadoes or flooding. There really was `peace on earth good will to all.'

By the time she returned to the counter, she had an incredibly long list. Jesus took the list, skimmed through it, looked up at her and smiled, saying, "No problem."

Then he bent down behind the counter and picked some things, and laid out a huge number of packets. The woman asked, "What are these?"

Jesus replied, "Seeds."

"But don't I get the finished product?" she asked.

Jesus answered, "No, this is a place of hope and dreams. I give you the seeds...
  • Then it is up to you.
  • It is up to you to plant.
  • It is up to you to nurture.
  • It is up to you to fertilize.
  • It is up to you to prune.
  • And it is up to you to harvest."
The woman left the store without buying anything.

As we begin 2007 God is giving us some great seeds. The rest is up to us. Remember God says:
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life...loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you..." (Deuteronomy 30:19-20 NRSV)

That is how we end 2006 strong and start 2007 right.


Reflection Questions:
  • What seeds is God giving to me?
  • How will I use them?
  • How is my life going to be different in 2007?
Action Step:
This week take an inventory of your life and make a plan of action for 2007.

Start Out the New Year...

by watching an old movie. There are dozens and dozens to choose from on this site and they're all free.

Among the films I noted while perusing the site are the D.W. Griffith production of Abraham Lincoln starring Walter Huston, Charade, Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (with Peter Lorre), His Girl Friday, and The Last Time I Saw Paris with Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor.

A Sampling of 2006 Posts at Better Living

Last year, I went way overboard--which I tend to do--and published a series of "best of" posts listing a combination of my personally favorite posts and those that received the most hits in 2005. For each month, I listed between five to ten different posts!

This year, ripping off an idea from Ann Althouse, I pick one post from each month of the year, chosen solely because I like it. (Except for two months, for each of which I name a bonus post.)

January: Barry and I Were Right

February: Valentine's Day Thoughts

March: My Battle with Cliff Clavin Disease

April: What About 'The Gospel of Judas'?

May: The Connection That Brings Life

June: If TR Were Alive Today, He'd Be Blogging

July: Interpreting Lincoln's Second Inaugural Sermon
July Bonus: What's To Be Done When You're Not Into It?

August: The Lebanese War Subjected to an Armchair Historian's Analysis

September: David and the Well at Bethlehem

October: Why It's 'Reformation Sunday'
October Bonus: I Was Wrong

November: How to Overcome Worry

(Maybe I'll pick one for December in January.)

[UPDATE: Ali at Aliblog links to this post and goes on to list a post from her blog for each month of last year. I enjoy reading Ali's writing. My wife and I enjoyed meeting her parents and brother at a wedding celebration in northwest Ohio this past year!]