Saturday, January 20, 2007

Senator Clinton's Announcement

Ann Althouse exegetes Senator Hillary Clinton's announcement that she's forming an exploratory committee to look into a presidential campaign. I respond (and expand a bit below):
(1) The phrase, "work hard and play by the rules" is one that Bill Clinton used over and over. It obviously still tests well.

(2) The "let's chat" motif comes right out of her first campaign for the Senate in New York. Before actually announcing, the then-First Lady went out on a "listening tour." It was a more low-key approach, designed to dispel the apprehensions that many felt about a "carpetbagger" from Illinois and Arkansas becoming their US Senator.

(3) I also think that the emphases on a "conversation" or "chat" and the cozy setting for her statement were designed to round off the edges of a figure often seen as strident or shrill. In a way, I think there was an attempt here to feminize Hillary, which may either be a tacit acknowledgement of what many suspect--that she will be a tough sell to women across America--or an attempt to pump up a base of support they assume is hers.

(4) It's interesting to compare and contrast the web-based announcements of Clinton, Barack Obama, and Sam Brownback. Clinton and Obama talked about national dialogues. Obama also spoke of the period before making an announcement of his intentions on February 10 as a period of discernment. Brownback seemed to be running for a fictional national pastor's slot rather than the presidency. Clinton and Obama claim to have not decided about the presidential race, although Clinton's web site titles the announcement, "I'm In." Brownback, however shows no such reticence. He's running.
[THANKS TO: Matt Brown of Good Brownie for linking to this post.]

Presidential Campaigns Are Too Long

Today, Hillary Clinton and Sam Brownback announced that they were forming "exploratory committees" to look at seeking their parties' presidential nominations in 2008.

Do you know what I think? I think presidential campaigns are too long.

Then-Senator John Kennedy first met with his advisors to map out his 1960 quest for the presidency at Hyannisport on October 28, 1959. He didn't announce his candidacy until shortly before the New Hampshire primary the next year.

Of course, in days gone by, candidates got their political ducks in a row way before public campaigning or even campaign strategizing began. Andrew Jackson, for example, went to work on his successful 1828 campaign for President immediately after losing to John Quincy Adams in the disputed contest of 1824. But all of that was subterranean work, the stuff of political operatives, smoke-filled rooms, and conversations over bourbon and brandy.

Ever since the nominating processes of the two parties were opened up to the ordinary voter, presidential campaigns have become multi-year affairs.

In 1969, because so many Democrats were angry that Hubert Humphrey was nominated by their party the previous year, even though the then-Vice President never entered a single primary, the Democratic National Committee appointed a commission under the leadership of Senator George McGovern to ensure that voters saw their preferred candidates nominated.

In 1968, there were seven states with presidential primaries, most of them completely or partly non-binding. The McGovern Commission changed that in the Democratic Party. Eventually, the Republicans would follow suit.

Today, it seems, we have more primary or caucus states than there are states in the whole Union. But that doesn't mean that every state is important.

In the old days, candidates might hope to pick up a win in Wisconsin or West Virginia even if they'd already lost in New Hampshire, and so, have a shot at showing the politicos who really decided who was nominated that they were "electable." They might demonstrate strengths in different regions of the country, say in Oregon or California, after losing early on.

Now though, things are pretty much over by the time the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries have been held, at the very beginning of the process. Campaign contributions for those who finish in second or below in those contests disappear, making it impossible for them to continue to compete nationwide in all those primaries and caucuses.

In 2004, John Kerry ensured his nomination by the Democrats by winning the first contest of the season, the Iowa caucuses. In 2000, George W. Bush fairly sealed the deal for the Republican nod by winning in South Carolina, the third contest of the campaign year.

The point: Anyone who wants to win the nomination of her or his party needs to build up a head of steam to win early. That means more than having an organizational infrastructure or piling up a campaign war chest, what's often called wholesale politics. It also puts a premium on retail politics: overt, public, go-for-it campaigning for the office.

In the current atmosphere, if a presidential candidate hasn't got an organization fairly well put together two years before the next Inauguration Day--which today is, by the way--they can kiss their prospects good-bye.

Those are the realities. But I don't like them. It seems to me that somewhere along the line, the people we elected to be Governors and Senators, Representatives and Mayors ought to do what we elected them to do, govern, and forego campaigning for President for awhile.

I'm a political junkie and I love the whole political enterprise. But the perpetual presidential campaign can paralyze the political decision-making process. Political leaders who might actually lead in Washington, in their state capitals, or elsewhere, are so busy jockeying for the chance to occupy the Oval Office in the future, that they fail to act today.

How do we put the toothpaste back in the tube? I don't know that we can. But something needs to be done. The perpetual presidential campaign isn't good for the country or our politics.

[Cross-posted at]


Charlie comments:
The never-ending campaign of the modern primary system really favors the candidate with the best money-raising ability, not the one with the best ideas. So this long campaign season lets them build a huge war-chest, flood the early primary states with advertising, build name recognition and find favorable talking points... Meanwhile, the dark horse candidates can't get heard.
It's a money-driven system that we now have. In the days of the smoke-filled back rooms, cronyism and influence made candidates, so the dark horse had to know the right people to get a shot.

Both systems tend to lock the ordinary citizen out of the decision-making process. Both systems require the candidate to make deals behind the scenes that translate into influence and payback after the election.

I'm really just thinking out loud here, Mark. In the end, does a sin-corrupted system based on money get us to a worse place than one based on power? What would a third way, something that really empowers the ordinary voter, look like?
Pretty good "thinking out loud," don't you think?
I respond:
Good points and at the end, a very good question.
No system will be perfect. And no reform will ever fix things. Human beings, being human, will find ways to circumvent all reforms. That's why reform is a never-ending process.

The old system gave us Abraham Lincoln.

It also gave us Warren Harding.

At times, it yielded surprises. For example, Chester Alan Arthur, though not personally corrupt, had, throughout much of his public life countenanced corruption. As customs collector for the Port of New York, he oversaw the collection of 75% of all federal revenues and looked the other way when people scraped cream off the top...along with a lot of the milk. Yet, when he ascended to the presidency, he decided to push civil service reform, becoming one of the great reforming presidents. He also was a proto-conservationist, setting aside vast tracts of land as national forest nearly two decades before another New York Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, came to office.

I don't pine for the good old days. But the current system is a muddle. Ironically, for the reasons you cite, a system designed to open things up and make the process more democratic has resulted in more influence for the wealthy and the powerful and for people in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where the early caucus and primary contests happen.

I have nothing against the folks in those states. But usually, by the time the presidential primary is held here in Ohio, for example, the identities of the nominees are foregone conclusions: the losers have packed their bags and the winners have moved onto raising money for the general election campaign.

Apparently, Governor Schwarzenegger and the California legislature are going to try to move the presidential primary in that state to February. That would have enormous significance. It would, as someone suggested, give liberal Democratic candidates a clearer shot at their party's nomination and also give moderate Republicans more of a chance in that party. It would also knock the losing candidates out more takes a lot of money to run a campaign in California. And it would "California-ize" the campaign, with that state's issues take precedence in the national debate like it hasn't heretofore.

As to proposals I might have, I have a few random ideas:
  • 1. Make money less of a factor by imposing draconian limits on campaign spending and contribution levels. I mean severe limits.
  • 2. Require all broadcast media and cable outlets to provide a specified number of hours of access to the public. Candidates could use these hours in any ways they wished, including pooling their time and resources to produce debates involving two or more of the candidates.
  • 3. Do away with public financing of campaigns. With the limits I suggest, it isn't needed.
Under such rules, a premium would be placed on old-fashioned political organization and on candidates cultivating national reputations and acknowledged certification before running for President. But no system will be perfect or insusceptible to corruption.]
[UPDATE: Over at The Moderate Voice, where Joe Gandelman has generously linked to this post, commenters are speculating about why Jeb Bush isn't making a run for the presidency in 2008 or if he will in 2012. So far, they seem to feel that President Bush's tenure has damaged the Bush brand name. That may be. But, I write there:
I’m inclined to agree that Jeb Bush would have a difficult time overcoming apprehensions people might have about voting for another member of his family. At least, in 2008.

Here in Ohio, through petty corruptions that caused him to be the first governor ever convicted of crimes while in office and what’s perceived as general ineffectiveness, Bob Taft has, at least for the forseeable future, killed the Taft brand in this state. And that’s saying something: His great-grandfather was President and US Supreme Court Chief Justice; his grandfather the Republican leader in the US Senate who vied for the 1952 GOP nod for President; his father was US Senator; and miscellaneous cousins and uncles have served in other political positions. The Taft name has been ballot box magic in this state for generations. Not at this time, though. So, brand names can be killed off.

But a cautionary note or two…

First: When George H.W. Bush left office in January, 1993, he was an unpopular man. The left derided him for insensitivity to the economic condition of America’s middle class, as well as of the poor. The right saw him as a tax-raiser who welched on promises. Many commentators saw him as ineffectual.

The Clinton years, in the eyes of many, made the elder Bush’s presidency look better. George W. Bush was elected, in part, on a wave of nostalgia…for the days of a President who was voted out of office!

People’s opinions change.

Second: Whether we like to admit it or not, we Americans love royalty. We’re also lazy, tending to cast often misinformed votes for names we know. Names like Bush, Kennedy, Gore, Dailey (in Chicago), Brown (in California), Bayh (in Indiana), Romney, Adams, Harrison, Roosevelt, Taft, and others have appeared over and over again on national, statewide, and local ballots in our nation’s history. (To which one can now add the name of Clinton.) People related to a successful politician has a leg up in gaining such success themselves.

Many of the heirs of these names may have been well-qualified for the offices they sought and won. But often, they’re able to tap into the contribution lists and contacts of their relatives to present themselves as solid, dependable choices for office. They’re the comfort food of electoral politics.

Jeb Bush may one day make a run for the presidency. He will argue, rightly, “I love my brother, but he and I are two different people.” But, he’ll also be able to tap into the financing of past Bush campaigns and into the gauzy memories of voters.

It’s worked before. Chances are, he could make a very viable run for the presidency.
[ALSO: For a mournful analysis of what's gone wrong in the years of Bush the Younger, from his perspective as a conservative, go to this post by, Rick Moore.]

Presidential campaigns are too long. And so too, now is this post!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Third Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 4:14-21

[To see the first pass--along with an explanation of what these "passes" are all about--go here. The second pass is here.]

Verse-by-Verse Comments [continued]
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(1) Here, Jesus quotes from two passages in Isaiah, 61:1 and 58:6. Interestingly, in recounting this incident, Luke uses the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament and not the Hebrew. (For more on the Septuagint, see here.)

(2) The reference to the anointing of the Spirit harks back to Jesus' baptism, Luke 3:22.

(3) Luke particularly focuses on Jesus being good news for the poor. Mary's words to her relative, Elizabeth, called the Magnificat, contain this theme:
“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)
In fact, according The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB), Jesus is cited mentioning the poor more in Luke than any of the other Gospels. Check out: 6:20; 7:22; 14:13, 21; 16:20, 22; 18:22; 21:3.

(4) NIB points out that this is the only place in Luke's Gospel where the term captives is used. But the word connected to it here shows that Luke has more in mind than the release of those imprisoned by authorities. The word? Aphesis, meaning release, the same term used throughout Luke's two books--Luke and Acts--for forgiveness. As NIB also says:
Forgiveness of sin...may be seen as a form of release from bondage to iniquity (Acts 8:22-23)."
Lutheran composer John Ylvisaker talks about this notion of forgiveness as release in his wonderful song, Sweet Release. (If you don't know about John Ylvisaker, find out now.)

(5) Of course, Jesus will literally give sight to the blind, a sign of the coming of God's kingdom, according to Isaiah (Isaiah 35:5; 42:6-7). But more than that, He makes it possible for us to see our sin and our need of a Savior.

(6) The year of the Lord's favor is an apparent reference to the Old Testament Jubilee, as described in Leviticus 25. It too, involved a kind of release, a year during which debts were to be forgiven. Jesus seems to see the year of the Lord's favor as being associated with Him.

(7) In sum, Jesus defines His ministry at its outset, a ministry that ushers in the Kingdom of God, though He doesn't use that phrase here, all the signs of which point to Him as Messiah and to His reign. Jesus' kingdom sets out to redeem the whole person and the whole world.

20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
(1) This must have been a moment of high drama. There had been so much buzz about Jesus. Now that He had read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, they had to wonder what He would say. As indicated earlier, the custom was that the reading would be done from a standing position and the teaching from a seated position.

21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
(1) God's kingdom is now, was Jesus' simple, incredible message. It takes a moment for that message to sink in for Jesus' hearers. When it does...Well, that's a story for next week.

Choose Joy

Here. The writer knows how that's done. See what I mean here.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 4:14-21

[To see the first "pass" and to understand what this is all about, go here.]

Verse-by-Verse Comments:
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.
(1) Jesus' hometown, Nazareth, is in the region of Galilee, the area near the Sea of Galilee. In fact, this verse kicks off a large section of Luke's Gospel, running to Luke 9:50. In this section, we read about Jesus' ministry, all except for a few incidents recounted occurring in Galilee. Luke 9:51 begins a huge section of narrative, moving toward Jesus' passion and resurrection in Jerusalem, a section in which we're told at the outset, Jesus had His "face set" toward the holy city.

(2) In Luke's telling of both Jesus' life, death, and resurrection (the Gospel of Luke) and in his later telling of the history of the early Church (the book of Acts), it's always the Spirit Who empowers ministry. Jesus, fresh from baptism and subsequent temptation, comes to His hometown "filled with the power of the Spirit." (In Luke, check out 3:16; 22; 4:1; 36; 5:17; 6:19; 8:46; 9:1.

(3) Already apparently, Jesus has some degree of fame and everybody has heard about His exploits.

15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
(1) Jesus' teaching evokes applause from the folks at other synagogues in Galilee.

(2) According to The New Interpreter's Bible, three other times in Galilee, people praised God for Jesus' disclosure of Himself as Messiah: 5:25. 26; 7:16. So, this fits in.

16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,
(1) It was common for visitors to worship to be asked to help with the readings and the prayers. This is probably how Jesus came to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

(2) Several sources say that the typical worship liturgy of the time isn't known exactly, but would probably be composed of the following elements:
(3) One of the themes of Luke's two books, Luke and Acts, is that Jesus does not supplant Old Testament tradition, He fulfills it. Here, Luke underscores this theme by pointing out that Jesus went to the synagogue customarily.

(4) Typically in worship, a person would read standing, but teaching was done from a seated position. This latter tradition is maintained in Roman Catholic circles when the Pope and the bishops deliver their teachings from a seat. (This is called ex cathedra.)

17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
(1) An attendant would have given Jesus the scroll. But evidently, it was up to Jesus to decide what passages He would read from Isaiah.

According to NIB, by Jesus' time, "a fixed triennial cycle of readings from the Torah [the first five books of our Old Testament]..." was used in worship. But it isn't known if there were fixed readings from the prophetic books or not. Many scholars believe that which prophetic books were read was totally at the discretion of the reader.

(2) Assuming Jesus selected the passages read, He did so with great care. As NIB points out, the scene at Nazareth "functions as a keynote to the entire ministry of Jesus, setting forth the perspective from which it is to be understood."

I hope to finish these verse-by-verse comments tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"A Good Object Lesson"


Whether You Agree with Him or Not...

you have to hand it to Senator Chuck Hagel. The conservative Republican, a former businessperson and a veteran of Vietnam, would like to be President of the United States. But he may have kissed those ambitions goodbye with his announcement today. He's joining two Democratic senators--Biden of Delaware and Levin of Michigan--in introducing a Senate resolution opposing President Bush's surge plan.

While current opinion polls indicate that such opposition is popular with the American public generally, Republican voters are more inclined to favor the surge. Hagel may find it difficult to gain GOP support for the nomination.

In its way, Hagel's stance is as courageous as that of Arizaona senator John McCain. McCain is an outspoken advocate of the surge, a position likely to gain him support for the Republican nomination, but unlikely to play well with the electorate in the fall of 2008, if current trends continue.

Bottom line: Both McCain and Hagel, who supported the Arizonan in 2000, deserve kudos for taking positions they manifestly believe in despite the political risks. Their "profiles in courage" are laudable, refreshing in an era when too many pols seem intent on deciding what they believe based on the latest polls. This is especially the case when one considers that, for a long time, Hagel has been a critic of the war and McCain an advocate of greater troop strength in Iraq. No tacking in the political winds, at least on this issue, has been exhibited by either man.

[For an interesting, though perhaps historically flawed, look at Hagel, see here.]

This seems accurate...

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Inland North

You may think you speak "Standard English straight out of the dictionary" but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like "Are you from Wisconsin?" or "Are you from Chicago?" Chances are you call carbonated drinks "pop."

The Midland

The Northeast


The South

The West


North Central

What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Although when we lived in Madison, Wisconsin back when I was a newborn, my mother, from Columbus, Ohio, often was asked what part of the South she was from. I don't know if anyone from Wisconsin (or Chi-Town) would think I was a native of their parts.

(Thanks to John Schroeder for leading me to this quiz. It's clever.)

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 4:14-21

[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 4:14-21
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

General Comments
1. We continue, on this Third Weekend after Epiphany, to look at signs given that Jesus, Whose birth we celebrate from December 25 to January 5 each year, is more than a human being of lowly birth, but also the promised Messiah King (the Christ) and God in human flesh. This, if course, is the theme of the Epiphany season. (See here, here, here, and here.)

2. We're in what's known as Cycle C of the three-year plan of Bible lessons called the lectionary, explained here. Throughout this year, most of the Gospel lessons will be drawn from Luke. (Cycle A revolves around Matthew and Cycle B, around Mark. John doesn't get his own year. But because Mark is so short, a lot of John's Gospel shows up in the Mark year. John's Gospel also makes appearances elsewhere in the lectionary cycle, as we saw last weekend and on Christmas Eve.) This weekend's lesson is from Luke, of course.

3. When we think of Biblical signs, we're apt to imagine miraculous events. In fact, over the past two weekends, we've remembered signs that were miraculous: the declaration of Jesus' deity by a voice from heaven at His Baptism two weeks ago and Jesus' turning water into wine during a wedding at Cana last week. But what's the sign here?

One sign for certain is Jesus' overt declaration of Himself as the prophecy from Isaiah of a Messiah, an anointed king from God who would set things right.

Another, also evident in that section of Isaiah's book that deals with the "suffering servant," is that of a king who would die for his people, though rejected by them.

In Nazareth, very literally and specifically, we see what John talks about in the prologue to his Gospel:
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. (John 1:10-11)
Of course, John is speaking globally: the whole world, Jew and Gentile, spurned, rejected, and killed Jesus. But you might say that the spurning of Jesus by the people of Nazareth is an early warning sign of what the whole known world soon would do. As we proceed through the Epiphany season, for all its faith-stirring signals that Jesus is God and Savior, we also pick up increasingly the scents of Good Friday and Jesus' death.

But all isn't hopeless for us. As John goes on to write in that prologue:
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
4. One of the key principles for understanding any given passage of Scripture, as I've written many times before, is to pay heed to the context in which the passage appears. Context lends accessibility to content.

Notice where the incident in this weekend's Bible lesson falls. Immediately preceding it, Jesus was baptized (and affirmed by God's voice), only to be driven into the wilderness where He is tempted by the devil. Immediately following, Jesus travels to Capernaum where He will cast demons out of a man---only after the demons proclaim Jesus "the Holy One of God," something the people of Nazareth would have been loathe to call Jesus. Then, we're told that people marveled at His power and were abuzz about Him.

What does this context tell us about our lesson for this weekend? Several things, I think:
  • It establishes that when Jesus moves to call people away from sin and to repentance and new life with God through faith in Him, He will encounter opposition, from the devil and from the world.
  • It establishes that opposition to Jesus, though veiled in religious piety, is really about repudiating God's authority, living not in the freedom that Christ gives us to become our true, God-designed selves, but in the license of self-worship. Later in this Gospel, Jesus will encounter a man filled with demons and He will send them into a nearby herd of pigs. The pigs will run pell mell over a cliff. The people of the region ask Jesus to go away. They will rather live in the slop of evil and the devil than be cleansed of their sins. They stand in contrast to the boy in Jesus' story, the prodigal son, also told in this Gospel, who, lying in the slop with the pigs, sickened by his sin, turns away from evil, and turns in repentance to his father. (Remember that Jesus and His fellow Jews considered the pig to be a filthy animal and wouldn't eat any of its meat.)
  • It establishes that Jesus doesn't force faith onto any of us. We must look at the signs, including Jesus' death and resurrection, and decide for ourselves whether to let Christ be our Lord. This too is a recurring theme of Luke's Gospel.
More tomorrow, I hope.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Wonderful Useless Facts


Re: #11: This holds true only if you learned how to type the right way. I never did and still only use the index finger and thumb on my right hand and the middle finger on my left. (By the way, for interesting facts about left-handers, go to this post by Amba.)

#8: Nice to learn about my favorite drink.

Also check out #33, #168 (hardly an auspicious beginning), #179 (I'm afraid that I've stolen approximately 23, 537 from somebody else; I am sorry), #208 (is that true, Bostonians?), and #401 (I knew this one).

[For more on my interest in useless facts, go here.]

People Need to Laugh...

This past weekend, my brother, comedian Marty Daniels, performed at a Baptist congregation's evening gathering. The pastor expected about 60 to attend. It appears that well over 200 showed up!

Read Marty's account of things here.

Find out how you can book Marty at your next event, go here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

About the American Dream

[This is a column I wrote about seven years ago. It seems relevant today.]

Recently, my daughter's German pen pal, a fifteen year old named Sarah, wrote to her with an interesting question. "What," she asked, "is the American Dream?"

My daughter asked me to answer that question from my perspective. Here's part of what I wrote:

"Sarah: Today, when people talk about 'the American Dream,' it seems that they have the idea only of making lots of money and having possessions. But that isn't how I remember hearing the phrase used when I was growing up.

"I've done a little research recently, learning that the phrase was first used in the early part of the twentieth century. To the originator of the phrase and to me, the American Dream means two things. First, it means the dream of being free: free to worship as one wishes, free to speak one's mind and to effect what happens in government, free to choose the career path that seems best for us, free to get an education, free to marry who we wish to marry, and so on.

"But a second part of the American Dream is that our freedom is to be kept in tension with the responsibility that each of us bears to treat our neighbor with respect and consideration.

"Freedom within a community of caring. That's the American Dream.

"It's definitely true that the United States is flawed and there have been terrible things that have been done in this country. Slavery and the continued discrimination that African-Americans face here today is wrong. The mistreatment of Native Americans is a horrible blot on our country's history. During the Second World War, Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps for no reason, even as many of their sons were fighting and dying in the war. We are horribly materialistic and our wealth seems to make us insensitive to the needs of the poor within our own country and in the rest of the world. We've desecrated the environment.

"But when we're at our best, it's when we're living out the American Dream. We're letting each other enjoy the freedom this country was founded to bring and we're caring for each other.

"I think that the American Dream is best summarized by the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Written by Emma Lazarus, it says nothing about money or possessions:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

'Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she
With silent lips, 'Give me your tired, your poor,
'Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
'The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
'Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me,
'I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'"

Obviously, Sarah's question was important to me. I'd very much like to see an end brought to our materialistic interpretation of the American Dream. I'd like to see it replaced by the dream of a society--and a world--in which every person is free to be all that God made them to be and where every person is committed to helping others fulfill that same destiny.

There is so much more to being human than how much stuff we possess. Time and again, I hear the penetrating question of Jesus Christ, "What does it profit them if they gain the whole, but lose...themselves?" We can have fat wallets and empty lives.

Through my forty-six years [now fifty-three!] on this planet, I've come to believe that the only way we can have a society characterized by freedom within a community of caring is if all of us turn to Jesus Christ, God-in-the-flesh. Jesus gives us the right relationships with God and neighbor we all need just to live good lives on this earth, not to mention in eternity.

But, lest you think I feel bleak, know this: I wake up with enthusiasm each morning because I can't wait to share Jesus Christ with more people. Jesus can change this world one person at a time! And I'm out to let everybody know that.

I'm not perfect. Far from it! But when I turn my life to Jesus Christ, I find that He gives me the confidence and security I need to be who God made me to be. He also gives me the confidence and security to let others be who God made them to be.

The surest route to the real American Dream--freedom in a community of caring--is through Jesus Christ. I hope you'll join me in following Him.

It doesn't surprise me...

that so many children are ignorant of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. A recent survey indicates that a huge percentage of students think that King was fighting against slavery.

Much of what passes for Social Studies Education today is a joke, superficial topical surveys. Few parents attempt to pass on any appreciation of this country's or the world's past to their kids. (I'm grateful that my own parents did have this commitment, for example first taking me to Washington, D.C. when I was five years old, a trip I still recall vividly, forty-eight years later.)

On top of that, the adolenticization of our society, a phenomenon that Christopher Lasch first identified in The Culture of Narcissism, has filled post-modern America with a general ahistorical view of life, devoid of any appreciation or understanding of the past.

We have a culture so "in the moment" that it's literally hell-bent on learning history's lessons. Another figure who was assassinated in the 1960s, John Kennedy, wrote these words which I committed to memory as a child: "A knowledge of the past prepares us for the crisis of the present and the challenge of the future."

King's birthday, Presidents' Day, and other national holidays should be more than just days off. An informed patriotism can be an antidote to things like militant nationalism and hedonistic cynicism, both of which can kill the American Dream, King's dream: freedom within a community of mutual accountability and concern.

[THANK YOU TO: Charlie Lehardy of AnotherThink, who links to this post in a wonderful tribute to Dr. King. Charlie's post, introducing excerpts from King's letter from the Birmingham jail reminds us "of the Christian faith that was the foundation of his beliefs and actions." Those tempted to ignore the facts by dismissing all religious belief as inherently superstitious and dangerous would do well to contemplate people like King, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, C.S. Lewis, and the billions of ordinary Christians who have fought slavery, poverty, injustice, prejudice, and disease down through the centuries and continue to do so today. The good infection of Jesus Christ continues to bring healing and hope even though there have been and are people who misuse and pervert the faith.]

[THANKS TO: Andrew Jackson of for linking to this post.]

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Joe Tries to Sell a Sign

[The Moe and Joe skits have become a silly staple of worship at Friendship. They serve to set the table for the worship theme of the day. This skit happened during worship today.]

[Joe walks across front of church holding a sign...the letters turned toward him, so that the congregation can’t see it. He walks across the front of the church several times. Then Moe walks in.]

Joe: Get your sign! Get your sign here!

Moe: Hey, Joe!

Joe: Hey, Moe!

Moe: What are you doing?

Joe: I’m trying to attract a crowd.

Moe: With a blank sign?

Joe: Yeah.

Moe: Well, why do you want to attract a crowd?

Joe: I’m trying to sell this sign. It’s just taking up space in my garage.

Moe: Wouldn’t you have a better chance of selling the sign if people saw what the front of it says?

Joe: I don’t think so, Moe.

Moe: Why not?

Joe: Well, because of this. [Moe turns the sign around to reveal that it’s a Daniels, State Representative sign from my 2004 primary campaign.]

Moe: I see what you mean. People didn’t buy what that sign was selling back then...

Joe: So why would they now?

Moe: Exactly.

Joe: Hey, maybe we could use the sign at church.

Moe: What do you mean?

Joe: Well, this is Epiphany, right?

Moe: Yeah.

Joe: Isn’t Epiphany the season of signs?

Moe: It is but not those kinds of signs.

Joe: You mean it isn’t about signs that give people messages or where stuff is?

Moe: Yeah, it’s a season about those kinds of signs. But these are signs that point to something particular...Really, some one particular.

Joe: What do you mean?

Moe: Epiphany is all about the signs Jesus gave telling us that He was more than just a man.

Joe: Like what?

Moe: Well, let’s put that sign away...

Joe: You mean like in a trash can?

Moe: Yeah. Then we’ll go to worship and we’ll hear about another one of Jesus’ signs and start to see the unknown get revealed.

Sign at a Wedding

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church during worship celebrations on January 13 and 14, 2007.]

John 2:1-11
I lost count of the number of weddings over which I’ve presided long ago. But I will never forget the strangest wedding I ever did.

It was held in the building of the congregation I formerly served as pastor and the bride and groom were bikers. Neither they or any of their guests wore leather for the ceremony. But I can tell you that the parking lot was packed with Harleys and that the couple rode off to the reception on a bike, he in his tux, she in her wedding gown.

None of that was so strange. But other things made the wedding strange. For example, near the end of the ceremony, when I told the couple that they could kiss, after a time, I started looking around for a water hose to douse them. Their kiss seemed to go on forever and was...a bit demonstrative.

After we finally got them untethered, I signaled the bride to get her flowers from the maid of honor so that she and her new husband could process out of the sanctuary. But the handoff between the bride and friend was no simple thing; instead, they high-fived each other, apparently signaling the triumph that the bride had snagged her groom.

And you should have heard the motorcycles as they all collectively roared to the reception hall. It wasn't your standard issue wedding.

But as strange weddings go, nothing can match the one told about in today’s Bible lesson. On the face of it, it’s a simple miracle story...if any miracle story can be described as simple. But when we consider the story of Jesus turning water into wine during a wedding feast in the town of Cana, we’re likely to come away with more questions than answers. Frankly, I can only speculate on how to answer most of them. We might be tempted to give up on understanding the whole incident except for the words that come near the end of the lesson:
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Last week, we mentioned that Epiphany is the season of the Church Year devoted to looking at the ways in which Jesus cast light on His deity. All the lessons from the Gospels during Epiphany are designed to show us that Jesus is God-in-human-flesh, the promised Christ, and the Savior of the world. Apparently, what Jesus did at the wedding at Cana caused the five disciples--He hadn’t yet called the other seven--to believe in Him. Why?

Weddings can be expensive propositions. We parents of young women who've gotten married know about that, don't we?

I’ll never forget sitting with Paul, a member of our congregation, as we waited to close up the building where his daughter, Tiffany was married. The photographer seemed to take hours snapping pictures. (Even though he said that he was going to take all of the pictures before the ceremony!) Meanwhile, the limo set to take the bridal party to the reception was waiting in the parking lot. Paul tapped the seat in which he sat and said, “Come on folks, the meter’s running!”

As concerned as we bridal parents may be about our expenses though, we all try to have enough of everything on hand so that the celebration is enjoyable for everyone. We do that just to be good hosts. Running out of wine at a wedding may not seem like a big deal to us. But in first-century Judea, that would have been a major, humiliating social no-no. Then, wedding feasts went on for a week. And while drunkenness was frowned on, wine was part of things the whole time, served at every meal to every guest. Guests invited to the feasts often forwarded wine to the groom just to make sure there was enough wine on hand. If the wine gave out, all the guests might wonder what sort of cheapskate this guy was and what he did with the gift wine.

So, by turning water into wine, Jesus did spare His guests humiliation. But He did a lot more.

He showed Himself capable of meeting our needs with extraordinary blessings. It’s like John writes in the opening chapter of his Gospel, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Just as Jesus would later turn a few crumbs of bread and some fish into a feast for five-thousand and more, He turned water into an overabundance of wine. He proved that He was able to bless us even when all seems lost. Just yesterday, I got an email from a Christian woman who’d read a four-part series of articles I wrote on my blog two years ago, called When Tragedy Hits the Innocent. Listen to some of what she wrote:
...our only child...went to live with Jesus in July of 2004. I have always known that God was with me, but I had lost my best friend, after watching him face the ravages of Muscular Dystrophy for 24 years. My lifetime of belief in God assured me that he was with God and that his wheelchair and pain and dependence on others were gone and he was free of everything that held him back. I could see him running all over heaven, laughing as he visited with my father and grandparents and his good friend Ron, who also left behind a wheelchair and weakened muscles. I knew all the right "answers" but I was still so heartbroken I couldn't get past the grief. I wanted him back. I knew that God knew best, but I had firmly believed when I closed my eyes that day and opened the Bible, putting my finger down on whichever passage God wanted me to and it said, "Your faith has made you well," that my son would be cured of this awful thief that was robbing him of his strength. But I was wrong, and my special gift from God had been ripped away from me. I never gave up on God, but I have to admit there was a very strange feeling there. I kept believing in Him. I kept praying. He kept loving me. I thought maybe He was punishing me for something. I didn't really know who I was or where I was or even IF I was. I was just numb, and I became numb to the world. I wanted to stay inside and do nothing but think of him and look at his pictures. God let me do that for a short time, and then He reminded me how much He loved me...[God’s Word] made me realize that I was the one who had moved, not God. My heart is still broken. I know I will never get over this loss. But I feel the love of God so strongly and it gives me a comfort I can't find anywhere else. He is all I need. I know that, and I will never forget it...
In the midst of great need, God blesses greatly. Jesus’ disciples knew that and so, began to recognize that Jesus was more than just a teacher. More than just a man.

But the mysterious incident at Cana gave the disciples--and us--another reason to believe that in Jesus, we see God. It’s this: Good wine was always seen as a sign of the end times when God would set all things right between Himself and those who believed in Him. Hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, Amos said that with His coming, “...the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.” And Joel said, “In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine...”

God, it seems, always saves the best for last--things like forgiveness, hope, and everlasting life with God. One Biblical writer--the preacher in the book of Hebrews--told his fellow Jewish Christians: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoke to us by a Son...”

Jesus is speaking to you and me today. He can turn our water into wine. He’s the God Who can meet our deepest needs with His abundant grace and goodness.

The question for us, as for the disciples on that day in Cana, is a simple one: Do we believe in Jesus?