Saturday, February 10, 2007

'How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election'

The series has finished itself at seven installments. Here are links to all seven of them:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

[THANKS TO: Hugh Hewitt, Tom at DaddyPundit and Stones Cry Out, and Ruminating Pilgrim for linking to this series.]

[FURTHER THANKS TO: Matt Brown of Good Brownie for linking to this series. By the way, Matt's blog is one of my faves! Check his writing out daily.]

The Faith Life of Abraham Lincoln

...can be seen in his second Inaugural Address. So says historian Allen C. Guelzo in today's Washington Post On Faith supplement. I wrote about the very same thing last July in a series of posts called Interpreting Lincoln's Second Inaugural Sermon. Here are links to the entire series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

[THANKS TO: Hugh Hewitt and Mark of We Win, They Lose, each of whom linked to this post.]

The Drive to the National Championship...


Go, Buckeyes!

Friday, February 09, 2007

No Matter Your Views on the War in Iraq...

there is something profoundly out of whack with a media that gives saturation coverage to the demise of a famous-for-being-famous icon, but fails to notice the death of a young female Marine in Iraq, as recounted by Will Bunch. You don't have to agree with Bunch's views on the war to say, "Amen" when you read his post. (Thanks to Shaun Mullen for leading me to Bunch's piece.)

Why Hasn't John Edwards Fired His Bigoted Bloggers?

Liberal Christian thinkers are as upset with the candidate as their counterparts among conservative Christians. (Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for leading me to this story.)

I personally think that Edwards should have fired the two bloggers in question. Ask yourself this: If their blogging had demeaned other religions or other religious figures, would they still have their jobs? I myself don't believe they would. But ad hominem attacks on Roman Catholics and Christians are acceptable among much of the politically liberal blogging world. (Sadly, ad hominem attacks on liberal bloggers by Christian bloggers is also done all the time, to the applause of many Christians.)

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 6:17-26

[To see what this is all about, go to the first pass at this weekend's Bible lesson, here.]

These verse-by-verse comments are going to necessarily be down and dirty, not as detailed as I would ordinarily make them. There's been too much going on this week for that.

17He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.
(1) For the significance of a level place and to learn where Jesus were coming from, see the first pass at the lesson.

(2) Tyre and Sidon were foreign, that is Gentile, cities. This demonstrates that Jesus' Kingdom is welcoming to all peoples, Jews and Gentiles.

(3) The people around Jesus here were the apostles, the disciples, and the crowds. A disciple is any follower of Jesus Christ.

18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
(1) This calls to mind the woman with the hemorrhaging whose story we find in Luke 8:43-48. Power exuded from Jesus.

20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
(1) The sermon starts with three beatitudes. But one, the first one, in v.20, is an umbrella for the other two. This is a sermon about the blessedness of those in poverty, financial and otherwise. Poverty isn't being idealized here. Jesus is saying that those who are poor understand their vulnerability and their need of God. Faith comes more easily to people living on the margins of society. Wealth can insulate us from the realities of life. Wealth causes people to think that they are self-sufficient. See here.

(2) The second and third beatitudes here describe two common elements of impoverished lives, hunger and weeping.

(3) Notice that the first beatitude is in the present tense. The next two are in the future tense. Jesus doesn't promise that all will be well in this life.

22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
(1) I think it's fair to say that here, Jesus is including both those who are poor and those among the wealthy who dare to share with the poor. In the first pass, I talk about Luke's emphasis of Jesus' call on those who have money and property to share with those who don't have those things. This isn't a political program. It's a call on the Church to undertake John the Baptist's ministry of leveling so that all can see and experience the Savior. See here.

23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
(1) You'll know you're being faithful when people are ticked off at you for believing in tough times!

(2) The word translated as leap is the same one used to describe the reaction of the baby in Elizabeth's womb (John the Baptist) to the sound of Mary's voice. See here.

24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
(1) Here, we see the blessings in the foregoing verses reversed. See here for a definition of woe. Throughout Luke's Gospel, we find Jesus turning the world's values upside down, announcing that the Kingdom of God is opposed to what the world values.

(2) Those intent on wealth and attain it have already received their consolations, Jesus says. They have the ultimate blessings which can be given by the god they worship, money. God can't bless those who have made anything or anyone other than Him their god; they've effectively blocked God from their lives by their idol worship.

A passage carrying a similar argument about the consolations offered by an idol can be found in Matthew. There, Jesus talks about those who give to the poor for the sake of being noticed by others. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward." (Matthew 6:2) In this case, if being applauded for being good is your god, you also have blocked God from your life.

God won't share His throne with any other idol!

26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
(1) This reverses the beatitude in v. 23.

(2) This doesn't mean that we're to make ourselves obnoxious, as some self-righteous people who claim to speak for Christ do. But it does mean to be fearless in standing with Christ.

Anna Nicole Smith as Rorschach Blot

For decades now, Marilyn Monroe, whose life ended tragically at age 36, has been a popular Rorschach Blot, an icon on whom endless analysis has been spent. The film star was frozen in youthful beauty before the sexist culture of Hollywood could, as it always does, throw her overboard for the latest female eye candy to hit town.

Anna Nicole Smith leaves behind no reasonably impressive body of work, as Monroe did. Instead, Smith leaves behind a baby of as-yet undetermined paternity and the memory of a short, tragic, often goofy life that first became known to most of us when she married a millionaire more than sixty years her senior, claiming, implausibly, it seemed, that she did it for love.

Her death at age 39 makes Smith the obvious candidate for being the next entry into cultural Rorschachdom. One can easily imagine that two decades from now a novelist, operating as the artist-as-journalist-and-psychologist, will produce some heavy tome--filled with photographs, of course--on Smith, subjecting her to the same treatment that Norman Mailer and countless others have given to Monroe.

In fact, people are already busily projecting layers of cultural meaning onto Smith's life. Consider this from today's Washington Post:
"Courtesan," which in a different age is probably what she would have been labeled (even though she was married), is a category we don't have much use for anymore. The woman who makes sexual alliances for money, who was less than a blushing bride but not so fallen as a prostitute, was once a vigorous cultural type, at least through the 19th century. Courtesans were the essential heroines of our greatest operas. They offered up their bodies, in various states of undress, to painters from Caravaggio to Toulouse-Lautrec -- and too many others to mention. It was a courtesan who set in motion many of our greatest novels, not least of them Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" -- which begins with the love of a man named Swann for a "great courtesan."

But the idea of the courtesan has all but disappeared, and with it much of the nuance about our analysis of sex and marriage.

Our continuum of sexual alliances runs from the happy marriage of loving equals, on one end, to prostitution -- the pure exchange of sex for money -- on the other. The trophy bride, the marriage of youth and beauty to age and power, is the closest we have to the category of the courtesan -- but it involves the collective pretense that it isn't only about money. To see the old category of courtesanship in operation today, you have to travel to poor places around the globe, where sex, love and sometimes marriages are negotiated between wealthy westerners and local girls without either party acknowledging the idea that the exchange is commercial.

The courtesan was rich but not on her own terms, an object of scorn but not completely disreputable, a living reminder of an economy of sexual exchange that we like to pretend doesn't exist. When Anna Nicole Smith, a voluptuous 26-year-old Playboy Playmate, married an octogenarian oil-rich billionaire, she crossed a line, assuming too high a place in our supposedly mobile society. After her elderly husband died a little over a year later, she stood to inherit $474 million (still in legal dispute), and her name became shorthand for marital opportunism. Her husband went down in the books as the most ridiculous of old goats -- but he was dead and beyond the reach of our scorn. Anna had her second and third acts, on television and shilling for diet pills, but none of these chapters ever did much for her dignity.

Society took its revenge, confining her to gossip magazines and scandal sheets, foreclosing her appearance in the black-and-white party photos of respectable magazines, where trophy brides appear smiling and dazzling with their balding, sagging, tremendously rich husbands.

For centuries, there have been men who have wondered why women really love them. That the real sexual allure of men may not be their good looks, their masculinity or their charm, but rather their power and position, can make men wonder whether they are loved for themselves or for something external and unrelated. When marriages don't look like they look in storybooks -- love matches between princes and princesses -- intimacy is shadowed with doubt...
Well, you get the idea. Smith's death will be the excuse for lots of know-it-alls to show their stuff, projecting mysteries onto a woman who was, after all, rather straight-forward. The mythologizing of Anna Nicole begins. She'll be a bonanza for writers, publishers, and producers for years to come.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 7

We come now to the most important way in which Christians can think about the election in 2008, the seventh "lens": We can see it as an opportunity to pray that God will guide the next "decider" of the United States.

I first ran across the name of Frank Laubach when I read Norman Vincent Peale's classic, The Power of Positive Thinking some years ago. From an acquaintance who once directed the work of a local literacy agency that bore Laubach's name, I later learned that the one-time missionary who died many decades ago, had been inspired during a time of prayer to begin a movement to teach illiterate adults to read. I figured that such a man could teach a lot about prayer, but for a long time, I couldn't track down any of Laubach's books.

Then one day, as I sat in a neighboring church's library, I caught sight of the 1960 paperback edition of Laubach's Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World. I almost jumped on the book and checked it out immediately! Originally written right after World War Two, Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World urges people to pray for the United Nations, for world leaders, and for peace.

One of Laubach's most important suggestions in this terrific little book is that we pray during the "chinks" that happen in all of our schedules: while stuck in traffic, doing mindless chores, standing in lines, and so on. Lengthy concentrated prayer time is good, Laubach asserts, but if we are to follow Saint Paul's admonition to "pray without ceasing," we need to cultivate the habit of offering up prayers all the time. Laubach is especially urgent in commending prayer for the leaders of all nations. (This is a suggestion that the New Testament authors, who even urged prayer for Roman emperors who persecuted the Church, would readily endorse, I'm sure.)

I keep a file of meaningful quotes drawn from the books I read. Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World is full of great quotes. In the current international crisis though, several stand out:

"Most of us will never enter the White House and offer advice to the President. Probably he will never have time to read our letters [or our e-mails, I thought, as I read this]. But we can give him what is far more important than advice. We can give him a lift into the presence of God, make him hungry for divine wisdom...We can visit the White House with prayer as many times a day as we think of it, and every such visit makes us a channel between God and the President."

He also says that in our praying for the President and other leaders, "[w]e do not 'persuade God to try harder'...; it is our world leaders, our statesmen and church men [sic] whom we persuade to try harder. We help God when we pray. When great numbers of us pray for leaders, a mighty invisible spiritual force lifts our minds and eyes toward God. His Spirit flows through our prayer to them, and He can speak to them directly."

But one passage of Laubach's book struck me as more meaningful than anything else he wrote there. I laughed out loud the first time I read it:
We can do more for the world with prayer than if we were to walk into Whitehall, London, or the Kremlin in Moscow, and tell those men [sic] what to do---far more! If they listened to our suggestions, we would probably be more or less wrong [emphasis mine]. But what God tells them, when they listen to Him, must be right. It is infinitely better for world leaders to listen to God than for them to listen to us.
These lines made me laugh because I thought how right Laubach was. I remembered the many times I held doggedly to an opinion about a political matter only to learn how misguided and wrong my view had been. How much better it is to humbly and trustingly place matters in God's hands, confident in His infinitely superior judgment. And how much better it is to put frail human leaders in God's hands than trying to manhandle them with my very fallible opinions and judgments!

Jesus promises that when we approach the Father in His Name, submitting to His will, God hears and answers our prayers. I believe that Christians need to pray now about the 2008 Presidential election. I'd like to suggest a few of the things we might pray:
  • That God will open the wills of the American public and that God will show them His will as to who to vote for in 2008.
  • That the candidates' wills will be open to God and that God will go to them as well, giving guidance.
God is wiser than we are. And He's anxious to share His wisdom with us. In the New Testament, James writes:
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. (James 1:5)
I believe that the wisdom that God wants to offer our leaders and all of us is just what we need as we look ahead to the 2008 election, coming at a time when America may be divided in many ways. James later describes what God's wisdom can bring:
...the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (James 3:17)
Those would be great attributes for Presidential candidates and all of us to exhibit.

[THANKS TO: Mark Olson for linking to this series at both Pseudo Polymath and Blog Watch.]

Links to First Six Posts of 'How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election'

Here are links to the first six installments of my series on How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 6

[Massively revised...I was exhausted when I wrote it and it needed fixing.]

Back in 1997, Character Above All, the first of two volumes on US Presidents, was published. It featured essays about ten Presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush. Essayists included presidential biographers Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and David McCullough, journalists Richard Reeves and Tom Wicker, and former presidential speechwriters Hendrik Hertzberg and Peggy Noonan. The basic premise of the book, simply, was that character is central to a successful presidency.

But what is character? I suppose most people would expect a Christian to talk about moral rectitude in describing it. And certainly, Christians believe in aiming at living moral lives.

But many will be mistaken about why Christians seek to be moral. They'll think that Christians seek to be moral in order to win "salvation points," as though earthly life is about compiling enough virtuous acts to impress a God wary of admitting any of us into His Kingdom. That's not the case at all.

As we've already discussed in previous installments of this series, Christians are aware that they, like the rest of the human race, are sinners. We believe that our relationship with God has nothing to do with our behavior. Instead, it has everything to do with what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Christ has done everything to make those who believe in Him acceptable to heaven. When a person comes to believe--or trust--in Christ, several things happen:
  • By God's grace, we receive forgiveness and the new, everlasting life that Christ's death and resurrection have bought for us.
  • The Holy Spirit sets to work on reconstructing us from the inside out, showing us where our characters and relationships need repair and renewal.
  • Out of gratitude for God's gracious acceptance of us, we're motivated to pray, "Your will be done." The Spirit empowers us to see and to do God's will, facilitating the process called sanctification. By this lifelong process, we're helped to live differently in this life and prepared for the one to come.
For a Christian, then, there is no expectation that other human beings will be morally perfect. We know that we aren't; we don't expect that of others. Even a notable saint like Mother Teresa was "in a state of becoming" the person God intended her to be until the day she died. Christians will readily admit that, like the apostle Paul, we are sinners saved from sin and death by God's grace.

This is why Christians can be forgiving of the frailties and imperfections exhibited by political leaders. Jesus teaches us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." He also warns us that if we're unwilling to forgive others, the forgiveness that He offers as a free gift to those who come to God in His Name will be blocked. We can't ask God to overlook our imperfections as people if we're not willing extend this same charity to others. Christians who are overly concerned about the morality of political leaders, engaging in gotcha games, exhibit the same hollow religiosity that the Pharisees of Jesus' time showed. Remember, he called them "whitewashed tombs," appearing to be morally incorruptible on the outside, but filled with sin on the inside. Self-righteousness leads to arrogance and harsh judgments. The righteousness that comes from Jesus Christ leads to humility and charity.

Yet, I do think that character should be among the factors Christians should weigh in deciding for whom they will vote in 2008. Or in any election, for that matter.

Here's what I believe character is: A lifetime journey toward both integrity and wholeness in our relationships. (For a Christian, the relationships include both God and other people.)

People of character haven't always and don't always do the right thing. But they're committed to making midcourse corrections their entire lives in order to make their journey to integrity and whole relationships.

George Washington, America's greatest president, was revered in his lifetime because of his character. He exhibited this very tendency to making corrections in his life. As a young soldier in the French and Indian War, hungry for glory, he undertook an unnecessarily risky military operation that subjected his men to slaughter. Others, in similar circumstances, would have arrogantly defended their actions and flung mud at their detractors. But Washington learned from his mistake. That's a sign of character.

During the 1884 election, it was alleged that Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland, then single, had fathered an illegitimate child. Cleveland accepted responsibility for the child and revealed that he was supporting its mother. The revelation didn't torpedo his candidacy. He received kudos for his honesty and was elected.

In April, 1961, John Kennedy allowed the CIA and a group of Cuban exiles to go forward with an assault on Cuba's Bay of Pigs. The US role was to have been a secret. Our military was to provide no support to the exile fighters as they sought to topple dictator Fidel Castro. After the exiles were slaughtered, Kennedy regretted the entire operation. He went on national television and took complete personal blame. His approval ratings went up.

In my posts on Lincoln's second Inaugural Address, I trace the evolution of his character. It too was characterized by a process of learning, re-orientation, repentance, accepting blame, and learning the greatness of humility.

Conversely, presidential candidates and presidents have been hurt by what seemed like lack of character. Gary Hart, an undeniably intelligent and gifted person, was eliminated from consideration for the presidency in 1988, not because he had a dalliance with a woman on board a boat called The Monkey Business, but because people perceived a pattern of monkey business in his character. Fairly or not, they reasoned that a man who was so inconsistent in keeping his commitments to his wife might be inconsistent in keeping his commitments to the country.

And I share in the widespread belief that if Richard Nixon had gone on TV in June, 1972, to acknowledge the connection between the Watergate burglars and his Committee to Re-Elect the President, his presidency would have been saved. Instead, the ensuing cover-up revealed a pattern of paranoia, deceit, and dirty tricks. What brought Nixon down more than anything was a character moving in the wrong direction, Nixon's extraordinary talents notwithstanding.

Character does matter.

A prime Biblical example of a leader with character is King David. Israel's greatest king, the Bible describes David as "a man after God's heart." But he was also a murderer and an adulterer.

Yet even after his sins and crimes, David was forgiven by God and by Israel. He was allowed to continue as king of Israel. That's because David repented for his sins. After a horrible "fall," he resumed his lifetime journey in the direction of integrity and wholeness in his relationships.

Now, if you think that repentance is four weeks at a rehab center, designed not to change a life, but to rehabilitate a bad public image, you haven't caught what Biblical repentance is. It's far more than saying, "I'm really, really, really, really sorry."

In the Old Testament, the word for repentance has the meaning of turning to walk toward God after having made the mistake of turning away from Him. The repentant person does a U-Turn away from sin.

In the New Testament, the most common word for repentance means to change one's mind. Biblical repentance isn't about embarrassment over one's wrongs followed by a maudlin statement of contrition; it revolves around a desire to live in a right relationship with God and others. It involves a commitment to change directions so that one more the repentant person is walking toward integrity and wholeness in relationships.

David's prayer of repentance is Psalm 51 in the Old Testament. It shows what repentance is, as well as the confidence that a believer in the God of the Bible has:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,

then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Of course, candidates who display patterns of behavior that indicate blindness to the need for integrity in leaders, candidates who repeatedly make the same moral mistakes, ought to be eliminated from consideration for any public office. But it would be wrong to demand the perfection of others that we ourselves can't attain.

When Christians consider who they should vote for to be their President, it's good to ask, "Is this imperfect man or woman the type of person committed to taking the long journey in the right direction? Is he or she committed to learning from his or her mistakes?"

Such a candidate of character will be worthy of our consideration.

One can argue that, well, kind of, that, I think it can be said, that Rudy Giuliani...

is less than articulate. Even if Ann Althouse's construction of the former New York mayor's comments on Hannity and Colmes' show is right and he uses phrases like "kind of" to keep from appearing to be an egomaniac, he does ramble a bit. See Althouse's transcription and comments.

Hmmm. Inarticulate? I hope that at least, he's clean.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Good News for Reds Fans


"Everything is holy now"

from Craig Williams. Let this one soak in!

The Power of Story...

from Jan.

Interesting Super Bowl Thoughts...

from Charlie Lehardy.

A Solid Win on a Cold, Snowy Night

The march to March Madness continued for the Ohio State Buckeye men's basketball team tonight, with a Rivalry Week win over Michigan. Columbus, like Cincinnati, was blanketed with snow and low temperatures tonight, cutting into what otherwise would have been a capacity crowd at Value City Arena.

The game, which was on ESPN, was fun to watch. I agree with commentator Steve Lavin that the Buckeyes, owing maybe to their youth and enormous talent, sometimes let down on defense, depending too much on their ability to score in impressive bunches. But as OSU's coach, Thad Matta, works on breaking the team of this bad habit, I believe the Bucks will only get better.

In all honesty, I feel a little sorry for Michigan coach Tommy Amaker. While the Wolverines have a solid winning record, there's a real danger that they might not make the NCAA tournament this year. Amaker's job may be on the line. By all accounts, he's a terrific person and a good coach. Hopefully, he can enjoy success for the balance of the year, except in games against the Buckeyes.

Go, Buckeyes!

How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 5

Several books in the Old Testament tell the story of the interaction between Cyrus, a king of Persia, and God's people, the Jews. The tale is confirmed by the Cyrus Cylinder, a clay barrel on which the ruler told about his exploits. According to Bernhard Anderson:
The Cyrus a first-hand historical witness to the jubilation produced by the advance of the Persian army in the middle of the sixth century B.C. Cyrus' benevolent policy was a welcome relief from Babylonian tyranny, both to the Babylonians themselves, who in high anticipation opened the doors of their cities and their hearts to him, and to the many captives under his rule.
Those relieved captive peoples, conquered in succession by the Assyrians and then the ruthless Babylonians, included God's people, the Jews.

Cyrus introduced a truly enlightened rule. Anderson goes on to explain:
Apparently Cyrus understood the futility of trying to lash people of diverse backgrounds and national traditions into subservience...Cyrus seems to have understood the limitations of power, or perhaps he realized that the emperor who enjoys honor and loyalty from his people also enjoys an increase in power.
Later in Cyrus' dominion over God's people, he produced a political master stroke, appointing Sheshbazzar, an heir of the Davidic line of kings, to serve as overseer of God's people.

The points of this historical excursus are rather simple:
  • People of Biblical faith--Jews and Christians--need not give their allegiance or, in our context, vote, only for those who share our faith in the God of the Bible. Cyrus was a benevolent king whose armies and edicts were welcomed by the people of God. In fact, God's people actually saw Cyrus, who didn't share their faith, as an instrument in God's hands, acting to bring them relief:
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.” (2 Chronicles 36:22-23)
  • Both Judaism and Christianity have been able to live as citizens of nations and empires in which persons of other faiths have held civil authority.
History shows that there have been many civil leaders who have claimed to be Christian, but been tyrants. There have also been those who've claimed other faiths and been benevolent, enlightened, and effective leaders.

In our context, I think this means that the religion of a candidate for President is relevant only insofar as it acts as a true indicator of his or her values and worldview.

An openness to the possibility of voting for candidates of other faiths is, I think, the fifth lens through which Christians in the United States might think about the 2008 Presidential race.

Article 6 of the United States Constitution says that there can be no religious test for holding federal office. That's as it should be. I want to live in a pluralistic society in which all religions are allowed equal access to the market of ideas. (I'm convinced that whenever the Good News of Jesus Christ is shared and lived in a society in which others can share their faiths as well, that more often than not, people will choose to follow Christ.) I don't want us to have a religious test for elected public officials. I think that such tests would be both un-American and un-Christian. From a Biblical perspective, Christians can, in good conscience, vote for non-Christians for any public office.

But I also think that it's legitimate for Christians to learn about the world views of political candidates. That includes gaining an understanding of their religious lives. Such inquiries don't revolve around Christians seeking assurances that candidates don't really subscribe to the tenets of their faiths, but in a desire to understand how their religious beliefs intersect with their political beliefs and how they live their lives. Another reason to probe the religious beliefs of candidates is to discern their willingness to abide by Article 6.

More tomorrow, I hope.

[Above: The Cyrus Cylinder, an image purportedly of Cyrus, his tomb, and a map showing his empire. Click on any of them to see them in enlarged form.]

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 6:17-26

[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.]

Luke 6:17-26
17He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

General Comments:
(1) If the Epiphany season ran longer this year, our lesson would be the first of three taken from Luke's presentation of Jesus' Sermon on the Plain. As it is, we'll only encounter the opening portion of the sermon this Epiphany season, although some of it will appear later in the Church Year.

(2) Once again, I remind you of one of the most important principles for understanding a passage of Scripture: context helps explain content. In other words, where a passage falls within a particular book's narrative or argument, can tell a good deal about its meaning.

In Luke's narrative, the Sermon on the Plain happens immediately following Jesus' selection of the group of disciples called apostles. The word disciple, translating the Greek term mathetes, has the meaning of student or follower. In ancient Jewish culture, a rabbi would usually be an itinerant teacher and preacher. He would attract disciples. Some would follow him in his itinerant life. Of course, to be a follower also had the meaning of following the way laid out by the rabbi. Jesus calls all people to turn from their sin and have new life. He calls all people to be His disciples.

The word apostle literally means sent one. The apostles were entrusted with a particular ministry. They were to lead the new community that Jesus established, the Church. Their mission was to call people to faith in Christ, to eternal life in Him, and to the Kingdom of God to be lived out within the Church in this world.

After calling the apostles, an event begun with intense prayer on Jesus' part that took place on a mountaintop, the twelve follow Jesus down to the plain. While the crowd and other disciples are within earshot of Jesus, His teaching is most especially pitched to the apostles in order to prepare them for their ministry of church leadership.

(3) Luke frequently blends topography, history, and theology to make points about Jesus and His meaning for us. Harking back to Old Testament times when altars to God were built on high places, Jesus often goes to mountaintops for times of intense prayer and connection with the Father.

But as in the account of Jesus' Transfiguration and of events that follow it, narrated in Luke 9, Jesus always insists on going back to the plain to carry the Good News to others. Our encounters with God aren't for us only. Through them, God strengthens and inspires us to share the Kingdom of God with others. We must leave our mountaintops to love and serve the world.

(4) The plain is a place that allows everyone to see Jesus and the coming of His Kingdom. This equality of access to Christ is an ongoing theme in both Luke and in his second Biblical book, Acts.

You see it in Mary's song, called The Magnificat. You see it too in the road construction language taken from Isaiah to describe the ministry of John the Baptist. I hope to discuss this in more detail in the verse-by-verse comments in the next few days.

(5) Is this the same sermon as the one in Matthew, called The Sermon on the Mount. Traditionally, Bible commentators taught that these were two different sermons. Most modern scholars believe that they're the same sermon, presented in two different ways by Matthew and Luke.

There are sound arguments for both interpretations and I find no particular need to adopt either one. Both are now part of New Testament canon, deemed to be the Word of God, based on the prayer and experience of the Church over many centuries. Whatever the case may be, both sermons have important things to tell us. Their nuances of difference also tell us a great deal.

One big difference between them is that in Luke, Jesus says, "Blessed are you who are poor," while in Matthew, He says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Both the Luke and Matthew sermons tell us that the poor are blessed because in their humility, they rely on Christ. But Luke more specifically tells us that those who are financially poor are blessed, as are those who are wealthy but share with the poor. As is seen thoughout the books of Luke and Acts, Jesus has a special concern for the poor. In Acts, we see the Church become a community in which, once infected by the love and grace of Jesus Christ, wealthy Christians provide for poor Christians:
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. (Acts 4:34)
The sermon in Luke underscores Jesus' intention that the Church is to be a taste of the Kingdom of God living in the midst of the world now.

I also hope to explore this more fully in the verse-by-verse comments.

(6) This is a rich passage. It will be tough for me to do it justice. So, I would appreciate your prayers, asking God to guide and inspire me as I prepare my message on it.

Stay safe, warm, and dry as the snow falls!

Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith: Super Bowl Coaches, Amazing Guys

Colts win...

Lovie Smith on his faith...

After discussing the suicide of his son, James, Tony Dungy speaks from the heart...

A Class Act...

The NEW Religious Right?

Here. Comments?

Monday, February 05, 2007

How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 4

George Smathers, the dapper US Senator from Florida and friend and ally of President John Kennedy, died last month. One obituary remembered this of Smathers' first run for the Senate in 1950, when his primary opponent was the incumbent Claude Pepper:
The congressman badgered incumbent Sen. Claude Pepper on his support of civil rights and labeled him a communist sympathizer. But his most celebrated remarks -- innocuous declarations intended to appear scandalous to less educated audiences -- might have never been uttered.

"Do you know that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert?" Sen. Smathers was quoted as saying. "Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Sen. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy."
Sen. Smathers denied ever making those remarks. He offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove he did, but no one could.
If Smathers ever did say these things, it would represent one of the cleverest campaign strategems ever: A candidate using innocuous, if not widely known terms, to make innocent activities seem questionable.

That would almost be refreshing to hear in the already-whirring 2008 Presidential race. Instead, many of the candidates are ripping into each other, even through their use of dismissive, backhanded compliments. But disturbing as the rhetoric of candidates and campaigns is, their assaults on one another's characters isn't what concerns me most in the 2008 marathon.

It's likely that 2008 will see bloggers play a bigger part in the campaign than ever before. With unprecedented access to a huge audience, we members of the pajama brigade can pass along ideas and information with breathtaking speed. We also can give rumors, unfair characterizations, and disinformation credence they may not deserve. Today, ordinary voters who blog or know those who do, should, to a degree never known before, ask themselves the same question that responsible candidates and handlers should ask: Is what I'm about to say about the candidate who opposes my viewpoint accurate or fair?

This question is especially important for we Christians to ask, I think. The fourth way in which I believe we Christians need to look at the 2008 election is through the fairness window.

The Eighth Commandment says:
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
According to Martin Luther, writing in The Small Catechism, this command prohibits a lot more than telling lies about others. Luther says of the commandment's meaning:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.
There's no point in trying to extricate ourselves from the implications of this command by saying that people like Joe Biden, Barack Obama, John McCain, or Mitt Romney aren't our neighbors. From God's perspective, everybody else on this planet is our neighbor.

Luther seems to be saying that toward these neighbors, as well as those who live in the house next door or worship from the next pew, we Christians are to be dedicated spin doctors. But instead of putting unflattering spins--interpretations--on the words and perspectives of candidates we don't support, we're to "defend him [or her], speak well of him [or her], and explain his [or her] actions in the kindest way."

People who do this aren't gullible softies, but realists. They know that there are only two kinds of people in the world: unforgiven sinners and forgiven ones. Christians believe that we receive forgiveness through the grace of God offered to all with faith in Jesus Christ and that we will need to come to God through Jesus Christ in "daily repentance and renewal" every day of our lives. Realistically, we understand that only those without sin should dare to cast the first stones. (Meaning, of course, that none of us dare throw stones!)

We also know, as Paul says in Romans, that all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God. But few people are the monsters that political rhetoric, buttressed by very un-Christian self-righteousness, often portrays candidates for the presidency and other elective offices to be. (I'll never forget the conservative Christian who, in 1996, told listeners of a nationally syndicated Christian radio program, that if Bill Clinton were re-elected, it would be the last vote any American ever cast. It seems we've voted several times since then.)

It strikes me as sadly ironic when Christians lament the disintegration of civility in our society and attempt to impart truth-telling to their children, yet feel that they have God-given license to shoot from the hip, often through their computer keyboards, about candidates they oppose.

Very few candidates for political office are the monsters their detractors cast them as being in the heat of political battles. We Christians can't control the rhetoric of others. But we can ask God to help us keep the Eighth Commandment even when it comes to politics.

Campaigns tend to produce more heat than light. As people of the light, maybe we Christians can decrease the savagery and elevate the civility of our political debates.

More tomorrow, I hope.

[For more on the Eighth Commandment, see here.]

[THANKS TO: The Search for Purpose for linking to this series.]

[THANKS ALSO TO: John Schroeder of Article6Blog for linking to this series.]

[UPDATE: See here.]

We Are At War!

That's what John T. Brown reminds us of here. He goes on to say:
We face a daily battle, and it is not just with sin and temptation.

We have a real enemy whose desire for us is our annihilation. But, our enemy has already been conquered, and his demons stand rebuked.

So, let's keep our spiritual vitality knowing that we're not playing church, but fighting for the Kingdom, for the lost, and for our loved ones.
Read the whole thing, including the prayer.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

They Live 2000 Miles Apart...

...but the duo, kinAxis, make terrific music together. To listen to their songs, you'll have to sign up to ShoutLife. But it's free and a terrific alternative to MySpace.

The Drive to the National Championship Continues...

See here.

Go, Buckeyes!

From Epiphany to Purpose

[This message was shared during worship celebrations with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio on February 3 and 4, 2007.]

Luke 5:1-11
Today’s Bible lesson, the scholars tell us, can be divided into three sections. I’ve given them names:
  • the hunger,
  • the sign,
  • the call.
I want to talk about each one with you.

First: the hunger. We see it in the first three verses of the lesson. Read it out loud with me, would you?
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
At this phase of Jesus’ ministry, we learn, from a few verses at the end of Luke 4, that His focus was more on teaching than on giving miraculous signs. He was sharing God’s Word with people. That might not seem very exciting to us. Maybe that’s because our lives and conditions aren’t as desperate as those of the crowds who hungered for God’s Word from Jesus even more desperately than many of us are anticipating a certain football game that’s happening this weekend.

Sometimes, it takes a cataclysmic event for us to realize that we hunger for God.

The call came to a pastor friend of mine in the middle of the night. It was an old friend he hadn’t seen in years. The friend revealed between sobs that his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis wasn’t good. Was there something his pastor friend could say? He wasn’t looking for miracles. Just a word from God that could help him.

Once I got a call from a colleague. “Mark,” he said. “There is something really evil happening in this church. I don’t know what it is. But it’s ugly. People are gossiping about one another. They’re undermining all the good things that God has been doing here. I know that you pray. Would you please pray for us?” That pastor was hungering for the presence and power of God to work in his church.

The crowds that flocked around Jesus hungered for the word of hope, of peace, of strength for tough times that only the God we know in Jesus Christ can bring.

I’ve found that stress has, at three different junctures of my life, afflicted me in major ways. My body reacted so badly during one of these episodes twenty-two years ago, that I was taken to a hospital emergency room with a suspected heart attack. It came at a time when there were eleven people from the congregation I then served in various hospitals from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Ann Arbor, Michigan. My wife also just had our second child. But, believing that I was super-pastor, I agreed to visit a man from another parish who was in the Cardiac Care Unit of a hospital in Toledo.

While visiting that man, I became hot and weak. My face turned red. The nurses in the CCU told me they feared I was having a heart attack. I thought, "Then it's good I'm in the cardiac unit." But they threw me onto a gurney and took me down to the ER. There, they gave me an antihistamine, a medicine that always hits me like a tranquilizer dart. Then, they gave me a shot of adrenaline. Then, shaking all over, they told me, "Okay, Mr. Daniels, you can drive the forty miles back home." It was all caused by stress!

But each time stress has overtaken me, the cure has been the same: I call on God and to remember Jesus’ promise: “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”

Or I remember the fantastic words of the joy-filled twenty-third Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
God's Word brings us peace, the assurance that God is in our corner.

I’ve learned that when the hunger leads me to God, He always feeds me blessings. Sometimes that’s an insight that leads me to repent for a sin. But even then, the result is the same: the peace of God that, even in the fragmentation and the chaos of life, helps me feel whole. That’s what the crowds hungered for. That’s what we hunger for.

The next section of our lesson shows us a sign. Would you read the next few verses with me?
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Peter, a professional fisherman, knew that the fish were swimming so far down in the sea that he and the others couldn’t possibly snag any fish if they lowered their nets again. Yet they did lower them because Jesus said that they should.

When Peter saw that their boats nearly sank from the haul of fish, he fell at Jesus’ knees and gave Jesus worship. Peter became aware of his sins and of his unworthiness to stand in the presence of God. But Jesus didn’t leave Peter, even when he begged Jesus to go away. He won’t leave you either!

Sometimes it’s only when we venture into the deep, trying things for God that we may feel sure that we can’t do, making ourselves of service to others in Jesus’ Name, that we really see Christ.

I love being in the community and hearing reports about the good things that the people of Friendship do. It happened again on Friday. I was talking with the director of the West Clermont Unit of our Clermont County Boys and Girls Club. He told me how much he appreciated a member of our congregation who does a lot to help out. “Tim T.,” he told me, “is a fantastic person!” I agreed!

Against their better judgment, at Jesus’ command, Peter and the other disciples launched out into the deep, saw God do wonderful things through them, and in Jesus, found themselves in the presence of God Himself. God wants us to have the same experience every day!

We’ve talked about the hunger and the sign. That brings us to the final section of today’s lesson: the call. Read again with me, please:
For [Peter] and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”
In first century Judea, the sea was a dark, foreboding place, even for fishermen who earned their livelihoods from it. The sea conjured up images of the chaos that the Old Testament book of Genesis says existed before God created the heavens and the earth. There, a churning deadly sea--Genesis calls it “the deep”--was the stuff to which God gave order and peace and life. To God’s people, the sea was a deadly place full of evil and monsters they called leviathan. When Jesus told Peter--and us, “From now on you will be catching people,” He was really giving us our mission as Christians.

We’re to go into the deep places of life...
  • the places where people work and play,
  • where they laugh and mourn,
  • where they know success and failure,
  • where they struggle with problems and challenges...
and we're to fish them out of chaos, into the waiting arms of the Savior Who died and rose to give all who believe in Him new life that lasts forever. We’re to be the open arms of God, letting all know about Jesus Christ.

And Jesus wants our nets to be teeming! He wants this sanctuary to be filled each weekend with people who, just like us, are...
  • hungry for the Word of God;
  • anxious to see and experience Jesus’ presence; and
  • because of His goodness and grace, willing to push themselves into the deep to tell the whole world about Christ.
You “will be catching people,” Jesus tells His Church, including our church. In other words, "You will be my witnesses."

On April 6, 2000, Ricky and Tony Sexton were taken hostage in their own Wytheville, Virginia home. A fugitve couple on a crime spree roared into the Sexton’s driveway as Tony stood outside with her dog. Brandishing pistols at Tony, Dennis Lewis and Angela Tanner ordered her back into the house.

Once inside, the Sextons did something utterly unexpected: They demonstrated Christ's love to their captors. They listened to Dennis and Angela's problems, served them dinner, read to them from God's Word, and even prayed for them and cried with them.

During negotiations with the police, Ricky Sexton refused his own release when Lewis and Tanner suggested that they might end their standoff by committing suicide. But the whole thing came to an unusual end: Before surrendering to police, Angela Tanner left $135 and a note for the Sextons that read: “Thank you for your hospitality. We really appreciate it. I hope [Dennis] gets better. Wish all luck and love. Please accept this. It really is all we have to offer. Love, Angela and Dennis.”

Sometimes we wade into the deep chaos of our fallen world.

Sometimes it comes through our front doors, unbidden.

But no matter what our circumstances, our call to fish for people for Jesus Christ remains the same. Ricky and Tony Sexton knew that. So do we.

God wants our nets to be full. He wants our church to be full. That will happen...
  • when we feed others’ hunger with God’s Word;
  • when we allow ourselves to be signs of Jesus’ presence through our service and our love; and when we go fishing, asking others to join us as we follow Jesus.
Friendship is already well known in this community for being a serving church. I pray that we will be known too, as a fishing church, a witnessing church, that never tires of calling others to believe in Jesus, the one true hope for all people.

[The true story of Rick and Tony Sexton came from The Roanoke Times, April 8, 2000 edition, and is presented in Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion.]