Saturday, February 24, 2007

John Reuben's 'Word of Mouth'

I may write a review of John Reuben's new CD later. But for now, just two words: BUY IT!

Frank Luntz's Twenty Words of Advice for the GOP

Frank Luntz is one of the smartest Republicans in the country. He understands the American psyche and he understands what it takes to win elections. He angered the GOP congressional leadership when he told them in late 2005, that unless they changed their ways, they would lose their majority. He was shunned and ignored and the Republicans lost both houses to the Democrats.

Now, from his haunts in the political wilderness, Luntz has some advice for his party as it faces grim prospects in 2008:
...if I were still in the thick of it, my guidance would be just 20 words long: Be bold, return to basics, stop telling, start asking, focus on results, abolish "earmarks" and embrace a permanent balanced budget.
Read the whole thing.

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 4:1-13

[To see the first pass and what these passes are all about, see here. Of necessity, these comments will have to be, quick, down, and dirty.]

Verse-by-Verse Comments:
1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,
(1) Jesus is here returning from His Baptism at the Jordan River. (See here and here.)

(2) As much as Luke emphasizes the importance of prayer in Jesus' ministry, he gives as much attention to the presence of the Holy Spirit in it. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness.

(3) The wilderness, of course, was the place in which God's ancient people wandered for forty years after God freed them from slavery in Egypt and to the promised land. (A trip that should have taken eleven days.) This story is told in the book of Exodus.

2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.
(1) The words translated as tempted in this text are peirazo and ekpeirazo may, with equal warrant, be translated either as tempt or test. I'll give some consideration to this fact in my message, which I hope, will appear here tomorrow.

(2) The ancient Israelites (or Hebrews) were in the wilderness forty years and largely failed in being faithful to God. Only two of the generation who originally left Egypt survived the trip to the promised land. One of them was Joshua, Yeshua in the Hebrew, the same name given to that of the Savior of the world, Jesus (Yeshua). In the Old Testament story, God chose the man named Joshua to take over leadership from Moses on the latter's death. Having refused to rebel against God, the Old Testament Joshua led God's people into that promised land. Jesus leads all who turn from sin (repent) and entrust their lives to Him (believe in Him) into an eternal relationship with God.

(3) Tonight, during the Questions and Blessings portion of our Saturday GoDeep worship celebration, one person very sensibly asked if the devil knew that Jesus was God, why did he bother tempting Jesus. The Bible affirms that Jesus was true God and true man. He had to be human as well as God in order to become the human sacrifice for sin on the cross. Jesus' humanity represented His soft underbelly, if you will. His deity allowed Jesus to foresee with perfect clarity what would suffering He would undergo should He remain steadfast in His life mission of suffering and dying for us. His humanity wished to avoid this. The devil's temptations were designed to keep Jesus from fulfilling this mission. The devil wanted Jesus--and wants us--to take the easy path. So long as Jesus stayed away from His cross, the devil could continue to have some hope that his rebellion would hold fast and he could continue to be a sort of tinhorn deity. But Jesus ignored the devil's allurements, pressing on to Jerusalem and the cross.

3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
(1) The word translated as if renders a word from the original Greek text, ei, which can mean either if or since. I agree with those scholars that the devil likely didn't contest Jesus' sonship here. He's not likely saying, "If you are the Son of God..." as though to taunt Jesus. Such a rendering overlooks what the Bible often tells us, that the devil is subtle. His stock in trade is to play up to our egos, telling us what he thinks that we might like to hear as a way of winning us over.

Instead, I think that the devil tells Jesus, "Since you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become food." The temptation here, of course, is for Jesus to use His capacity to countermand the usual laws of nature for selfish reasons rather than to create signs that point others to an awareness of Who He is.

(2) In the message, to be posted tomorrow, I'll mention to what in the Exodus experience this temptation relates.

4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
(1) Jesus quotes words spoken by Moses in his farewell discourse to the people of Israel, in which he recalls lessons taught them during the wilderness wanderings.

5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
(1) This temptation also relates to an Exodus experience and I'll mention that in my message.

(2) Notice that the devil is asking Jesus to violate the First Commandment: "You shall have no gods before Me."

8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
(1) For the second time, Jesus responds to the devil's temptation by recalling God's Word. Paul says in the New Testament:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (Second Timothy 3:16-17)
9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
(1) The devil now uses Scripture to tempt Jesus. Don't be surprised by this. You can bet that the devil knows the Bible better than any of us do. But the one Jesus calls "the father of lies" always tells it with his own particular spin. The devil has perfected the craft of telling the truth in a lying way.

12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
(1) Jesus not only knows the Scriptures. He knows the God behind the Scriptures. He understands God's character and God's will. I will talk about this a bit in my message as well.

13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
(1) I believe that the "opportune time" came when Jesus was on the cross and the taunting soldiers and one of the criminals between whom He was crucified challenged Jesus to quit His mission of dying for us:
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:36-39)

Want a Laugh?

Then, by all means, go over to the web site of my brother, comedian Marty Daniels. There you'll find clips from his new CD and a video of him in action. (To listen to the audio clips, you'll have to join But it's free and once you do, you'll gain access to a whole lot of artists' clips, some of them really great.)

I think once you've gotten a taste of Marty's comedy, you'll want to book him for your next corporate or church event!

Friday, February 23, 2007

"There is a point where the simple answer must yield to the truth."

That's what my son, Phil Daniels, says in a fine essay on prayer. It isn't just because he's my kid or because he quotes Ole Hallesby--although those are two factors very much in Phil's favor--that I recommend that you go to his site and prayerfully consider what he has to say.

[By the way, the picture of Philip was snapped at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.]

Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#4: The Church Only Wants My Money)

Dear Friend:
Today I want to discuss a fourth reason people give for not being involved in a church. Some say: "The church only wants my money."

I need to tell you something. As a Lutheran, I'm part of a Christian movement which, secondarily anyway, began with disgust over money the Church was "guilting" people into giving, usually money they didn't have to give.

Martin Luther, a German monk, priest and professor, began our movement and what's called 'The Reformation' when he nailed ninety-five theses--or statements for theological debate--on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. The immediate motivator for Luther's action was his digust with a practice of the Roman Church of his day, that of selling pieces of paper known as indulgences. The church claimed that people who bought these documents got time out of a place called purgatory for themselves or their loved ones. (Luther also came to challenge the very idea of a place called purgatory.)

At the root of Luther's challenge of indulgences was the idea that a relationship with God or eternity with God could be bought or sold or earned. Luther insisted, and Lutherans insist today, that God's gifts of everlasting life, reconciliation with God, and forgiveness of sin are really gifts. They're freely granted to people willing to give up their dependence on sin and entrust their lives to Jesus Christ.

Having said this, you should nonetheless know that churches do want your money. They want my money, too. But, I hope they do so for the right reasons, two of which come to mind immediately.

The first is a practical one. Simply put, without money, churches find it harder to fulfill their missions.

But there's a second reason. One movement in the Church calls it, "the need of the giver to give." When we willingly make giving to God's work the first expenditure to come out of our paychecks, we drive a stake into the heart of our common tendency toward selfishness. (This is what the Bible calls crucifying the old self.) We tell God that we're grateful for Christ and that we're putting Him first in our lives.

For years at our congregation, we've made an announcement at the beginning of our worship celebrations, asking first-time visitors not to give any money when the offering baskets are passed around. "It's our privilege to have you with us today," we say. We want visitors to know that we care more about them as people than as owners of wallets.

But not every visitor likes it when we say this. One person who worshiped with us for the first time several years ago had already become an enthusiastic believer in giving the first ten per cent of her income to the work of the church. She eventually became a member of our congregation and told us that when, during her first visit, first-timers were urged not to make an offering, she thought, "There's no way you're going to keep me from giving!" That woman is what the Bible calls a "cheerful" or "hilarious" giver. She understands that the church needs money to do its work and that giving to God's work feels good. Giving has become a huge blessing in her life!

Honestly, giving doesn't come easily to me. And I hate it when churches become obsessed with money, treating people like sources of revenue rather than children of God. But people like that woman remind me of why the church wants our money. And why that's a good thing.


[UPDATE: Spencer Troxell, one of my favorite people, responds to the first three installments of this series here. PS: I've never met any Zoroastrians either.]

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Was the Judge in the Anna Nicole Smith Case 'Bizarre' for Choking Up While Reading His Ruling?

Ann Althouse thinks so. Some of her commenters agree. Others think that Judge Larry Seidlin was crying in a calculated play for media attention. (See clip of the judge's ruling, linked by Althouse here.)

I think that these comments are unfair. So I threw a cat among the pigeons to say so:
I haven't really followed this case, although I note that MSNBC, under the questionable leadership of Dan Abrams, and Fox News have covered the thing like it was the most important event in the world.

But, based on this clip and gleanings derived from surfing away from constant news channel coverage of the case, I can't feel at all critical of this judge.

Nor do I think he was being disingenuine, [as some of Althouse's commenters suggested].

It was obvious that he was glad to be done with the case. So I think it's absurd to think that he was making a play for face time on 'Larry King Live,' though LK will no doubt hound him for an exclusive interview.

The judge gave a hint as to why he was so emotional when he commented that the media frenzy, something with which Smith had dealt through much of her adult life, had almost laid him out, even though he'd endured it [for] only a week-and-a-half.

Smith, of course, craved media attention. But we have seen in recent days by way of the bizarre behavior of Britney Spears, just how unnatural, dehumanizing, and pressure-inducing being in the middle of a media circus can be, even for someone who seeks attention and celebrity.

One can only imagine how much harder it is to handle for one who hasn't courted the sort of attention given to the judge in this case.

The clip to which you linked, Ann, is all I saw of this judge. I wouldn't call him bizarre. He seemed to me both human and thorough.

I could be proven wrong about this guy. The cynics may be proven correct that this was all a show. Or others may be shown to be correct in characterizing his performance as bizarre, reflective of some sort of emotional instability.

But I feel that the criticisms leveled against him here are terribly unfair.
I'm not a fan of melodrama. But how would those of us of relatively normal psyches, with no need to be the center of attention, react if suddenly we were constantly encircled by TV cameras, paparazzi, and crowds of thrill-seekers, inundated by telephone calls and other contact? These are not the normal experiences of local judges. Seidlin has rendered a ruling. He did his job. So what if he choked up? The guy deserves a break!

And the media needs to find important stories to cover.

(For tangential comments dealing with the vapidity of contemporary culture as seen in the attention given Smith's death, see here.)

[THANKS TO: the editors of AOL's entertainment page for linking to this post.]

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 4:1-13

[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 4:1-13
1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

General Comments
1. Having gone through the Epiphany season, in which the Gospel lessons are composed of incidents from Jesus' earthly ministry that demonstrated Him to be not just a human being, but also the long-promised Messiah and God-in-the-flesh, we entered the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday just yesterday. For a discussion of the history and meaning of Lent, go here.

2. Just a reminder: The lessons appointed for the Sundays of the Lenten season are always referred to as the Sundays in Lent, rather than of Lent. It's a bit of a fine point, but the idea is that no matter what season of the year, Sundays are always celebrations of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, "little Easters."

3. If among the themes of Epiphany is the reminder that God Almighty has entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ, one of them for Lent is that this mighty God also voluntarily accepted the limitations and pains of our humanity. In Christ, God experiences want, hunger, thirst, rejection, suffering, and death. Just like us.

In doing so, God expresses His solidarity with His children, gives an example of what true, God-dependent humanity looks like, and most importantly, becomes the perfect sin-sacrifice for the entire human race.

The New Testament book of Hebrews says of Jesus:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
Jesus' pain and His voluntary subjection to the death sentence we deserve--as well as an explanation of why Jesus suffered and died--are described eloquently by Paul in Second Corinthians:
For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (Second Corinthians 5:21-22)
4. Lent is a call to respond to the undeserved grace and favor of God by allowing God to crucify our self-will and sin so that we can live in utter dependence on Christ, the only Savior Who can give us life with God that lasts forever.

5. The appointed Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent is always one of the three accounts of Jesus being tempted/tested in the wilderness. The accounts are found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Mark, whose book I've often described as that of a journalist, written in a breathless, Wolf Blitzer-style, has the shortest account of Jesus in the wilderness. He tells the story in just two verses. He also seems to say that Jesus was tempted during His forty days in the wilderness. Matthew and Luke both tell of Jesus being tempted after He had fasted in the wilderness for forty days.

Matthew and Luke also reverse the order of the second and third temptations. This may reflect their varied theological emphases, something I may go into in the verse-by-verse comments.

It's been and will continue to be a busy week. So, I have to cut this short and hope to present the verse-by-verse comments tomorrow.

Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#3: Is the Church Filled with Hypocrites?)

Dear Friend:
In my first letters, I've addressed two big reasons that people give for not being part of a church: that they don't need the church to be Christian and that worship is boring.

Here, I want to talk about a third reason: "The church is full of hypocrites."

Our word hypocrite is a transliteration of a Greek word found in the New Testament, hupokrites. It was a term originally used of actors, people who have one identity but act another way on stage. It came to be used of any person who "acted" in ways different from the beliefs they claimed to hold.

Honestly, the church is full of hypocrites. I'm one of them. I say one thing and often, live another; think one thing and do another.

In my better moments, I do love God and I do love my neighbor, as Jesus commands. In such moments, I'm a standup guy with pure thoughts, pure motives, pure actions.

But during the other twenty-three-hours-and fifty-five-minutes of my days, I'm not so pure. I’m a lot like Saint Paul, who wrote in the New Testament portion of the Bible: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

A war constantly rages inside any person who genuinely tries to live out their faith in Jesus Christ. It's a conflict between the new part of us that wants to follow Christ and the old part that wants to get our own ways. From moment to moment, we Christians need God's help in order to choose which side will win this internal war.

And this is where the church comes in. A man told me once, "The church would be an empty place if God didn't let the sinners in." Every person who worships in every church is a sinner, most of whom want to live more like Christians.

The church is God's hospital for hypocrites, the best place for us to come to confess our sins, receive God's forgiveness, hear God's Word for our lives, and draw strength for the battle to become less hypocritical and more authentic as followers of Christ.

The church is God's support group for recovering hypocrites. Like those recovering from other addictions, church people sometimes find the allure of sin overpowering. At the party, the husband becomes unkind in his remarks about his wife. The teen fibs about why he couldn't make his curfew. The woman gets so carried away with her frustrations at work that she begins to gossip about a co-worker. The preacher uses God's name for something other than prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.

The church is where hypocrites like these--hypocrites like me--need to be.

If you ever say one thing and do another, the church may be the best place for you too.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Like Saddam's Statue Being Brought Down in Baghdad

The surprising thing is that it took a whole five-hours and three minutes!

[Thanks to Pastor Jeff for alerting me to this video.]

Looking Good vs. Being a Christian

[This message was shared during Ash Wednesday worship at Friendship Lutheran Church. Amelia, Ohio, on February 21, 2007.]

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
True story: Years ago, a prominent B-List movie star was guest hosting a TV talk show. He introduced his first guest for the evening, an actor, and he asked, “How are you doing?” “Not so well,” the guest said. “You see, I’ve been very sick. It’s been a tough road.”

The B-List star’s response was a classic...of sorts. “Yes,” he said. “But you look marvelous and that’s the main thing.”

For many of us today, looking good is the main thing. Many women, in a desire to “look good,” spend thousands of dollars on cosmetics and facelifts. (I’m always baffled when I pass through the cosmetics section of Macy’s. I tell my wife that they ought to call it ‘The Big Girls’ Face Painting Department.’)

Many men, wanting to appear successful, will overextend themselves financially just to have the biggest houses, the newest cars, and luxury box seats at the football game.

Many teens feel that they simply must have the latest stuff from Hollister and AmISnobbyandRich...I mean, Abercrombie & Fitch, or they’ll lose face among their peers.

Does any of this strike you as shallow, vapid, and brainless as it does me?

We seem to have elevated shallowness to a place of high value in our society. Maybe the clearest indicator of this is that right now, the media and the public seem to be giving more attention to the death of Anna Nicole Smith than they did to the death of Gerald Ford this past December. I recognize that there are tragic dimensions to Smith’s death: She died at a young age and she left a baby of unknown paternity behind. On top of that, there’s a lot of money in her estate. But, at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I think that the life and death of a man who guided our country through one of the worst Constitutional crises in our history--Gerald Ford--is worth a bit more attention than a woman whose claim to fame was using her looks--and other attributes--to get an eighty-something billionaire to marry her.

Lest we get too far up on our high horses, though, Jesus reminds us tonight that we Christians can be shallow, too. We can become obsessed with “looking good” as Christians, appearing holy, or devoted, or repentant, or faithful. We can be so hung up on looking like Christians that we fail to actually be Christians.

In our Bible lesson, Jesus addresses the overarching issue of Christian piety. One dictionary defines piety as, “reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations.” Piety is good. Genuine piety happens when imperfect human beings, like you and me, strive to follow Jesus Christ in our daily lives. But Jesus warns us: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

The rewards which every believer in Jesus Christ wants, the gifts that we can not earn, but only receive when we renounce our sin and trust in Jesus, are having God in our lives today and living with God for eternity.

Jesus tells us that we risk losing these rewards when, instead of living our lives to express gratitude and love for an audience of one--God Himself, we decide to make looking good in the eyes of others our greatest goal. Or at least one of our goals.

There may be more of this happening among we Christians than we realize, this play-acting as Christians, rather than being Christians. Last week, I attended the quarterly gathering of Hope Cincinnati. This brings together church leaders of all denominations for a time of common learning, conversation, and prayer for the spiritual well-being of our metropolitan area. At the end of each of these gatherings, we divide into groups of four and five to pray together. Just before my group did that this past week, one member of my small group talked about his ministry with men. He does retreats on sexual purity and pornography addiction all across the country. He said that at these gatherings of Christian men, he always conducts an anonymous paper survey. Over the years, he’s learned that anywhere between 20 to 50% of all these men describe themselves as having a problem with pornography that impacts their marriages or other relationships.

Whether those percentages hold up for all Christian men isn’t important. What is important is that it’s possible for Christians to experience a disconnect between the faith we confess and the lives we lead.

We may look good and have the accolades of our fellow Christians, even as we privately wallow in sins from which we can’t seem to extricate ourselves, sins for which we can’t even muster the strength to repent.

Lent is a time of spiritual renewal. It’s a season of the Church Year invented not by God, but by we Christians. Nonetheless, I think that Lent can be helpful to us. It’s a time when we remind one another to lay aside those sins and habits that keep us from having a joyful, fulfilling relationship with God and to instead live our lives for Jesus Christ alone.

That’s why at Lent, on Ash Wednesday, we always begin with this Bible lesson, words of Jesus taken from His Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. In each issue Jesus addresses in this lesson, He’s giving the same message: If your focus is on looking like a good person to others, you lose your relationship with God; you lose eternal life.

Instead, we’re to be transparent before God, admitting our sins and enlisting His power to help us overcome them.

Jesus says, “When you give alms--that is, charity to the poor, don’t call attention to yourself. Give without taking credit for it. When you pray, mostly do it in private; and when you pray in public, talk to God, not other people. Whenever you fast--giving up food or drink--don’t go around with a hangdog face so that everybody can see what a pious Christian you are; instead, clean yourself up and let the joy of God radiate from you. And don’t be stingy with your money. The stingy who stack up lots of cash only make themselves susceptible to thievery. Instead, be generous. Invest in people. Invest in what Christ calls all Christians to do, the work of God in the world: loving God and loving neighbor.”

Every year, I hear from people about the things they’re giving up for Lent, things like coffee, candy, cake, cigarettes, movies, text messaging, one night a week of no TV. Those things are fine, of course. But the thought often crosses my mind that if these things are worth giving up or cutting down on for the forty days of Lent, maybe they’re also worth giving up or cutting down on all through the year. Unless our Lenten disciplines--the stuff we give up or the habits we add on--help us to glorify God and to grow closer to Christ, they risk being meaningless.

Recently, a family in our congregation decided to help fix food for the people at a homeless shelter. And a man I know, who has a coworker going through a tough time, has made it his habit to anonymously send the coworker ten and twenty dollars every week or so. None of these people were broadcasting that information to me. I just happened to learn of their Christian acts in the course of talking with them about other things. But it seems to me that it’s these habits of discipleship that are the kinds of things that we should be doing in Lent and all through the year.

They’re done not to impress others. But they become ways for us to tell God...
  • Thank You for Jesus and His cross.
  • Thank You for loving me, as we sang a short time ago, just as I am.
  • Thank You for saving me from sin and death and eternal separation from You.
During this Lenten season, I invite you to militate against our common sinful impulse to look good to other people and to instead turn your focus onto Jesus Christ and His purpose for your life.

Embrace a new spiritual discipline, one that you’ll do not just during Lent, but all your life. It’s the discipline that the risen Jesus described to His first followers, on a Judean hillside, just before He ascended into heaven. It too, is described in Matthew’s Gospel. (I wish that I could have been there.) Here’s what Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...”

Jesus was telling His disciples, including us: Be intent not on looking like a Christian, but on being Christian enough...
  • to share Christ with others,
  • invite them to know the Savior, and
  • ask them to worship with you.
A person who was on that hillside with Jesus, the apostle Peter, says that when we take it on ourselves to invite others to follow Jesus, Who saves sinners like us, we are fulfilling our highest purpose. In the first of two Biblical books Peter wrote, he says to us: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Calling people out of the darkness of life without Jesus Christ is, I think, a worthy spiritual discipline for all of us to embrace this Lenten season. In fact, I think that it’s the perfect Lenten discipline. That’s because when we’re witnesses for Jesus, we take the focus off of ourselves and our selfish obsessions. Instead, our focus is simply to introduce our friends to our very best Friend, Jesus, our God and Savior.

People who live as witnesses for Jesus Christ may not “look good” in the eyes of the world. But in the eyes of God, being a witness for Christ is the very best way for us to tell God we love Him and the best way for us to love our neighbor!

[THANKS TO: Bruce Armstrong of Ordinary Everyday Christian for linking to this post! Bruce knows just what he's talking about when he describes this as a "Fernando Lamas sermon."]

'So, We Look Like Dorks'

Today is Ash Wednesday and the title above is the tile of my message for this day last year. Go here to read it.


Listen to Caitlyn J. Turner! She is incredible.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#2: Worship is Boring)

Dear Friend:
In this second letter, I want to deal with an entirely different objection people raise to being part of a church. "It's boring," they say.

The comment usually relates to worship and there are variations on this theme heard from non-churchgoers, whatever the "flavor" of church they've experienced. People will say:
  • "The praise songs are repetitive and brain dead."
  • "The sermon goes on forever."
  • "They use words I've never heard before."
  • "I don't get those old hymns. The music drags and the lyrics make no sense to me."
  • "What's with the organ?" (Or the guitar, the drums, the keyboard, the kazoos?)
There's a lot of truth to the idea that worship is boring, even in churches with excellent preachers and great musicians. It sometimes seems that we churches and preachers have a goal to so bore people that they won't want to have anything to do with God.

But more than the imperfect efforts of pastors and congregations lay behind this common complaint. It also has to do with our expectations of any public "presentation."

Today, we have constant access to slickly produced movies, music, dramas, comedies, video games, and reality shows. We can watch them on our TVs, at movie theaters, and on our computers and iPods. Even compared with the average, perfectly-coiffed local anchorperson talking about a fifty-car freeway pile-up, the stuff that goes on in worship can seem lame.

Of course, the Good News of a God Who wants to set us free from our sins, hurts, and addictions so that we can have more of life today and an eternity with God, is pretty exciting stuff. But socialized to believe that only violent theft in video games, "hook-ups" with multiple partners, and smash mouth tackling in the NFL are really exciting, it's often hard for us to see the excitement of a life with God.

Most churches and pastors, I think, will try to be interesting. And we know that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, knew the value of entertaining people to educate them about life with God: His stories, called parables, both entertain and call people to faith even today.

But there's something important for us to understand: The purpose of weekly worship isn't to entertain us.

Worship is about taking our gazes off of of our own lives.
  • It's about turning our attention to God.
  • It's about praising God for sending His Son to die on the cross and rise from the dead for us.
  • It's about God giving us our marching orders for the week to come.
  • It's about re-orienting ourselves to the call to turn from sin and to believe in Jesus Christ.
  • It's about being empowered to once more dedicate ourselves to the lifestyle of truly "human" beings: love of God, love of neighbor.
  • It's about drawing strength and inspiration from other worshipers.
Worship, in short, is surrender to God. I used to hate the idea of surrendering control of my life to God. I still rebel against it sometimes.

But weekly worship reminds us of a fundamental fact of life: God is God and I'm not.

That's not always welcome news, especially for many of us in America, accustomed to having just what we want when we want it. But if it isn't welcome news, it is good news. We don't have to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders! We can give our lives to God and He'll keep pumping a new and better life with Him into us!

If even a boring worship service helps us to surrender to God, it will have done its job.


[THANKS TO: Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice for linking to this post. You can find the other installments in this series by clicking on any of the labels below.]

[THANKS ALSO TO: Bruce Armstrong of Ordinary Everyday Christian for linking to the first two posts in this series.]

'The Cincinnati Enquirer' Talks About Blogging Pastors

...including yours truly.

Ash Wednesday and Lent

Tomorrow, Christians all over the world will be celebrating Ash Wednesday. It begins a forty-day season of spiritual renewal and preparation that precedes Easter Sunday. The season is called Lent.

Actually, there are more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. But the Sundays that fall during Lent are never counted as part of that somber season. For Christians, Sundays are always "little Easters," days when the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is celebrated.

Lent emphasizes other aspects of Christian belief, which is why many churches, including the congregation I serve as pastor, hold special Lenten services on Wednesday nights during this period.

The word Lent is from Middle English and means spring, the season of the year with which Lent somewhat corresponds.

According to Philip H. Pfatteicher and Carlos R. Messerli, writing in a book called Manual on the Liturgy, "Lent [as a season of the Church Year] derives from the [period of] preparation of [adult] candidates for Baptism [in the Church's early history]. By the middle of the fourth century at Jerusalem, candidates for Baptism fasted for 40 days, and during this period...[instructional] lectures...were delivered to them."

Of course, forty is an important number in the Bible. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. The Old Testament book of Exodus says that God's people wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The rains that produced the great flood recorded in the book of Genesis lasted forty days and forty nights. So, it was natural that Lent would become a forty-day period.

Pfatteicher and Messerli say that after Christian faith was legalized in the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., "the period of preparation for Baptism became a general period of preparation of all Christians for Easter." That continues to this day.

Ash Wednesday itself, say Pfatteicher and Messerli, features a mood of "penitence and reflection on the quality of our faith and life." The goal is to call believers to remember their mortality, dependence on God, and need to seek God's help in disciplining themselves to surrender every part of their lives to Jesus Christ.

At our congregation tomorrow evening, we'll begin our time of worship together with the singing of Just As I am, Without One Plea, followed by corporate confession, the reading of a Bible lesson, and then, the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the repentant. Each person will receive this sign with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Ashes, in a Jewish and Christian context, suggest three things:
  • judgment and God’s condemnation of sin;
  • our total dependence upon God for life; and
  • repentance, joyful turning back to God.
As the cross of Christ is marked on our foreheads with ashes from the burned palm fronds used last Palm Sunday, we’re reminded of the words of the burial service: “Earth to earth and dust to dust.” (These are based on God's words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19.) Ashes remind us of our mortality and of our need for God.

Ashes are also a symbol of cleansing and renewal. This makes sense when you think about it. When I was a boy and would lodge splinters into my hands, I'd go to my dad. Dad inspected things and soon, got a needle from my mom's sewing kit, and pulled out his lighter. He turned the tip of the needle over and over again in the flame of the lighter for maybe thirty seconds and after that, wave the needle through the air to cool it off. Then, he used it to pick the splinter out of my hand. Of course, the reason that Dad ran the needle through the flame was to kill off any bacteria that might cause infection.

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for fire is pur, from which we get such English words as purge, pure, and purify, among others. When we open ourselves to letting Jesus Christ be in charge of our lives, He begins to purge us of all the old, destructive habits that previously blocked God's presence from our lives and He creates a place of purity where He can live with us and transform our lives. The old life is burnt and a new life begins.

Just as baptismal water suggests death and brand new life with do the ashes of Ash Wednesday.

If you happen to be in the Cincinnati area tomorrow, I invite you to be with us for Ash Wednesday worship, starting at 7:00PM. For directions, go to our church web site.

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

[THANKS ALSO TO: Pat Richardson of The Christian Critical Thinker for linking to this post.]

[THANKS TO: Matt Brown of Good Brownie for linking to this post. I agree with the commenter who there says that Lent isn't really about abstinence, but about spiritual discipline, asking God to help us clear away the debris in our lives that keep us from having a close relationship with Him. Matt is one of my favorite bloggers!]

Monday, February 19, 2007

Last Week's Ice and Snow Storm

Two weeks ago, on February 6, we got hit with a fairly heavy snowstorm here in the Cincinnati area. One week later, freezing rain along with more snow arrived.

The second storm left behind it scenes of terrible beauty. Beauty, because, as my wife put it, the treetops looked as though they had been dipped in silver. But terrible in that the burdened trees and electric lines gave way in many area communities. Branches and whole trees fell onto power lines, meaning that about 100,000 homes in our area were without electricity, some for as little as an hour-and-a-half and others for several days. (Places north of us, like Columbus, were hit with more snow than ice.)

The ice also took the life of a little girl in our community. While playing outside on a snow day, a large branch fell and killed her.

But if you were able to safely observe the scenes left behind by the recent storms, there were some incredible sights. These are some of the pictures taken by my son, Philip, here in our neighborhood just last week.

[By the way, another Cincinnati area pastor has some interesting reflections inspired by our ice storm here.]

Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#1: Can You Be Christian without the Church?)

[This series of posts, which are to be columns I submit to the Community Press newspapers, for whom I've been writing since 1996, are heartfelt letters to non-churchgoing people. My hope is that whether people are active participants in the lives of local congregations, only occasionally worshipers, Christian skeptics, or atheists, all will find them useful.]

Dear Friend:
Since you and I may never meet personally, I've decided to send a few letters to you about why so many people choose to be part of the church. And why you might want to make the same choice.

If we did actually talk together, our conversation wouldn't be as one-sided as these letters are. I could ask you questions and listen to your story. But at least for now, that option isn't open to us.

Nonetheless, I do think I have some understanding of why you might not be part of a church. For more than a decade of my life, I considered myself to be an atheist. I had little use for churches or Christians.

Most non-churchgoing people aren't atheists, of course. They just don't see the need for being part of a church. This leads me to the most common reason I hear non-churchgoing friends give for not participating in a church. They say, “I can be as good a Christian without the Church as I can be with it.”

If you you said this to me, there are two main things I might say in response.

The first thing is that being Christian isn’t about being good.

Don't misunderstand me. God does care about whether we treat others well and that we not violate His will. But good morals aren't the object of the Christian life. Better morality is a byproduct of a strong relationship with God. (Although no Christian will ever be morally faultless this side of the grave. I'm speaking from personal experience here. More on that in a future letter.)

Being a Christian is really about having a relationship with the God we meet in Jesus Christ. That relationship begins when we acknowledge our moral deficiencies, asking God to help us to turn away from sin and to surrender our whole lives to Christ. Turning away from sin is what the Bible calls repentance. Surrendering to Christ is what it calls faith. When we repent and believe in Christ, God sends His Holy Spirit to initiate a makeover of our souls. He also intends for us to be part of a church where we can be supported in living our faith and support others in living theirs.

That leads to the second thing I might say if you told me that you can be as good a Christian without the church as you can be with it.

I would tell you that it may be theoretically possible to maintain a vital relationship with God outside of the fellowship of the church. But only theoretically.

Two-thousand years of church history suggest that no one is likely to remain a faithful Christian without a connection to the living organism of the church, which the Bible calls "the body of Christ."

"What about Bono, lead singer of the rock band, U2?" you might ask. "Isn't he a Christian who doesn't belong to a church?"

Bono, who is one of my heroes, is often described as a nonchurchgoing Christian. And it's true that he doesn't belong to a congregation. But Bono is networked with the church. Much of his work on debt relief and AIDS-eradication in Africa is done with the cooperation of the church. Bono is more connected to the church than even he might realize.

Asserting that we can be Christian without the church is sort of like saying, "I don't need to regularly eat food or drink water to live." Those who forego food and water will die. Without the fellowship of the Church, our faith dies.

Tell me what you think.


Some Presidents' Day Reading

Here is a sampling of some of the posts on Presidents and the presidency that have appeared here at Better Living. Happy Reading!

A New Approach to Naming Our Greatest Presidents
The Other Adams
Note for 2008: Dump or Change Presidential Debates
Veterans' Day Reading
Carter's 'Living Faith'
His Excellency, Samuel Betances, and the Promise of America
Bush Takes Oath: Here Are Consequences, Unintended and Otherwise
My Picks for the Four Best US Presidents
The Rest of My Top Ten
The Book I Always Meant to Write
TR: Leadership and the Call to Sacrifice
Garry Wills' Account of James Madison's Presidency
Our Visit to the New Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois
My Four Favorite Lincoln Books
I Like the US Way of Electing Presidents Better
The 'Curse' of Second Presidential Terms
Reflections on JFK's Assassination
Abraham Lincoln Really Was Great
'1776' Underscores Washington's Greatness
Image Making and the Crapshoot of American Democracy
The Dangers of Sanctimony
Schlesinger, Lincoln, and Preventive War
When Presidents Theologize
Would JFK Have Won in 1964?
Gerald Ford: Our Insurance Policy
Clinton and 'Experience'
To Be Normal May Mean To Be Great
Presidential Campaigns Are Too Long
The Grayson Letters and Presidential Health
Interpreting Lincoln's Second Inaugural 'Sermon' (seven parts)

[THANKS TO the generous Andrew Jackson at for linking to this post.]

Sunday, February 18, 2007


After a frustrating road win against Penn State, in which The Ohio State University Men's Basketball team blew a 24-point lead before prevailing in a 2-point squeaker, OSU's convincing road win over Minnesota was a relief.

The Buckeyes are a freshman-dominated team with enormous talent. Getting big leads can sometimes be a bad thing for young teams: They're prone to letting up on their intensity under such circumstances. That's clearly what happened at Penn State with the Buckeyes. But today's win may indicate that Coach Thad Matta has convinced his team that even talented teams must play the entire forty minutes of every game.

In a way, the Buckeyes' close call against Penn State may have happened at just the right time of the season, shortly before their game with Wisconsin in Columbus and just prior to the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. The Buckeyes now have a better understanding of the fact that talent without effort, especially against other good teams, doesn't always equal victories.

That's the good news. But the potential bad news for Ohio State fans is that defending national champions Florida may have learned the same lesson in their loss the other day. Could it be OSU v. Florida in the men's basketball national championship game this year? If so, it'll be like deja vu all over again...but I hope with a different result.

Go, Buckeyes!

Picture This

[This message was shared during the weekend worship celebrations of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, on February 17 and 18, 2007. If you live in or are visiting the Cincinnati area, you're invited to worship with us on Saturdays at 5:30PM or Sundays at 10:00AM.]

Luke 9:28-36
Many of you may know about the Magic Eye books. They contain page after page of illustrations, often just mazes of colorful shapes or dots, sometimes single images. But there's more to these simple pictures than what a surface glance shows. My kids taught me that if you stared at the pages just right, you could see new images that somehow formed in the midst of the page.

I was looking at some Magic Eye images on the Internet the other day. Take a look at this one. It’s a picture of roses. But if you look closer, more intently, another image emerges among the flowers.

Truth be told, there’s a pretty important lesson to be learned from these Magic Eye images: It’s possible that there may be more than meets the eye to anything or anyone we see, including Jesus Christ.

As the events recounted in today’s Bible lesson begin, the apostles think they have a clear picture of Who Jesus is. Just a few verses earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Peter has said that Jesus is “The Messiah of God.” But soon, we’ll see that like many people who have no knowledge of Jesus Christ or many Christians who mumble creeds and prayers without faith or commitment, the apostles then were sleepwalking through life. They were inattentive to Who Jesus really was and the life to which He really calls all people.

Jesus takes Peter, John, and James up on a mountain. As Jesus prays and the apostles fight off sleep, Jesus’ appearance is changed. (This is what that word transfiguration means.) An aura of brilliant light surrounds Him, the very light of heaven. Then, two great Old Testament figures, Moses, the bringer of God’s Law, and Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets, both of whom had lived many centuries earlier, show up beside Jesus. They talk about Jesus’ impending crucifixion.

Shaking off his sleep, amazed by what he sees, Peter suggests that monuments to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah be built on the mountaintop. Just as he says this, a cloud, like the cloud of fire that led the ancient people of Israel through the Promised Land, surrounds them. The apostles are terrified. They squint in the blinding light and all they see is Jesus. Next comes a voice that says something like this: “This is My Son. Listen to Him. Listen only to Him!”

Peter, James, and John now get a different picture of Jesus. It will take His death and resurrection for them to see it clearly.

But the picture should be clear to us.

Jesus is more than a miracle worker.

More than a Teacher.

More than a King.

He isn’t Mister Rogers in a bathrobe or just a carpenter who knew how to preach.

Jesus was and is God and the Savior of the universe...
the only One Who can give us life that lasts forever,
the only One Who can help us make sense of this life,
the only One Who can give us hope that never fails!
This is the definitive picture of Jesus--the God wrapped in the man, the Savior seen in the signs, the Messiah behind the miracles--to which all the Bible lessons of this Epiphany season have been moving us.

But if our lives on this planet and the life of Friendship are ever going to be all that God intends for them to be, our picture of Jesus must be more than just Biblically accurate. After all, even the devil of hell has a Biblically accurate picture of Jesus.

This picture of Jesus as God and Savior must be more than an image we hold in our minds or hang on our walls or that we memorialize in our sanctuaries.

We must make Jesus...
our obsession,
our food,
our breath,
our lives.
We must commit ourselves to letting this picture of Jesus so fill us that whenever others talk to us, hear us, or spend time with us, they will see Jesus’ pictured in us. According to the Bible, God has destined all who follow Christ, “to be conformed to the image of his Son...”

In the Lenten season which starts this coming week with our Ash Wednesday worship at 7:00PM, I challenge you...
  • to attend our Wednesday Soup and Salad gatherings,
  • to read the ‘Making Room for Jesus’ daily devotions with your household or friends as well as follow its daily action steps, and
  • to be in worship every Saturday or Sunday.
More than that, I challenge you to ask God to work on you so that as people observe you living your lives, in spite of your human imperfections, they’ll see the very image of Jesus in you.

But I challenge you in one more important way. Before I tell you what it is, I need to explain something.

It would have been easy for Jesus, Peter, James, and John to have stayed on that mountain. For Jesus, it would have been especially inviting, I imagine. He knew what suffering and rejection awaited Him. He knew that He would die on the executioner's cross.

Staying on the mountain would have appealed to the three apostles with Jesus, too. They could have spent the rest of their lives reminiscing about that spectacular moment when Jesus was revealed as Savior and King. That, in fact, is very like what most churches do: They reminisce about the glory days, whether the glory days refer to when Jesus walked the earth or former times in their congregations.

Most churches are nothing more than groups of nice people who treat each other nicely and hear old stories and sing old songs, all the while secretly wondering...
  • why they never sense God speaking to them,
  • why their sanctuaries aren’t bursting at the seams with people wanting to follow Jesus,
  • why they have no joy in the Lord,
  • why Christ doesn’t show up in their lives.
The answer to those riddles can be seen in where Jesus led the three apostles after the events recounted in today’s Bible lesson.

He took them down from the mountain, down where their neighbors lived, down where people struggled with problems, down where people looked for hope.

Luke's other book in the New Testament, Acts, tells us that as the apostles and the other followers of Jesus
dared to put Jesus Christ first in their everyday lives,
dared to love others as they loved themselves,
dared to serve in Jesus’ Name, and
dared to invite others to follow Jesus, Christ showed up in their lives even after He’d died, risen, and gone to heaven.
God spoke to their hearts and minds.

The fellowship of believers grew steadily day by day.

And they had real joy!

Your Church Council has decided that, just as last year was the time when the life of servanthood was wired into the our congregation’s culture, 2007 is when we will make sharing Christ and growing as a church central to the life of Friendship.

Speaking of pictures, picture this: Our sanctuary filled with people every Saturday and Sunday.

Or this: A congregation not only serving in Jesus’ Name, but telling others about the new life to be had in Christ.

Picture every member of Friendship inviting a new person to worship with us every month.

Picture yourself bringing one more spiritually-disconnected friend into Jesus’ Kingdom in 2007.

Picture us worshiping together not too long from now, every chair filled and people standing and sitting on the perimeter, each one in awe of the Savior Who loved them enough to go to a cross and to rise so that they could have life with God forever!

Soon, the Church Council will be voting on a plan for Congregational Growth. They’ll be setting a goal for how many new members we will receive in Friendship by the end of this year.

More than that, they will be offering you the tools by which you can individually contribute to this growth. You’ll get those tools through something called Witnesses for Christ.

This plan for growth will also entail your being actively engaged in the Christian life--starting with regular worship, which we call our weekly pep rally.

The members of your church council will also be sharing with us their personal evangelism goals; that is, they’ll share their personal goals for how many people they will bring into relationship with Christ and into the life of Friendship.

We’ll urge each of you to have your own personal goals.

We’ll have a thermometer in the church lobby to track our progress, just as we did last year when, with prayer and reliance on Christ, we set and then smashed an ambitious goal for outside-of-the-congregation service hours in the community.

Let me summarize those challenges again:
  • 1. Read and act on the ‘Making Room for Jesus’ devotions this Lenten season.
  • 2. Participate in each of our ‘Soup and Salad’ gatherings which start on Wednesday, February 28.
  • 3. Be in worship on Saturdays or Sundays.
  • 4. Get involved with the Witnesses for Christ training when it’s offered.
  • 5. Embrace personal goals of inviting at least one spiritually disconnected person to worship with us every month.
  • 6. Make it your goal to bring one spiritually-disconnected person into the fellowship of the Church by the end of this year.
  • 7. And finally, pray that Friendship will grow in faith and numbers in 2007.
Until Friendship becomes an active witnessing church, each of its members committed to taking people with them to heaven by sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with them, our lives as Christians will be incomplete.

Every Christian is called to be a witness for Christ. In fact, we’re commanded to be witnesses for Christ. And because God always gives us the capacity to do what He commands us to do, every Christian is also given the ability by God to be witnesses for Christ in their own unique ways.

Let Christ change your picture not only of Him, but of yourself. Allow Him to show you that you can use your own unique talents, gifts, and personalities to bring others into Christ’s Kingdom. You can tell others about Christ. You can invite them to worship with us.

I know that every member of our congregation wants Friendship to grow. We all want others to experience life with Jesus Christ. Through the Witnesses for Christ sessions we'll start to offer after Easter, you will be given the tools by which you'll be able to share your faith without being pushy or anyone other than who you are.

Jesus Christ, the glorious Savior, King, and God, revealed on the mountain of Transfiguration is still alive and still in business. So, above all, I challenge you (and me), not just in the Lenten season about to start, but every day of your life, to let people see Jesus living in you so that they too will turn from sin and have life with God forever.