Saturday, March 17, 2007

Okay, I've Defended John Edwards...

against those who said that his wealth necessarily meant that his expressed concerns for the poor are phony and, implicitly, in my reaction to Ann Coulter's recent eruption of bad taste. But this is funny.

What Day Is It?

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Here's an account of Patrick's life from Catholic Online.

Patrick is one of my heroes in the faith. For a good understanding as to why, read about him in the fantastic, How the Irish Saved Civilization. I tease my Roman Catholic friends that Patrick was so on-target in his theology that were he alive today, he'd be a Lutheran. (I'm kidding! But within the Church, he can be universally applauded, I believe.)

My colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot, sent out this modified version of Saint Patrick's Prayer in his daily emailed inspiration today:
I trust with certain faith:
The power of God to guide me,
The might of God to uphold me,
The wisdom of God to teach me,
The eye of God to watch over me,
The ear of God to hear me,
The word of God to give me speech,
The hand of God to protect me,
The way of God to go before me,
The shield of God to shelter me…

Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or many.

We invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Which may attack my body and my soul.

Christ, protect us today
Against every death-wound,
That we may receive abundant life.

Christ be with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ within me.

Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ at my right,
Christ at my left.
Christ in the heart of every one who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
If you'd like to receive Glen's daily emails, contact him at and put SUBSCRIBE on the subject line.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 15:1-3a, 11b-32

For the verse-by-verse comments on this passage go to these fine sites:
Exegetical Notes by Brian Stoffregen
Comments and Clippings by Chris Haslam
Pilgrim Preaching by Mary Hinkle Shore
Exegetical Considerations by Richard Carlson
First Thoughts by William Loader
Gospel Analysis by Ed Markquart
Lectionary Bible Studies by Bryan Findlayson


Let's keep it going!

Go, Buckeyes!

You Might Want to Read These Posts

You may have noticed that I'm not my usual prolific self lately. Well, I have. Lent. Low energy. Not feeling inspired by public events. Anyway, here are a few places to read something interesting...

Charlie Lehardy on dignity.
Richard Lawrence Cohen on words that make him crazy.
Jan on polyamory.
Mark Roberts on the loss of a park.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

If It's Almost Spring...

it must be time for a religious controversy. So says Father James Martin and I think he's right.

Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends (#7: Why Can't I Find a Church That Believes What I Want It to Believe?)

[This is the seventh in a series of columns I'm writing for the Community Press newspapers. They're meant to be loving responses to what my non-churchgoing friends say keeps them from being part of the church.]

Dear Friend:
Sitting in my office one day, the phone rang. When I answered, a woman asked, "Are you the pastor?" "Yes," I said. "I've been calling churches all over Cincinnati," she told me. "So far, I haven't found what I'm looking for." "What exactly are you looking for?" I asked.

"Well," she explained. "I believe in Jesus and stuff. But I can't find a church that believes in reincarnation. Does your church believe in reincarnation?" "No." She was frustrated. Here she believed in "Jesus and stuff," yet she couldn't find a single Christian church that believed in reincarnation.

In this era of hyperindividualism, many people want to create their own religions, belief systems that cater to their specific prejudices and dispositions.

I'd be lying if I claimed that I didn't find that somewhat appealing. There are aspects of Christian faith and life that I find personally inconvenient, things like the call to servanthood and giving. Or, the necessity of confessing my sins and surrendering my life to Jesus Christ. Life would be easier if I didn't try to be what the Bible calls a disciple.

But each of us is confronted with a choice: Whether to go our own ways or to surrender to the God we meet in Jesus Christ. Faithful churches insist on our common need to surrender.

When I was in elementary school, I resisted as my father and grandfather forced me to memorize the multiplication tables I was supposed to be learning. I couldn't have cared less if 5-times-nine equaled 45. Besides, why couldn't 5-times-9 equal 46 if I wanted them to sometimes? For someone as math-challenged as I was--and remain, the multiplication tables were an inconvenient truth and way more trouble than I wanted.

Over thousands of years, through thousands of people, God has revealed Himself, His identity, and His will to all of us. We have a book that catalogs these many encounters, including the ultimate encounter, when God took on flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, died on a cross, and rose from death in order to save all the lost people on this planet who dare to follow Him. That book is the Bible. Others may disagree, but Christians believe that it is, as we Lutheran Christians put it, "the authoritative source and norm of our life, faith, and practice."

Under the prompting of God's Holy Spirit, our understanding of the teachings of the Bible may change over time. And different Christian traditions may emphasize some Biblical teachings more than others. But all believe that human beings are called not to look for a God or a religion that caters to what we prefer, but to follow the one true God of the universe Who has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. The Bible, in a way, is God's multiplication table and in the end, it does us no good to pretend that 5-times-9 equal anything but 45.

"There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death." (Proverbs 14:12) Christian faith, for all its inconvenience and challenge, promises us new life that lasts forever.

So, I pray that while you find a church where you feel at home, you never find one in which you feel completely comfortable. May you never find a church fellowship that accommodates any beliefs or inclinations you have that are contrary to God's will as revealed in the Bible.

I pray that you find a church home that challenges you to follow Jesus even when it's inconvenient to do so.


[You might want to send this link to a friend. It contains the first seven installments of this series.]

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 15:1-3a, 11b-32

[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 15:1-3a, 11b-32
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable:..

11...“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

General Comments:
1. Our lesson, mostly composed of what's probably Jesus' second most famous parable, that of the Prodigal Son, is taken from a spot in which He tells three parables in a row, this one being the last and the longest. The other two, which appear in verses 3b-10, are the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. A central theme of all three is: Those who wander from God and God's will are lost; but God never tires of looking for us so that our relationship with Him can be restored.

2. I gave my own definition of a parable last week in one of these passes. Since I want to be sure to talk about what a parable is again here, I'll refrain from repeating myself and instead, give the floor to the wonderful New Testament scholar Archibald M. Hunter as he defines parables in his book, The Parables Then and Now:
The word 'parable,' Greek in origin, means a 'comparison.' We may then define a parable as a comparison drawn from nature or from daily life, and designed to teach some spiritual truth, on the assumption that what is valid in one sphere--nature or daily life--is also valid in the spiritual world...

The next point is that parable is a form of teaching--often, if you like, polemical teaching...
I'll have more to say about this business of polemic in the verse-by-verse comments and a little bit in point 4 below, because Jesus clearly told this story in part as a polemic against those whose religion prevented them from embracing faith in Him.

3. Hunter also warns us against viewing the parables of Jesus particularly as cute little stories. He writes:
When I was in my early twenties, I used to think of [the parables] as picturesque stories with morals attached, eminently suitable for teaching children in Sunday School. Forty years later [he wrote his book in 1971], these same parables seem to me more like Churchill's speeches in 1940--weapons of war in a great campaign against the powers of darkness which took Jesus to the cross...
4. The scribes and the Pharisees to whom Jesus first told this parable would have been deeply offended by it. They believed that God's blessings were earned by those who obeyed His laws and lost to those who failed to keep the law perfectly. They also believed that they kept God's law perfectly and looked down their noses on the sinners with whom Jesus associated.

For Jesus' original hearers then, this story of the sinning son who returns to the father and the self-righteous son who has always obeyed, would have called into question the entire basis of their religious system. They couldn't have helped but see themselves in the older son who, with rectitude, refuses to join in the party thrown by the father, the party clearly the Kingdom of God presided over by the Father.

To the original readers of Luke's two volumes, Luke and Acts, the implications would also have been clear. Luke believes that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jews' law and prophets. And while the first Christians were Jews, most first-century Jews who heard about Christ wouldn't accept Him as Messiah, Savior, and God-in-the-flesh. In addition, Acts is quite honest in describing the disputes and debates that arose over the admission of Gentiles into the fellowship of those who believed in Christ. The parable of the Prodigal Son also speaks against those Jewish-Christians wanting to lord it over those Gentiles on whom they could feel they had spiritual seniority.

It was in anticipation of this openness to Gentile believers to which the Holy Spirit would lead the early Christians that on the first Pentecost, Luke records the apostle Peter reciting a passage from the Old Testament:
...everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Acts 2:21)
5. Theologian Helmut Thielicke was fond of saying that the name we routinely apply to this parable is inappropriate. We should, he said, call it the parable of the Waiting Father.

And that's true. In a very real sense, the star of the parable isn't the son, who simply surrendered to the father's patient charity, what we might call amazing grace. So long as the boy is still living, the father doesn't give up on the young one's return. This is just like the Father in heaven: No matter how far we wander, He eagerly awaits our return.

See 'Amazing Grace'!

My wife and I joined with some friends on Sunday afternoon to see Amazing Grace, the big-screen treatment of the life and work of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was the British politician whose forty-plus-year commitment to bringing an end to slavery and the "reform of manners" in his country resulted in the abolition of the slave trade. It all stemmed from Wilberforce's faith in Christ and his relationship with John Newton, the one-time slave ship captain who, repentant for his participation in slavery, became a Christian and a pastor and a composer, most notably of the hymn, Amazing Grace.

This film isn't heavy-handed in its portrayal of Wilberforce and his faith. No matter where you are spiritually, you'll enjoy this movie. Nor does Amazing Grace overlook Wilberforce's faults, such as his battle with addiction to opium or his initial tentativeness to fight for what he believed was right in the political realm.

This is nothing less than a triumph of a movie, full of interesting, inspiring people and story that will stir you and make you feel good! Go see Amazing Grace.

Some past posting about or inspired by William Wilberforce is linked here.

Go to page 9 of the latest issue of The Asbury College Ambassador here to find an interesting article about Wilberforce.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


I didn't get to see the game. But I was pleased with the results.

As people who know me well can tell you, I'm an even bigger fan of Ohio State basketball than football. That all started back, while growing up in Columbus, when Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Jim Bowman, and Dick Taylor...and Gary Brads and Mel Nowell...and others became my basketball heroes.

Frankly, I was concerned about today's game against the Wisconsin Badgers. They and the Buckeyes split two previous meetings this year. Ohio State has a freshman-dominated squad that, in spite of massive talent, sometimes has lacked focus. On top of that, it hasn't been until recent weeks that the Buckeyes have played as a cohesive unit.

That's probably because at the start of the season, freshman center sensation Greg Oden was healing from surgery on his wrist and missed a chunk of games; the rest of the squad did well without him, reeling off seven wins before dropping their first game to North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (I firmly believe that even without Oden, Ohio State would be ranked among the ten best teams in the country this year.) But it seems to have taken the Buckeyes this long to learn how to use their big man while not turning the rest of the squad into a bunch of "also rans."

Last Summer, my hope was that Ohio State would win national championships in both football and men's basketball. The University of Florida football team, whose basketball squad now has a chance to pull off the same feat for that university, dashed that dream for OSU fans in January, with their saddening--and convincing--win.

But I'm still convinced that the Buckeyes can bring a men's basketball title to Columbus this March. I'm so psyched, I can hardly stand it!

Go, Buckeyes!

Making Our Days Count

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship on March 11, 2007.]

Luke 13:1-9
Once there was a couple who won a prize, a two week trip to Ireland. They had a whole year to claim their trip. “Well,” said the wife, “let’s not do it this summer, because we don’t want to interfere with our summer at the lake. And we can’t go in September because that’s when the kids go back to school.” Then, before they knew it, it was late October and the husband said, “We can’t go over the holidays.” “That’s right,” his wife agreed. “Let’s wait till after the first of the year.” But somebody told them that the days were terribly short in Ireland in January and February and besides, the weather wasn’t very good. So they said, “Let’s wait till spring, when we know there’ll be good weather and we don’t have to worry about the snow closing airports in this country.” So finally they made reservations for the first week in May. The weather was supposed to be good and the days were long and it was the best time of the year to go. They admitted that they were cutting it close because their prize ran out on June 1. But they were sure nothing would go wrong. Then the husband had a gallbladder attack and required surgery. The doctors said he would be able to travel by...the middle of June.

That little story by Andrew Greeley points out how unpredictable life can be. Gall bladder attacks aren’t the only things that can interrupt our agendas. Sometimes death itself interferes. All of which leads me to a very serious question: What would you do if you knew for sure that one year from today, your life would come to an end?

My guess is that most of us anyway, faced with that certainty, would have a thought or three about how we would live differently from the way we live right now.

The question is suggested by today’s Bible lesson. In the first part of it, Jesus talks about two terrible incidents that the crowd surrounding Him was talking about. One was a massacre of Galileans who were worshiping that had been ordered by the Roman governor, Pilate, the very same person who would soon order Jesus’ execution. The other incident is one Jesus Himself brings up: The collapse of a tower at the famous pool at Siloam. There, eighteen people died.

Many people, when they confront such inexplicable tragedies so need to make sense of them or feel a need to feel morally superior, that they accept explanations which really defame God. They convice themselves and others that God is punishing people for their sins. Jesus will have none of such explanations for life’s tragedies.

Nor should we. Back in the 1980s, a new disease of which none of us had heard before began killing off, at first, only gay men. AIDS took thousands of lives and consigned thousands more to certain death. One Sunday, I told the people of my former parish that, contrary to what some were telling us, I did not believe that God was punishing gay men for their homosexuality. If God killed people because of their sins, we all would be dying horrible, premature deaths. The Bible teaches that none of us is sinless and that God sent Christ to die and rise so that sinners like us who repent and trust in Him will live with God forever, no matter how long our lives on earth may be.

After the service, a woman approached me. “Pastor,” she asked, “do you mean to say you don’t think that God is punishing these men?” “No, I don’t,” I said. Her reaction surprised me: “I’m relieved to hear you say that. I was beginning to think that maybe I’d misunderstood God all these years. These preachers who say that God was punishing these men seemed so certain of themselves. But the God they talked about didn’t sound like the God I know in Jesus.”

That doesn’t sound like the God I know through Jesus either. I don’t believe that when troubles, suffering, or challenges come into our lives that God is punishing us. That’s not the God any of us see when we consider the God of the Bible!

But how do we explain tragedy? When Jesus cites the two tragedies in our Bible lesson--one perpetrated by a tyrant, the other an accident, He doesn’t try to explain them. And He specifically rejects any attempt to paint the victims of the tragedies as being worse sinners than anyone else. As Jesus puts it elsewhere, in this imperfect world, it rains on the evil and the good. More important than trying to figure out why bad things happen to good and bad people, is learning to let God love us every day and to live each day as a gift from God!

Jesus says that unless we repent, we will die. The death He’s talking about, I think, is the death of eternal separation from God, eternal separation from human fellowship, an eternity of regret that we chose to go it alone, rather than relying on Christ for life.

To repent, as we’ve said before, is to repudiate sin and to walk toward Christ. No one can do that perfectly. But God isn’t looking for perfection in us. As the Old Testament tells us, God remembers that we’re dust.

I remember when our two children were learning to walk. Whenever they showed an interest in walking toward us, we held out our arms and praised them for every imperfect step they took, even when they fell on their seats. We wouldn’t have thought of criticizing them or punishing them because they didn’t do it precisely correctly.

The person living repentantly is taking baby steps toward Christ and even though we may sometimes fall or fail, as long as we keep walking toward our Savior, the cheers coming from God’s throne are so loud that if we were privileged to hear them, we’d have to cover our ears!

If I knew my life were to end one year from today, I hope that I would be walking repentantly, moving toward Jesus.

But, there’s a second thing I hope that I would be doing if I knew I had just one year left to live. Jesus talks about that in the second part of our lesson, in a parable--or a story--He tells that same crowd:
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, "See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?" He replied, "Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down."
The owners of vineyards in Jesus’ home country didn’t waste precious water on young trees. Nor did they have patience for trees that occupied space and didn’t bear fruit. They simply couldn’t afford any sentimental attachments to a barren tree. So, according to the practices of the time and the scarcity of acreage and water, the landowner was right to order that the fruitless tree be cut down.

But then, the unexpected happens: The gardener begs the landowner to give the tree one more year. It’s a gift of life. If the tree doesn’t bear fruit, he’ll cut it down.

You and I are that tree in the vineyard. Every day, God allows us to occupy space. He’s sent His Son and sent His Spirit to help us grow strong in faith, in love, in courage. He gives us spiritual gifts by which we can play our part in His Church and His mission in the world. But often we just take His gifts and then just live lives that look just like that of the spiritually disconnected person who lives next door.

Christ died and rose for you and me to do more than just exist. Even here, in this imperfect world, He’s pumping the life, love, and power of eternity into us. But, I suspect that you wouldn’t know it by looking at the lives of most Christians. A Japanese poet, a Christian, likely describes most Christians when he writes:
I read
In a book
That a man called
Went about doing good.
It is very disconcerting to me
That I am so easily
With just
Going about.
If I knew that I had just one year left to live, I hope not only that I’d live repentantly, but that I’d also be bearing fruit, displaying evidence that I really was saved from sin and death by Jesus, that I really relished being God’s child.

I’ve told you the story before of an important conversation that Jimmy Carter had with his sister, the evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton. It happened after Carter lost his first bid at becoming governor of Georgia to a notorious racist. His sister told him that his being governor of Georgia wasn’t as important to God as whether Carter was walking with God. By that time in his life, Jimmy Carter had already spent decades teaching Sunday School and going on mission trips in which he went door-to-door leading people to faith in Jesus Christ.

Talking cold turkey with her brother, Stapleton wondered who Jimmy Carter had done all of that for. Then she asked him, “Jimmy, if it were a crime to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

That question changed Jimmy Carter’s life. What his sister was really asking him was, “Are you leading a repentant life, a life in which you’re walking toward Christ? Are you bearing the fruits of that repentance? Can people see Jesus working in your life even though you’re imperfect like the rest of the human race?”

Those are good questions for all of us to be asking about ourselves, I think.

I hate to tell you that in fact, there are many days when I hang my head in shame over the answers which honesty compels me to give to those questions as I look at my own life.

But thank God, we follow a gracious God Who gives repentant people second chances, opportunities to so open ourselves to Him and His love that we walk confidently in that love and let the whole world see what a great, open-hearted God we follow!

Today, this week, I invite you to offer two simple prayers:
  • Ask Jesus to help you walk toward Him.
  • And, ask Jesus to let the investment He’s made in you--the investment of His life on a cross--show in something you say, you do, or you think this week.
Don’t put it off.

Pray those two things. Ask God to help you walk toward Christ and to let Christ live in you.

Whether you and I have one year or fifty years left to live, we can’t go wrong if we keep asking God to answer those two prayers each and every day.

[The question, "What would you do if you knew for sure that one year from today, your life would come to an end?," is one brought up in a commentary on this passage from The New Interpreter's Bible.]