Saturday, June 28, 2008

"God seems to value character more than our comfort...

"...often using the very elements that cause us the most discomfort as His tools in fashioning that character." A tough, but hopeful lesson taught by God.

Check out what Paul writes in Second Corinthians (New Testament):
Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn't get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan's angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn't think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it's all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ's strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become. [2 Corinthians 12:7-10, The Message]

Robert Mugabe's Winning Campaign Slogan...

"Vote for me or die."

The UN Security Council, including neighboring South Africa, passed a tepid condemnation of yesterday's sham election in Zimbabwe. But the ball is now in the court of the African Union, whose member nations are the ones who must bring pressure to bear on Mugabe to step down by refusing to recognize him as the legitimately elected president of his country.

Friday, June 27, 2008

With Low Turnout, Zimbabweans Are Voting for End of Mugabe Era

What if a thug government held an election and almost nobody voted?

That appears to be what's happening today in Zimbabwe. Violent intimidation by strongman president Robert Mugabe toward the supporters of Morgan Tsvangirai caused the insurgent candidate to withdraw from today's runoff election several days ago.

Besides wanting to protect his supporters from increasing violence, Tsvangirai's motivation appeared to be force the international community, particularly leaders of other southern African nations, to repudiate the legitimacy of today's balloting. For years, the fellowship of African leaders have looked the other way as Mugabe not only spectacularly mismanaged Zimbabwe's economy, but also terrorized its people, intimidating those who would even consider voting for opponents.

Some African leaders have spoken out against Mugabe's scare tactics in recent days. But, disappointingly, the African National Congress (ANC), ruling party in South Africa, has basically supported this sham election. South Africa is the most important power in that region of Africa and, in spite of the evidence, may, by its support, give Mugabe's thuggery a patina of legitimacy it doesn't deserve.

But so far, turnout in Zimbabwe is low. That may give wise members of the international community sufficient cover for saying what the Zimbabweans are today obviously saying: The government of Mugabe is illegitimate.

It will be of little importance for Britain or the United States to make such statements, or even the United Nations. Britain is Mugabe's favorite straw man, the one-time colonial power he constantly claims wants to re-take Zimbabwe. The US is portrayed as a colonial apologist. The UN is composed of many nations Mugabe might readily dismiss.

But if South Africa and other African countries, who have for decades legitimated Mugabe's dysfunctional and violent reign of error, were to refuse to accept the results of today's Zimbabwean runoff, it might be the beginning of the end for Mugabe and the start of a new beginning for Zimbabwe.

The people of Zimbabwe, by not voting, appear to be voting. They want Robert Mugabe to leave the presidency. The international community ought to recognize what they're telling us.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Review: Coldplay's New CD, 'Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends'

Same old, same old from a band that could do better. Boring.

What I Get Out of Mission Trips

From Sunday, June 15 through Friday, June 20, eight young people, three other adults, and I, all from Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, participated in a Group Workcamps Foundation Week of Hope mission trip. We were in Grand Rapids, Michigan, part of a group sixty-eight youth and adults from four different churches, three different faith backgrounds, and three states.

I talked a little bit about the experience in my sermon of last Sunday.

This is the second year for me to participate in Group's mission trip program. (Last year, I was part of a similar retinue from the parish I previously served as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church in the Cincinnati area.) Group splits up the members of youth groups, affording participants to meet and work with people from other Christian faith traditions. (And, probably not coincidentally, avoiding the tensions that inevitably arise when people who know one another well spend too much time together in a six-day period!)

Among the projects and programs with which the people at our workcamp dealt last week were: Mel Trotter Ministries, a Grand Rapids organization that works with the homeless, alcoholic, and drug-dependent; the Potter's House school in the inner city; an agency that recycles computers; a day care center; and the homes of elderly folks incapable of doing some maintenance work on their homes and yards.

Our six-hour work days were bracketed by learning and worship times in mornings and evenings and devotions during lunch breaks at our various work sites.

We also had a lot of fun...and, with 5am wake-ups and 11pm lights-out, did without much sleep. (I'm still recovering from that! During twenty-four years as a pastor, I've learned that all youth activities ultimately, are sleep deprivation experiments.)

I was proud of the people from Saint Matthew, who worked hard, laughed a lot, and, based on the incredible things they said during our nightly devotion times, grew in their faith in Christ from the experience of serving others.

Of course, the question that often gets asked is, "Why go away to serve? Can't you serve others in Jesus' Name right in your community?"

The answer is that, absolutely, we can serve others here in our community. And we should and do.

But, sometimes, it takes a trip away to get our attention, to remind us of Christ's call to love our neighbors in very practical ways, to give us a template for service that we carry with us into our daily lives back home.

Among the adult participants from Saint Matthew in the mission trip was Becky. Like me, Becky spent her days sorting shoes, clothes, and hard goods for Mel Trotter Ministries. We became acquainted with staffers there who had rehabbed from alcohol and drug dependencies. Jesus Christ had gotten them to the point of recovery and with Christ's help, they were living day to day in new ways. It was, as Becky told the rest of us during worship back here at Saint Matthew on Sunday, "humbling."

To be humble, as someone has said, is not to think less of one's self, it's to think less about one's self. When we're humbled, we're liberated from navel-gazing. Confident in God's grace for and acceptance of us, we're free to live more fully as human beings, as members of the human family.

We live in a world in which we're constantly prompted to look out for number one. It's the widespread acceptance of this selfish ethos that lay behind so much of the war and misery that exist in our world.

The sense of gratification I felt last week as I sorted crate after crate of donated shoes, some of which would be sold to support a ministry that might transform the life of a homeless person, can't be described. Our trip to Grand Rapids reminded me that Jesus' call to servanthood is a call to the greatest nobility we can experience as human beings, the nobility that comes to those who dare to love God and love neighbor.

Will I go on another mission trip? If I have the opportunity, you bet I will. And if it reminds me to serve the other fifty-one weeks of the year, it will be a trip well worth taking!

[The picture above was taken during my participation in a mission trip last year. Then, we went to Canandaigua, New York, and I spent the week working with nursing home residents.]

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, Satirist, Has Died

George Carlin, the undeniably clever comedian who, a decade into a career that was comprised of typical Borscht Belt schtick, took his comedy in a self-consciously countercultural direction, has died.

It was probably inevitable that the decade that triggered Carlin's comedic transformation would inspire some satirizing court jesters to express the antiestablishment feelings of millions toward the war in Vietnam, the struggle for civil rights, White House lies, and the everyday hypocrisies of American life, among other things.

But Carlin, whose trademarks had been silliness and tuxedos in five-minute bits on The Ed Sullivan Show, initially seemed ill-fit for the role of a bearded, ponytailed, convention-tweaker in blue jeans.

When this new Carlin emerged in the late-1960s, it was jarring for those of us accustomed to seeing him sandwiched between such benign acts as Topo Gigio and Russian circus dancing bears.

No doubt much of what animated the comedy of Carlin in the four decades since his "conversion" is anger. Anger is often the motive power of comedy and Carlin found much about which to be angry. The Pentagon Papers demonstrated that both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had lied to us about Vietnam, for example. Hypocrisy was widespread among the elites in politics, corporations, and the churches.

But as it relates to the churches, Carlin, I believe, made the same mistake common to such contemporary atheists as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, confusing the hypocrisy and disinformation sometimes peddled by those who claim to speak for God, from marginally Christian parents to culture-apologists masked as theologians, for authentic faith.

Carlin, who grew up in what appears to have been a culturally Christian family, apparently got a bad dose of misinformation about the Judeo-Christian worldview and he apparently never thought to disabuse himself of the pseudo-Christianity he encountered.

He attributed some of society's worst woes to a version of religion to which he was most intimately exposed, a superstitious junk religion rooted not in the grace of God extended to sinful human beings, the source of all hope in Biblical faith, which is the common proclamation of those in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

He claimed, for example, that all opposition to obscenity and pornography was rooted in "religious superstitions" that regarded sex and the human body as dirty and evil.

The attitudes Carlin describes are exhibited by misinformed Christians. But an examination of the Bible, the book which Christians regard as the Word of God and which in my Lutheran Christian tradition is seen as "the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life" will demonstrate how off the mark he was in his characterization of the Judeo-Christian view of sexuality.

The Bible has an elevated view of sex. According to Genesis, the Bible's first book,human beings created in the image of God were made male and female, indicating that sexuality was part of what made God's creation of humanity "very good."

Sexual intimacy therefore, was meant to be part of every married couple's life, from the beginning, a fact underscored by the fact that when first created, Adam and Eve, were naked and unashamed.

The joy of sexual intimacy between husband and wife is celebrated in the Song of Solomon, a book filled with subtle yet unmistakable pictures of various romantic and sexual encounters.

Sexual intimacy is protected in the Bible. The point of the Sixth Commandment--"You shall not commit adultery"--isn't to prevent the human race from enjoying their sexuality, but to ensure that this high expression of love between a husband and wife is protected from cheapening, from "adulteration." Martin Luther explains the commandment in The Small Catechism:
We are to fear and love God so that in matters of sex our words and conduct are pure and honorable, and husband and wife love and respect each other.
If those operating under a Judeo-Christian conception of the human body and sexuality sometimes object to gratuitous sex (and violence, for that matter) which appears in movies, video games, TV shows, and standup comedy routines like Carlin's, it isn't because the Bible regards the body as dirty. Quite the opposite.

The New Testament portion of the Bible says that the body is "the temple of the Lord." And when Adam and Eve hide from God because of their nakedness, it's not because their bodies are inherently evil, but because of an awareness created by their fall into sin, that their bodies can be used for sinful purposes, only some of them of a sexual nature.

As a Christian who regarded Carlin as a talented, if misguided, voice of our times, I regret that he never enjoyed a positive relationship with someone who truly reflected the Judeo-Christian view of sex and the human body. (I regret too, that he never took the time to find out about it for himself.)

Carlin's experience, sadly, isn't uncommon. We Christians allow legalists parading as Christians to hijack our faith. While they flap their jaws and invoke their crude cartoon versions of Christian faith, we keep silent. So, the Carlins of the world draw erroneous conclusions about Christian faith and the ability of all people--whatever their faith--to speak to and understand one another is hampered. No wonder then, that the wise pastor (and Doctor of Philosophy) Gerald Mann has said that one mission of today's Christians is cleaning up the bad reputation given to God by those who misspeak in His Name.

It's just one aspect of George Carlin's passing that saddens me today.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lots of couples honeymoon in Niagara Falls...

But maybe because this couple was from Niagara Falls, they honeymooned on the Lusitania and so, made a rendezvous with history.

What Happens Next in Zimbabwe?

With the probable continuation and escalation of violence and bloodshed in his country looming in the days ahead, it's impossible to fault opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai for withdrawing from the runoff election for president in Zimbabwe. The withdrawal is certainly not because, as a Mugabe henchman said, Tsvangarai is "chicken." He has soldiered on in spite of numerous incarcerations and beatings.

Rather, his withdrawal confirms the sad state of affairs in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe's longtime president, Robert Mugabe, a murderous dictator who has ruled and economically decimated his country for nearly three decades, has both stated and publicly demonstrated that he will do anything, including murdering and intimidating anybody, in order to remain in power. “Only God, who appointed me," Mugabe said on Friday, "will remove me, not the M.D.C., not the British. Only God will remove me!”

Mugabe, who led the drive for Zimbabwean independence from Britain, loves to blame the former colonial power for his country's problems, even accusing Tsvangirai and his partisans of being British tools. But Zimbabwe's problems, from its violent repression to its disastrous economy, are the result of Mugabe's paranoid isolationism, not British intervention.

So too, is the violence that assails anyone who dares to speak in opposition to the government or its policies. After government-supported thugs once again prevented a Tsvangirai rally from happening and Tsvangirai supporters were threatened for their intention to oppose Mugabe in the upcoming election, the opposition candidate evidently decided both that enough blood had been shed and that the international community needed a dramatic wake-up call, one might cause them to find a conscience.

But if Tsvangirai is betting on regional governments suddenly doing the right things, the odds are against him. Mugabe couldn't have possibly held onto power as long as he has were it not for the legitimacy given to him by the fellowship of African leaders who, rigged election after rigged election, have declared Mugabe's wins to be the results of fair and free processes.

The most disgraceful of nations in this regard has been South Africa. The major power in that region of Africa, if the South African government were to speak the truth about Mugabe, it would set off a chain reaction involving other regional governments and the African Union that would no doubt result in Mugabe's ouster and the installation of a legitimately elected government there.

South Africa has a democratically elected government precisely because international pressure ended the former repressive, illegitimate, white minority government there. That the South African government would be party to Mugabe's continued reign of terror and incompetence is a tragic irony.

Hopefully, Tsvangirai's dramatic withdrawal from the race for Zimbabwean president, will cause South Africa and other nations in the region to tell Robert Mugabe, "We've heard from God, too. God has said it's time for you to step down, Robert. Go."

You Needn't Be Afraid!

[This message was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 10:24-39
Yesterday, Ann and I drove to Columbus to return the van that the congregation rented for our work camp mission trip in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We were about to turn onto Refugee Road when we got a red light. Ann was stopped ahead of me in the left-hand turn lane. Standing no more than five feet from Ann, in the slender concrete median, was a man holding a cardboard sign. I couldn’t make out what was written on it, but Ann said the message was one I could have easily guessed. He claimed to be homeless and in need of money.

Now, here I was, Mr. Mission Trip, the guy who’s always talking about the importance of our being witnesses for Christ, wishing that the light would change soon so that we could leave this guy behind.

I thought of a thousand-and-one reasons why I shouldn’t and couldn’t respond to him:
“He might not really be homeless."

“He’d probably use whatever I gave him to go get drunk or doped up.”

“I'm not sure that I have anything smaller than a twenty in my wallet.” (And I'm not going to check to find out either!)

“I prefer to work through agencies that can vet people’s legitimacy.”
I had nearly gotten to the point where I was comfortable with my reasons for not being a Christian when I saw Ann’s hand extended through her opened car window.

She handed the man some money and the light changed. After I’d returned the van at the rental place, I climbed into the passenger seat of Ann’s car and said, “You shamed me again.”

Ann explained that she couldn’t be sure that what she’d done was the right thing, but when she found a five in her wallet, she decided to give it to him. The guy may have been a big fake. But in giving, Ann did her Christian duty.

Now, the question that this little incident caused me to ask is this: Why did I refuse to do what Ann did? The answer is simple: I was afraid. Afraid of being foolish. Afraid of being played. Afraid that if I gave something away, I would have less than I needed or wanted. Afraid. Hold that thought and let’s pray.
Dear Lord: Teach us not to be afraid to live for you every moment of every day. Amen.
In recent weeks, we’ve been looking at The Small Catechism, Martin Luther’s basic primer on the Christian faith. It begins, as you all know, with an overview of the Ten Commandments. God gives the commandments, first of all, to protect us.

They protect us from worshiping false deities like money, ease, or power, for example, because doing so leads to death, while following the God we know in Jesus leads to life. To give another example, it’s to protect the reputations of is all that God tells us not to speak falsely or disparagingly of others in the Eighth Commandment.

The commands of God are always meant to protect us, sometimes from ourselves. And this is especially true of the command that appears more than any other in the Bible. Do you know what command it is? It doesn’t appear in the Ten Commandments, but God gives it in many other places: “Do not be afraid.”

Jesus gives that command to His followers once again in today’s Gospel lesson. It’s understandable that He does. In the verses leading up to the lesson, in Matthew, chapter 10, Jesus warns that because of their faith in Him, they could be persecuted. Government officials could come after them. They could be subjected to physical violence or social snubbing. People may call them disparaging names, just as they were calling Him.

These warnings are for us as well. Following Jesus Christ isn’t easy. To us today then, Jesus’ words are at least as important to hear as they were for His first hearers. To us, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid!” But what reason does Jesus give for not being afraid?

We might expect that Jesus would say something like, “Don’t be afraid because God will take care of you.” Jesus does in fact say things like that in other places.
  • At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus commands His followers to “make disciples of all nations” and then promises, “I will be with you always to the close of the age.”
  • This is similar to the promise given by God to Moses back in the Old Testament book of Exodus. When Moses was reluctant to go the Pharaoh and demand the freedom of God’s people, God assured Moses by saying, “I will be with your mouth. I'll teach you what to say.”
  • Even in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus will say that we need not be afraid because God is with us.
But as the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out, after telling us not to be afraid about being persecuted, snubbed, ridiculed, or maligned for our faith, the first reason Jesus gives for fearlessness is a bit strange. He says that we shouldn’t fear because “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”

Most of us would regard the prospect that one day, all of our secret sins and selfish thoughts are going to be trotted out for all to see, as less than reassuring. (If we don't view this possibility as less than compelling, we haven't yet wrestled with the reality of our sin!) I know I view the prospect with dread. Jesus’ promise would seem to add to our fears, not relieve them. But let me try to explain why I think this promise of Jesus should banish our fears.

In preparation for the mission trip that began last Sunday, I made two copies of the Mapquest directions to the church building where we were to stay. But when I mentioned the copy I’d left on the seat of our rented van to John, the other driver and an experienced trucker, he told me that he knew a quicker way. I deferred to his expertise.

I just needed to follow.

That’s what I did. Except for one place on the west side of Columbus. Somehow, I got behind another van, a seeming clone of the one John was driving. I was a bit mystified when the van pulled off onto the West Broad Street ramp. I thought that John or one of the kids needed to stop for some reason. But then I noticed California and not Ohio plates on the van I was following. Fortunately, I was able to immediately get back onto the freeway and soon had the rental van in sight so that I could follow John once again.

Sometimes, as you and I strive to follow the Savior Jesus, we get sidetracked. We follow other gods.

Those are the moments we dread having displayed for all to see.

We fear that the gossip we’ve passed on, the dishonesties in which we’ve engaged, the unkindness we’ve enacted, all the sins we try to forget, will be seen by the whole universe.

But we need not be afraid. True story, told by a veteran Lutheran pastor: A man came to see him in his office. The man was a committed Christian. But he had gotten sidetracked from his walk with Christ. He’d had a brief affair. He regretted it and broke it off. Now though, the guilt was almost unbearable. The pastor assured this repentant man that though he’d lost his way for a while, God could forgive him. He could resume his journey with Christ and follow Him once more.

We are to fear and love God, of course. God is bigger than we are, greater than we are, and morally perfect.

But we are also to trust God. No matter what happens in this life and no matter how off-track we may feel our lives go, we can, as I did when I pulled back onto the freeway last Sunday and as that repentant man did when he saw his pastor, get back on the road.

We can return to Jesus Christ. That is what confession, what Luther calls “daily repentance and renewal,” is all about.

Jesus today tells us that we can draw assurance from the fact that one day, our whole lives will be displayed before the world like a movie. Every aspect of our lives—all our decisions, thoughts, and actions—will be on display. The movies of some lives will show that, in spite of detours and missteps, they kept returning to the Jesus’ path. Jesus, “the way, the truth, and the life,” will be the strong central theme of their lives, the object of their hopes, the Lord of their days. In spite of the difficulties, our faith in Christ will be vindicated. Jesus, the friend of sinners, will save those who keep following Him!

I often talk with Christian people burdened by guilt, overwhelmed by fear that God will throw them away. Jesus’ words to us today tell us that there is a place separated from God. It’s the place where those who refuse to believe in Christ choose to go.

But Jesus’ words should reassure His followers that no matter what detours they may have taken, no matter that on occasion we sin, we journey through life with a Savior Who loves us, Who wants us with Him forever.

Our call is clear:
  • to keep returning to Jesus,
  • to confess Him and His gracious love by our words and our deeds no matter what a disbelieving world may think, and
  • to know that the Savior we claim as our own will, on the day of judgment that is coming to this world, claim us as His own.
Seek to live your life for Christ and know that because He is merciful, you need not be afraid!