Saturday, November 15, 2008

When Virtual is Real

Did you hear about the woman who caught her husband cuddling with another woman--and that some months after finding him with a prostitute--then filed for divorce?

Sure, you may be thinking, that's a story I've heard lots of times.

But this story has a twist. Amy Taylor found her husband David Pollard cheating on her virtually, in a Second Life chat room. The Second Life world, in which people take on alternative online identities and pursue "second lives," has apparently become an obsession with lots of people.

But, no harm, right? I mean, in neither instance was Pollard really having sex with another woman. It was just harmless cybersex, some might say.

But undermining this argument is the fact that Taylor and Pollard themselves began their relationship online. And Pollard himself apparently thought his virtual relationship was real enough to tell his real wife that he wanted to end his real marriage.

These may be extreme examples of Second Life obsession, but they hold up an important truth: The wall between our thoughts and our actions is highly permeable.

Psychologists and medical researchers have been telling us for years about how obsessive thoughts of ill-health can lead to the conditions that hypochondriacs dread or to psychosomatic symptoms simulating them. And for decades, pilots, astronauts, and surgeons, among others, have used increasingly refined simulators to prepare them for their work.

But, at a more basic level, thinking about things as Mr. Pollard did at his computer screen--a seemingly harmless indulgence--is more than virtually doing them.

More than once, Jesus talked about the implicit connection between thoughts and actions. For example:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28)
Jesus also said that unreconciled anger, even if you keep it to yourself, is virtually murder.* And thoughts of taking what belongs to one's neighbor were deemed so destructive of our relationships with God and others that the Ten Commandments contain not one, but two, prohibitions against coveting:
You shall not covet your neighbor's house. (9th.)**

You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his cattle, or anything that is your neighbor's. (10th.)***
Both of these commands deal with thoughts for the simple reason that thoughts aren't harmless.

Years ago, Norman Vincent Peale told about a man who came to his office for counseling. The man, a Hollywood type, had made a mess of his life. For some time, he'd been fantasizing a relationship with a particular young actress. Peale said that, repeatedly in his mind, this producer had run and rerun a casting couch scenario resulting in a sexual encounter. In Jesus' eyes, this man, married, had already committed adultery. But then, his fantasies became father of the fact. The casting couch scenario was enacted and the starlet became pregnant, threatening the man's marriage and his self-respect.

We live in crasser times than those when the Hollywood producer visited Peale. We're more boorish in our relationships, both real and virtual, less likely to see the harm in our thoughts and fantasies.

But what if we acknowledge that there's little difference between what we think about and what we do? What if we want to live in ways that please God? A few thoughts:

1. Understand that there's nothing we can do to earn God's favor. "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us," Paul writes in Romans 5:8. And then later, he reminds, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works..." (Ephesians 2:8-9). We all fall short of God's expectations of us, whether in our thoughts or actions. But God forgives sinners like me and you. In this lifetime, we'll never purge our brains of every destructive thought. That's why we need to rely constantly on the grace of God.

2. God is willing and able to help us when we consider being destructive of our relationships with God and others or of our own psyche and well-being. We can turn to God-in-the-flesh, Jesus, Who understands:
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)
3. Make a conscious effort to keep your thoughts on what's good, helpful, and wholesome. Paul writes: "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Philippians 4:8). God can displace our destructive thoughts.

*Anger, in itself, is not a sin as I talked about here.

**I love Martin Luther's explanation of this commandment in The Small Catechism:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not desire to get our neighbor's possessions by scheming or by pretending to have a right to them, but always help him keept what is his.
***Here's Luther's explanation of the Tenth Commandment:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not tempt or coax away from our neighbor his wife or his workers, but encourage them to remain loyal.

Go, Buckeyes!
After the loss to the then third-ranked Penn State squad, it appeared that my Ohio State Buckeyes would have no chance at a fourth-consecutive Big 10 football title. But then Iowa beat the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes handed an improving Northwestern team a big loss. Now, the Buckeyes are tied for first in the conference, with today's game against Illinois and next week's rivalry week confrontation with the team from up north still to play.

This season, filled with disappointments and tenacious reversals of fortune, has already given Buckeye fans plenty to cheer about, as well as providing us with a look into a future with the phenomenal Terrelle Pryor as quarterback.

But today, the Buckeyes need to take care of business, taking a win against the Fighting Illini in Champaign, followed by a win over Michigan. A Big 10 Championship is in sight!
Go, Buckeyes!

Friday, November 14, 2008

When the Means of God and the Devil Dovetail

"Hey, Dad," my son asked me earlier today, "what do you make of these two passages?" A buddy of Phil's, also planning on going to seminary, had run across a couple of passages of Scripture, dealing with the same event, but which gave it two totally different spins.

The passages are 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1. Readers of the Bible know that 1 Chronicles in the Old Testament reiterates, often with different details, the book of 2 Samuel. But the differences between the two passages Phil's buddy noted are pretty huge.

Read them:
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.” (2 Samuel 24:1)

Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1)
So, who was behind David's decision to count the members of his army, the Lord or Satan? And what was so wrong with David taking a census anyway?

Modern scholars of Scripture might not be terribly troubled by this seeming conflict. They posit that the Old Testament histories went through a number of iterations and were finally filtered through four "editors," not actual individual editors, but theological schools of thought that had their own slants and compiled the Biblical material in ways reflective of them.

According to this theory, the four major editorial schools that produced our current Old Testament, known by generations of seminarians as J, E, D, and P are Yahwistic, Elohistic, Deuteronomistic, and Priestly. Some scholars even claim to be able to discern paragraph seams reflecting the varied traditions throughout.

So, it's possible that the two seemingly conflicted passages represent different schools of ancient Israelite theological emphases.

This shouldn't threaten anyone's understanding of Scripture as the Word of God, though. Whatever the varied emphases of Biblical writers, editors, and translators, we trust that a praying people of faith, guided by the Holy Spirit, have handed down to us God's Word as God intended it to be given. The compilers of the Bible weren't dumb. They could see, for example, that Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-24, present us with two very different versions of creation. But each contain important truths about God's purposes that we need to know.

But I have a feeling that explaining the passages from 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles is, both simpler and more complicated than J, E, D, or P. In a nutshell: There are times when the means of God and the means of the devil are the same, although their ends may diverge.*

To show you how it's possible for the devil or a human being with bad purposes to use the same methods at the same time as God, Who's after good purposes, consider two other passages of Scripture.

First: The climactic passage in the account of Joseph and his brothers in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Joseph's brothers, you know, resented their father's love and attention for Joseph, as well as the early intimations that the boy would one day rule over them. So, they sold Joseph into slavery, convincing their father, Jacob, that Joseph was attacked and eaten by a wild animal. Over the course of years, Joseph becomes the prime minister of Egypt and his brothers fear that in his powerful position, he'll take revenge on them. But Joseph points out that their bad action resulted in his being in the position to save thousands of people, including all of fledgling Israel, from a famine then raging throughout the Middle East. So, he tells his brothers:
"Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today" (Genesis 50:20)
Second: The set of similar passages in the New Testament Gospels that bridge Jesus' baptism, when He's declared the Son of God--the very personification of the Deity--and His temptation in the wilderness. Luke recounts this abrupt movement from triumph to deadly challenge jarringly:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4:1-2a)
In the case of Joseph's brothers, there can be no doubt that what they did was despicable, both to Joseph and to Jacob. They took money for their brother, getting rid of him. Then, they broke the heart of their old man, convincing him that his undeniably favorite son** was dead. And yet, Joseph later claimed to see that while their act was, really, evil, God's hand had been in it. Their malevolence put him, over two decades later, exactly where he needed to be to accomplish God's purposes.

The case of Jesus' temptation is particularly interesting. The word for tempt, in the original Greek of the New Testament, is peirasmo. It can mean both test and tempt. And it can mean both things simultaneously.

Notice that it was God the Holy Spirit who led Jesus in the wilderness "where for forty days he was tempted by the devil." Apparently, both God the Holy Spirit and the devil wanted Jesus in the wilderness, but for different reasons. One can surmise that the Spirit wanted to strengthen Jesus' commitment to and fortify Him for His mission of dying and rising for us, while the devil wanted to deter Jesus from that mission, enticing Him to take easier paths to power and rule.

So, what's all of this got to do with our passages from 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles?

That's where the census comes in. There's nothing inherently wrong with a census. There were even times in ancient Israel's history when God commanded the taking of censuses. A nose count can be a good planning tool. But that wasn't David's motive. As the editors of The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Revised Standard Version) noted years ago:
The reason [for God's anger with the census] must have been that taking [it] was deemed an infringement upon the prerogatives of their God, the sole arbiter of the destinies of the nation and its people.
In other words, David had fallen prey to the idea that the bigger your military, the more powerful you are, when in fact, ancient Israel's power was God and the nation's humble reliance on God. The editors of The Life Application Bible (New Revised Standard Version) explain:
David's sin was pride and ambition in counting the people so that he could glory in the size of his nation and army, its power and defenses. By doing this, he put his faith in the size of his army rather than God's ability to protect them regardless of their number.
So, was it the Lord or Satan who incited David to conduct the census?

Why couldn't it have been both of them?

Sometimes, God lets us "go our own ways," allowing us to stew in our own juices so that we can see the futility and stupidity of trying to live without God. Sometimes we need to be brought up short so that we will turn back to God for hope, peace, and life. God appears to have been doing this with David here.

And, of course, because Satan wants nothing more than to break God's heart and destroy God's rule by tearing us from the arms of God, he could have been simultaneously urging David to take his self-glorifying census.

Sometimes, it seems that the means of God and the devil really do dovetail. In every temptation there's a test. When temptation comes, we can pray, "Lead us not into temptation." Or, as a modern translation puts it, "Save us from the time of trial."

*I know. Nobody wants to take the notion of the devil seriously any longer. He's seen as a worn-out old superstition. And while the devil can't make you do anything and would clearly love for you to be unaware of the ways he tries to drive you away from the hope and peace of God, you can be sure that he's constantly trying break God's heart by turning yours cold to God or by leading you to despair. Earlier this week, I talked with a man fearful that he was too bad for God to love him. I explained that, while none of us is good enough for God to love, God loves us anyway. On top of that, I said, a totally bad person would never worry about whether he or she were good enough for God. People given over to badness simply figure that good and bad are outmoded concepts or that they're good enough. The closer we get to God, the more conscious we are of our need of God and of God's forgiveness. "The next time the devil tells you that you're not good enough," I said, "tell the devil that Jesus and His love are bigger than your lies and I belong to Jesus forever."

**I love it that the Bible shows us how God loves and uses dysfunctional people. Believers in the God disclosed to Israel and in Jesus Christ are not, as the old bumper sticker puts it, perfect but forgiven.

Clinton at State...Does It Make Sense?

For any incoming President, building a Cabinet team can be a bit like piecing together a puzzle.

Even if you don't begin with a nod to identity politics, pledging as Bill Clinton did during his transition to the presidency, to have a Cabinet that "looks like America," presidents want to have teams that bring not only competence, but also allow them to placate various groups and interests.

Yet, there's more at play in putting together a Cabinet than completing a checklist.

As a leader myself for much of the past three decades, whether in church, charitable, education, or community groups, I've also subscribed to the notion in whatever effort I lead, I would much rather have strong-willed people who differ with me on some things as part of my leadership group, rather than leaving them on the outside. People who feel that they're out of the loop or denied some of the facts, even when they are not, are motivated to positively influence their own constituencies when they're part of "the team" of decision-makers. This was also the philosophy of Abraham Lincoln, who put together what Doris Kearns Goodwin called his "team of rivals." Goodwin's book of that name has apparently had a huge impact on President-elect Obama. Like Lincoln, who brought in the New York senator who had been his chief opponent for their party's nomination for president to be his Secretary of State, Obama is evidently weighing the possibility of making Hillary Clinton his top diplomat, too.

Does it make sense?

I Guess I'm a "Professional" Blogger Now

I've been toiling away in the blogging world--I hate the term "blogosphere," which has always sounded to me like some early-1960s Disney imagineer's attempt to sound futuristic--for six years now. I enjoy it and obviously don't do it for the bucks, of which there are none.

At least there weren't any bucks for this blogger until the other day.

Back in September, 2004, I signed up for Google AdSense. The deal is that Google places ads, in the case of this blog, at the bottom of the page. Every time a reader clicks on one of the ads, a few pennies are placed into an account in my name. Google doesn't even bother to send a check until the clicks amount to $100.00.

Frankly, after having earnestly checked at my click-count back in late-2004 and seeing only pennies being added, I had all but forgotten that I had Goodle AdSense on the site. In fact, the only time I ever did think about it was when I thought, in consideration of what a silly waste of page space it seemed to be, I should just get out of the agreement.

But, now I'm a professional blogger. A few weeks ago, the people at Google--yeah, the people I've criticized for letting the Chinese government limit its people's access to information, made a professional out of me. (See here and here.) It seems that after 3-years and 11-months, there had been enough clicks on the ads Google placed on this site for Google to cut a check to me.

The amount? A whopping $105.78. At the rate of little more than $26.00 per year, I am clearly on my way to making a mint as a blogger.

Yeah, I'll declare the check as income for 2008. But I don't think that I'll add "professional blogger" to the occupation line on my 1040.

By the way, the clicks for November so far amount to 11-cents. At roughly a penny a day for the month, it appears that my pace of rapacious material acquisition is falling off. At this rate, it'll take me twenty-seven years to get my second AdSense check.

Whenever it shows up, I'll be excited! And shocked.

[Instead of clicking on Google AdSense below, you can donate to this site. Of course, clicking won't involve any investment on your part. But 75% of what you donate, will go to three important causes. I'm still not in blogging for money. But if the AdSense people are willing to part with some pennies for my hobby or if readers are willing to donate on the PayPal button to the right, that's okay too. See here for more information.]

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Would You Fill Out the Obama Questionnaire?

In June, 2006, my denominational body required me to fill out an eighteen page document called Mobility Papers. Filling it out was a pain, but a necessary step to be taken after my wife and I had determined that, after what was then nearly sixteen years at our second parish, I needed to open myself to the possibility of being called to serve another congregation. I don't deal well with paperwork and frankly, it took me longer to fill out the Mobility Papers than it does for me to fill out our tax returns every year. But I did complete the form. There are just some hoops that can't be avoided in life.

But this morning, I ask myself if I were an ambitious and highly qualified person holding a good job, whether I'd be willing to fill out President-elect Obama's version of Mobility Papers?

Sure, it's only seven pages long. Some of the questions are so open-ended though, and in some cases, so intrusive, that one wonders, as I'm inclined to wonder about anyone who "applies" to become President, what self-respecting person would go through such a vetting process?

Other questions ask applicants to provide copies of every iteration of their resumes for the preceding decade, while others ask them to rack their brains for the memory of anything they've ever done in their lifetimes that might cause the Administration embarrassment.

Responses to that latter question require an applicant to have something like ESP, asking them to anticipate what new transgression might be regarded as a sin in the next four years. This isn't an easy task, given the ever-shifting mores and bases for controversy that have, for the past three-and-a-half decades, been a staple of Washington life. (Ever since Vietnam and Watergate.)

Notes The New York Times:
The questionnaire includes 63 requests for personal and professional records, some covering applicants’ spouses and grown children as well, that are forcing job-seekers to rummage from basements to attics, in shoe boxes, diaries and computer archives to document both their achievements and missteps.

Only the smallest details are excluded; traffic tickets carrying fines of less than $50 need not be reported, the application says. Applicants are asked whether they or anyone in their family owns a gun. They must include any e-mail that might embarrass the president-elect, along with any blog posts and links to their Facebook pages.

The application also asks applicants to “please list all aliases or ‘handles’ you have used to communicate on the Internet.”


Most information must cover at least the past decade, including the names of anyone applicants lived with; a chronological list of activities for which applicants were paid; real estate and loans over $10,000, and their terms, for applicants and spouses; net worth statements submitted for loans, and organization memberships — in particular, memberships in groups that have discriminated on the basis of race, sex, disability, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

There are no time limits for some information, including liens, tax audits, lawsuits, legal charges, bankruptcies or arrests. Applicants must report all businesses with which they and their spouses have been affiliated or in which they have had a financial stake of more than 5 percent. All gifts over $50 that they and their spouses have received from anyone other than close friends or relatives must be identified.

Just in case the previous 62 questions do not ferret out any potential controversy, the 63rd is all-encompassing: “Please provide any other information, including information about other members of your family, that could suggest a conflict of interest or be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the president-elect.”
Clearly, the Obama people want to avoid the controversies and embarrassments past incoming presidents have weathered only after their nominees and appointees have been announced to a media only too eager to discern holes in the official vetting processes or any hint of presidential hypocrisy.

The Times article has a link to a PDF file of the questionnaire. Look it over and tell me if you'd submit to it for the privilege of serving in Washington, where every day you go to work, you wear a great big target on your back?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

To Help You Prepare for Worship on Sunday, November 16, 2008

[Like most churches throughout the world, the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, follows a proscribed set of Bible lessons arranged in a three-year cycle. This arrangement is known as a lectionary and it follows the Church Year. I try to write something each week to help the people of Saint Matthew prepare for worship. This week though, just a few links to others' comments on each of the lessons that we'll consider on Sunday.]

27th. Sunday after Pentecost
The Lessons:
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8, 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 24:14-30

Prayer of the Day:
Righteous God, our merciful master, you own the earth and all its peoples, and you give us all that we have. Inspire us to serve you with justice and wisdom, and prepare us for the joy of the day of your coming, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen

Psalm 90
1 Thessalonians

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day: Thank You

Six years ago, my family and I took a trip to Washington, D.C. Our son, Philip, was in college, our daughter Sarah was about to enter her senior year of high school. We were in the Washington Monument and each of us went our different ways to peer out the windows on all sides of the place.

After awhile, Phil approached me, accompanied by an older man. They had been chatting and in the course of their conversation, the man had somewhat hesitantly revealed that he had fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War Two. My son wanted me to meet him. We chatted for a few minutes and as we parted, my son shook his hand and told him, "And thank you very much for what you did for me."

The man seemed both embarrassed and appreciative. I can also tell you that I was proud of my son.

And so, learning from his example, I want to tell all veterans who may read this, "Thank you for what you did for me...and for all of us!"

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Of whom were these words spoken?...

And, by whom?

"Your success here is assured. You’ve got youth, energy, humor, looks, and fun. That’s exactly what the English like.”

What struck me in these words is how easily someone could have written them to one of the young Beatles. They had all of those attributes bundled in with their talent and so won over their fellow Brits, as their Command Performance before the Royals famously underscored.

And the act about which the words above were spoken, in fact, became favorites of the Prince of Wales.

Who were the words written about?

The sister and brother dance team of Adele and Fred Astaire, who became a huge hit across the pond a few years before Adele retired from show business and Fred became a triple-threat movie icon: dancer, actor, singer. (Some people forget how successful Astaire was as a singing recording artist. In the 1930s, recordings by Astaire, regarded by many as the greatest dancer ever, often outsold those of Bing Crosby, the crooner of the age. George Gershwin, I've read, wept on hearing recordings Astaire made of Gershwin compositions. Astaire, Gershwin thought, was the first singer to really understand what George and Ira had in mind in their music.)

The laudatory comment about the Astaires was made by English playwright Noel Coward and it strikes me as spot-on. Fred Astaire, like his contemporary Cary Grant, and like the Beatles, was more than just talented. He was a personality. Fun, accessibility, and the joy of life, however studied and however attributable to his storied perfectionism, were at least as important to Astaire's success and to the enduring attractiveness of his movie performances as was his talent.

Coward was right.

The quote is cited in a wonderful article here.

By the way, I spent some time analyzing the appeal of the Beatles here.

Where's the Sermon?

Regular readers of Better Living often stop by here on Sunday afternoons or evenings to find the sermon I preached that morning. But, I didn't preach this morning. It was Thankoffering Sunday, an opportunity to focus on the ministries of our congregation's Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Americ (WELCA) group, including a presentation during the sermon time.

There should be a new sermon here next Sunday.