Saturday, February 14, 2009

When Cheever and Updike Were on Late Night Talk: The Opposite of Entertainment is Not Education

One-time late night talk host Dick Cavett writes about welcoming John Cheever and John Updike as guests on his show in 1981. I remembered this incident recently in comments at Ann Althouse's blog. I couldn't find it on Youtube at the time of Updike's recent death. Cavett and the Times have posted it.

While Cavett's show seemed to drive Johnny Carson's Tonight Show to Hollywood and show-biziness as a way of defining and separating itself, it shouldn't be forgotten that even under Carson and before that, Jack Paar, late night talk shows once delved into depthy subjects. Paar interviewed people like Martin Luther King, Jr. Carson once spent an hour and a half on his show debating and demolishing the half-witted, inflammatory assertions of a conspiracy in the assassination of John F. Kennedy offered by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison in a Tonight Show interview. He also welcomed scientists, theologians, and politicians to talk with him, sandwiched between the stand-up comics, musicians, and actors that have always been standard late night fare.

Cavett could be pretentious and wordy. (Not to mention nerdy and egregiously deferential to anyone he regarded as a legend.) But I might check out a late night talk show more than once every six months or so if we had a bit more meat amid the bread and circuses that we see with Letterman, Leno, and all. Leno, Letterman, O'Brien, and others of their ilk are smart people. No doubt about it. I just wish that they'd devote themselves and their shows to more than just making us laugh.

As I once heard an accomplished preacher say, "The opposite of entertainment is not education." Nor of erudition.

Friday, February 13, 2009

What's Up with Joaquin?

I was up late on Wednesday night and channel-surfed through about two minutes of David Letterman's attempt at interviewing Joaquin Phoenix. I found it tiresome, as I'm sure Letterman did.

On Thursday, I see here and there that people are wondering, "What's wrong with Joaquin?"

Maybe not much. He may be involved in a bit of anti-marketing, Joaquin doing his best Andy Kaufman.

It makes sense. Kaufman could be tiresome, too. But he attracted attention.

Phoenix's occasional involuntary smirks--in response to Leterman's funny crack about the Unabomber, for example--seem to betray an actor trying to stay "in character." Or an actor trying to send the message, "I don't want to do publicity tours."

On the other hand, Phoenix may really be that troubled.

Either way, he'll sell some tickets to his newest movie.

But the video below is painful.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Study confirms...

what I could have told you. Hey, wait a minute, I did tell you.

Happy Valentine's Day.

File this under "even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes," with me being the squirrel who identifies an important truth.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Welcoming" the New Administration

Certainly instability born of the disconnect between the Afghan government and its people to which President Obama alluded in his news conference several days ago is at play in a suicide attack on the Ministry of Justice in Kabul.

But there's another factor as well. The Taliban and their allies obviously also are welcoming the new administration in Washington, testing the new president's mettle, and sending a message that they haven't given up fighting.

The attack comes just before Obama's representative, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, is scheduled to arrive in Kabul.

Just before that, a secular Pakistani legislator was killed by a bomb in the same city that Holbrooke was visiting at that very moment.

Of course, the attacks aren't meant not only to send a message to the new administration, which appears prepared to undertake the war in Afghanistan and the war on Taliban and al-Qaeda enclaves in Pakistan with new urgency, more troops, and greater firepower. The attacks are also meant to be a warning to Pakistanis and Afghans against collaboration with the United States in the fight against radical Islamist terror groups.

This all would seem to underscore the need for the US to pursue a policy akin to that used in Iraq during the recent surge. It was accompanied by efforts to pacify enemies and would-be enemies, often through the payment of what can fairly be described as protection money to local war lords. The pacification program also included frequent foot patrols and interaction with local populations, fostering trust and quelling enmity.

During the recent presidential campaign, now Vice President Joe Biden famously predicted that early on, his boss would be tested by international troublemakers. Biden didn't need to be a seer to say that. It always happens to new presidents.

But in consideration of this test, Obama may be inclined to look up from days filled with multiple crises and tell the Taliban, "Take a number." Unfortunately, he won't have that luxury.

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

The two-hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth comes tomorrow. A few years back, I wrote a seven-part series on Lincoln's second Inaugural Address, which I see as a sermon. Here are links to all seven posts:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (February 15, 2009)

[This coming Sunday's Bible lessons for Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, will be the same as the lessons in many churches around the world. Hopefully, these notes will help folks prepare for worship.]

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Bible Lessons:
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

Here are a few thoughts on the lesson from 2 Kings which I shared on January 20, with a group of pastors with whom my son (who starts seminary this summer) and I meet each month:
1. It’s unfortunate that this pericope stops where it does. The next few verses beyond present an argument for the universality for Israel’s God and Elisha’s problematic acquiescence to Naaman’s intention to worship the Syrian version of Baal alongside his king back home. But this is a rich text even without following the incident through v.19.

2. Aram, of course, is Syria. Speculation is that this incident occurred in about 850BC, during the reigns of Ben-hadad in Aram and Jehoram in Israel.

3. There’s no evidence of Hansen’s Disease in Israel or nearby countries in these ancient days and only a few incidents of it in Jesus’ time. The term of leprosy was applied to many different skin diseases. (Hansen’s Disease can be treated, but not cured by conventional methods.)

4. Vv.1 and 2 present several interesting juxtapositions. First, there’s the irony of Naaman himself: He’s a mighty general, but he’s afflicted with a skin disease which, if unchecked, will eventually make him a pariah unfit for society. Second, there’s the stark contrast between this powerful general on the one hand and the little foreign slave girl in his household. As Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

5. Another stunning thing in v.1 is the revelation that the God of Israel had given Naaman his victories over Israel. This both hints at the universality of God’s reign and the judgment of God against His people in history.

6. It’s intriguing that this foreign slave girl, so insignificant she isn’t even named, shows concern for the man who enslaved her. (v.3)

7. It’s equally intriguing that Naaman is so desperate for a cure that he takes the advice of the slave girl seriously. It’s not the last time in this incident when Naaman will take the advice of his social inferiors (v.13).

8. Naaman gathers gifts to take to Israel (v.5). His is typical religious behavior, religion being humanity’s attempt to placate or please gods. He’s going to get a lesson not only about the presence of God in his prophet, as Elisha has it (v.8), but also that God’s gifts are free.

9. The reaction of the king of Israel (vv.6-7) is understandable. Aram had often attacked Israel, making it a vassal kingdom. It was perfectly logical to think that Aram was creating a pretext for yet another attack. The king knows that he can’t bring about the healing of Naaman.

10. V.9 is sort of a powerplay. Think of the scene in The Right Stuff when Vice President Lyndon Johnson goes to the house of astronaut John Glenn in order to offer comfort to his wife during a crisis point in the flight of Friendship 7. Annie Glenn refused to see Johnson and the Vice President of the United States is portrayed as having a first class temper tantrum in his limo. Like Naaman, the great man wasn’t treated with the deference to which he thought he was entitled.

11. Of course, with his expectations of personal deference and of a religious transaction, Naaman is highly offended by Elisha’s instructions in v.10. Referencing another movie: Think of Ranch Wilder in the 1994 remake of Angels in the Outfield. “You can’t fire me. I have a contract!” Ranch bellows, “I’m Ranch Wilder!” “You can’t expect me to do something so insignificant as dunking myself seven times in the muddy Jordan!” Naaman says (v.12). Like many people offended by grace and the idea of God working in small ways and places, Naaman would rather head back to Syria without being healed than experience the humiliation of so small an act (v.13). This really could have resulted in war.

12. Good semitic argument, which Jesus often used, ran this way: If this small thing, then how much more this big thing? This was, for example, Jesus’ argument about God’s willingness to answer prayer: If you, who are evil, respond compassionately to the requests of your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give you the Holy Spirit when you pray?

Naaman’s servants turn this arument form on its head…and make absolute sense in the process (v.13). “If Elisha had asked you to do some great thing, you wouldn’t refuse. Then, why refuse this little thing?”

Naaman had to get small, deny self, to experience God’s charity. As long as he held that as a BMOC, he needed to be in charge of things, he was too big to be helped.

13. Seven dunks in the Jordan and Naaman’s whole body was as soft as a baby’s bottom (v.14). He was rendered “clean” because leprosy was regarded as a dirty thing.
Here are some verse-by-verse comments, which I wrote three years ago, on the lesson from Mark:
v. 40: This is the first overt expression of faith in Christ that we find in Mark's Gospel. At most, faith is implied in Mark 1:30 and of course, in the silent witness of the Capernaum crowds who came to seek healing (Mark 1:32-33). Although it should be said that in both cases, there is reason to wonder whether what's being expressed is faith. At this point in the Gospel, the crowds are not responding to Jesus as a matter of trust in Him as the Messiah Who will suffer and die for them and call them to die to self in order to rise to new life with God. Not even Jesus' first four disciples--Andrew, Simon, James, and John--appear to have an understanding of Jesus that would qualify for the Biblical term of faith (pistis in the Greek of the New Testament, a word that means trust. Rather, the incipient faith we see here demonstrated is rooted in the belief that Jesus is a miracle worker who will give them what they want.

But the leper's belief in Jesus is different from what we've heretofore encountered in Mark's account. There's a note of "Your will be done" in his words. "If you choose," he tells Jesus. This is submission. In that word, if, the leper also recognizes that Jesus is sovereign, that Jesus doesn't have to heal unless He chooses to do so, and that it's possible that a sovereign God may allow suffering to happen in the lives of believers. Tough stuff, but very mature. (God grant me such maturity of faith!) This is the sort of real and unflinching faith I often observe in people who have suffered.

Leprosy was regarded as more than merely a biological ailment. The leper was "unclean," unfit for participation in social or religious life. This is why the Old Testament book of Leviticus had clear guidelines on how one who had suffered from leprosy could have the restoration of their cleanness, and their restoration to religious and community life, certified. The certification was done not by a physician, but by a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem.

It's a measure of Jesus' perceived compassion that the leper feels that he can approach Jesus. In those days, people were so paranoid about being near a person with leprosy, for fear of physical and spiritual contamination, that they would throw stones at lepers to keep them at bay. We no doubt see a contemporary version of this in the attitudes of some toward those infected with the AIDS virus.

v. 41: The most jarring words in this verse are: "Jesus...touched him..." This was a scandalous no-no.

Jesus did choose to heal the leper, underscoring what I mentioned earlier, that healing is always at the discretion of a sovereign God.

v. 42: "Immediately" again. Mark's frequent use of this term emphasizes several things: (1) the immediacy of God's presence in Christ; (2) the capacity and desire of Jesus to work with urgency in our lives; (3) the rapidity with which Jesus moved from meteoric superstar to rejected Messiah.

v. 44: Once again here, we see an example of what's known as Mark's "messianic secret." Until Jesus has gone through cross and resurrection, the crowds are inclined to see Him as nothing more than a kewpie doll, a miracle-maker bound to do their bidding and provide them with pleasure. But Jesus has not come into our lives to give us lives of ease. He has come to be the road to our everlasting transformation.

This is what will happen in the lives of those who turn from sin (repent) and trust in Jesus and the good news about Him (Mark 1:15). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran martyr killed by the Nazis in the waning days of World War Two, pointed out, new life and forgiveness are gifts we cannot earn for all with faith in Jesus Christ.

These things come to us as grace, the Bible's word for the charity God grants to undeserving people like you and me. They're gifts and they are free. ("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, so that no one may boast," Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9).

But, as Bonhoeffer goes on to point out, if we accept these gifts, doing so will cost us our lives, the lives we're accustomed to living. We cannot take up Christ without laying down our self-absorption and self-protection. There is a difference, Bonhoeffer shows, between "cheap grace"--anything goes-ism without personal transformation--and "costly grace," embracing Christ's gifts by laying down our whole lives in surrender.

Until we understand the difference between cheap and costly grace, to speak about Jesus as the Messiah is meaningless babble.

And so, Jesus doesn't want the healed leper to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah yet.

But there's a second reason that Jesus tells the leper not to tell anybody about how he had been cleansed. He wants the man to go through the certification process alluded to earlier and which is detailed in Leviticus 18 and 19. Remember: Jesus didn't come to abolish God's laws, but to be their pure and complete fulfiller. He expected the cleansed leper to abide by those laws.

v. 45: But the cleansed leper couldn't keep his mouth shut. Jesus' fame spread even more.
I may have more to share on the lessons later in the week.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Christ Heals...But Why?

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

Mark 1:29-39
Some people may hear the Gospel lesson for this morning and say, “That’s nice. Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law and others. Why doesn’t He heal people today?”

The answer, of course, is that He does.

In an October 25, 1999, article you can find online at The Archives of Internal Medicine, seven physicians, a hospital chaplain, a social worker, and a scholar, associated with leading hospitals from around the country, presented the findings of their research on the connection between intercessory prayer—intercessory prayer is prayer offered on behalf of others--and the recovery of coronary patients. The researchers set up what’s known as a “double blind” experiment on those recovering from heart problems. There were 990 patients in the study. Prayers were said for some of them. Prayers were not offered for the others. The doctors treating the patients didn’t know who was chosen to be prayed for and the subjects of the prayers didn’t know either. But a list of first names was given to people in local churches who prayed for those on the list each day. Neither the people doing the praying, nor the people being prayed for, nor the researchers knew who had been chosen to be the target of prayer. And what happened? Those for whom prayers were said recovered more quickly. As the researchers put it in the conclusion of their abstract, “This result suggests that prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care.” (1)

Now, if this were an isolated study, it wouldn’t mean much. But in recent decades, literally hundreds of objective scientific studies, conducted at major hospitals and universities, have been done looking into the connection between things like faith, prayer, and worship attendance on the one hand and healing and health on the other. The results are stunning.

A few examples: A 1972 study of 91,909 people in Washington County, Maryland “found that those who attended church once or more a week had significantly lower death rates from…coronary-artery disease (50 percent reduction), emphysema (56 percent reduction), cirrhosis of the liver (74 percent reduction), suicide (53 percent reduction).” (2)

“A 1978 study of 355 men in Evans County, Georgia showed that those who attended church one or more times per week had significantly lower blood-pressure readings than individuals who attended church less often. The positive link between church attendance and lower blood pressure held up even if the church attenders were smokers!” (2)

Now, I know that I’m preaching to the choir here. Many of you in this sanctuary this morning would affirm that the God we know in Jesus Christ is still in the healing business. Certainly, God uses doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals to bring His healing. But, as study after study has confirmed, their efforts are enhanced by prayer. In my nearly twenty-five years as a pastor, I’ve learned that most health care professionals know this. One surgeon I met years ago made a point of asking when I would be joining the patient he was operating on for prayer before surgery. “I want to be there when you pray,” he told me. “And would you please pray for me, too?” I was happy to do that.

God is still in the healing business. In his book, The Faith Factor, Dr. Dale A. Matthews tells the true story of Barbara, who suffered from cancer. Barbara was in worship one Sunday at the Epicopal church she attended when the priest read the Gospel of Mark’s account of the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, but not wanting to call attention to herself, believed that if she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment as He passed, she would be healed. As Barbara prepared to go to the altar to receive Holy Communion, a thought crossed her mind: “I could be like her.”

She looked at her priest who was, she thought, “standing in” for Jesus as He presided over the Eucharist. “She decided that she would touch the priest’s robe when he gave her the communion wafer.” As Barbara tells it: “I touched his robe, and he couldn’t have known that I did, though he did know about my cancer. He did something in that moment that I had never seen him do before: he put down the paten with the communion wafers and came over to me; laying both hands on my head, he prayed for my healing.”

Barbara wasn’t healed instantly. But she knew that God was healing her. As she explains it, though at that point her healing wasn’t physical, her heart was healed. “I had complete trust in God and his love, something he knew I needed far more than any other kind of healing at the moment.”

Of course, you and I know that not every one for whom we pray is healed. And even more than that, as Pastor Mark Dahle, a Lutheran pastor with a ministry of healing at La Jolla Lutheran Church in San Diego, reminds us, we know that everybody for whom we pray will eventually die. We live in a fallen world. Death comes, as does suffering of all kinds. Faith in Jesus is no insurance policy against the reality of living in a dying world.

So, why did Jesus heal Simon’s mother-in-law and the others our Gospel lesson tells us He healed? Why does Jesus heal today?

We get at least one answer to that question from an interchange that happens between Simon and Jesus before the dawn, after Jesus has prayed.

It had been a busy Sabbath for Jesus. After worshiping and teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum—where, you’ll remember from last week’s Gospel lesson, He had cast out a demon--He’d gone to the house of Simon and Andrew for dinner, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, cured many who were sick, cast out more demons, and then before sun-up, prayed. While He was praying, Simon and the others hunted Jesus down. They clearly wanted Jesus to go back to the scene of so much triumph and success. Instead, Jesus tells them, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also. For that is what I came out to do.”

For Jesus, healing was never an end. It was only a means.

John’s Gospel constantly refers to Jesus’ healings and other miracles as signs. Signs point to something more significant, more meaningful than themselves. The miracles of Jesus point us to the simple, powerful fact that Jesus has power over life, death, suffering, disease, sin, the devil, our sinful selves, and every other one of our enemies.

What Jesus came to do during His time on earth was share a plain message, one that will change our lives forever if we let it. He says, “Turn from sin—repent—and trust in Me to give you life forever—fuller life today and totally new, restored life forever with God.”

Repent. Trust. That’s Jesus’ message in a nutshell. Its validity is underscored by HIs miracles, by His suffering death on our behalf, and by His resurrection.

Jesus once asked a rhetorical question. “What good is it,” He asked, “to gain the world and all its wealth, but lose your life?” Today’s lesson, I think, asks a similar question: “What good is it to have perfect health, but lose your eternal life?”

Jesus Christ heals. And the ultimate healing, the one that matters for all eternity, is the healing of our broken relationships with God, with others, and with our selves. The healing Christ brings to those who repent and believe in Him will be our joy for all eternity. It can also be our comfort, our strength, and our hope even now.

(1) I had heard of this research before. But I'm grateful to Father Andrew Greeley for pointing to it.

(2) These are cited in a book by Dr. Dale A. Matthews, here. Dr. Larry Dossey also has spent years cataloging scientific studies specifically showing the connection between prayer and healing. Both Matthews and Dossey are physicians.


I've been enjoying this blog.