Saturday, March 21, 2009

'A Time for Burning'

A Time for Burning is a cinema verite documentary that shows us what happened in a white Lutheran church in Omaha when its pastor, William Youngdahl, tried to gain congregational approval to foster racial understanding in 1965. His proposal was that ten families from his church meet with ten families from a black Lutheran congregation whose building was several blocks away.

That may seem utterly innocuous and unobjectionable. But in 1965, it was a bit like throwing a lit match into an oil refinery.

My wife, son, and I watched A Time for Burning this evening. You can see the whole thing here.

It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966, and is worth the 55-minutes it will take for you to watch it.

The producer of the film, Robert E.A. Lee, recently died. Here is his obituary from The New York Times.

Whether you were alive in those times and can remember being involved in discussions similar to those portrayed in this documentary or you're a young person looking for information or inspiration, A Time for Burning is riveting, important filmmaking you'll enjoy.

Remember Crocs?

Back in August, 2006, I wrote about Crocs shoes:
The jury is still out as to whether Crocs turn out to be like the PT Cruiser*, a product which looked dorky, became wildly popular, and has remained a consumer fixture, or more on the order of the Pog phenomenon, which took off like a meteor and is now largely forgotten. One indicator of the shoes' long-term prospects may be this, though: When I had my first Crocs-sighting about a year ago, I never dreamed I'd be blogging about the things!
Well, I'm writing about Crocs again. It looks like they're on the Pog pathway.

*Of course, the PT Cruiser is also taking the Pog path. The only thing that's absolutely certain in this world is uncertainty.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 25

Servants forgive.

“Forgiveness,” Chuck Swindoll writes, “is not an elective in the curriculum of servanthood. It is a required course, and the exams are always tough to pass.”

Paul writes in the New Testament, “Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, The Message).

Jesus conveys the same notion, but far more pointedly, in His explanation of the Lord’s Prayer petition that says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Says Jesus: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). An unforgiving heart is a wall between God’s grace and us. An unwillingness to forgive others makes us useless instruments in God’s Kingdom.

Several years ago, I was reading the Bible and praying when a thought crossed my mind: Without realizing it, I had failed to forgive people who had hurt me. I suddenly saw that these feelings were blocking God’s power from parts of my life. I asked God to help me to forgive others so that I could allow His forgiveness to come to me. I began listing those I needed to forgive, each name I added coming as a revelation to me; I hadn’t known the bitterness I was harboring.

I’m sure that the people on my list would be as surprised to learn of my bitter feelings for them as I was. I have no intention of now self-righteously telling them, “I forgive you.” My unforgiving attitudes had little to do with them and everything to do with me. After my time of prayer, I felt liberated, ready to be a servant!

If you’re intent on being a servant of God, you might want to ask God to reveal the names of any people you haven’t yet forgiven so that your relationship with God will be renewed and you can be set free for living the life He has in mind for you.

Servants forgive.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).


For me, Ohio State men's basketball is an even bigger deal than Ohio State football, which may come as a surprise for regular readers here who now how much I like the football Buckeyes.

But watching this year's men's team has proven to be an adventure every game. A team with a lot of great players, particularly Evan Turner, P.J. Hill, and John Diebler, Ohio State never figured out how to play with the kind of consistency needed to pass the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Buckeyes lost to the Siena Saints in double overtime on Friday night.


But congratulations to the Big Ten and the Ohio teams that have so far advanced in the torunament...including even (you didn't read that I said this), Michigan.

Friday, March 20, 2009

I Want Obama to Be Successful

I just finished taking a course, Classics 401, at the Lancaster branch campus of Ohio University. The topic, daily life in ancient Rome, is one that I knew little about, quite honestly, and because Christ's life, death, and resurrection happened while his Judean homeland was a province of the Roman Empire, will help me in my preaching and teaching.

The final week's readings dealt with the role played by religion and philosophy in Rome, from the monarchy through the empire. As I reviewed for the exam, I ran across a piece written by a Christian who lived in the late-second through early-third century, Tertullian. He wrote in response to official persecution instigated by the Roman emperors:
On behalf of the safety of the emperors, we invoke the eternal God...We Christians are continually praying for all the emperors...We pray for the emperors a long life, a secure reign, strong armies, a faithful Senate, honest subjects, and a world at peace...God has said clearly and explicitly, "Pray for kings and princes and worldly powers so that your lives may be tranquil." For when the Empire is shaken, and all the other members of it are shaken, we, too, of course, although we are considered aliens by the crowds, find ourselves sharing some part of the disaster...[Tertillian, Apology, appearing in As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History]
A few weeks ago, with me hip-deep in parish work and other things going on in my life, I didn't comment when one prominent radio host said that he hoped that Barack Obama would fail as president.

I can understand why a person who disagrees with proposals from a president wanting those proposals to fail.

But from a Christian perspective, to want an entire presidency to fail is not only, as Tertullian wrote in the early third-century AD, contrary to simple self-interest, but also contrary to the will of God.

Governments, the Bible teaches, are instituted for the common good, necessities in an imperfect world. It's in the interest of all people that governments are successful in promoting the common good.

Whether it's ideologically correct or not, it's clear that Christians are called to hope...and pray...for the success of whoever happens to be president.

And so, I hope and pray that President Obama will be successful, just as I've hoped and prayed, since I became a Christian, that every president would be successful, as well as wise, judicious, courageous, and safe.

Mr. President: Less is More

A bit of unsolicited advice for President Obama: Reduce your number of public appearances.

Even before his turn on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, when he committed the first gaffe I remember coming from his mouth since he became a national figure in 2004, the President was at risk of being overexposed to the point of becoming background noise.

Mr. Obama is personally popular and the entire country has a stake in his success. But since the Thursday after he was elected last November, we have been hip deep in All-Obama-All-the-Time. No president in my memory has been so visible during the transition from election day to the White House.

And while it may be argued that the then-President-elect needed to assure a troubled nation facing a unique set of economic problems, Obama chose an entirely different path from that of another Democratic President-elect, Franklin Roosevelt, during a much lengthier transition, one that came at the height of the Great Depression, from his election in November, 1932 to his inauguration in March, 1933.

Roosevelt, in fact, refused overtures from the Hoover Administration to be more visible and publicly engaged, to present something of a united front on mutually agreeable measures for dealing with the economic crisis. Roosevelt, in essence, said what Obama said several times prior to his January inauguration, “We only have one president at a time.”

FDR’s ploy was surely marked by a degree of cynicism. But it also spared him the one thing any leader dreads having: responsibility without authority. The leader who is given responsibility without authority is far likelier to be blamed than to be praised. The moment a leader is perceived to take responsibility, the expectation develops that he or she will begin to exercise authority, even if they don’t have it. During his transition, Obama became the de facto leader of the nation without any presidential power. This underscores the significance of perception when it comes to being an effective leader.

All leaders—even those duly inaugurated—have only the power that others think they have. There are formal powers and informal powers that we give to our presidents. Formal powers are what the Constitution has given to every president, whether it was George Washington or Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln or Calvin Coolidge. But presidents are limited in what they can achieve, even in exercising their formal powers, by the informal power given to them. Informal power is rooted in a president’s relationships with the voters, Congress, the media, and so on.

Those relationships aren’t always enhanced by constant public appearances, which is something I’m not sure this president or his staff fully appreciates. The day before the President taped his appearance with Jay Leno, he spent a little time with what was called “Baracketology” on ESPN, making his picks for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Sandwiched between those two TV gigs were a couple ot town hall meetings in California.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of those activities. The President is the head of government and he’s helped in doing that by meeting with voters, whether in person or through the media. The President is also the head of state, like kings and queens and ceremonial presidents elsewhere, the living embodiment of the country. Getting out of Washington among the people is a gesture that helps unify us. George Washington himself was the first president to recognize this: He took a tour of all thirteen original states at the conclusion of the first session of Congress, about halfway through his first term.

But Obama might well heed the example of Roosevelt, In her book, No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin points out that over the course of his presidency, FDR averaged just two of his famed “fireside chats” per year. He opted for such a sparing use of the media on the theory, Goodwin says, that less was more. It still is.

Admittedly, the world of 1933 to 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt was president, was very different from the one of 2009. We live in a hypermediated world of instant communication. The reputations of public figures and their beliefs, even of private figures who someone decides to display on Youtube, can be marred and dismantled in a matter of hours.

So, the President and his handlers are well-advised to stay out front, in establishing and maintaining his image and promoting his agenda. The White House does well to help us see our president for ourselves, and to decide for ourselves what he’s like and whether he can be trusted, unencumbered by the uncomplimentary slants provided by character assassins acting as pundits, policy analysts, partisan political strategists, and late night comedians.

But successful presidents must strike a balance between presence and distance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an appearance on Leno or with giving Jay Katz your NCAA picks. But the constancy with which President Obama appears on TV, risks turning him from a formidable political figure, which he clearly is, into a Leno, or a Stewart. There’s nothing wrong with those guys. But we didn’t elect the President to entertain us. We elected him to lead us.

Roosevelt struck the balance between presence and distance. His fireside chats were like homey conversations with a caring father, a person you loved but also respected, not very different from the “Father Abraham” image cultivated by Lincoln. Neither FDR nor Lincoln were much older than Mr. Obama is today when they first effected these images. Roosevelt was 51 when he became president. Lincoln was 52. So, Mr. Obama’s age need not be an impediment to enhancing his reputation as our national father figure.

Mr. Obama has an historic opportunity to be a president who does great things. But to get there, I think that he needs to learn the lesson of less is more. There will be times for public addresses, Oval Office speeches, and the occasional appearance on an unexpected television venue. But the impact of each such appearance and address will be enhanced by the President doling them out more sparingly.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 24

A commitment to servanthood will include a commitment to giving.

Pastor Chuck Swindoll, in his helpful book, Improving Your Serve: The Art of Unselfish Living, says that a servant is “a giver.” Servants give away more than money. A man recently told me, “Money is the easiest thing to give away, Mark.” He’s right. Often, we give money as a guilt-offering or as a way of placating others who need more valuable things than we feel we can afford to give.

Servants are generous in the donation of their time, energy, love, support, prayers, encouragement, and money. They take to heart the words of Paul in Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit...Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Swindoll recounts an incident that took place in bomb-ravaged London after the Second World War. In a bakery one morning, sweet rolls were being baked and iced. A little boy, dressed in ragged clothes, pressed his nose against the bakery window, looking longingly at those rolls. An American soldier, part of the force still in England, happened by in a jeep. Taken by this sight, he stopped, for a time staring at the boy. The soldier then climbed out of his jeep and walked over to look in the bakery window.

“Would you like one of those rolls, son?” the soldier asked the boy. “Oh, yes!” the little guy replied. The soldier went into the bakery, ordered a dozen of the rolls, and brought them out to the boy. “There you go,” he said and turned to walk toward the jeep. Just as he was climbing in behind the wheel, the soldier felt a tug on his coat. It was the little boy. He peered into the soldier’s face and asked, “Are you God?” Swindoll concludes that we are never more like God than when we give.

I would add that when we give, we also get to see God in those to whom we give. “Whenever you do it to the least of these...” Jesus has said, after all (Matthew 25:31-46).

A commitment to servanthood includes a commitment to giving.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thinking of Others

That servanthood theme, something that's absorbing the congregation I serve as pastor this Lenten season, is sounded well in today's devotion in Our Daily Bread.

A Couple of Poems

If I were You
with sighs too deep for words
I’d build a thunder wall
and hide far from
“How can it be
you still don’t understand,
refuse to see
or walk too near
If I were You
my sighs would bring one less
god bowing at
the altar of

How can it be,
I ask with sighs too deep
for words, You don’t
thunder but call

Perfection isn’t always perfect
Beauty shows in crooked lines sometimes
I want to be beautiful
With jagged edges

More Thoughts on Post 4000

I only realized what was in the offing a few days ago, but last night, this blog reached something of a milestone: the 4000th posted item. It happened with the posting of a sermon I preached last night called, What Servants Do.

Now, for bloggers who are better writers and quicker studies than I am and who post frequently during the course of a day, that number isn't such a big deal. And while I do post simple pieces pointing readers to other things on the web, the lion's share of those 4000 posts have been columns, essays (on a whole lot of different topics from history and politics to art, sports, and music), sermons, or Bible studies. (If Glen Reynolds, Ann Althouse, or Andrew Sullivan are the Albert Einsteins of the blogging world, I'm probably best described as its Forrest Gump.)

Some of my posts have been re-runs, too, and others are reworkings of old posts. But there's a lot of original stuff.

Of the 4000 pieces that have appeared, there are some I don't like very much these days and others of which I think, "Not bad."

But all this blogging--I posted the first piece on May 26, 2002----has been a labor of love.

I blog for several reasons, but mostly: (1) Because I love to write; (2) Because I want to convey to the stray reader who may run across my blog that while Christians have beliefs, that doesn't make them closed-minded, bigoted, or bound by a particular political ideology.

In the mix, I hope to convince people that as one considers life and looks for explanations, the most intellectually honest and defensible is faith in the God revealed fully in Jesus Christ. My former religious stance, atheism, certainly doesn't hold up to intellectual scrutiny. And while there are plenty of reasons to dismiss Christians, I know of none for dismissing Jesus, the Christ. In my experience, I have found him to be in fact just who he claims to be: the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the way to the Father Who made us, Who loves us. We see God most clearly in the cross experiences Christ shares with us, the place where Christ meets us and transforms us into partners in his new creation. This new creation is the kingdom in which Christ answers our deepest yearnings for love, for justice, for peace, and for meaning.

I mentioned politics earlier, I find myself thinking about it a lot less these days. Part of that no doubt is that it's gotten fairly crowded out of my life. There's a lot going on in the parish I serve as pastor, for one thing. For another, on my days off this winter, I've been taking a class at a nearby branch campus of Ohio University. Between my sixty-plus hour work weeks and keeping up with the reading, there hasn't been much time to consider politics.

Even when I do find time for political blogging in the future, you can be sure that I won't be expressing opinions about who to vote for or to engage in the mindless kabuki dance of right/left argumentation that renders most of our political debates laughably irrelevant.

I like to take a longer-term view, which may explain why at this time, the blog averages just under 300 hits a day, small by blogging standards, but enough to afford rich and enjoyable interaction with readers.

Anyway, I want to thank everyone who has ever read, linked to, written about, or commented on the blog. Thanks.

God bless.


40-Days to Servanthood: Day 23

In your commitment to servanthood, be sure to include listening and sharing others’ burdens.

These two forms of service, often separated by others, seem intertwined to me. Each is rooted in an attentiveness to others.

Dale Carnegie, in his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, tells the true story of a mother who sat with her small son. “I know you love me very much,” the little guy told her. “Of course I do,” she replied, “but what makes you say that?” “Because,” he said, “you always listen to me.” Attentive listening is a form of love.

One of the most disturbing and inspiring books in the Bible is Job, found in the Old Testament. God allows the devil to attack a faithful man named Job. The result is the deaths of his children, the destruction of his property, the loss of his livestock, and a disease that covers Job with open scabs.

Learning of his affliction, three of Job’s friends show up to be with him. For seven days, they do the right thing: They listen to Job give voice to his agony and his questions about God and God’s goodness.

Then they make a mistake: They open their mouths, trying to explain the unexplainable.

They did more good when they simply listened. That had been a way of bearing Job’s burdens.

Of course, there comes a time when, out of their attentiveness to others, that servants take action. Our burden-sharing needn’t be an action that will get us the Nobel Peace Prize. Simple serving will do. A man in one of my former parishes died. While I visited his widow, several others visited. People from the church and the community were dropping off food to help the family during a period when nobody felt like preparing dinners. Between her tears, the widow dabbed her eyes, smiled at me, and said, “There’s a lot of love in that refrigerator.”

Servants are attentive to others; they listen and they bear others’ burdens.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What Servants Do

[This was shared during midweek Lenten worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier this evening.]

Mark 14:3-9
Often, when I read about incidents from Jesus’ life, I try to get a clearer understanding of what’s going on by putting them into a modern context.

Take, for example, tonight’s Bible lesson. What if the honored guest wasn’t Jesus, circa 28 AD, but someone like Jim Tressel, Tom Hanks, or President Obama on a night like tonight in Logan, Ohio? (I’m not equating any of these people to Jesus, mind you. Jesus is true God and true man. But the people of Jesus’ day regarded Him as a celebrity, someone who might become their king. They didn’t know and, as we’ll be reminded during Holy Week, they didn’t want to see Jesus as God. But if He could further their ambitions for freedom from the Romans and material success, they were all for Him.)

So, there you are with Tressel, or Hanks, or the President at Lee’s Banquet Haus when suddenly, uninvited, a woman bursts through the doors. She breaks open a bottle of ointment and then, before anybody knows what to say or do, pours its contents onto the head of the important guest.

At the very least, I think that you and I would be shocked. For the followers of Jesus in that room in first century Judea, the action of the woman who burst upon and poured an expensive ointment called nard onto the head of Jesus was especially shocking. It would have shocked them at several levels.

First, they would have been shocked by the unexpectedness of the woman’s visit.

Second, they would have been taken aback by the unexpectedness of her action, especially in a culture in which woman and men were to have no public contact. (But, of course, if they'd recalled how Jesus constantly violated this social taboo, they would have realized then and there that Jesus upheld the equality of the sexes and disdained the taboos.)

Third, they would have been stunned by the unbelievable extravagance of the woman's gesture. There were no resealable bottles in those days. You could open a bottle of perfume or ointment only once and that was by breaking its stem.

The moment this woman opened the bottle, every person in the room would have caught a whiff of its aroma. Nard was made with a perennial herb imported from India, expensive. Our text says that this single bottle of nard was worth 300 denarii. One denarius was a day's wages for a labor. So, this one bottle would have been the result of a whole year's worth of work. We don't know if the woman who poured the ointment on Jesus' head was wealthy or if, maybe, the nard had come to her down through the generations of her family, a precious heirloom.

Whatever the woman's economic station and however the nard had come to her, some of the disciples sitting around the dinner table thought that if the woman were really devoted to Jesus, she would have sold the ointment and taken care of the poor.

But they got another shock. Jesus repudiates their anger. He sides with the woman with the ointment! One thing that Jesus tells them is commonly misunderstood. He tells the disciples, "You will always have the poor with you." Some think that in saying this Jesus was telling His followers to be insensitive to the needs of the poor, resigned to the needy always being needy. In fact, Jesus was saying that concern for the poor should be a constant of Christians. That's why I'm so excited about the plans our new Servanthood Team is making to bring relief and help to those in need here in our community!

Jesus also tells the angry disciples, “Let the woman alone. She has provided me with a great service. She’s gotten my body ready for burial.”

Right now, our 40-Days to Servanthood devotional readings are addressing the practical question of what servants of Jesus Christ do. In that same vain, what can we learn about what servants do from this woman whose service Jesus complimented?

First: Servants do what they can. Jesus said of the woman, “She has done what she could.” You know the story of the two men walking on a seashore. One man kept stopping to throw starfish that had washed up onto the beach back into the ocean. “Why do you do that?” his friend asked. “If I don’t,” explained the other, “they’ll die.” “But there are hundreds of starfish who wash up here. You can’t make a difference for all of them.” The man threw another starfish into the ocean and said, “Made a difference for that one.” The woman who poured ointment on the head of Jesus provided the service to Him that she could in that moment. In all the moments of our lives, we have the opportunity to do what we can to love God and love neighbor. It may make a difference in only one life. One whole life!

Second: Make honoring Jesus your aim. The woman with her ointment was willing to incur condemnation because she dared to give her first and best to Jesus. May we dare to be that ridiculous!

Third: Point to Jesus, not yourself. The woman with her nard, as we’ve said, was heedless of the opinions of others. She was focused on Jesus. She exemplified humility.

A few weeks ago, our daughter Sarah asked me how I would define humility. I told her that humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking less about yourself. (I even try to practice that preaching.)

A friend of Ann’s, Phil’s, Sarah's, and mine, Karen, pointed to Jesus, not herself. When she was dying of cancer at the age of 38, she volunteered to be our congregation’s vice president. When I asked if she realty wanted to do that, she told me, “I want to spend the rest of my life serving Jesus.” Certain of her place in Christ’s kingdom, Karen pointed to Jesus. That’s what servants do.

Of course, a life like this is only possible for those who belong to Jesus Christ. Living in the daily certainty that God is with us through each day and that He gives us life beyond these days, we can draw on the life and power of the Holy Spirit to help us be the servants of Christ our battered, hurting world so desperately needs.

Like the socially incorrect woman whose servant action Jesus extolled, we can be servants. It happens when we dare to do what we can, make honoring Jesus our aim, and point to Jesus not ourselves. Amen

[A bit of trivia: This just happens to be the 4000th. post on this blog, a bit of a milestone, I guess. Some posts have been nothing more than pointers to other articles or blog posts. But that 4000 number does include a lot of original writing done since my first post here on May 26, 2002. I've enjoyed it a lot, including getting to know so many great people who have visited here through the years. Thanks for dropping by!]

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 22

Servants of God show hospitality.

Hospitality is one of the most valued forms of Christian servanthood. It’s exemplified repeatedly in the Bible. And, in Romans 12:13; First Peter 4:19; First Timothy 3:2; and Titus 1:8, to name just a few places, it’s commended as a lifestyle for believers.

In the New Testament book of Hebrews, the preacher says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). He’s alluding to an incident recorded in Genesis. There, Abraham and Sarah, sent by God on a journey to an unknown destination are living a nomadic life. Three strangers arrive at their tent under an oak tree at Mamre. Abraham and Sarah entertain them, refresh them, and provide them with something to eat. It isn’t until the three are preparing to leave that their identities become apparent: God has come to Abraham and Sarah along with two of His angels (Genesis 18:1-15).

Without knowing who these strangers were, the father and mother of Biblical faith had welcomed them simply because that’s what people grateful to God for His blessings do. The Bible affirms that when we encounter believers in Jesus, we’re really meeting Jesus Himself (Acts 9:4-5). The same is true whenever we meet people who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, or imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). All people are created in the image of God and therefore worthy of our hospitality (Genesis 1:26-28).

Writer Richard Foster warns us not to make hospitality something that it isn’t. He tells the story of a hostess who was flitting around, busily trying to make everybody feel comfortable. After awhile, one of her guests told her, “I don’t want any coffee. I don’t want any tea. I don’t want any cookies. I don’t want a napkin. I just want to visit.” That’s the object of hospitality: To honor the Jesus in every other person by simply and attentively visiting with them.

Servants of God show hospitality.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 21

If you’re committed to a lifestyle of servanthood, don’t give up!

One week ago, we said, “If you’re intent on taking the hard and God-blessed path of servanthood, you might want to pray this prayer each day, ‘Jesus, help me serve not for the compliments of others, but to glorify You and to help others.’ Then, do more than pray about it; work at it! This is how you can cultivate servanthood as a way of life!”

After saying that “trial, error, and success” are the key elements in finding your own unique brand of servanthood, we identified several important ways of being a servant, based on a list compiled by Richard Foster: serving in hidden ways; doing the service of small things; serving by guarding others’ reputations; allowing oneself to be served by others; and affording courtesy to others.

In the coming week, we’ll look at other ways of serving. I hope that this list will do more than respond to any curiosity you feel about what the Bible means when it talks about servanthood. It’s presented in order to spark you (and me) to use trial, error, and success on the way to authentic, pervasive Christian servanthood!

The New Testament book of Galatians was written by the apostle Paul to a church that confronted several dangers. One was the danger of believing that one can be saved from sin and death by the good things that a person does. Another danger was the opposite notion that if a Christian sinned, failing to live in an attitude of love toward God and neighbor, it didn’t matter. Both ideas were wrong, Paul said. To his friends in the Galatian church, he wrote, “You foolish Galatians!...Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1-3). Paul was urging those first-century Christians not to give up. Later, he says, “...let us not grow weary in doing what is right...” (Galatians 6:9).

There are only nineteen more days left in our journey to servanthood. Ask God to help you incorporate these lessons in Christian service into your daily life so that even after these forty days, the good things the Holy Spirit is planting in your heart now will keep growing and blooming in a lifestyle of Christian servanthood all your life!

Now that you’re committed to a lifestyle of servanthood, don’t give up!

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Let us not grow weary in doing right” (Galatians 6:9).

Saint Patrick's Day (A Re-Run...Again)

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.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 20

Don’t overlook the service rendered in common courtesy.

In Titus 3:2, the apostle Paul advises that we, “show every courtesy to everyone.”

I suppose most of us think that we’re mannerly folk. We also think, as British humorist Lynne Truss observes in her book, Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door, that when we are rude, we’re simply having bad days. But when others are rude, we believe that their rudeness displays deep, ongoing flaws in their characters.

Common courtesy is far more than a disposable social convention. Good manners are the most common way you and I display love toward our neighbors--even the neighbors in our own homes--and honor God (Matthew 25:31-46).

Truss asks in her book: “Is there a clear moral dimension to manners? Can you equate civility and virtue? My own answer would be yes, despite all the famous counter-examples of blood-stained dictators who had exquisite table manners and never used their mobile phone in a crowded train compartment to order mass executions...the collapse of manners stands for a vast...problem of social immorality. Manners are based on an ideal of empathy, of imagining the impact of one’s own actions on others. They involve doing something for the sake of other people that is not obligatory and attracts no reward. In the current climate of...aggressive self-interest, you can equate good manners not only with virtue but with positive heroism.”

I like Truss’ equation of empathy and courtesy. “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you,” Jesus says in a passage known as the Golden Rule. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Wouldn’t you want to be treated courteously?

Don’t overlook the service rendered in common courtesy.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you...” (Matthew 7:12).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Holy Anger: The Conrtolled Burn That Can Change the World

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

John 2:13-22
Once, back when our daughter was a teenager, a headline on the front cover of one of her magazines caught my eye: “Chill Out! Take Our Anger Quiz.” I flipped to page 122 and found eight multiple choice questions. I’m going to try a couple of them on you. If you’re not a teenage girl, pretend that you are for just a second and consider how you might answer:
(1) Your dad won’t let you go [to a] concert. When you ask why, the answer is, “Because I said so.” You: a. scowl and request a better explanation. b. hurl the TV remote at his head and stomp upstairs. c. shrug.

(8) A really bad cold has your brother laid up in bed for two days. You happen to walk by his room, and he demands in a pompous tone that you get him a glass of orange juice. You: a. tell him that saying please doesn’t hurt, and then head to the kitchen. b. immediately walk to the garage and slash both of the tires on his bike. c. rush to see if there’s any fresh-squeezed in the fridge.
At the end of this quiz, you were supposed to know whether your anger was too tepid, medium hot, or boiling over. We can quibble with the accuracy of a magazine quiz. But it is based on a reality about us as human beings. It’s this: the capacity for anger is something God has built into us and there are times when it’s right and times when it’s wrong to be angry!

Someone has said that, “Anger is an emotional reaction to your interpretation of a life experience in which your expectations are not met or are violated.” A wife comes home from work expecting a quiet evening alone with her husband and kids only to learn that her husband has invited buddies over to watch the NCAA basketball tournament. An employee gets good reviews for three years in a row and is promised a promotion, but the promotion never comes. Our lives are filled with a hundred potential flash points each day. Anger happens. We need to learn to manage it, harness it, and use it creatively.

The Institute for Mental Health Initiatives has developed a method for coping or controlling our anger built on the acronym RETHINK:
  • Recognize when you’re angry and what’s causing it;
  • Empathize, trying to see the other person’s point of view;
  • Think of other ways you might be able to interpret the situation making you angry;
  • Hear what the other person is saying;
  • Integrate love and respect into the way you deal with your anger;
  • Notice your body’s reaction to anger and find ways to calm down;
  • Keep your attention focused on the present and don’t bring up past offenses.
In the Bible, God doesn’t condemn anger itself. In the New Testament, for example, the apostle Paul advises, “Be angry, but do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” In other words, it’s okay for us to get mad as long as we don’t let our anger turn into spitefulness or hate. And by all means, if we’re angry with someone, we should try to resolve our disputes right away. Unresolved disputes inevitably cause us to sin.

I must confess that anger doesn’t come easily to me. I would probably lean toward the tepid end of that quiz’s reckoning. It takes a lot for me to get angry. There may be others here today who tilt toward the boiling over end of the spectrum. Either place is probably unhealthy. But if we can find a way to use our anger, putting it under the discipline of God, it can become a force for good.

Our Gospel lesson for this morning recounts a famous incident in which Jesus, visiting the temple in Jerusalem, gave full vent to holy anger. In those days, people would go to the temple to offer sacrifices to God. Wealthy folks could afford to sacrifice cattle and sheep. Poorer people sacrificed doves or even grain. In the outer court, the place where non-Jews were allowed to be, the temple featured a kind of shopping mall. At the temple, you could only use temple money to buy the animals that were used for sacrificing. But out on the streets of Jerusalem, Roman money was used. If you came to the temple to offer a sacrifice then, the first thing you had to do was exchange your Roman coins for temple coins. You did this with a person called a moneychanger. These moneychangers were notorious gougers. They didn’t care what the exchange rate was. They were the only game in town, so to speak. So they got away with charging the worshipers exorbitant service charges. The same gouging was practiced by those who sold the animals to be sacrificed. Jesus was enraged by all of this!

That was when Jesus had His famous temple tantrum, throwing the moneychangers out of the place, upsetting their tables, freeing the animals from their cages, and generally setting loose what forest firefighters might call a “controlled burn.”

As followers of Jesus, the only legitimate kind of anger is Jesus’ brand of holy anger. But what is holy anger?

Holy anger, first of all, has to do with zeal for God. After Jesus’ anger, they remembered words from the Old Testament’s Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” Jesus was zealous for the things that make God the Father zealous.

We see similar zeal in people who follow God.
  • Mother Teresa was zealous for loving and cherishing life.
  • Martin Luther was zealous for tearing down the walls the Church of his day had erected between Jesus Christ and the world for which He died and rose.
As Lutheran Pastor Dan Anderson puts it, “Holy anger is righteous indignation that leads to action.”

Holy anger is also about love for others. Jesus didn’t give vent to rage because somebody had cut him off in traffic or because somebody took the last scoop of black walnut crunch ice cream that He’d wanted. Jesus was upset that the merchants at the Temple Mall had put a price tag on God’s love and forgiveness. You and I know that these are gifts that God offers to all through Jesus Christ. When we see others being hurt, our call is clear. Holy love demands that we get angry for our neighbor’s sake.

Holy anger is productive and useful. Martin Luther knew this. “When I am angry,” Luther said. “I can write, pray, and preach well, for my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart.” Luther’s holy anger compelled him to do the right thing as he sought to give all people personal access to the God we know through Jesus Christ.

Anger is an inevitable element of our humanity. But God calls us to harness our anger for His purposes. In 1979, on a Maryland street, the car in which five-and-a-half month old Laura Lamb and her mother, Cindi were riding was hit head-on by a drunk driver traveling at 120 miles per hour. Laura became the world’s youngest quadriplegic. In California less than a year later, thirteen year old Cari Lightner was killed by a drunk driver. Just two days earlier, he had been released on bail for a hit-and-run drunk driving crash and already had two drunk driving convictions behind him. Cari’s mother Candace formed an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and soon linked her efforts with those of Cindi Lamb, who had already undertaken similar efforts in Maryland. Twenty-three years later, MADD is still a controlled burn, translating the anger and rage of parents who have seen the pain inflicted by drunk drivers into positive actions. MADD has heightened our awareness of the dangers of driving while under the influence of alcohol and of the need for designated drivers. They’ve gotten laws passed that get drunks off of our roads and highways and make all of us safer.

What holy anger do you have today?

Maybe you’re angry over child abuse.

It may be the increasing evidence of drug addiction here in Logan or the crying needs of the unemployed.

It could be the way in which Satan and the evil of the world fogs people’s minds and wills, turning them from the better and eternal life offered by Jesus Christ.

I get angry sometimes with the Church at large and at times, myself in particular, for failing to invite others to know and experience life with God or hiding God behind a lot of churchy language.

Today, commit yourself to harnessing your holy anger—the anger that comes not from selfishness, but from the love and passion of God for people in need around you--and using it in positive, productive, proactive ways.

Burn for God and let the world see the glow of Jesus’ love in you.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 19

A willingness to be served by others can also be an act of servanthood.

Let me tell you about a man I once knew. His sudden death, seemingly in the prime of life, came as a shock to everyone. One phrase was used repeatedly to describe him: "He was a nice guy.” I knew that this was true. But I knew something else: He had been unhappy.

"I'm everybody's doormat," Mr. Nice Guy once said. "I don’t mind doing things for others. But I never seem able to muster the courage to ask anyone else to help me."

Often, nice-guyism is at least partially motivated not by love for others and certainly not by a desire to respond to God’s love given to us through Christ, but by a desire to feel important.

Richard Foster writes of the night Jesus spent with the apostles before He was arrested: “When Jesus began to wash the feet of those he loved, Peter refused. He would never let his Master stoop to such a menial service on his behalf. It sounds like a statement of humility; in reality it was an act of veiled pride. Jesus’ service was an affront to Peter’s concept of authority. If Peter had been the master, he would not have washed feet!”

As a pastor, I’m often given special treatment by other Christians. Because of that, I try to incorporate service into my daily relationships. At a wedding reception one night, I was going to refrain from getting my food, which was being served cafeteria-style, until everybody else had theirs. But as I sat at my seat, the bride’s father approached me. “What would you like to eat, pastor?” he asked. “You don’t have to get my meal,” I told him. A somewhat hurt expression crossed his face. He said, “I know I don’t have to do it. But I want to do it.” It would have been the cruelest act of arrogance on my part not to let that man serve my food to me.

A willingness to be served by others can also be an act of servanthood.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me...She has done what she could” (Mark 14:6, 8).