Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pictures from My Dad's 80th Birthday Party

One of my sisters has posted pics on Facebook from our Dad's eightieth birthday party. My brother, Marty, and his wife Trina were unable to be there and several of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren couldn't be there. But my three sisters and I were there, along with our spouses, along with quite a few of the grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and of course, my Mom. Click here to see the pics.

It puts me in mind of a sentimental little ditty I wrote for one of Dad's birthdays--thirty-three years ago, the recording of which featured primitive overdubbing involving the use of two old tape recorders. Some of the lyrics:
This greeting song is written for a very special man
He may not be the wealthiest or the emperor of Japan
Still there's something special, one can plainly see
After all this man has sired a special son like me.

Happy birthday, Dad
I know it ain't bad
Getting older
When you've got me looking over your shoulder...
Well, you get the idea. In my family, it's pretty much, the goofier the better. And I'm still looking over Dad's shoulder.

It's too bad...

Humphrey Bogart never played Henry Hudson in film. Bogart's Caine Mutiny* captain, wronged by his crew, had a lot in common with Hudson:
In 1610 Hudson set off in the Discovery on another journey for the East Indies, this time determined on making it through the Northwest Passage. He and his men sailed through the body of water now named Hudson Strait and then into Hudson Bay, where they sailed as far south as they could and spent a brutal winter trapped by ice in modern-day James Bay. When the ice finally thawed in June 1611, Hudson’s crew mutinied. The rebels believed that they had to get rid of Hudson because his command of the Discovery put the entire expedition at risk. His crime? According to the most detailed surviving report, Hudson had insisted on distributing scanty food supplies among all the crew, even those who had become ill or injured and hence were less likely to survive. The mutineers also claimed that their captain had hidden rations for his favorites. For these infractions the mutineers put Hudson, his seventeen-year old son, and seven others loyal to the captain on a small boat (known as a shallop) and set them adrift. No one reported seeing them again.
From one of two interesting pieces on Hudson on the History News Network web site. Here's a link to the other.

*The Caine Mutiny was originally a novel by Herman Wouk.

Henry Hudson didn't look a lot like Humphrey Bogart, it should be said. But then, Henry Fonda didn't look like Abraham Lincoln either.

I don't know if Hudsom had a particular fondness for strawberries.

So, If you're wealthy and prominent...

you don't have to obey drug laws?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fallout from ELCA Churchwide Assembly May Include Reconfiguration of North American Lutheranism

See here.

1 in 33 Regularly Worshiping Females Have Been Targets of Sexual Advances by Religious Leaders

That's appalling. The fellowship of the Church should be the very place where people are protected from having their vulnerabilities exploited. Of course, Christians, including clergy, are saints and sinners simultaneously. Still, you'd hope that prayerful vigilance, accountability, and transparency would prevent such a high incidence of sexual exploitation on the part of religious leaders.

Jan Edmiston has the link to a WaPo story about those findings, along with her reflections.

A Look at This Coming Sunday's Bible Lessons

[Each week, I try to present a bit of background on one or all of the appointed Bible lessons for the succeeding Sunday. I hope that you find it helpful.]

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 13, 2009

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9

James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

The Prayer of the Day:
O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

[I'll be preaching on the James text and only discussing it here this week.]

General Comments:
1. For some general information on the New Testament book of James, go here.

2. Most scholars agree that James 3:1-12 is a tightly constructed essay.

The book of James is an example of what Biblical scholars call wisdom literature. But unlike most examples of this genre, James weaves the aphorisms and forms of argument associated with this literature into cohesive statements, essays.

The overall theme of James is that Christians should authenticate the faith they believe and confess in the way they live; that living requires wisdom, which can only be acquired through faithful reliance on Jesus Christ through the everyday moments of life.

But more than delivering a series of should statements, James seems to be saying that we can act our way into deep faith. If we take the risk of living the way faithful people live, we'll find Christ at work, creating genuine trust in God within us.

This weekend's lesson is bookended, forming what the scholars call an inclusio (or inclusion), by addressing believers as brothers and sisters at both the beginning and the end of the essay.

3. It would be inappropriate, I think, to believe that this chapter is addressed only to teachers of the faith. Given the general tenor of the book of James and the fact that it was addressed to Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the Mediterranean region, James is here discussing the corrosive effects of gossip and other intemperate speech on the fellowship of the Church and its witness before the world. All Christians are called to put their speech under the authority of Jesus Christ, though James acknowledges "that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (3:1, the only place in the book where James uses the first person plural).

4. Concern over the devastating effect of uncontrolled speech was commonly expressed not only in the Old Testament and other Jewish literature, it also was a frequent theme in the writings of ancient philosophy. But there are some very specifically Biblical and Christian elements to James' discussion of this problem that aren't found in other ancient literature. Among these unique elements, which I hope to delve into in the verse-by-verse comments, are:
  • Seeing gossip and other unseemly talk as an outbreak of hell.
  • A pessimistic view of our capacity for exercising human-directed self-control over our speech.
  • An acknowledgement that because none of us is perfect, we cannot control our speech.
  • The doublemindedness that James speaks of earlier in the book (1:8) is reflected in the doubletongued ways of those under the influence of hell. Such people dare to praise God and curse the person made in the image of God with the same tongue.
  • The passage is filled with allusions to the creation imagery of Genesis and the ideas of being made part of a new creation through Jesus Christ which we've already seen several times in the book of James.
  • At the end of this passage, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that the only way to be self-controlled in speech is to rely on the power of God. (Paul says that self-control is a "fruit of the Spirit," the result of faithful reliance on Jesus Christ, in Galatians 5:22-23.)
5. This passage has more than speech in mind, of course. All our communication is included.

Verse-by-Verse Comments:
1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
(1) Jesus, like James, speaks of the stringent standards to which teachers are held by God in Matthew 5:19. Jesus also upbraids those teachers who love their role for the honor it accords them, rather than doing it to be servants.

(2) But verse 2 will make clear, the speech of all Christians has eternal significance, either reflecting the presence of Christ in our lives or the disruption, discord, hate, greed, and envy of hell.

2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.
(1) James is not about to commend religious perfectionism. None of us is perfect, he says. In order for our speech to accord with God's will for human beings, we need wisdom. Wisdom is ours when we ask God to give it to us, James has already said. Wisdom, in short, is a gift God grants to those who live in what Martin Luther called "daily repentance and renewal."

(2) The image of the bridle as a check on one's mouth is a commonplace in Hebrew, Greek, religious, and secular discussions of uncontrolled speech. But James will discuss this issue in decidedly Christian terms.

3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
(1) In the world around us, we see how large things can be controlled by small measures. The tongue is a small thing, the strongest muscle in the human body, that controls our body and mind. Yet when our words aren't under God's control, they're under demonic control, as James will soon make plain. The damage thus inflicted by our words--our tongues--is incalculable!

(2) Chris Haslam notes that one of the books of the Apocrypha, Sirach, has some passages that relate to these verses. (The Apocrypha is a set of writings which neither Jews or Protestant Christians accept as being part of the Bible, but is accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic and Episcopal fellowships.) I found the following passages, beyond even those specifically cited by Haslam, to be of particular interest in connection with our verses from James:
Curse the whisperer and doubletongued: for such have destroyed many that were at peace. A backbiting tongue hath disquieted many, and driven them from nation to nation: strong cities hath it pulled down, and overthrown the houses of great men. A backbiting tongue hath cast out virtuous women, and deprived them of their labours. Whoso hearkeneth unto it shall never find rest, and never dwell quietly. The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones. Many have fallen by the edge of the sword: but not so many as have fallen by the tongue. Well is he that is defended through the venom thereof; who hath not drawn the yoke thereof, nor hath been bound in her bands. For the yoke thereof is a yoke of iron, and the bands thereof are bands of brass. The death thereof is an evil death, the grave were better than it. It shall not have rule over them that fear God, neither shall they be burned with the flame thereof. Such as forsake the Lord shall fall into it; and it shall burn in them, and not be quenched; it shall be sent upon them as a lion, and devour them as a leopard. (Sirach 28:13-23)
While I don't accept the books of the Apocrypha as being part of the Bible, they do give us some insight into the thinking of the early Jewish-Christian community of which James was, according to Acts, a prime leader. Sirach, like James, is an example of wisdom literature, albeit one not as sophisticated as James. Unlike Sirach, James also explicitly links wisdom and right-living to the maintenance of a strong relationship with Christ, a relationship initiated in Baptism, when God's Name is invoked over Christians.

6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.
(1) The New Interpreter's Bible says that the image of the tongue inflamed by hell means more than that "speech is a problem to be solved." In it, James "points to the cosmic dualism that underlies the two ways of directing human freedom"; it can be directed by God or by the devil. James more fully explores this theme in his discussion of human arrogance and its horrible effects on the Church in 3:13-4:10.

7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
(1) Obviously, James is engaging in a little hyperbole in v. 7. Not every species of beast and bird has been tamed by human beings. But many species have been so tamed. And, at the least, human beings exercise dominion over the created order. (Sometimes not to good effect.)

James' argument here is derived from a typical Jewish form of argumentation, employed often in the Old Testament as well as by Jesus and by Paul. The formula is: If this little thing, then how much more this big thing.

James' argument will be: If this little thing, how astounding this smaller thing, which it turns out, is really a much bigger thing.

James is saying, "We're able to tame or subdue the animals of the earth, yet we can't tame a smaller thing, our words. But, in fact, our tiny words are much bigger and far deadlier than the greatest physical predator we will ever encounter! They have the ability to destroy others and ourselves."

(2) The tongue is merely a symbol for our human capacity for communication, often used in intemperate, egotistical, boastful, unkind, or hurtful ways.

(3) The description of the tongue as "a restless evil, full of deadly poison" is an apparent allusion to the serpent whose lying words tempted Eve and Adam into rebellion against God. (A mark of the subtlety of the serpent is that he told the truth in a lying way. It was true that Adam and Eve were not immediately killed by eating the forbidden fruit. But decay and death had become part of the human experience through this chasm created between humanity and the Author of life.)

(4) Chris Haslam points out that the order in which "beast...bird...reptile...and sea creature" are listed here is the same in which they appear in Genesis 9:2 (in which God speaks to Noah); Deuteronomy 4:17-18 (in which God's people are told not to make idols); and I Kings 4:33 (which speaks of Solomon).

(5) Haslam also points out that the reference to the "deadly poison" emitted by those who misuse the gift of speech echoes Psalm 140:3, which says of evildoers:
They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s, and under their lips is the venom of vipers.
As you can see, these two verses are rife with allusions to Genesis, the Old Testament book which the ancient rabbis insisted was key to understanding God and the faith.

(6) In the description of the tongue as "a restless evil" is mirrored Biblical descriptions of the devil (or Satan). In Job 1:7, for example, Satan tells God that he has been going "to and fro on the earth...walking up and down on it." And First Peter exhorts Christians to stay connected to God, alert to temptations, by saying, "Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour" (First Peter 5:8).

Jesus, in telling people to remain connected to God and alert to temptations after they've been delivered from evil, says that the demons of hell evidence the same restless energy seen in the devil himself, a desire to indwell people and so rob them of life. He also says that we need to fill the vacancies left by old sins and addictions with Him, His life, and His love, otherwise sinful dependencies may take up residence in us again:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)
9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
(1) We dare to praise God and then curse, put down, belittle, or marginalize human beings made in God's image. That doesn't work in the Kingdom of God! John writes in the New Testament:
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (First John 4:20-21)
(2) Yet again, this passage alludes to Genesis, reminding us that in one of its creation accounts, Genesis says that we human beings, unlike all the other living things God created, were made "in the image of God."

11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
(1) In the last few verses of his essay, James explains why this ought not to be so (v. 10).

(2) Fruit was an accessible image to an ancient agricultural society like the one from which the Bible emerged. The idea in much of the Bible's use of fruit imagery is that the way we live will reflect what's going on inside of us.

Are we connected to the God we meet in Jesus Christ, surrendered to Him?

Or, is someone else calling the shots in our lives, such as the devil, the world, or our sinful selves, to paraphrase Martin Luther?

John the Baptist, as he prepared the people of Judea for Jesus' ministry, called the people to repent and is quoted in Luke's Gospel as saying:
“You brood of vipers! [venomous snakes again!] Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9)
Jesus tells His disciples that those who remain faithful to Him will display that faith in their living:
My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:8)
Paul says that those who are in relationship with Christ, in whom the Holy Spirit thus lives, will evidence that presence in their living:
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5:19-23)
Jesus also says that we'll be able to pick out false prophets from those speaking on His behalf "by their fruits." (He also says that He will allow these false prophets to continue to operate because if he were to destroy them, he would also destroy the righteous among whom they live.):
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? (Matthew 7:15-16)

How-To Guide for Regular "House Cleaning"


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Yes, Buckeyes!

From, regarding Ohio State's appearance as the eighth-ranked college football team this week:
8. Ohio State: 755th week Buckeyes have been ranked in the AP poll, breaking tie with Michigan (754 and not ranked) for most appearances all-time.
Even though the Buckeyes dropped from sixth after their win over Navy, that's still impressive. Ohio State has a huge challenge next week when USC comes to Columbus.

How I Got So Smart

My wife and I bought a GameBoy for our son when he was in his early teens, some fifteen years ago or so. Phil is out of the house. But the GameBoy has remained with us and is far from being exiled to the Island of Unwanted Toys. Many a night while watching the evening news or catching something else on the tube, my wife and I play Tetris.

Now, comes evidence that this addictive game "may boost the size and efficiency of parts of the brain." I wondered what accounted for the enormous increase in the IQs of my wife and me over the past fifteen years. Now I know.

"Can Obama's Big Speech Really Turn Public Opinion Around?"

That's the topic of historian George C. Edwards III's blog post over at History News Network.

Looking at presidents noted for their persuasive powers and legislative achievements, Edwards concludes that "the power to persuade" may be a bit overstated. I think that he's right.

Presidents (and other political actors) can persuade only as much as the moment allows. They can exploit and they can nudge, but they can't create consensus out of whole cloth. Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, for example, both learned this.

Abraham Lincoln admitted to having been controlled by events. But, in spite of the seeming fatalism of that admission, Lincoln is remembered, rightly, as a great and decisive president. The point is that he understood his moment.

Even without achieving their most cherished of personal goals--as was the case with Ronald Reagan, presidents can achieve great things if they have the vision not to see ahead, but to see their worlds as they are during their times in office.

The bottom line for me is this: President Obama's health care speech tomorrow night may clarify some things; but it will have little to do with what I expect will be the ultimate outcome, congressional passage of a new health care plan. Passage will happen because, the polling suggests, Americans are ready for some of the individual components of the plan. It's a ripe historical moment and Obama seems to understand that.

Given Comfort to Be a Comfort

See here.


In today's daily emailed inspiration, my friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot presents challenging words from Dag Hammarskjold, Lutheran, first Secretary General of the United Nations, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, which clearly reflect the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament:
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Thought for the Day

Goodness is something so simple:

always to live for others,

never seek one's own advantage.

Dag Hammarskjold

Luke 6:33,35 NIV

And if you do good to those who are good to you,
what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that.

But love your enemies, do good to them,
and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.
Then your reward will be great,
and you will be sons of the Most High,
because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.


Lord, help me to put others first in my life.


"Thanks for the ticket!"

One of the many ways in which I make my family nuts is how I respond to Highway Patrol, county sheriff, or community police cruisers when we're out driving.

Say it's a holiday weekend like the one we're just completing. Someone will say, in ominous tones, "There's a patrol car" and I'll respond, "Good! They're keeping the rest of us safe from dangerous drivers."

I know. That's incredibly square.

It isn't as though I haven't been caught speeding while driving myself. It's happened several times and it's less than pleasant paying a speeding fine. Every time it's happened to me, I haven't been able to keep from thinking about all the good things toward which that money could have gone!

And I have known people to have had bad run-ins with law enforcement personnel who've cited them for traffic violations. Off the top of my head, I can tell you stories of three different twenty-something young men who lived in my former community in the Cincinnati area, none of whom had violated any laws, but because they were in their twenties, ran afoul of law enforcement:
  • One had his vehicle hit by another driver out on a country road. Initially, the offending driver was cited. But several days later, someone called to ask if, in light of the lofty status of a relative of the offending driver, he would be willing to be cited. That way, the VIP would be spared any negative publicity. (I never understood how negative publicity would happen, by the way.) When the naive twenty-something, afraid to cross people in authority, agreed to the request, he soon found himself spending thirty days in the county jail.
  • One drove a van on an icy night after he and his mates gave a Christian rock concert at a church. Less than a minute after they drove off of the church parking lot, they were pulled over for driving left of their lane. He was taken to court and when the young man's father, a respected guy in the community, asked for permission to speak with the judge, he was threatened with contempt and time in jail. That young man, by the way, is now an officer in the US Army who has served multiple tours in Iraq.
  • One had been in his car less than thirty seconds after visiting friends on a Memorial Day weekend. The police officer ordered him out of his car, took away his cell phone, put him in cuffs, and took him for a breathalyzer. When the young man "blew" less than half of the legal level for intoxication, he was still charged with being in control of a vehicle while intoxicated. Ultimately, though he hadn't even put the key into the ignition, a judge and two lawyers, in consultation with the arresting officer, decided to convict the young man for driving 55 miles per hour in a 25MPH zone.
Yet for all the excesses and profiling--racial, ethnic, age, and otherwise--that riddles the enforcement of traffic laws, the need for legitimate control over speeding and other forms of reckless driving is undeniable.

That's why I react the way I do to police cruisers when I'm out driving.

Tom Vanderbilt, in a recent piece in, suggests that panic shouldn't be our first reaction when we see the "local cop's cherry top." The Week summarizes Vanderbilt's argument:
Americans’ most common contact with police is “the dreaded and oft-scorned traffic stop,” said Tom Vanderbilt. Most of us view being stopped for speeding or other infractions as an irritating act of government intrusion into a trivial offense.

But traffic stops actually serve as a critical tool for maintaining public safety—and not just on the roads. Police make more than 20 million traffic stops each year, and they often serve “as a net for catching bigger fish.’’ People with disdain for traffic laws have disdain for all laws. So “routine’’ traffic stops often result “in a trunk’s worth of drugs, a cache of hidden weapons, or an outstanding warrant.’’ Cities that emphasize high-visibility traffic enforcement, including Baltimore, have seen a reduction in the overall crime rate. Meanwhile, France has reduced its “road fatality rate” by 43 percent since 2000, largely through an aggressive deployment of automated speed cameras and tough penalties.

So the next time a cop pulls you over, instead of cursing him under your breath, you might say “thanks.’’ That speeding ticket is helping to save people’s lives.
While law enforcement needs to be held accountable for the kinds of abuses I mentioned above, whenever police officers pull someone over who's been going too fast, they're not usually doing something petty or inconsequential.

Of course, my esteem for the highway patrol might go back to watching Highway Patrol, starring Broderick Crawford, best known for his starring role in the original screen incarnation of All the King's Men.

By the way, here's a video of a live performance by Bruce Springsteen and his band of Jungleland, the song from which that line about the "local cop's cherry top" is taken.

Monday, September 07, 2009

A Great Message from the President of the United States to Our Young People

For all the drama that has preceded the speech that President Obama is scheduled to give to the students of our country tomorrow, the address itself turns out to be an entirely unexceptionable call to education, studiousness, responsibility, and love of country.

Under the Constitution, presidents aren't just political heads of government, they're also chiefs of state, meaning that they represent all of us, the sovereignty and interests of the entire country. It's in this capacity that presidents throw out pitches to open baseball seasons and recognize heroes.

It's also in this role that past presidents, like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have spoken to children during their school days.

Thanks, President Obama, for a great message for our children. If just one kid hears it and takes its message to heart, it will have made a huge difference.

Here's the speech, care of Justin Gardner:
Prepared Remarks of President Barack Obama
Back to School Event
Arlington, Virginia
September 8, 2009

The President: Hello everyone – how’s everybody doing today? I’m here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. And we’ve got students tuning in from all across America, kindergarten through twelfth grade. I’m glad you all could join us today.

I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it’s your first day in a new school, so it’s understandable if you’re a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you’re in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could’ve stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.

I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.

Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I’m here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I’m here because I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year.

Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.

I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.

I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.

I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.

Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

Now I know it’s not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.

I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.

Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.

That’s what young people like you are doing every day, all across America.

Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn’t speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.

I’m thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who’s fought brain cancer since he was three. He’s endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer – hundreds of extra hours – to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he’s headed to college this fall.

And then there’s Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she’s on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.

Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren’t any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same.

That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education – and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.

Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.

But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

My Three Kid Sisters

No, that's not the name of a sitcom from the 60s. This really is a picture of my three kid sisters, snapped during a party we had for my father's eightieth birthday yesterday.

You're going to have to click on the image to enlarge.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


U2's hymn of praise to God as performed on the Letterman show in March.

If you go to the U2 discography site, the words of Magnificent are the current featured lyrics.

Facing Evil: When We Can't, Jesus Can

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

Mark 7:24-37
I was a young pastor. I’d received what I thought was a solid seminary education. I believed in the Bible. And I accepted the Lordship of Jesus with all my heart. But whenever I ran across passages in the Gospels telling about Jesus casting out demons, I didn’t know what to make of them.

I had never met anyone that I thought to be demon-possessed. And many Bible scholars who comment on such passages say confidently that those people the Bible describes as having demons really were mentally ill or suffering from some other affliction.

Then, I met a husband and wife missionary team supported by the first congregation I served. The couple was in the States on furlough and had come to speak at our church’s annual outdoor mission festival. They served in India and most of their work was with a leper colony they had founded there. One day, while speaking with them privately though, I was surprised when, after they told me about worship services, many conversions to Christ, and the medical clinic they ran, this couple also said that occasionally, they performed exorcisms.

I tried to conceal my shock behind a poker face. “Exorcisms?” I thought. “You mean, like in the Gospels, like in the movies, you cast out demons?”

I guess that they could see my unspoken questions and began to explain that sometimes, people would be brought to them who displayed a cluster of symptoms that might include depression, violence, self-destructiveness, convulsions, or explosive rage. When medical treatment and counseling proved ineffective, the missionaries told me, they were fairly certain that the problem wasn’t psychological or medical; they were dealing with demons.

It was then that they would call on the Name of Jesus to cast evil from the people brought to them. They told me about people whose lives were totally turned around, all their former disturbing symptoms gone, because their demons were exorcised or removed by the power of Jesus Christ.

I found that I had to believe them. They weren’t nut cases. They were well-known to all the people of my first parish; the wife, a nurse, had been raised there. And they claimed to have met demon-possessed people and seen Jesus cast the demons out.

So, I thought, trying to make sense of it all, demon possession and the possibility of exorcising demons from people must be real. But, I reasoned, this whole phenomenon must be something that in today’s world only happens in primitive settings more like first-century Judea where the Bible tells us that Jesus cast out demons. The teeming, impoverished section of India where those two missionaries served would have been more like that than would the United States.

That line of reasoning, I suppose, was comforting for me. Nobody wants to run into a demon. So, I told myself that they weren’t to be found in the good old US of A.

But truth be told, I think I was only whistling in the dark. If you believe in the existence of evil—and who can watch a TV news report or read the news online and not believe that there is evil?—then how can you deny the possibility that evil may so fill a person’s mind and life that they become possessed by that evil?

And besides, if I believed in the Bible and if, when reading it, I ran across incidents like the one recounted in today’s Gospel lesson, in which a desperate woman asks Jesus to cast out a demon from her daughter and Jesus, in response to her faith, does just that, how could I keep whistling in the dark?

I soon learned that it isn’t just Christian preachers who wrestle with such issues. Psychotherapist R.D. Laing gained prominence in the late-1960s with his cutting edge thoughts on human psychology—some of it kooky, some of it right on. In his book, The Divided Self, published in 1964, Laing noted “a…curious phenomenon of the personality…is that in which the individual seems to be the vehicle of a personality that is not his own. Someone else’s personality seems to ‘possess’ him, finding expression through his words and actions, whereas the individual’s own personality is temporarily ‘lost’ or gone…”

But even if references to demon-possession sound like way-out psychobabble or kooky preacher talk to you, I think you’ll agree that evil—active opposition to the will and commands of God, refusal to reverence God, and resistance to loving others—is increasing in our world today.

That’s because evil fills up the vacuums, the empty places of our lives, our institutions, and even our churches.

In the New Testament’s last book, Revelation, the risen and ascended Jesus tells one church that though their congregation is commendable in lots of ways, the members had forgotten their first love.

In other words, that congregation had become a social club, not a family of believers who sought to give God thanks for Jesus’ death and resurrection through changed lives.

It didn't seek to share Christ with others.

Churches that forget that Christ is to be their first love stop being churches and seem not to pray, “Change my heart, God,”* but, “God, You need to change with the times.”

We leave room for evil when we put ourselves first in life and when we forget that Christ is to be our first love.

People also leave room for evil when they fail to maintain personal contact with God.

Week before last, I went to Columbus to have lunch with my best friend from high school, a fellow I’ve known since the fourth grade, who lives in Arizona and only gets back this way once a year. On the way up to Columbus, I wondered what his mood would be. He’s going through the breakup of his marriage of thirty years.

“I’m keeping my life simple right now,” he told me. “No TV. A one-room apartment. I go to work. I read my Bible and pray every day. I go to men’s Bible study at church. I go to worship on Sunday. [And pulling out a card, he told me] I’m an agent of the FBIC, Mark: Fully Believing in Christ.”

When I left Bill that day, I knew he would be OK. He had invited Jesus to participate in his life. His relationship with God is personal.

Evil goes where Jesus Christ has not been invited. That’s why it’s so critically important for you and me to pray for our spiritually-disconnected friends, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates.

That’s why it’s central to who we are as Christians to invite those who aren’t in relationship with Christ and the Church to get to know Jesus Christ, to worship with us, to dig into God’s Word with us.

It’s why you and I need, in the words of Martin Luther which you’ve heard me cite many times, to live in daily repentance and renewal, daily surrendering to Christ so that evil cannot get a decisive foothold in our lives or in the lives of those for whom we pray.

And it’s essential that we pay attention to who hasn’t been worshiping with us lately, to pray for them, and, in simple Christian love and friendship, call them up and find out how they’re doing.

Just how the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman in today’s Gospel lesson came to be possessed by evil isn’t said. Of course, she was, like the deaf mute man Jesus also heals in the lesson, a Gentile, a non-Jew, who may never have heard the story of the God of all creation who had made the Jews His chosen people and, over long centuries, had prepared them for the arrival of the Messiah, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.

But the actions of this mother should be a lesson to all of us. She didn’t give up hope. She went to Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter. As Luther reminds us in A Mighty Fortress is Our God, “hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us.” But we can, as the hymn also says, “tremble not, unmoved we stand,” knowing that evil cannot overpower us.**

Once, I met a Lutheran pastor who told me about his childhood and youth lived in North Dakota, near a small town that had little for young people to do and offered few opportunities for the future. He had more than a few run-ins with the law and his life seemed to be spinning inevitably toward dysfunction and evil.

One day, he passed the bedroom of his grandfather, in his nineties, then living with his family. The old man was praying for children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and neighbors. He prayed for blessings, guidance, and healing.

Then this troubled teenager heard his grandfather begin to pray for him. The grandfather’s voice choked and the boy could see that he was sobbing softly as he asked God to intervene in the young man’s life, to guide him, to help the boy follow Jesus and live, rather than give in to the sin of this dying world.

At that moment, the teen thought his grandfather was silly. But, as the years went by, increasingly, when he contemplated doing wrong or stupid things, something or Someone, seemed to steer him elsewhere. His grandfather’s prayers were answered. That’s how that felow ended up following Christ, ended up in seminary, ended up a pastor.

The power of evil is huge in our world today. But as the Syrophoenician woman in our Gospel lesson learned when she prayed for her daughter, Jesus is able to overcome all and give us new life.

Today, tomorrow, everyday, put your life—put the life of the world—in the hands of Jesus.

When we fall, Jesus lifts us.

When we die, Jesus gives us life.

When we can’t, Jesus can. Always.


*"Change my heart, O God" is the opening line of the praise song featured in the video below. It's based on imagery of God as the potter to whom the believer is called to willingly submit, allowing God to make them new. Check out this list of Scripture passages (and their contexts) to see how the terms "potter" and "clay" are used in both the Old and New Testaments.

**Below is a performance of A Mighty Fortress is Our God by the Pacific Lutheran University Choir of the West.