Saturday, December 05, 2009

About Those Google Ads

Readers of Better Living will notice that Google ads appear both near the top and at the bottom of each page to which you go here.

Some of the ads promote what I consider fairly "fringie" expressions of Christianity--speculators about the times and particulars of the apocalypse (something Jesus says we have no business doing), pseudo-theologians offering their own unbiblical theories on how Jesus saves us from sin and death, and so on.

I just wanted you to know that I have nothing to do with the advertisers that appear here and their appearance on this blog doesn't denote endorsement.

The ads appear as a result of my participation in the Google AdSense program. Through it, bloggers "earn" a few cents every time readers click on an advertiser's link appearing on their page. So far, as of November last year, after six years of blogging, I'd received $105.78 for the ad traffic generated from this blog. And I don't expect any more income to be generated here until about 2033. (Google only cuts checks once the clicking adds up to $100.)

Admittedly, this is the poor side of the Internet. That's OK.

But remember that just because someone's ad appears here doesn't mean I endorse what they're promoting.

Get Well, Evan Turner!


Buckeyes, without Turner, face Butler next Saturday. They barely lost to Clemson today.

Help Tim Vogel Climb Carew Tower

My friend and former parishioner, Tim Vogel, is climbing Carew Tower in Cincinnati once more this year to raise money for the Lung Association. Please pledge for Tim's climb for this important cause. Thanks!

God, Help Me to Desire YOU More Than Anything This Christmas

Good words from Julie Ackerman Link.

In reading Link's devotional piece, some will undoubtedly say--as I was inclined to say as I read it, "Hey, I'm not a kid. I don't want presents and candy for Christmas."

We might say, "I just want a safe gathering with my family." Or, "I want everybody to get along." Or, "I want the kids to have nice Christmases." (The latter sentiment often accompanied by the old saw, "After all, Christmas is for kids.")

But if our goals for this Christmas are safe, happy gatherings of family, conviviality, or happy children, we're aiming way too low!

(And if we think that "Christmas is for kids," we really don't get it at all.)

Christmas, that humanly created blip on the calendar, is meant to be a reminder of the thing we should most desire, not just at Christmas, but always. That's God.

On the first Christmas, whatever time of the year it actually happened, God entered into our world to give Himself to us. Jesus is not just truly human, but truly God. We Christians are remembered to how He gave Himself to us and for us every time we receive His body and blood in Holy Communion. ("This is My body, given for you...This is My blood, shed for you.")

We're called to desire the presence of God in our lives--in every part of our lives--not because God is some egomaniac. It's because without God, we are incomplete. It's because without God, we don't have God's life in us. It's because without God, we don't have the capacity to become the people God designed us to be and our relationships can't be powered by His self-giving love.

For Christmas this year, and for every day of my life, I'm asking God to help me to desire one thing above all else--more than comfort, ease, freedom from difficulties, or anything else. I want to be a person who desires God above all else.

Work in my desires, Lord Jesus, to make You and Your glory the object of all my desires. Amen

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Mary, the Faithful Disciple

[This was shared during tonight's Midweek Advent Worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Luke 1:26-38
Mary might well have wondered if she’d lost her mind. After all, how many times have you seen an angel? And how many virgins have babies?

She could be excused maybe, for writing off her entire experience with the angel Gabriel as a figment of her imagination. Or, to have treated the angel’s message with the kind of skepticism with which Zechariah, the husband of Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, treated Gabriel’s message to him that he and Elizabeth would have a son. Yet Mary believed.

She might also be excused for being more than a bit resentful. A young woman—a girl, really—who had not consummated her arranged marriage to Joseph, the Nazareth fix-it man, Mary knew that once her pregnancy became known, she would probably be dragged outside her small town and stoned to death. Yet Mary believed.

We know that Mary was not always the perfect disciple. As Jesus grew older, she allowed herself to forget that Jesus did not belong to her. No child really does belong to a parent, of course. Parents must grow to accept that. But for Mary, such acceptance must have been especially difficult. When he was twelve, Jesus became separated from the family during a trip to Jerusalem. Mary was frantic. But when she finally caught sight of Jesus in the temple and asked Him why He had so troubled Joseph and her, Jesus replied simply, “Didn’t you know that I would be here in my Father’s house?”

And later, when people were following Jesus, many of them whispering threats and calling Him blasphemous, Mary, in spite of what she knew about Jesus, tried to tell folks not to listen to Him. Jesus had lost His mind, Mary and her children told the crowd in a bid to spring Jesus loose and to bring Him back to safety in Nazareth. But Jesus said that His real family was anyone who believes in Him as God and Lord.

Of course, Mary knew that. And I have to say that for me personally, it’s Mary’s lapses in faith that make her so compelling, such a role model. I have lapses in faith, too, times when I say and do things that run contrary to the Lord I believe in, contrary to the life of faith He has called me to live.

But by God's grace, I'm thankful that God gives more credence to my faith than to my many lapses. Mary helps me to know that's true.

And it should be said that incidents like the ones I named from Mary's life were only lapses in her faith. From the moment she learned from Gabriel about the role she was to play in God’s plans for the world’s salvation, through witnessing her son’s death on a cross and His resurrection, despite the lapses, she remained faithful. Through joy and heartache, doubt and glorious affirmation, Mary was a faithful disciple.

The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christian traditions have a title for Mary. They call her theotokos, a Greek compound word that means literally, Bearer of God. Mary bore Jesus more than just in her womb for nine months.

She bore Him, the mark of Him, in some way her entire life. In this too, she is a model for each of us. We who, as baptized Christians have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever, bear the Name of Jesus. We carry Him into our everyday lives and relationships. That isn’t always an easy load, something Jesus recognizes when He tells us that we must take up our crosses and follow Him. But the Lord we carry with us also carries us, a far heavier burden that began when He went to the cross and bore all our sins. And those who dare to take Christ with them through their life’s journeys also receive guidance, peace, and an eternity of hope that nothing can destroy. Bearing Christ lightens the loads of life!

Whatever God may call you and me to be or do, I pray that we will be found as faithful as that young Judean girl was when met by the angel Gabriel. May we willingly say, “Here am I; the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Amen

The Evil One Cannot Overpower Us

The Christian can walk and live in the certainty that Christ is beside us and the Holy Spirit fills us with power to resist temptation and self-destruction. Every time I sin, it represents a failure on my part to place some aspect of my life under Christ's Lordship. Every time I resist temptation, it represents a triumph of Jesus Christ over all that would do me everlasting harm. This is why a commitment to living in "daily repentance and renewal" is central to the life of a Christian.

You might be interested...

if you're a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) like me, in the online town hall that presiding bishop Mark Hanson has scheduled for December 6. It will be interesting to hear the questions raised by people from throughout the church body.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Right or Wrong, This is to Be Admired About Policy Obama Announces Tonight

In the epilogue to his book, Presidential Courage, Michael Beschloss recalls that five years before being elected President, John Kennedy lamented that US politics had become "so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men...[And further, because of] the tremendous power of mass communications, any unpopular or unorthodox course [aroused] a storm of protest." These conditions, Kennedy suggested, put a higher price on political courage than at any time in our country's history, with the prospects of political annihilation for those who showed a willingness to stake out different points of view becoming almost prohibitively high.

Some would argue that Kennedy may have believed more in political courage than he practiced it, especially when it came to civil rights, a cause about which he was either indifferent or tepid through most of his political career. But the forces Kennedy saw diminishing a political actor's willingness to chart a course irrespective of what opinion polls, focus groups, radio call-in audiences, special interests, or political operatives may tell them have not diminished in power or influence in the past fifty-four years. (The Internet and cable news, among other things were not part of the stew identified by Kennedy. But they have made his insight even more acute.)

Truth be told, the US electorate has a schizophrenic attitude about political courage. We want, so we say, for our political leaders to have backbone and to not make decisions based on the latest public opinion surveys, but on what's "right." These are the kinds of things ordinary voters say all the time.

Yet we also seem to want our leaders to be milquetoasts or automatons who mechanistically reflect our opinions, well-informed and otherwise.

This leads to 1984-style characterizations of popular pols as courageous, although their actions rarely buck popular opinion, and of politicians who dare to do what they think right as being weak, vacillating, or indecisive. You can supply your own examples for each category and if you're fair, I think you'll concede that examples of both inaccurate assessments run the political gamut. Our schizophrenia is reliably non-partisan.

No wonder political courage is so rare. And its rarity is part of what makes President Barack Obama's speech on Afghanistan tonight so important.

Whatever one's take on the strategy he will unveil this evening--I offer no opinion on that, he is displaying remarkable political courage.

That may not ring true to some at first. After all, the strategy the President will unveil tonight is consistent with what he said he would do during last year's presidential campaign, a campaign he won resoundingly. Obama said he would wind things down in Iraq. The real fight against al-Qaeda, he also said, was on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the fight would need to be ramped up. With those pledges as part of his platform, Obama was given the presidency.

But in the intervening time, a core constituency of the President's own party, liberal Democrats, have become disenchanted with any US presence in Afghanistan. And the American people have grown more restless to leave the Afghans (and the Pakistanis) to fend for themselves.

Some Republicans have claimed that Obama has been "dithering" on Afghan policy and some in the opposition party have said that Obama should not cut down on General Stanley McCrystal's troop level request.

Tonight, Barack Obama is going to tell a nation weary of war that we must undertake an increased burden in a nation where US personnel have been fighting and dying for eight years.

Give the President his due. This isn't just a hard speech to make; it was preceded by a tough decision made in spite of a clear understanding that, because nothing is a given in this life, the war could turn out badly. And, less significantly, it could make Obama a one-term president. The policy Obama announces tonight could scuttle all his lofty aims.

Yet, in the face of the opposition and the odds, Barack Obama, based on his discussions with military and civilian advisers, is forging ahead with his proposed escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

Whether Obama's decision turns out to be right or wrong, a success or a failure, he is exhibiting political courage.

How history will remember Obama's courage depends on how things turn out. The second line in Beschloss' book hints at that:
...throughout our history, at times of crisis and urgent national need, it has been important for Presidents to summon the courage to dismiss what is merely popular--and the wisdom to do that for causes that later Americans will come to admire.

The only political courage subsequent generations will admire, Beschloss seems to say, is that which results in what is perceived as success. No points are given for being courageously wrong. I want to disagree with that; courage should be counted as courage irrespective of outcomes.

Yet this is the high stakes game which Barack Obama is knowingly playing. The politician submits her or his life not only to the judgment of contemporary electorates, but of history. My personal experience is that most politicians like--sometimes love, sometime crave--being liked, affirmed, appreciated, cheered.

Courage for politicians happens when they risk losing votes and the adulation of history to do what they think is right.*

The President has little to gain and much to lose from the policy he announces tonight. Right or wrong, that takes courage.

*Actually, this is true for any leader. After twenty-five years as a pastor, I can tell you that it takes more courage to take a stand you know some will repudiate than to do anything that gains universal applause. But I also can say that, for all the turmoil taking a stand may cause, there is more inner peace and clarity of action when you go the courageous route. I have to also say that, for me, courage is something I draw from God and not any intestinal fortitude I may (or may not) possess.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The only valid ticket...

to eternity and a knowledge of God. (Funny this piece talks about the same Scriptural passages I mentioned yesterday here. Coincidence? Nah, God-incidence.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Swiss Voters Ban Minarets: Not the Way to Go for Christians

Minarets, the tall spires which often top mosques, have been banned by Swiss voters.

Supporters of the ban say that minarets represent extremism. Opponents say that the ban is a violation of Muslims' freedom of religion.

As a Christian, I believe Jesus when He says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

I believe the apostle Peter when he says of Jesus, "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

So, it distresses me every time I see a mosque or shrine of any other religion. I desperately yearn (and pray) that all people will come to know God through Jesus Christ, repent of sin, and believe in Him as God and Savior.

But banning minrets is no different from banning churches, synagogues, or temples. Unless all people are free to practice the religion of their choice, no choice they make will have any meaning. Banning public displays of religious belief drives it underground and can breed the resentment that leads to the kind of radicalism that the proponents of this ban claim to want to thwart.

At one level, as a Christian, distressed though I may be at the sight of minarets here in my country, I can also be somewhat heartened by them. They display an impulse or desire for God that, I believe, can lead to Jesus Christ and everlasting life.

For this sentiment, I take inspiration from the first-century preacher and evangelist, Paul. When he entered the city of Athens toward the middle of the first century, he saw a town that was, not Christian, but deeply religious. The New Testament book of Acts says that Paul "was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols." Idols, of course, are false gods. They're lifeless and incapable of giving the life that only the God revealed in Jesus Christ can give.

But, later when Paul spoke with the Athenians about Christ, he began by saying, "I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, does not live in shrines made with human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things..." Paul went on to explain to the Athenians who had an impulse to reach out to and be known by the transcendent, that in Jesus Christ the God of the universe had reached out to humanity, gone to a cross for our sins, and risen from the dead to give new and everlasting life with God to those who dare to trust in Jesus. (See Acts 17:16-34.)

Minarets distress me. As do the words of those who, as was once true of me, profess to be atheists. But denying people freedom of religion or freedom of speech is not the way to ensure the peaceful assimilation of peoples into societies.

Nor, from a Christian perspective, is it the way to turn people toward peace with God and peace with others through Christ, the desire of every Christian as well-expressed once by Paul when he stood before a king on the charge of being a Christian. When Paul used his appearance before the king as an occasion to share his faith in Christ, the king asked, "Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?" I love Paul's answer, which I've referenced many times on this blog: "Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am [a believer in Jesus Christ]-except for these chains." (Acts 26:28-29)

Christians should have no part in repressing people in any way. We want all people to be free to discover Jesus Christ through our faithful, peaceful, loving, and non-coercive witness for Him.

Banning minarets in Switzerland, or anywhere else, can never come to a good end.

Come, Lord Jesus: How to Face the End (Of the World or Your Earthly Life)

[This message was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning. Today is the First Sunday in Advent.]

Luke 21:25-36
I once read a news story about a young graduate assistant at MIT who was developing what he called, “memory glasses.” Richard W. DeVaul said that he himself could often work for long hours, forgetting to eat or keep appointments. His memory glasses, consisting of a small computer display clipped onto eyeglass frames and hooked up to a small computer, were designed to flash little reminders to the wearer. DeVaul’s “wearable computer” is intended to send subliminal messages or images to wearers, providing them with private reminders.*

Based on his personal experience, DeVaul apparently thinks that we all need help in remembering not to get so caught up in the urgent matters that scream for our attention that we forget what’s important. I think that he's right. A few signs–subliminal or otherwise–pointing us in the right direction each day would be really helpful!

In today’s Gospel lesson, an example of a type of Biblical literature which the Bible scholars call, apocalyptic, from the Greek verb, apocalupto, meaning I reveal, Jesus talks with us about signs, things going on around us that ought to live as His followers in everyday life.

Specifically, Jesus talks about the signs of the end of the world. He begins by telling us: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the power of the heavens will be shaken...”

When the world goes nuts,

When family incomes are drained and jobs are scarce,

When Army psychologists open fire on military personnel preparing to go overseas,

When terrorists perpetrate violence on innocent people,

When seemingly incurable diseases victimize family and friends,

When people are subjected to mistreatment or violence unjustly,

it’s easy to faint from fear and foreboding.

But Jesus warns us to be on our guards, " that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation [that’s spending time on wasted, worthless efforts] and drunkenness and the worries of this life..."

Instead, Jesus says that we should regard all of the rotten, hard things that happen in this world as signs of His return at the end of the world.

For most people, talk about the end of the world or about the ends of our own lives on earth is frightening. In the face of life’s difficulties, as Jesus says, people faint from fear and foreboding or get caught up in meaningless activity, in anesthetizing themselves with dope or booze, or in allowing themselves to be overwhelmed with worry. They read the headlines or consider the adversities that they themselves face and hang their heads in despair.

We need not do that!

A few weeks ago, I read another full account of a dangerous secret trip taken by our president. Not even his wife or family knew that he was going away to a secret destination, right in the midst of dangerous enemies. You may think I’m talking about former President Bush’s trip to Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day several years ago. But I’m talking about an account of President Franklin Roosevelt’s secret trip to Newfoundland to meet with British prime minister Winston Churchill in the summer of 1941, which I read about again in Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Roosevelt.

Both Roosevelt and Churchill took voyages by sea in waters filled with menacing German submarines. The ship which Churchill took to their summit would, just a few months later, be sunk by the Germans.

The point is that the world was dangerous and prone to craziness sixty-five years ago. The world is dangerous and prone to craziness today. Nothing has changed.

In another place in the Bible, Jesus spoke of the signs of the end of life on this planet and of His return and said that each and every one of them had already happened. So, people who wring their hands and try to outguess God about when Jesus will return are wasting their time, wasting their lives!

Jesus says that the turmoil of the world presents us with signs that point to the inevitable fact that life on this planet will end and that our lives on this planet will end.

Jesus also says that we should see these signs as subliminal prompts, cuing us to adopt a different way of living.

Most of the human race will fall prey to worry or fear or drunkenness or dissipation. But Jesus tells those who trust in Him not to lose heart or hang our heads.

He says: "Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

When things look bleak or frightening, Jesus says, “Buck up. I’m right here! And no matter how things may look right now, I have everything under control!”

He had been standing for three hours in the frigid Michigan winter night, trying to hitch a ride home to his wife and kids in Royal Oak. The wind howled. Snow billowed around him. He was a service man. Originally tapped for Christmas leave, he’d gotten into a drunken brawl that got him confined to his base through the holidays.

Then a buddy’s parents surprised him, traveling to be nearby for Christmas. Since it was going to be easy for the buddy to see his folks, he went to their commanding officer and volunteered to take the Michigander’s place.

That raised a whole new problem. You see, the soldier from Michigan had spent all his savings on gifts for his wife and three children, having planned on shipping them north. He couldn’t afford bus or train fare. The only way he could get back home was to stuff the presents into a duffel bag and hitchhike. Everything had gone pretty well until that three hour wait in the snowstorm.

A single preacher in a Corvette was barreling along too quickly for the road conditions, heading home to see his parents and family, the car filled to near-capacity with goodies. He saw the forlorn soldier, looking like an abominable snowman in khaki green, hitching on the side of the road. He told himself that somebody else would pick the guy up and that if he turned around now, he’d find the soldier gone. But he felt as though God was telling him that at least on Christmas Eve, he should be willing to share Jesus’ love with a stranger.

So, begrudgingly, he turned around and though it required some packing and arranging, got the hitchhiking soldier and duffel bag into his car. After the soldier had thawed out a bit, he asked the preacher, “Didn’t I see you go by earlier?” “Yes.” Why, the soldier wondered then, had he turned back around?

The preacher explained that while he hadn’t wanted to turn around and come back “it’s Jesus Who makes me do things like that,” things that He was certain Jesus would do if He were faced with the same circumstances.

The soldier explained how convicted he felt by that. He then told the story of how he had come to be hitchhiking on that frozen stretch of road on Christmas Eve. He explained that he’d planned on surprising his family. He talked about what a wonderful woman his wife was, a devoted follower of Jesus who was brokenhearted over her husband’s unwillingness to let Christ into his life. He often poked fun at his wife’s faith and her church-going.

The longer he’d stood by the side of the road, the soldier said, the angrier he became at all the people who passed by. He became even angrier when he thought that a lot of the people zooming past were Christians. He thought of what hypocrites all Christians were, but also thought that if he were in their places, he’d probably drive on by too.

Then the soldier said: “Let me tell you something embarrassing—I got so cold, so lonely, and so desperate that I started to pray—honest to God I did—it was so humiliating. I told God that if He would help me, I’d do better. And you know what? About that time you showed up, and you told me that you came back because of Jesus—now what do you make of that?”

Thirty-five years later, John William Smith, the once-young pastor driving in the Corvette, wrote: "Jesus comes to us in many ways. He came to me in the form of a freezing soldier trying to get home for Christmas. He came to a freezing soldier in the form of a young minister trying to find his way to God. Either one of us could have missed Him."

Jesus says that even before the end of time--even before we die and pass into His presence, He wants to come to us. And He doesn’t want to come to us just at Christmas time, but every moment of our lives.

The turmoil of the world and the challenges of our lives can be reminders of our need to welcome Jesus to walk with us, to guide us, to be our God, to be our King.

I know that the next few weeks will be busy for us all. Last-minute shopping, visits with family and friends, extra social engagements. We all have them.

But these next weeks, with all their activity, are also a great time for you to do what that soldier did on that cold Christmas Eve—ask Jesus to help you and to be with you.

Let the signs of the times prompt you to enjoy a close relationship with the God we know through Jesus Christ.

When we let Christ into our daily lives, we’re prepared to handle all that life may bring.

We’re prepared for living.

We’re prepared for dying.

We’re prepared for the moments when we will come face to face with Christ.

And when we keep close to Christ, we’re also prepared to do something most of our frantic, fearful, feverish world can’t even imagine: With Jesus beside us, we’re prepared to have a truly joyous and merry Christmas.

*DeVaul and others at MIT are working on lots of other wearable computing devices, which you can read about here.

[Top picture: A CBS News photograph of Richard DeVaul and his memory glasses. Bottom picture: Cerezo Barredo's wonderfully hope-filled representation of Luke 21:25-36.]