Saturday, February 14, 2015

Putting Valentine's Day in Perspective

Sundries posted this over on Facebook.

My Valentine by Paul McCartney (and a little more)

McCartney's song, written for his Kisses on the Bottom, which celebrated some of the great tunes of the mid-twentieth century made popular by the crooners his parents loved listening to when Macca was a kid. My Valentine is a joyful song set to a minor keyed, bluesy tune.

In this video, the guitar solo is actually played by McCartney's buddy, the actor Johnny Depp. On the original track, the solo is provided by Eric Clapton.

When McCartney came to the US to promote the LP, he re-entered the truly iconic Capitol Records studios, where he'd recorded Kisses, for an intimate concert that was live streamed on iTunes. Macca's voice was not at its best for that performance. (His voice has been in marked decline over the past decade, sadly.)

But the atmosphere of a live performance with a band anchored by Diana Krall on piano was enjoyable, as was Joe Walsh's solo on My Valentine.

I love this song.

My Hope for Brian Williams

I wrote about Brian Williams and the allurement of celebrity here.

But my hope is that the country, which has seemed so gleeful in its condemnation of and laughter at Brian Williams, will forgive him and that NBC will reinstate Williams once the anchor has done "his time."

How many of us, prone to exaggeration and telling what I call, "heroes of our own story" tales, haven't been guilty, unintentionally or otherwise, of the same wrongs as Williams? And most of us haven't been in the public eye when we've told such stories, meaning that we're not as widely and unceremoniously vilified for our exaggerations as Brian Williams has been.

The Williams story is, as I suggested in that earlier post, cautionary. Those with aspirations to be famous should think twice about their ambitions. Fame is like money, of which Jesus said: "What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Mark 8:36) If fame or money become our aims, we may gain both but lose ourselves in the process.

Brian Williams, unlike many in the public eye, has admitted his wrong. Forthrightly, without excuses. Chastened, this man who has been, it seems, a responsible journalist, should get the grace and second chance that we all assume we ourselves deserve.

Some feel that Williams deserves no consideration because he has a lot of money, as though money softens the blow, as though money were his motivation for being a journalist. These ideas miss the point. No amount of money can compensate for the guilt and regret Williams must feel right now.

Nor can it give him the sense of fulfillment he likely felt from pursuing his calling as a fair-minded journalist.

Unlike some public figures, whose "apologies" are nothing but recriminations toward those who hold them accountable or who view their mea culpas as pro forma hoops they need to jump through in order to gain the honors they believe they deserve, Williams seems genuinely repentant.

His suspension seems to be an appropriate consequence of his breach of journalistic propriety. In other words, the "punishment" fits the "crime."

But, having accepted his medicine, Brian Williams shouldn't be forced to be a scapegoat wandering in the wilderness for the rest of his life.

In six months' time, Williams should be back at his desk on the NBC Nightly News. If not there, some other news organization should use his considerable talents.

At least that's what I think.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why Were Old Testament Priests Required to Be Perfect Physical Specimens?

At Living Water Lutheran Church, we're reading the Bible together over the course of 2015 and holding weekly gatherings to discuss the twenty-one chapters we've read that week.

At last night's discussion, a really good question was posed: Why were the priests who offered the sacrifices made daily first in a tent in the wilderness and later at the temple in Jerusalem, required to be unmarred by physical defect?

Levticus 21:17-23 contains this uncomfortable set of qualifications from God:
For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.
One of the points that the editors of The Lutheran Study Bible make about these verses is that why "physical blemishes disqualified a priest from entering God's sanctuary or holy places...[the] disabled or misshapen were not regarded as profane, for the Lord allowed them to perform other tasks and eat holy food."

Still, these qualifications, which come in a list of otherwise defensible ones dealing with things like sin and integrity, are jarring. It seems inconsistent with what we know about how God, as evidenced repeatedly in both the Old and New Testaments, loves all people.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament does provide some explanation for these requirements, though they do little to eliminate our concerns:

Just as animals with physical defects or blemishes [could] not be offered for sacrifice (22:19-22), priests who [had] a physical defect [could] not serve before the altar. Ritual purity [was] required for the sacred precincts of the altar, the sacrifice and the religious practitioner officiating at the altar in every religion in the ancient Near East. Priests [had to be] in perfect health and in full command of their bodies and senses.
So, the concern behind the requirements in Leviticus seem to have been not so much with creating a kind of super race of perfect physical specimens to serve as priests, but to ensure ritual purity in every way surrounding the sacrificial system.

Still this explanation is a guess at best and not very satisfying at that.

On further reflection, I feel that a few other things need to be considered before we leave this question so uncomfortably behind.

The first thing to remember is that some rules in Leviticus no longer apply. We've discussed this a number of times on this blog and in classes. In a nutshell, there are three kinds of Old Testament laws: (1) ritual/sacrificial law; (2) civil law; (3) moral law. 

The first two types have been rendered instructive but irrelevant for us today. 

The sacrificial system, along with priestly sacrifices, came to an end with Jesus' voluntary self-sacrifice on the cross. No further sacrifices are needed; we are saved by God's grace through faith in Christ alone.

The Old Testament priesthood ended at the moment Jesus Christ died on the cross. The New Testament book of Hebrews describes Jesus as our "great high priest." Unlike the Old Testament priests, Jesus is both sacrifice and the One offering up the sacrifice, Himself.

He is a high priest who understands our imperfections and, despite His sinlessness, allowed Himself to bear the burden of our imperfections and sinfulness on the cross. Hebrews 4:15 says of Jesus:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin.
More than that, this is a great high priest who shared in the physical limitations, injuries, and defects to which every human being is subject. You get the idea from reading the Old and New Testaments that Jesus was not an imposing physical specimen. Hundreds of years before His birth, the prophet Isaiah said of Jesus:
He grew up before [God] like a tender shoot,    and like a root out of dry ground.He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind,    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.Like one from whom people hide their faces    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53:2-3)
So, if the Old Testament Levitical priests were physical specimens, the great high priest Jesus, God in human flesh, was not.

And maybe this gives us clues for the reason behind God instituting the physical qualifications for the priesthood we read about in Leviticus 21. Maybe ancient Israel, in the infancy of its historic mission to be God's "light to the nations" when these qualifications were given to His people in the wilderness, wasn't ready for priests who shared their weaknesses. 

Maybe only God Himself possessed the requisite empathy and compassion to be such a high priest. 

And maybe it was only after God Himself died at the hand of human weakness (and sin), then rose from the dead, that He was able to create a whole people--His Church--to share their weakness and God's strength with the world, and to confess their own weakness to God and be strengthened by His strong grace.

Lots of maybes. But, it's clear that no matter how troubling Leviticus 21 may be for us, it's not the final chapter in God's plan for the human race.

The Sadness of Brian Williams' Fall

Brian Williams' fall from grace and his six-month suspension--likely to become permanent--as anchor for the NBC Nightly News, saddens me.

While I haven't seen more than brief clips of his evening news broadcast for years, I always respected his reporting.

It isn't his reporting that has gotten him into trouble though. It's his celebrity that's done it. Or more accurately, his reaction to it. Williams' "misremembering" and exaggerations weren't told on his news broadcasts. They were parts of tales he recounted on late night talk shows and in other such entertainment venues.

There's good reason for anchors of network news shows to make appearances on talk shows. It's good for the ratings. It makes the individual who is the face of the evening broadcast accessible and, "real" to the public.

But when you get onto the celebrity circuit, you're given a platform on which you can make a fool of yourself without anyone suggesting that you stop. (At least for awhile.)

And, it seems, celebrity is like a drug. The applause, the adulation, and the laughs can, if one isn't careful, leave a person craving for more. So, the stories become more outrageous. Or the behavior does. You get too comfortable in the spotlight. As U2 puts it: "Some things you shouldn't get too good at/Like smiling, crying, and celebrity."

Celebrity can be deadly when it comes to someone at a young age. Elvis and Michael Jackson were addicted to it with horrible results throughout their lives. Celebrity can kill people. Or make them insufferable. Or unemployable. Or presumptuous.

According to The New York Times, Williams approached NBC executives about taking over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno. That probably should have set off alarm bells at 30 Rockefeller Center. But when "the talent" does or says something goofy, you do what you can to protect the cash cow by gently rebuffing them and sending them on their way, as NBC execs apparently did.

That works until the celebrity goes one goofy too far. That's what has happened to Brian Williams.

It's sad. Williams has been, from all appearances, a good journalist for years. And while in this hypermediated age in which people get their news constantly from the Internet, the nightly news broadcasts aren't as important as they were in the age of Cronkite and Huntley & Brinkley, Brian Williams was deemed credible and watchable by more viewers than his competitors. He was seen as the best at what he did. But it wasn't enough for him, apparently.

Once a person tastes celebrity, it seems, it rarely is.

[This has been cross-posted at The Moderate Voice]

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


...for X appreciated today. That's all. Just pray for X. Especially around noon Eastern time. Thank you.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Maybe the Most Un-Hip Song You'll Hear Today

London Town is probably one of Paul McCartney's worst solo LPs. (OK, he recorded it with Wings. But let's face it, all the Wings releases were really McCartney solo projects.)

Yet, as a friend of mine once said of Macca, "Even when he's bad, he's good." By that he meant that even when the tunes are sappy and the lyrics absurd schlock, which has happened more than a few times through the years, McCartney's sense of melody and penchant for compelling arrangements can pull you in.

I'm Carrying is a flimsy tune from London Town. But confession of a guilty pleasure: I love it.

What man in his right mind wouldn't want to compose something like this for his woman? And my guess is that most women wouldn't mind being on the receiving end of this schmaltzy Valentine.

So, suspend your cynicism for two-minutes-and-fifty-five seconds and picture yourself as either the male or female lead in a real-life romantic comedy. The couple, for whatever reason, haven't seen one another for a time. The guy, heart on his sleeve, carnation on his lapel, and gift packages in his hand shows up...hoping, hoping, hoping. The girl opens her door. Their hearts beat quickly when they see each other and, for a moment, neither says anything. Then these words tumble from his mouth...

Favorite Line from "Four Five Seconds": The Power of Weakness

Having heard the McCartney/Rihanna/Kanye collaboration, Four Five Seconds about four, five times, I'm not that into it. But, for me, one line from the song is a keeper:
...all my kindness is taken for weakness
Mistaking kindness for weakness in others is one of the biggest things we human beings make about others, I think.

But kindness is a way love and true strength are enacted.

If there's anything I learn from Jesus and the Bible, it's that love is expressed in actions, even toward those we find exasperating...or hateful.

In Jesus Christ, God has done the ultimate kindness for the human race. He bore our sin on the cross in order to take the punishment, death, we deserve.

Then He rose from the dead to take back from Satan and the evil of this already dying world the everlasting life that God intended for all of us.

And then, through no merit of our own, He offered the victory over sin and death He had won, along with eternal life with God, as free gifts to all who renounce sin and trust Him to destroy the sin in us.

The world mistook Jesus' kindness--His willing submission to death on a cross in spite of His power to evade it and to destroy those who took His life--for weakness. It still does.

But Jesus expressed the very strength of God in His seeming weakness.

The same is true for all who bear the Name of Christ, God in the flesh. 

God answered the apostle Paul's prayers for deliverance from a persistent "thorn in his flesh" by saying that He would not say, "Yes" to that prayer because, " power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). God's power is manifest in those willing to have their emptiness and weakness filled by the One Who made the universe with His strength and His goodness.

God's power too, is seen in the willingness of Jesus followers to serve others in precisely the way Jesus has served us on the cross and from the empty tomb. 

In what was the Gospel lesson in many churches across North America yesterday, we were told that Jesus healed the mother-in-law of His disciple, Simon Peter. Immediately afterward, Mark says of the woman that "she served them," meaning Jesus, Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. 

Some read this or hear this and are horrified. A woman gets healed and the first thing she has to do is serve others. Humiliating, right? 

But people who react in this way mistake kindness for weakness. 

Simon Peter's mother-in-law "got it" before her son-in-law did. She understood that when the God of the universe serves you and loves you, the only reasonable and appropriate response is to be a servant

She understood what James and John still had not gotten nine chapters later in Mark's gospel. The two were certain that Jesus was going to be a worldly triumph--Grammys, Oscars, Nobel Peace Prizes, landslide election victories, vast wealth, and military conquest in hand--and could make them His president and prime minister. "Grant," they asked Jesus, "that when you come into your glory, we'll sit on either side of you." 

Jesus disappointed them with His answer, no doubt. At least until after His death and resurrection, when they finally began to "get it." Jesus said:"...whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:44-45)

Those who are truly great understand that in the kingdom of God which Jesus has brought into our world the last will be first and the first will be last. Status means nothing to them. As Grammy Award winner and Christian rapper Lecrae noted on his Facebook page on Saturday, as he found himself surrounded by musical superstars, "There is no one I can meet in the world to make me any more valuable than God has already made me." 

When you know that, in Christ, you have the approval of God, you can afford to look weak to the world. You can dare to be kind knowing that however much others may abuse you for it, God is with you and you can never be separated from Christ. Kindness rooted in the certainty that you belong to Christ always is an act of boldness and courage. The kind are subversives in a conspiracy with Christ to overthrow the kingdoms of this world and boldly proclaim that, "There is no king but the God we meet in Jesus and wouldn't you like to be part of His kingdom?"

Never confuse kindness for weakness...especially in Christ or in those who strive to live faithfully for Him.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Does Jesus Heal?

[This was shared during this morning's worship services with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio.]

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

In an October 25, 1999 article of The Archives of Internal Medicine,  seven physicians, a hospital chaplain, a social worker, and a scholar associated with leading hospitals from around the country, presented the findings of their research on the connection between intercessory prayer—prayer offered on behalf of others--and the recovery of coronary patients. The researchers set up what’s known as a “double blind” experiment on those recovering from heart problems. There were 990 patients in the study. Prayers were said for some of them. Prayers were not offered for the others. The doctors treating the patients didn’t know who was chosen to be prayed for and the subjects of the prayers didn’t know either. But a list of first names was given to people in local churches who prayed for those on the list each day. Neither the people doing the praying, nor the people being prayed for, nor the researchers knew who had been chosen to be the target of prayer. 

And what happened? Those for whom prayers were said recovered more quickly. As the researchers put it in the conclusion of their abstract (I love this), “This result suggests that prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care.” (1)

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

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

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

Now, I know that I’m preaching to the choir here. Many of you in this sanctuary this morning would affirm that the God we know in Jesus Christ is still in the healing business. Certainly, God uses doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals to bring His healing. But, as study after study has confirmed, their efforts are enhanced by prayer. 

In my years as a pastor, I’ve learned that many health care professionals know this. One surgeon I met years ago made a point of asking when I would be joining the patient he was operating on for prayer before surgery. “I want to be there when you pray,” he told me. “And would you please pray for me, too?” I was happy to do that. 

That has happened several times before surgeries for members of Living Water in just the past year or so. One morning, the family and I were asked by both the surgeon and the anesthetist if we would pray with them.

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

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

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

Of course, you and I know that not every one for whom we pray is healed. And even more than that, Pastor Mark Dahle, a Lutheran pastor who has written and spoken about his California congregation’s healing ministry, reminds us, everybody for whom we pray will eventually die. We live in a fallen and imperfect world. Death comes, as does suffering of all kinds. Faith in Jesus is no insurance policy against the reality of living in a dying world.

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

We get at least one answer to that question from an interchange that happens between Simon and Jesus before dawn, the day after Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law and after Jesus has just spent time in prayer.

It had been a busy Sabbath for Jesus. After worshiping and teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum—where, you’ll remember from last week’s Gospel lesson, He had cast out a demon--He’d gone to the house of Simon and Andrew for dinner, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, cured many who were sick, cast out demons, and then before sun-up, prayed. 

While He was praying, Simon and the others hunted Jesus down. They clearly wanted Jesus to go back to the scene of so much triumph and success. Instead, Jesus tells them, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.

For Jesus, healing was never an endIt was only a means.

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

What Jesus came to do during His time on earth was share a plain message, one that will change our lives forever if we let it. In Mark 1:15, we find the only of sermons Jesus that Mark recounts: The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

He says, in effect, “Turn from sin—repent—and trust in Me to give you life forever—fuller life today and totally new, restored life forever with God.”

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

Jesus once asked an important question. “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” [Matthew 16:26] Today’s lesson, I think, asks a similar question: “What good is it to have perfect health, but not have life with God?”

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

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

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

Confessions of a Hermit

In an article about tonight's Grammy Awards show, TIME tells me:
You’d have to be a real hermit to have survived 2014 without hearing Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” blast from a passing car, or Sam Smith’s cherubic falsetto finding your ears in a shopping mall.
I guess I'm a hermit. I don't recall hearing either song, although I have recently read that Smith reached an out of court settlement with Tom Petty for plagiarizing one of Petty's songs.

OK, I'm headed back to my cave.