Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Prayer

God who came as a baby,

We, the faithful, come to worship and to adore you. These last weeks, we have walked through Advent in search of new and different important meanings to find in this season. Now, we gather to celebrate the familiar. Now is the time for “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel.” We sing the carols we have known since childhood.

We sing the familiar with assurance because we know what we will find: you, awaiting us in a manger, under a star.

We come with a strange combination of emotions. 2010 has been difficult. Friends are sick. We have lost loved ones. Family crisis has not spared us. Floods have touched us and those we love. We are older. Divisive political rhetoric continues to turn up the volume and the vitriol on both sides. We hurt, and we grieve. The longest war in our nation’s history rages on.

And yet… the sense of joy and expectation cannot be defeated. We hear the angels singing. We are ready to join them.

We come to you because love has come to us. We seek your presence with us because we come to worship you... to see your newborn face... to hear your infant laugh... to come, like shepherds, poor as we are, to offer our hearts. We thrill to hear the angels singing “Gloria in excelsis deo.”

We come to your manger expecting Jesus.

Our soft, introspective “O Little Town” and “Silent Night” match the majesty of Christmas Eve. Christmas morning, then, is a day to overcome, to rejoice, to celebrate. Christmas morning, we are poised to declare “Joy to the World.”

Jesus of the manger, we receive you as our king. We come because we know that joy has come to the world. We join the triumph of the skies.

We pray today in the name of a baby. Amen.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Helping the Poor - The Politics of Jesus

Stephen Colbert is brilliant and funny. He is also thought-provoking. His rant from December 16 in which he declares that Jesus would be a liberal Democrat because He was always talking about helping the poor and because He never suggested tax cuts for the rich Romans has something going for it - it talks about Jesus in the present tense as a realistic basis for our decision-making. I applaud Colbert for that.

I do not applaud him for his politics, but it is probably no surprise to anyone reading this that I disagree with Colbert's politics on this one.

That is not what this blog is about. This blog is about the idea that our Christianity necessarily compels one answer to the question of dealing with the poor. The leap from "we should help the poor" to "therefore we must be liberal Democrats" is simplistic and narrow-minded. To think that all conservatives are against helping the poor is either tragically ill-informed or deluded by the extremists.

If you want to believe that the President's economic program is the best way to help the poor, you have every right to believe that. I would be happy to debate the point with you. What is sad, however, is to suggest, as some who have latched onto Colbert's rant have done, that the only way to follow Jesus is to be a liberal Democrat.

If some who wear the label "conservative" have looked down on the poor or treated poor people as lesser beings or selfishly refused to help them, that is wrong. Come to think of it, if liberals have treated poor people badly, that is wrong. None of that is inherent in being conservative or liberal.

I believe that President Obama's economic plan is not a good way to help the poor. My understanding of both economics and human nature informs me in that view. Of course, so does my religion. I agree with my friends that following Jesus necessarily calls on us to take care of the poor and to do so sacrificially. It is just that I believe that liberal Democratic economic policies are perhaps the worst possible way to do it. That is not religion. It is politics and economics.

I am not writing this blog to convince anyone to be a conservative. I don't believe the only way to follow Jesus is to be a conservative. Many of you are good Christian liberal Democrats. I hope you allow me the right to be a good Christian conservative.

It is dangerous to claim that God is on your side in a political discussion. (These claims come from both sides of the aisle, of course. On the same day several friends forwarded me the Colbert rant, I got an email from another friend decrying someone's "Obama-loving atheism.") I don't believe that Jesus' teachings allow us to do that, at least not in this particular political discussion.

A very good friend of mine (who is still a liberal Democrat, despite my efforts) makes a brilliant point about Jesus' "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's" response to the question about whether it is right to pay taxes. My friend says this: "These who questioned Jesus were trying to push him onto one side of the fence or the other ... and Jesus, in a fantastic move, demolished the fence."

There is much for us to learn. Jesus is about His father's business, and He is not distracted by lesser things like the divisive political questions of His day or ours. There is no question that Jesus told us also to be about the father's business, which of course includes taking care of the poor. But that is where the Christian unanimity ends. There are many, many ways of taking care of the poor, and some work a lot better than others. And just because the press, or the President, or Stephen Colbert declares that Jesus would have chosen a certain one does not make it so.

Don't try to force Jesus on one side or the other of the fences that we have chosen to build.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

With Friends Like These... : Why Manners Still Matter in Political Discussion

I should have known better.

I have an old friend who was in elementary school and the same church youth group in high school with me. I have not seen her since the early 80s, but through the magic of the internet, we have "friended" each other and occasionally drop each other a line.

She has a job that involves politics. She is, as best as I can tell, a spokesperson in her state for a particular party and often writes about certain issues and candidates. While I almost never respond to these posts, yesterday, I did. She had made a statement about a certain issue that I felt was unintentionally misleading, and I offered a different idea.

In rejoinder, she launched a long paragraph beginning with that dreaded phrase, "With all due respect..." You know you are about to get pounded after an intro like that. She then stated her position and listed some examples, and she concluded by saying that those who disagree with her "have not only proven to be an abject failure, they are immoral."

This is where our political dialog has gone. In what should have been a light-hearted exchange between two old friends, I made one statement and was called both an "abject failure" and "immoral."

Our two respective viewpoints are not material to this blog. You can find this level of personal attack on both sides of the political spectrum.

My point is to note that if a semi-public forum where a politico is responding to a "friend" produces this type of name-calling and insensitive rhetoric, it is not hard to understand how bad the hard-core political debate has become.

We have a serious problem in this country. It is a problem that goes far beyond tax policy, abortion, the war in Afghanistan, or WikiLeaks.

The problem is this: We don't like each other. We don't trust each other. Too many of us want everyone else to shut up so we can speak.

We have a fear of opposing views. We are largely unwilling to encounter, understand, or tolerate the opposition. We have a great deal of trouble getting along in what our grandparents would have called the required fashion.

It was not so long ago that calling somebody "immoral" would have earned you a punch in the nose.

How did we get here? Undoubtedly this is, at least in part, a necessary by-product of the combination of the explosion of information technology and the constant pressure to protect First Amendment freedoms. Both of those are good things. But they require common sense and decency among us. When the sphere of public debate opened to anyone who has a computer or a videocamera, the standards of what it takes to be a "commentator" plummeted. It's like expansion in baseball - it is a lot easier to be a starter, or even an All-Star, when there are a lot more teams that have to be filled.

Another reason we got here is the sense that the person who yells the loudest wins the argument. Whether we follow someone who says he can win the debate "with half my brain tied behind my back" or we adhere to the views of one whose "honesty ... has set the boundaries of where funny, political talk can go," we see celebrity debate defined by volume, pique, and highbrow insult.

However we got here, it is time to evaluate where we are going. Does anybody at this point think the level of political dialog in this country is on-balance good? Is there anybody left who really believes the discussion can be bettered with just one more ad hominem attack?

It is an individual responsibility. Each of us needs to remember what our mothers taught us. Watch the shows that respect people. Use language that engages issues without demeaning the opponent. Vote for candidates who are interested in bettering your community instead of earning the sound bite.

I know I may be dreaming.

So let's just start here. Don't call your friends "immoral" because they take a different political position from yours.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Welcoming the Early Christmas Lights

I am a traditionalist. I don't think we should decorate a tree, listen to Christmas music, or generally think about things Christmasy until December 1.

Don't get me wrong - I love the Christmas season. I sing the songs - from "Here Comes Santa Claus" to "Messiah" - with great gusto. My house is (largely due to the efforts of my bride) decorated with the best of them. I go to the parties and dutifully watch "It's a Wonderful Life" and the Grinch every year.

But I also understand those who are fed up with the commercialization and the over-production of the season. I laughed all the way through John Grisham's Skipping Christmas.

So I want my Christmas, but I don't want it overdone. And, usually, I only want it in December. The competition between the Christmas decorations and the Halloween costumes in Target bugs me.

This year is different. The calendar falls so that Advent starts in November. Most of my neighbors had their lights up by nightfall on Thanksgiving. A couple had their lights up before that. Even we got our tree up on Thanksgiving night.

For some reason, this year I am ready for it. Christmas cannot start too soo for me. I wonder why?

Surely part of it is a genuine thirst for Advent, for a reminder of the coming of the Christ child and the hope that means for all of us.

Perhaps some of it is a longing for good news to end a year that has been trying in a lot of ways. Serving as executor of the estate of my uncle has been a constant reminder that he is gone. Friends have died; other friends are sick. Family strife has struck some very close to us. We live in a world of recession and "maneuvers" in the waters off Korea. The divisive political rhetoric continues to turn up the volume and the vitriol on both sides.

Undoubtedly, part of my feeling this year is because it is the last year that my oldest child will live at home. He has made a point of wanting us to decorate the house "fully" this year, his last Advent here with us. What has been something of a task in the past this year seems to be more of a joyous gift, both to him and to the girls as well.

Whatever the reason, though it is still November, I am ready for holly and mangers, flying reindeer and Magi, gift wrap and candles, carols and hymns, Santa and the baby, "Ho Ho Ho" and "And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. But the angel said unto them, 'Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord!'"

Bring on the good tidings of great joy! And go ahead and turn your lights on.

Monday, November 1, 2010

What I Have Learned at the Chiropractor's Office

I had some back pain, so I went to a chiropractor. He is helping my back pain. That's a good thing.

But that is not what this blog is about.

I go to a chiropractor who is an evangelist for his particular brand of chiropractic. Literally, he is religious about it. His staff is religious about it. They preach the word. They offer written materials. They constantly cajole me about their methods. They make promises of a greater life.

And I am unmoved. I just want him to make my back feel better.

I have a better understanding now of how non-believers may react to Christian witness. The following are my reactions to the "message" I get every time I go to my chiropractor's office. They could also be your reactions (or the reactions of someone you know) to church, Christianity, the witness of a Christian friend, or the gospel message of Christ.
1. These folks are extremely nice to me, and I appreciate that, but that does not mean that I am going to believe what they believe, or what they tell me to believe.
2. These folks sincerely believe what they say they believe. I have no quarrel with that. I am not persuaded by their sincerity to change my own mind.
3. These folks walk the walk. They cleanse their toxins and go to their burst training and take the supplements and get regular adjustments. As far as I can tell, they are not hypocrites. But I am not moved.
4. These folks have gone out of their way to educate me. They offer me written information. They invite me to seminars, dinners, and meetings. I do not have the excuse that "I don't understand."
5. These folks care about me. I believe that.

So why am I not fully sold on everything? Why won't I buy into the full program instead of just "settling" with having them make my back feel better?
1. Their message is inherently unbelievable.
2. Their message runs counter to what I know and to what I read and hear everywhere else.
3. Their message is too demanding of my time, energies, and commitments.

Sound familiar? All three of those are reasons that my friends routinely reject (openly or subtly) my Christian witness.

So, here is the question: Is what we Christians have to offer any different from the cultish, slightly nutty lifestyle that the very nice people in the chiropractor's office are selling?

I think it is. Christianity is not a lifestyle, a religion, or a philosophy. Christianity is a relationship. Ultimately, what we Christians "have to offer" is not a program - it is an introduction to Jesus Christ.

I believe with everything that is in me that Jesus is alive. I worship Him as my Lord and my Savior, and I believe that others need to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. Still, as soon as I say Jesus is my "living lord and savior," I know that some will be turned off. I become "slightly nutty" to them. As soon as I talk about a Christian lifestyle, some will write that off as too demanding. Others will simply not understand it, since it runs counter to what they hear in the rest of the world.

What I can do is introduce you to the One who has changed my life. I have to trust Him to take it from there. Yes, I can answer your questions. Yes, I must model what it is to be Christlike. Yes, my lifestyle is radically different because of Christ, but it is silly of me to want you to change your lifestyle if you don't first know Jesus.

Some will come to church for good music, or good fellowship, or beautiful architecture, or any of a score of other reasons. They are not interested in everything Christianity has to offer; they just want us to make them feel better. Like the nice young receptionist in the office who just shakes her head when I turn down yet another invitation to a free dinner, we can be truly offended when those who come to our church do not "make a commitment" when and where we think they should.

Ultimately, I have not bought into the message at the chiropractor's office because nothing has touched my soul and convinced me that I need a change. The nice folks have not introduced me to anything or anyone who knows and understands me and can move me toward the truth of their message. So I remain unmoved.

We Christians should learn a lesson here. Reciting our rituals and our benefits is easy, but I do not think it is what Jesus taught us to do. Telling people how we live and how they should live is convenient, but it skips too many steps. We Christians should not be surprised that a "witness" that sounds like an infomercial for a faddish trend fails to attract disciples.

We Christians should remember that we are Christians because we met and said yes to Jesus.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Consequences of Freedom

Are you sick of the political ads yet? Do you wish that those wretched conservatives/liberals/fill-in-the-blanks would just shut up?

Are you tired of reading Facebook status updates and Tweets from long lost friends who feel compelled to tell you what they are thinking about having for dinner or where they might go grocery shopping?

Do you wish "those people" would keep their foreign religions to themselves?

It should be axiomatic that a nation that protects freedom has to be made up of people who are willing to put up with what their neighbors choose to do with that freedom. It should be beyond discussion that you don't get to celebrate only the liberties that are exercised in the ways that suit you.

We all know that these principles are in fact not givens. We see every day efforts to curtail freedoms, not because the exercise of the freedom is a clear and present danger but because somebody is offended, outraged, angered, or inconvenienced.

My defense of freedom should not be confused with an agreement with a particular point of view that is being expressed, but it often is. If I object to somebody's being shouted down, it should not be interpreted that I agree with that somebody's message, but I am often so misunderstood.

That is OK. I will be misunderstood for one reason or another anyway - the defense of the right to be wrong is more important. In history classes, we celebrate John Adams' defense of the British soldiers from the Boston Massacre and his eloquent "defend to the death their right to say it" argument. When we come out of the history class, we don't remember the message.

Free speech necessarily means we will hear things we do not like. We will see flags burned. We will have offensive movies screened in our neighborhoods. We will have to suffer through interminable bottom-of-the-barrel political ads.

Freedom of religion has two aspects. (1) The establishment clause means we don't get to have our particular point of view receive the imprimatur of Congress, the local police, or the public schools. (2) The free exercise clause means that our public school teachers can still individually practice the religion of their choice. Together, these ideals mean that the Sikhs and the Muslims and the Jews and the atheists and that Hindus and Buddhists get to live and work and worship - or not worship - on the same street with the Baptists and the Methodists and the Catholics.

Freedom of assembly means the Nazis can march through Skokie and the Rainbow Brigade members can have a party wherever they can get a license.

Freedom of the press means Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck get to opine on competing channels, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal get to publish in the same town, and anybody can "report" pretty much anything they think to be a fact if they act without actual malice.

Freedoms are ultimately not likely to be lost because of the rise of a dictator, at least not in this country. Freedoms are likely to be lost because of thoughtless, stupid, offensive exercises of the freedoms. Gun control is unabashedly a movement to restrict the freedom to own guns, arising almost exclusively because of the use of guns in stupid and harmful ways. Similarly, those who choose to exercise their "rights" without caring how others feel about what they are doing or saying ultimately risk placing those rights in jeopardy for everyone.

It should not be so, but it is.

The way to confront the offensive use of freedom is by exercising your own freedom. Engage in debate. Have a conversation with someone with whom you disagree. Go read a book and learn something about those you despise.

The way to protect freedoms is not to abuse your freedoms just because you can. Life on the margins may be theoretically protected, but a realistic understanding of how your actions will be received is necessary. There is a reason our grandparents tried to teach us how to "get along" with other people.

Freedom has a price. Protecting my freedom means putting up with yours. Exercising my freedom means risking having it taken away. We need to decide what we really value.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Temptations

Be like God. Blame God. Satisfy your physical hungers. Show off. Grab power.

These are the great temptations. Pretty much anything that entices us can be traced to one or more of them. Even if you are not a Christian… even if scripture holds no meaning for you … even if you believe that “Satan” is a non-entity that just stands for a generic concept of evil in the world … you can see the basics of what haunts you in these great temptations.

Interestingly, these five great temptations are the subject matter of Satan’s appearances in scripture. I know there are some other places where the devil makes a brief appearance here and there, but in truth, this character gets three big scenes to strut his stuff: The Fall in Genesis 2 and 3; the Book of Job; and the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4 (and corresponding passages in Luke and, briefly, in Mark).

All five of them are branches off of one tree - selfishness. All temptation attacks at our most vulnerable point - ourselves. Some are based on our love for ourselves; others are based on our areas of self-loathing where we are tempted to try to make ourselves better. Selfishness, then, lies at the heart of what is evil within us. Ultimately, our failures relate to our attempts to promote ourselves, to strive for that next blessing, to assure ourselves our “best life now.”

Temptation #1: Be like God.
In the Genesis passage, the temptation is simple: “Don’t you want to be like God?” The essence of this story is not that we are like a four-year-old who does not know better when we are tempted to disobey. No, the forbidden fruit story is about the lie that the serpent offers: if we eat the fruit, we can be like God. We can know good and evil just like God does. This is what speaks to us – the chance to make more of ourselves than is intended, than is good for us, than we can really be.

In the end, while the fruit may have been lovely to look at, its taste would not have compelled Adam and Eve to break the rules. What made the difference was that they wanted to know what God knows, to see what God sees. The temptation was to go beyond their limited human view and to become godlike.

That is, always has been, and always will be Temptation #1. We do not like natural limitation. We chafe under the idea that there is something out there that is better, stronger, faster, smarter than we are. That is why “The Six Million Dollar Man” was a hit TV show. It is why movies like “Transformers” and “Superman” and “The Incredibles” tickle our fancy – the idea that we can transform into something more godlike holds great sway.

To let go of this temptation is to accept that we are only what we are. We can achieve, we can grow, and we can learn; still, there is only so far we can go. That acceptance – which is ultimately the key to reliance on God – is difficult for most of us. We can’t accept that there are things we do not understand, that we cannot do.

Temptation #2: Blame God.
Job has been blessed. He is rich and happy and respected. Satan offers the proposition that Job will only be righteous so long as he continues to be rich, only so long as the blessings continue to pour. This temptation comes to Job not directly from Satan but instead from Job’s companions who philosophize through the bulk of the middle of the book. If, like me, you read the Book of Job as a play, you see Satan as the background godfather of these unhelpful speakers. They may not know who is pulling their strings, but those of us who have read the first two chapters of the book – Act One if you will – understand who is feeding them their lines.

Job is told that his onslaught of problems must be God's reaction to Job's sinfulness, despite Job's protestations of piety. Ultimately, even Job’s own wife urges him to “curse God and die.”

This is Temptation #2. Blame God for what is wrong. We can dress it up in great philosophical debates surrounding the question that seems to haunt so many: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” As we debate that question, we find ourselves saying that bad things really should not happen if God is actually all-loving and all-powerful and all-knowing; therefore, our reasoning goes, God must not be one of those things. Or maybe God is none of them. We blame God. We say God really does not love, and/or God really is impotent, and/or God really has no clue.

Once we give in to Temptation #2, of course, we become an easy target of the other great temptations. If God is really not “all that,” then it is much easier for us to try to be godlike, and our self-interests are that much more at the forefront.

Temptation #3: Satisfy your physical hungers.
Jesus has wandered in the wilderness, fasting, for almost six weeks when the Tempter makes his third great entrance, stage left. It is now that the last three great temptations are scripted.

The suggestion that Jesus turn the stones into bread is not a temptation for Jesus to do a cheap magic act. If that were all it is, it would not have much application to us mere mortals who can do no better than silly card tricks. No, it is far baser than that – the temptation is for a very hungry Jesus to make Himself some bread. Forty days of fasting and wandering has left Jesus tired, hungry, and needy. “End your fast. Use your power. Eat something. Nobody is here to see. Nobody will know. You have needs. Make some bread.”

Timing is everything with Temptation #3. There would have been no point in coming to Jesus at the wedding feast at Cana and suggesting that He turn rocks into bread while He is turning water into wine. Jesus was not hungry then. He was not needy.

We can look back at things that have tempted us and recoil at our foolishness, forgetting what our perceived needs were at the time. The physical temptations that come to us are always timed to hit us the hardest. I am willing to bet that very few are tempted to sexual promiscuity on their honeymoon. But when things are hard, when we have needs that we are certain no one else can understand … then is when the temptation comes to fulfill the need, to satisfy the hunger. After all, God made us this way, right? Our hunger is natural. God will understand that the rules don’t apply to us. God would not have built this desire into us and then expect us not to do something about it, right?

Temptation #4: Show off.
Satan proposes that Jesus jump off the temple roof and let the angels gently carry Him to the ground. Satan even quotes scripture – accurately, I might add – to make the point. This misuse of Psalm 91 is the great example of why using individual verses as proof-texts for our own needs and over-literalizing scripture is dangerous, but I digress.

What is the essence of Temptation #4? At first glance, it is popularity, esteem, and self-aggrandizement. What could be in it for Jesus to jump off the temple? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the temple was very public, and surviving such an event would make Him an instant hero. His personal relationship with the angels would be the talk of the town.

The temptation is that life is all about me. What can I do? What do I have to offer? Who will notice me? When will the world stop for a moment so that I can have my fifteen minutes of fame?

Temptation #4 has another level. It is about control ... self-importance ... ego. Perhaps more subtly, but much more dangerously than a simple reach for popularity, His focus would be on all the cool things He could do rather than on fulfilling His sacrificial mission. For Jesus to use His power in such a way would bastardize the power of God. To make such a production – even if nobody saw it and popularity were not an issue – would be to take gifts God has given Him and use them as a sideshow. Showing off cheapens everything you have been given, every talent you have, as you cram them into a box for display, even if you are just displaying for yourself. Jumping off the temple to force the angels to catch Him would be, for Jesus, the ultimate demonstration of controlling the world through egotistical whim.

That is a prospect that makes all of us salivate at times. If only we could do such a thing!

Temptation #5: Grab power.
“I will give you reign over all the kingdoms of the world” is Satan’s final shot at Jesus. We can debate whether or not Satan is telling the truth – does the devil really control the world enough that he has this to give to Jesus? Would he have followed through on the promise and given this power to Jesus if the Christ had bowed down to him?

I think the answer to both of those questions is yes – if not, this is not a real temptation for Jesus. Temptation #5 is all about the chance to grab what can truly be yours. It is no temptation to suggest to me that if I do what you want, you will make me King of Sweden – you do not have that power, and so I have no temptation to follow your suggestion.

But when power is there for the taking, this temptation is real. We have to be careful, because we want good people to have power. Having power is not necessarily bad, any more than having wealth is bad or being popular is bad. When, however, grabbing power for its own sake becomes an end in and of itself – when we agree to bow down to Satan so that we can have power – then we are in the midst of this great temptation.

Machiavelli teaches us that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but that cliché misses the point of scripture. Before you can be corrupted by power, you have to gain the power. There are those who sincerely seek power as a means of helping and leading, and more power to them – show me where to vote. But the person for whom power is the end instead of the means is the person targeted by Temptation #5.


I believe we overcomplicate much in life. Our analyses of what is evil and wrong in the world can take complex turns as we dissect our motivations and actions.

Perhaps it is not so complicated. Perhaps it is all about these five great temptations: Be like God. Blame God. Satisfy your hungers. Show off. Grab power.

It is worth thinking about.

Friday, September 10, 2010

God in the News

It is the eve of the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I want to focus on two instances where God is in the news.

One is the much-discussed (and now at least temporarily "suspended") plan of a church in Florida and a church in Kansas to burn a copy of the Qu'ran, apparently in protest over the planned Ground Zero mosque or maybe just as a general anti-Islam statement. This choice has been fully vetted and discussed in print and in cyberspace, and I am not going to add to that debate per se.

The second is the cover story of today's USA Today concerning actor Michael Douglas and his ongoing treatment for throat cancer. Saying that he has not really thought through mortality issues because he does not think he is dying, Douglas is quoted as saying "I haven't found God yet."

These two seemingly unrelated items strike a chord with me. On one hand, a church openly appeals to hatred as a tool to provide a message. On the other hand, the concept of God is a punch line. I believe that each has to do with the other.

So long as the church operates not as the Body of Christ but rather as just another human organization with very human ideals, it will focus on political goals and popular ends. The politics is not limited to any one direction, of course. For every right-wing church that wants to burn a book or picket a funeral, there is a left-wing church that wants to promote a coffee shop agenda of so-called tolerance that in fact amounts to anything goes.

It is not unforeseeable that in such a world, ideals of God are laughable to many. Why should God be a realistic concern of those whose primary public view of the alleged people of God is caricature?

The anniversary of 9/11 will provide opportunities for God to be in the news again. Some will blame the attacks on God (or praise God for "causing" the attacks). Others will use the opportunity to evaluate one or more of the leading religions of the world, all of which call on God - whether they use the name "Yahweh" or "Allah" or "Jehovah" or "Father."

I am not suggesting that all religions are the same, for they are not. I am not suggesting that all religions are equally acceptable, for they are not. I am not suggesting that Islam is as reasonable a way to approach God as is Christianity, for I do not believe that it is.

I am suggesting, however, that when people choose to act or speak the name of God, they do damage to that name when they act stupidly, unlovingly, counter-productively, or insanely. Blowing up buildings in the name of God is insane. Burning books (especially books that you have not read) in the name of God is, at least, counter-productive. It is not, however, the same as blowing up buildings, and the hyperbolic editorials that have suggested that it is are reaching for a story. Still, for the people who claim to be God's to disregard how their actions will affect the perception of God because they want to make a point seems to me to lead more and more people simply to disregard any serious consideration of God at all.

I have no idea about Michael Douglas' personal religious convictions, if he has any at all. But I do know that "finding God" in deathbeds and prison cells is a common joke.

I don't pretend that we Christians will be anything approaching perfect. We are going to make horrible mistakes that defame the God we represent - we often do. But to do so intentionally in the name of an end that is not even claimed to be a godly goal is beyond me.

If our Christian witness is to have any meaning at all, it has to mean that we are conscious of how our words and actions portray God to the world. When churches are embarrassed to say the name "Jesus Christ" out loud for fear of making someone uncomfortable, it is not surprising that people are not interested in Jesus. When churches are indistinguishable from shopping malls, it is not surprising that visitors act like customers, who expect to be "always right" and who will move on to the next location as trends change. When churches strive primarily to be culturally relevant, it is not surprising that they fail to have any permanent meaning to those who can find better music online and cooler pop culture references on "The Daily Show."

And when any so-called church makes the news for politics (much less hatred), it should be expected that the response will be a political one. God gets left in the dust, to be picked up by the quipsters who need material.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Life Is Not Fair

I will call them "the Smith family." "Smith" is not their real name, but I want to respect their privacy. Most who have known me a long time will know about whom I am writing.

The Smiths and my parents were best friends as I grew up. I am an only child - the Smiths have lots of kids. I just went to their big house and blended in whenever I got the chance.

I was with one of the Smith daughters the night I broke my elbow and ended my baseball career.

When we made a move and sold a house before school was out, we lived with the Smiths for several weeks.

I could go on about the nature of my relationship with this family, but you get the point.

Dr. Smith died this week. He was 80 years old. I understand that these things happen. It is sad, but it is a part of life, and I am at that stage where many of my friends' parents are starting to pass on.

But the Smith family is different. In the last 10 years...

... their son-in-law was sued. I represented him. He won, but the process was debilitating. He had done nothing wrong, but he suffered the indignity of accusations directed toward his personal and professional competence.

... they lost a granddaughter to a drunk driver. She was brilliant and funny and beautiful and completely innocent, and her life was snuffed out by idiocy.

... their daughter and her family lost their house to Katrina. Washed away. Nothing left.

... they lost another grandchild - this time a boy - and a son-in-law to yet another drunk driver. Again, no fault at all on the part of the Smith family. Complete lunacy.

I am pretty good about philosophizing about why bad things happen to good people, and I think that my answers make some sense in the abstract. I don't think Dr. Smith would argue with them.

Still, as yet another blow strikes this good family that means the world to me, the philosophies and the answers don't satisfy. They seem, in the words of the great Old Testament Teacher, to be a chasing of the wind. My humanity wants the good guys to win and the wicked to suffer. My world, however, does not work that way.

Dr. Smith would have found that Teacher's approval, for he loved God and obeyed God's commandments.

You know Smiths in your life - good people who, for some reason or for no reason, appear to be special targets for what life has to throw at all of us.

For today, I am not thinking it through. I am not philosophizing. I am not trying to satisfy myself or anyone else with so-called answers. I am just sad.

Say a prayer for my friends the Smiths and for whoever the Smiths are in your world. Life happens to all of us, eventually. You will be a Smith some day, and you will covet the prayers and cares of your friends then too.

Smith family, I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, and I am sure that He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it at the day of Christ.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a paradoxical concept, at least the way we Christians put it into practice. On the one hand, we treasure the forgiveness we have from Christ. We teach that we should and must forgive each other. We tell our children to forgive.

On the other hand, in practice, our lives are full of exceptions to the principle. It seems that, for most of us, there is a specific sin or list of wrongs that actually are unforgiveable. There is a certain wrong done to us we do not feel we can forgive or that God really wants us to forgive. Whether it is marital unfaithfulness by our spouse, selfishness by another that leaves us behind, or dishonesty in the church that results in turmoil and upheaval, we seem to shove the concept of forgiveness far into the background.

In short, often we do not feel like forgiving. It is thus timely and critical to circle back to the basics of this New Testament tenet to examine what we are actually called to do, because, like many others of the commands of Christ, forgiveness is indeed based on our actions irrespective of our feelings.

God’s forgiveness of us (Matthew 6:12, 14-15)

It is axiomatic that we have been forgiven of our sins. The singular act of salvation, while we were yet sinners, is the triumphant moment of our lives. As far as the east is from the west have our sins been removed from us.

Forgiveness, however, is not limited to that singular salvation event. We continue to sin, for we have not yet laid hold of the prize. We still see through that glass darkly, and as Paul laments in Romans 7, we do what we do not want to do, and we do not do what we know we are supposed to do. As children of God and royal priests, therefore, we are constantly in need of God’s ongoing forgiveness; we crave our daily relationship with God, yet our sin separates us from God.

In the Model Prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask for God’s forgiveness “as we forgive others.” Too often, we tend to hear only the first half of that, the reminder to ask for forgiveness. Jesus does not leave us there and reminds us, immediately after the text of the Model Prayer, that our continued forgiveness from God is tied to how we forgive others.

You may well be saved, but if your daily walk with Christ is hampered, if you feel separated from God, if you do not share the closeness with God you once knew, perhaps the cause is unforgiveness to which you cling. If you are not forgiving the trespasses of those around you, you are unable to access the full offerings God has for you.

The parable of the unforgiving slave (Matthew 18:21-35)

Few of Jesus’ parables are this clear or this hard hitting. We have been forgiven of a debt so huge we cannot imagine it, yet we turn around and fail to forgive wrongs that are minuscule in comparison.

There are two causes for our failure in this regard. First, despite the fundamental knowledge we have, we underestimate what we owe God. We forget how overwhelming our sin was before we were forgiven by God. Though we were not ax murderers or child abusers, the sins we did commit were detestable to a holy God, whose very nature means that He cannot commune with any impurity. The wages of our sin was Christ's death. For God to forgive the sins of rebellious creatures and allow them eternal life with Him was the act of supreme generosity and love. Too often, we have simply forgotten the depth of the debt we once owed that we could never pay.

Second, we overestimate what others owe us. We magnify the wrong done to us. In the moment, the denarius owed to us seems to be of such importance that we think (in fact, the tempter is whispering in our ear) that surely God will understand how important it is that this wrong be recognized for what it is. To forgive something that has hurt us so much—the infidelity, the rift in our church, the abandonment—cannot be, we tell ourselves (and in actuality we hear the tempter tell us) what God expects.

Of course God expects it. Indeed, God demands it. Not just once. Not just seven times. But more times than we can count.

The clothes of the Christian (Colossians 3:12-14)

Paul reminds us to live constantly with the recollection of how God has treated us. We must never forget we are “holy and dearly loved” ones, chosen by God. To “clothe ourselves” with compassion and humility is to live out these virtues so that they are seen by all around us.

As a part of this clothing, we are to forgive anyone against whom we have a complaint. Once again, like Jesus has done in the Sermon on the Mount, Paul reminds us that we forgive not because of our personal feelings or because of what seems right to us but rather because God has forgiven us.

Paul adds the final word—the outer garment, if you will—that over all these things we must put on love. This is not just our love for each other, for we humans can and do fail regularly. No, here Paul is talking about the “tie that binds,” the love of the Holy Spirit that covers us and prompts our forgiveness, as it does our compassion and our humility. We must wrap ourselves in the love of God, for it is only then that we can find the way to forgive those around us.

Forgiving little grievances is easy. We would not need these strong commands and parables to remind us to forgive the child who spills milk or the co-worker who accidentally takes our paper clip. It is where forgiveness is hard—where we have been truly and deeply hurt, where the one who has wronged us is not seeking forgiveness—that we need the instruction. Neither Christ nor Paul conditions our duty to forgive on the gravity of the wrong done to us or on the apology of the wrongdoer. We are simply to forgive.

It is not easy. It often does not feel good. It may go unnoticed.

But it is a reflection of our loving, holy, forgiving God.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Couple of Kids' Movies

I am not sure if it is a good or a bad comment about Hollywood, but there is no question that the best couple of movies I have seen in 2010 are both animated - "Toy Story 3" and "Despicable Me."

I was expecting TS3 to be good. The first two installments were excellent. Pixar produces great stuff. Tom Hanks is in it. What's not to like?

I was not expecting to like "Despicable Me." The previews made it out to be a silly adolescent semi-gross out movie, sort of a dumbed down cartoon version of "MacGruber." The previews are wrong.

The lessons that abound from these two movies are profound. They are not necessarily multi-layered feats of subtlety, but they are worth contemplation. Don't worry - I am not going to spoil the intricate plot twists of the movies for you.

None of this is new, either as a movie device or as a thought for us to consider. But seeing these two movies so close together, I am struck by the critical importance in these age-old themes.

First, both movies focus on teamwork. In TS3, the toys work together to escape the seemingly inescapable. In Despicable, a group of lovable "minions" come through more than once by working together to overcome very long odds.

Teamwork sounds sanitized. It sounds like athletics. It reminds of vaunted "teambuilding activities" that dot the itineraries of corporate retreats. In fact, teamwork is a crucial biblical theme. Jesus chose twelve, and then seventy, and He sent them out in groups. He said that He joins groups of "two or three gathered" in His name. The description of the church is the "body of Christ," with each of us fulfilling only one role and thus needing each other for our very existence.

Secondly, and more importantly, and more profoundly, both movies focus on the transforming power of love. The message in TS3 is expected - the toys have grown to love each other and "their boy" over the years, and this love motivates everything they do. In "Despicable Me," the power of love takes a different tack: innocent love transforms a bad guy into a good guy.

Love cannot be oversold. It cannot be the theme of too many movies. We hear it all the time, and still we don't really get it. Love is not, really, about feelings or eroticism or even emotions. Love is about commitment and actions and putting the needs/desires/wishes of the loved one above your own. Love motivates even when the feelings are absent. We love in spite of our emotions, not because of them.

It is tempting, in both movies, to get distracted from these basic themes. In "Despicable Me," we can easily find ourselves following the bad-guy-vs.-other-bad-guy storyline. In "Toy Story 3," there is a legitimately heart-tugging tone to the whole movie, and for people like me (my son leaves for college one short year from now), the boys-and-their-toys message is one to ponder.

Still, let's not forget the importance of relying on each other and loving each other. Cooperation and teamwork are empowering, for "two are better than one; ... if one falls down, he has the other to help him up, but pity the man who has no one to pick him up!... Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves, and a cord of three strands is not easily broken." And love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails."

I have no idea if the producers of these movies know their scripture, but their message certainly does. We need each other. We should act like it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Peace

Peace does not come when something is taken. Peace is something added.

Most of the world says that peace means taking something away. If we could stop wars, or stop fighting, or stop arguing, or stop the noise, we will have peace. That is what the world has always thought. Jeremiah says: “'Peace, peace' they say, but there is no peace.” And they will never have peace as long as they keep trying to get it by subtraction.

When Jesus was born, the angels sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace.” The wars in the Roman Empire did not suddenly stop. In fact, there has not been a single day since the birth of Christ that somebody on earth was not at war with somebody else. So, were the angels wrong? I don't believe they were. I believe that peace arrived with the Prince of Peace.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus, when describing His gift of peace, said that He does not give us peace "as the world gives"?

The world seeks for peace, visualizes peace, sues for peace, signs peace treaties, marches for peace, and even smokes the peace pipe. And, as Jeremiah prophesied so long ago, there is no peace.

Jesus came to give us life more abundantly. That means He adds things. He does not subtract. He brings something new. Paul said that Jesus Himself is our peace. He gives us peace not as the world gives but as He gives.

And we have peace... in a storm, amidst the noise, even where there is war. I don't for a minute suggest that we stop trying to end wars, for of course war is inhuman and evil. My point is only that ending war is not the same as peace.

Peace is the addition of something. It is something supernatural, mystical, mysterious. There is no recipe. Peace comes with relationship with the One who is beyond. Jesus did not sleep through the storm because He was unconcerned - He was able to sleep because He knew the one holding the wind. Peace comes when you trust the one in control.

So we go about our daily lives with joy, led forth in peace. We don’t worry about anything, but we pray about everything; and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Go in peace.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Promises I Have Not Kept - A Father's Day Reflection

I have the world's greatest kids. I am really bad at letting them know that I know that. I am quick to teach, to explain, to correct. I am too quick to discipline, to come across as biting, to undercut. Without intention, I too often make them feel small.

When they were born, I made promises to them, to Gena, to myself, to God. When I looked forward, I had no doubt that I would be the Dad with the intimate, sharing relationship with each of my kids. There would be nothing that they could or would not tell me. I would be full of compassion, kindness, and patience. I, who have been such a recipient of the grace and lovingkindness of God, would be a conduit of that same grace and lovingkindness to my kids.

I have not kept those promises. I am not patient, not nearly patient enough. I speak unkindly far too often.

Oh, I have my excuses. I have high expectations for my kids... I see things in them that they don't see and to which they need to be pushed ... The world out there is tough and they need to be ready... I am tired... They know better...

I could go on and on.

But to push my kids to meet my personal expectations in the midst of a tough world was not my promise. My promise was to be patient and kind and to model for them the incredible grace that has been shown to me. I fail.

I think I know why. Oh, of course part of the "why" is my own selfishness and my own inflated ego. Part of the reason is my unwillingness to take my eyes off my own goals, whether they be goals for them or goals for me.

But the real reason is self-reliance. I have thought for years that I have this parenting thing figured out. I know what is best and I know how to get there. I have smart kids, and they will figure out what I intend and what I know - even when I don't bother to verbalize those things - and cut me slack when I am ungracious along the way. If everybody will just follow my plan, the results will be wonderful.

That is so counter to everything I know about the gospel. The point of our lives is that we cannot help ourselves. I am stuck in a miry pit. I am a sinner. The hymnwriter says I am a wretch. How can I possibly keep these promises?

I cannot keep these promises myself. Years of empirical evidence prove that only too well.

Of course the gospel does not stop there. Patience and kindness are not something I can gin up on my own, but I have a Helper. Patience and kindness and goodness are fruit of the Spirit. They are His work, not mine.

It is time for me to get out of the way. It is time for my kids to see less of the promises and more of the Promise.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Half Pint and Me

Melissa Gilbert is in town, playing (ironically) the mother in the musical version of "Little House on the Prairie."

I am a child of the 70s. Melissa Gilbert is my age, give or take a year. Like most kids my age, I grew up watching her on TV. Like most boys, I never actually admitted to liking "Little House," but I nevertheless had a crush on Melissa Gilbert. I have watched her grow up as I have grown up. I have admired her.

The newspaper story about the musical mentioned her recent autobiography. I have a new Kindle, and I decided I would download and read it. Surely I would find out more about my secret junior high celebrity crush.

Turns out her life was not what I imagined when seeing her as Laura Ingalls... a life of Hollywood celebrity in the 70s and 80s that was complete with sex and drugs and the whole nine yards. OK, I get it. I saw a well-crafted image, and I fell for it.

That is not what speaks to me. What speaks to me is the life that so many lead. I wrote a blog a while back about how I recognize that my life is vastly different from that led by so many. And I know that contrasting my sheltered, straight-laced Southern Baptist upbringing with the Brat Pack lifestyle is not a stretch.

But it is not just Hollywood. I have a good friend who shares many of my values. This friend would be considered to be much "like" me by folks who meet us both. But this friend's life has been much different from my own. Choices - both moral and emotional - have been so different. Experiences that for me would have been earth shattering have instead been routine. Conversely, this friend is astounded at how I have lived my life, never really believing that anyone took seriously some of the things that have dominated my decisions.

My parents were visited last week by distant relatives who, according to my mother, "come from another world."

We are surrounded by people from another world. We interact with them every day. One of the great faults of my culture is the assumption that everyone else is "like me." Oh, it is easy to assume that those Hollywood nuts are running wild, but to think that the person I talk to every day has tried things and experienced things - and liked them and thinks they are perfectly acceptable - that I would consider taboo is a critical reminder. I cannot assume that my particular bubble describes everyone else - or even anyone else.

We are all different. How we see the world is different. When someone disagrees with me, I would do well to remember that.

I am not nearly as judgmental as I used to be. I still know what I believe to be right and wrong. I am no more inclined to situational ethics or relative morality than ever. But I also am learning more and more that everybody has his or her own parameters and viewpoints, largely shaped by environments and influences that were not chosen.

I can still admire Melissa Gilbert. And my friend and I are continuing to forge a relationship. In fact, all of my friends and I forge relationships out of our varied histories.

God placed us in a world of interactions with all kinds of people, all created in God's image. Having our eyes opened to more and more varieties of people - who have made choices different from our own and have had experiences we would never approach - does not taint us. It enriches us.

Open your world. Aristotle said that it is the mark of the educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it. Jesus said that we should welcome the stranger. It is no compromise to have relationship with those different from you, to hear of their experience, to consider their point of view.

My life is fuller because of all the people in it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Freedom

I have a GPS in my car. It speaks with a feminine voice, and I have (oh so creatively) christened her Sacagawea, my guide. I am quickly finding myself reliant on her directions, even in my home town. Sometimes, though, I find her telling me to make a turn to get somewhere when I can clearly see a more direct way straight ahead.

When do we follow the roadmap, the rules, the voice that the store sold us... and when do we ignore the guide and set out on a different road because of what we know in our gut is right?

I am a rules follower. Some of that comes from being a lawyer - I like procedures to be in place, and I like everyone to follow them. If they don't, I object (literally).

Still, inherent in the nature of rules is a limitation on our freedom.

So, what is "freedom?" We say we want it. We fight wars over it.

I find certain things in my life - things I believe are gifts from God or ways to follow God's will for me - often are outside of the rules. Stay with me. I mean to say they may well not fit the rules that society has set up. God's ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Please understand … I do not mean that they will be outside of God's rules. Paul writes very clearly that while we are called in Christ to be free, we are not to use that freedom to indulge our sinful nature. If some spirit is telling you to rob a bank or commit adultery or walk upon the downtrodden so that you can gain something you would not otherwise have or deserve, then you are listening to the wrong spirit.

So what do I mean about freedom and the rules of this world? I mean that our faithful God will have a new mercy for you tomorrow morning, and it may well surprise you, because you never expected it. Perhaps your peers do not expect you to have or do or be anything like that. Maybe society says that that cannot be a part of your way of life. Conceivably, some religious figure may tell you that good Christians do not go there or do that. I suggest you evaluate the source of those rules.

Many of our rules were not made with the realities of God in mind. The rules say that you cannot walk on water and that you cannot be raised from the dead and that Jesus will not want to stop to spend time with little children. The rules say that certain people do not associate with other certain people – whether it is because of their race or their class or their marital status or their income; fortunately, the Good Samaritan did not follow that rule. The rules say that you should not take chances so that you will not get hurt.

The rules say, "Follow the rules, and you can stay in a world that is predictable and explainable and safe."

Many of our rules are well-intentioned guidelines to keep us from stepping too far, and it is always safest and easiest to stay trouble-free if we steer well clear of the boundaries. But for those willing to search for God and the freedom that He offers, it is at the boundaries of what the world understands that God does His most exciting work. Do not be surprised that society does not want you there.

I know that what I am saying is dangerous. Testing the boundaries is only for those who are firmly planted. I run the risk of someone’s hearing me say that it is OK to go break all the rules.

Charlie Johnson says that our faith has Christ in the center but has no circumference. There is no border keeping anyone out of the faith. Just so, there is no predetermined outline limiting what we can be.

In C.S. Lewis' masterpiece The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the hero is a lion named Aslan, an allegorical Christ figure. When one of the children asks one of Aslan's faithful followers about the safety in being around such an animal, the classic reply tells us so much about the nature of Christ: "Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you." You see, what I am saying is dangerous because our freedom can be dangerous. You know that I am not saying that you should go break all the rules – do not go cheat on your taxes or kick the dog – but there are such blessings that await us new, each morning, if we trust totally in the good giver of freedom.

Freedom is a gift. Like any gift, it must be used carefully. Jesus did not come to erase one bit of the law but instead to fulfill the spirit of the law. He said that if we continue in His word as His disciples, then "you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.... And if the Son has set you free, then you are free indeed." Freedom, then, does not come from an anarchical throwing off of all authority or an idealistic search for the glimmer in each individual. Freedom comes from the truth that can be ours. Freedom comes in trusting God and not leaning on what we understand.

Then, and only then, the rules do not matter so much. If we are walking the right road, we don't need so many maps. We can leave the GPS at home.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Going Back to Bethel

Jacob is a biblical character whom you would not characterize as "good." He is not faithful like his grandfather Abraham. He is not a model citizen like his son Joseph. He is, instead, aptly named, for Jacob means "grasper" or "deceiver." He wants what is not his. He schemes. He hurts his brother. He lies, even to his own father. In short, he is like you and me.

Bethel, part one - Stopping for the night to rest, Jacob has a dream. He sees a ladder going to heaven, with angels moving up and down —the literal “stairway to heaven.” He hears, for the first time in his life, God’s recital of his promise to Abram, now repeated to Jacob: “I am God, the God of your father and his father. I will give you this land, and the number of your descendants will be as the dust. Wherever you go, I will bless you.” Awakening, Jacob does a curious—and instructive—thing. He recognizes the presence of God. “Surely the Lord is in this place … . This is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven." Out of the mouth of the deceiver—the liar—comes this truth that faces each of us: God is here, and we need to take notice of it. This place that hours before seemed no more than a place to stretch out and lay our head on a rock is in fact the place where angels tread, where God moves. It is a sanctuary.

So Jacob builds an altar and names the place Bethel, “the house of God.” He promises allegiance to God and offers a tithe. God has chosen him, and Jacob recognizes God is present.

Peniel - Fast forward now to a new place, another stop on a journey seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Jacob wrestles with God. The metaphor here for our own lives is strong. We start out as "Jacob," a deceiver. We become "Israel," one who struggles with God. We humans, who have a deceitful and manipulative nature, will inevitably struggle with God. God blesses us despite our failings, but God does not want us to remain as we were. God meets us on our road and touches us.

Struggling with God is not taboo. Like Jacob, we find ourselves alone with God, and we fight. Like Jacob, we come out of this fight with two marked changes:

• First, we find that our name has been changed. God no longer sees us as the deceiver; God knows we are a struggler. We do not “win” the struggle or change God, but our very nature is changed. God speaks to us differently. We are Israel.
• Second, we find that our walk is changed. Jacob, now Israel, walks with a limp. In struggling with God, Israel has had his body touched. When we struggle with God, we will find that our way of doing things has changed. The more manipulative we have been—the more we embodied the grasping, deceiving “Jacob” within us—the more that change will hurt, at least initially. Changing the ingrained can be painful.

Again, Jacob recognizes the significance of the place and of the presence of God, and he names the place Peniel, for there he has seen the face of God.

Bethel, part two - Israel is in trouble. His sons (the apple does not far fall from this tree) have created havoc, and Israel fears the worst. Life is not going as planned. Suddenly, the word from God comes: it is time to go back to Bethel.

Bethel is the place of Jacob’s ladder, where he had first heard the covenant of God. Bethel reminds Israel not only that God is with him but that God has blessed and protected him. When Jacob arrives again at Bethel, God reminds him of both his name change and the covenant. Jacob’s nature is changed—he is no longer the grasper; he is the struggler. He is Israel. God’s covenant still is sure, and God’s plans are not changed.

In “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean steals silver candlesticks from the bishop, but the bishop forgives the transgression and sets Valjean free, giving him the candlesticks to take with him as a sign the bishop has “bought your soul for God.” In the stage production, the director always makes sure the candlesticks remain prominent for Valjean, and the audience, to see: the reminder of the sacrifice made and the time when Valjean first understood the presence of God is never far away.

We Christians all have markers in our walks, places and times in our journeys that have signified the very presence of God to us. When we are in trouble, we need to find that marker, to look at our candlesticks. We often need to go back to Bethel.

I have gone back to Bethel over the last few weeks. I have not literally traveled there - my travels have taken me far and wide, but not back to a place of importance for my faith. I have been shown no candlesticks. But I have re-discovered that which I already knew - God is planning with me and for me, God is protecting me, God is blessing me, God is using me. I have spent time in what are basics for me - the Roman Road, "the truth shall make you free," what it is to have "been with Jesus" - and I have come away renewed.

I have been back to Bethel.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Arks of Grace

We all know the story of Noah and the ark: grace comes in the midst of a flood. The grace is actually carefully planned before the first raindrop falls, when God talks to Noah, giving him precise instruction as to how to avoid the coming catastrophe.

The provision of grace to Noah can be broken down into recognizable acts of God.

• Noah is known. God sees Noah, recognizes Noah’s faithfulness and makes gracious provision for him. Our love for God and our lives of obedience amidst the hordes are not unnoticed by God.

• A way of escape is planned. Just as God’s command to Adam and Eve in the garden may not have made immediate sense to them, the word to Noah—build something called an ark in the middle of the desert that had never known rain, much less a flood—could not have been reasonable in any human sense to Noah; still, it was the word of the Lord, and Noah was a blameless and upright man.

• The future of all of mankind was secured. You and I would not be here now but for the gracious provision for those in the ark. Grace is found in this provision for millions of future generations through the life and work of one blameless man.

• The act of grace is secured by God’s promise. The rainbow may be explained by a physicist with a prism, but its meaning as a sign of God’s gracious covenant is clear to all who know God.

God sends arks of grace. I believe that the ark is a manifestation of the grace of God. Sinful society has so separated itself from God that it is on the road to destruction, yet God sends grace. Just as naked Adam and Eve were given clothes, just as Cain received his mark, now Noah and his family receive building instructions for an ark. Following those instructions faithfully, Noah finds himself with the only salvation available.

Floods come to us for all sorts of reasons.

• We cause them. Often, every intention of our heart is only evil all the time. We get what we deserve. Our sins find us out.

• Others cause them. Sometimes, we have been blameless, but the sins of others catch us up in the storm, bringing us disease, destruction, divorce, disappointment or disloyalty. Wars rage over issues that have nothing to do with us, yet we are caught in the crossfire.

• Nature causes them. We may never understand this side of heaven why the tornado or the hurricane comes, why the cancer strikes the healthy teenager, why psychosis attacks the brilliant mind.

• God allows them. For some storms, there is no explanation for us. We can struggle with the questions of why an omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving God can allow them; whether we find an answer or not, God allows the storms.

The lesson is that arks — just like the floods — come to us in all sorts of ways.

• Sometimes, we build them. We hear a word from God, and we understand His instructions. Faithfully following, we find ourselves positioned to ride the storm out, rising above the waves.

• Others build them for us. God works through the church, through our friends, through the prayers of those whom we have never met. Through driving rains, we see the hands of rescuers that reach out to us, lifting us out of the rushing tide.

• Though we often miss them, some arks come to us naturally. The hands of the doctor, the calm of the southern wind, the mutation that fights the disease—God’s grace often is extended to us in ways that have no explanation beyond nature taking its course. It was, after all, a great rush of wind that parted the Red Sea.

• God simply intervenes. The word “miracle” has gone out of style for some, but we cannot ignore the arks that come without explanation other than the grace of God.

To be sure, grace does not come to all in the same way. Some are saved from the flood; others are protected through the flood; still others are swept away by the flood, only to receive the ultimate healing of the grace of God through eternity.

When I was writing the lyrics to my first published anthem, "He Gives More Grace," I initially had a line in it about "arks of grace." I was persuaded to change the line to "gifts of grace," because, I was told, many would not know what I was talking about otherwise. Perhaps that is true, but I find in Noah's ark as amazing example of the grace of God.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tea Parties and Wal-Mart: Where Is Conservatism Going?

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal included an opinion by respected neoconservative Norman Podhoretz entitled "In Defense of Sarah Palin." The point of that editorial is that just because Palin is being attacked by the intellectual elite as being dumb is not a reason not to vote against her; in fact, the author embraces those attacks as a reason to vote for her.

I don't want to write a blog about Sarah Palin. Please do not comment here with your personal views for her or against her - there are plenty of places on the web to do that.

Instead, I want to address the question of the value of gravitas , that often indefinable "something" - quality, depth, substance - that only the giants and heroes have.

Noting that Palin's attackers come from both the right and the left, Podhoretz quotes a satirical attack on the "unsightly hordes of Wal-Mart untermenschen typified by the loathesome Tea Party rabble" with their "base enthusiasms and simian grunts." Podhoretz concludes by saying that since high-IQ types like Carter, Clinton, and Obama have been (in his opinion) poor presidents, he would be happier with the grunting Tea Partiers.

Podhoretz writes well, but I must confess that I am skeptical of the argument that boils down to “smart people have done badly, so let’s elect a dumb-dumb.” That is not exactly what he is saying of course, and I don’t think that Palin is a dumb-dumb. But I am skeptical of the position that says that - because many intellectuals are (1) liberal, like the MIT and Harvard faculty (William Buckley is quoted by Podhoretz as saying he would rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by these faculties); (2) embarrassing, like Biden; (3) failures, like Carter; or (4) morally questionable, at best, like Clinton – we should therefore elect someone who is not very smart.

I admire some things about Sarah Palin. I liked her speaking during the campaign, and I admire her carrying the banner for what she believes is a principled message. I wish she had been better prepared for Katie Couric, and I wish she were not quite so quick to embrace the “Wal-Mart untermenschen” persona that is being thrust upon her.

I believe we can find a conservative who has the gravitas that Palin does not. Yes, given a choice, I might vote for her over President Obama. But I would rather have Ronald Reagan. I don’t see another Reagan on the horizon. Frankly, though, I think the time is ripe for one to arise.

Here is what I mean. The Republican Party in the late 70s was (or would have been, but for Watergate) the world of Nixon, he of wage and price controls and appeasement of China. It was the party of Ford, a middle of the road nice guy with no real conservative credentials. Conservatism was still exemplified/lampooned by the failed and over-the-top Goldwater. The party was in trouble. The only thing worse was the stagflation, Iranian hostage world of the Democrats. Not a clash of the titans. Out of that morass arose someone who could visualize, who could dream, who could articulate what was not apparent. In short, a man of faith (here, I mean faith in what American could and should be, not Christian faith (although he was also that)), a person who could preach the substance of things not seen.

I am no more a fan of today’s Republican party than I am - in retrospect - of the Nixon/Ford party of the 70s. I have not given money to the party in years. McCain and W were not, by any stretch, my choice as excellent candidates. I voted for them only because I could not stomach the alternative... but being better than John Kerry or Al Gore is no great prize. Dole would have been a reasonable candidate if he had been 20 years younger, but of course Kemp was a much better choice. In other words, yes, I am saying conservatism's best national candidate since Reagan has been a losing vice-presidential nominee from 14 years ago.

The time, like in 1979, is ripe for the rise of a true conservative statesman or stateswoman. Somebody is going to ascend. Sarah Palin is trying, but she is not the one. I really think she is laying the groundwork for somebody else. I don’t know who that is. It could be Mitt Romney. It could be Bobby Jindal. It could be Condolezza Rice. It could be Eric Cantor. I don’t think it is Tim Pawlenty. It might be Charley Crist. It is not Gingrich or Huckabee or Giuliani.

It may well be somebody I have never heard of. But whoever it is, I believe that our present political arena is speeding up his/her appearance. The trick will be if this person can rise above the mess the Republicans have made of conservatism – all about hatred, abortion, yelling loud, racist junk about President Obama, and personal attack – to become a leader. If President Reagan could rise out of Watergate/pardon, then it can be done again.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Social Justice and the Better Choice

On his radio and television shows a couple of weeks ago, Glenn Beck set out to convince his audience that "social justice," the term many churches use to describe their efforts to address poverty and human rights, is a "code word" for communism and Nazism. Beck urged Christians to leave their churches if leaders would not reconsider their emphasis on social justice.

"I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! … Communists are on the left, and the Nazis are on the right. That's what people say. But they both subscribe to one philosophy, and they flew one banner. . . . But on each banner, read the words, here in America: 'social justice.' They talked about economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and surprisingly, democracy."

I want to set aside Beck’s tortured view of history and political philosophy and ask this question, from the point of view of the church: Why the attack on social justice? After all, the Bible seems very clear on these issues:
• Jesus chastises the Pharisees, saying, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside [the dish] to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”
• Later in the same gospel, Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
• Many of the Proverbs address the issue. For example, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them.”
• It should go without saying that the Torah is clear on the issue: “There should be no poor among you…. If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.”
• Jesus’ first public declaration of His ministry was in the context of social justice: “He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”
• In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to “give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
• The sheep and goats passage contains Jesus’ famous line that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
• The Apostle James, the half-brother of Christ, teaches: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”

It is simply axiomatic that the Bible teaches, repeatedly and emphatically, that what most of us call “social justice” – giving to the poor, striving for justice, helping the less fortunate, standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves – is expected of believers.

So, why question churches involved in social justice? I think there are two answers. (OK, there are more answers than that. These questions could well be cover for all sorts of agenda that fill the blogosphere and the airwaves. If so, the substance of the question is not worth discussing - it is just a tool for opening a pet can of worms. But I think there are two legitimate bases for at least raising the question, and those are what I want to address. The others are not worth a response.)

The first is political. The fact that social justice is a requirement for Christians is not the same thing as accepting that government should be in the social justice business. The calls in scripture are for believers, the church, and the people of God. The calls in scripture are for voluntary service, not compulsory action. Is it really an offering to pay taxes? Does government action answer the demands of scripture?

I understand these political arguments. To take them to the extent of demanding that I leave my church, however, is ridiculous. For Glenn Beck, who as I understand it is a relatively newly-minted Mormon, to deign to tell any of us that we should leave our churches based on his political agenda is insulting. If I disagree with my church on individual issues (and I often do), the answer is to work within the church, not to leave it.

There is a second answer to the question, and it is decidedly not political. It also has nothing to do with Glenn Beck’s rant. It is an issue of competition, of the “good” getting in the way of the “best.”

When Jesus comes to Bethany with his entourage, Martha sets about to prepare food and lodging for the several dozen drop-ins to her home. Her sister Mary, we are told, sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him teach. Martha is no dummy – we see in her discussion with Jesus in John 11 that she is theologically deep, and she is the one whom Jesus chooses to hear the critical words “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me, though dead, shall yet live.” Now, she sees a need for service to those who need help, and she sets about to fulfill that need. Mary does not help, and Martha complains to Jesus.

Why? Is Mary a slacker who is once again shirking responsibility? I don’t think so. I think Mary normally is one who pitches right in with Martha on the service front. Today is different, and Martha notices. Today, Mary is leaving the work to Martha.

It is important that Jesus never once indicts Martha’s service. What catches Jesus’ attention is Martha’s distraction. She is “worried about a great many things” while Mary is focused on “one thing.” Jesus refuses to find fault with Mary, for her “one thing” is the most important.

In “City Slickers,” Curly tells Billy Crystal’s character that the secret to life is “one thing.” Crystal spends the better part of two movies trying to figure out what it is.

In scripture, Jesus tells the rich young ruler that he lacks “one thing.” The healed blind man could not answer all of the synagogue leaders’ questions, but he knew “one thing.” Paul had not taken hold of everything that he could have, but “one thing” he knew.

And therein lies the lesson. I don’t think it is a lesson that Glenn Beck had in mind, but it is a lesson for all of us concerned about social justice. We cannot let the good get in the way of the best. When serving in the soup line replaces the inner yearning for relationship with Christ, we have become Martha. When marching for justice or running the yard sale becomes our worship, we are "worried about a great many things." We are distracted.

Jesus approves Mary because she has made the better choice. Sitting and listening – today we might well call it worship and prayer and Bible study – grow out of commitment to “one thing,” and Jesus approves that choice. Never blaming Martha for her honest desire to help those who need help … never hinting that service is wrong … never once suggesting that social justice is the wrong aim … Jesus treasures our attention. He always seeks relationship.

That is the one thing. That is the better choice.

We of course must seek social justice. If your church is using “social justice” as a code word for some political agenda as Beck suggests, then perhaps you need to address that. I don’t think most of our churches are guilty of that.

But in performing your service, don’t get distracted from the one thing. Always make the better choice.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Most Famous Verses that are not Really in the Bible

If we were to take a poll to discover the greatest movies of all time, we would have a lot of choices, but I am sure that my favorite movie would be in the top three. That movie is “Casablanca:” Great plot... Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and Sydney Greenstreet and Paul Heinreid and Claude Rains and Peter Lorre... Wonderful ending. But the thing about that movie that makes it a true classic is the amazing number of famous lines that are so much a part of our culture.
 “Here’s looking at you kid.”
 “Round up the usual suspects.”
 “Not an easy day to forget. I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey. You wore blue.”
 “We’ll always have Paris.”
 “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
 “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

But, none of those is the line that is widely accepted as the most famous line from the movie. I looked up three different internet polls to see if the answer to that question has changed since I first heard it when I was in college, and it hasn’t. Let’s see if you know. The line comes late one night, when Sam, played by Dooley Wilson, is playing “As Time Goes By” on the piano. He finishes playing, and Rick, played by Bogart, says ...

...


I am guessing that you have given the same answer I heard in a trivia bowl in college and found on those three internet polls. And you are wrong. The line “Play it Again Sam” is never heard in the movie “Casablanca.” Ilsa says, “Play it Sam,” and Rick says “you played it for her, you can play it for me.” But nobody ever says, “Play it again, Sam.”

That has some gospel on it. Here is what I mean: Just as a great deal of “Casablanca” trivia has grown up around a quote that is not in the movie, a lot of very well-meaning folk build their theology around ideas that are not in the Bible. These folks are just sure that these "verses" are in fact biblical. I hear them all the time in my Sunday School class, when someone will say something like, “it says somewhere in the Bible, I am not quite sure where, but somewhere, that...."

So, with that in mind, I want to mention the most famous "unverses" that are not in the Bible.

1. “I am not my brother’s keeper.”
Now, isn’t this a good basis for theology!? Of the three "unverses" I am going to discuss, this is the one that is closest to the actual words of scripture, but a little change in words creates a huge difference. The actual words are “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God comes to Cain and asks where Abel is, and Cain, perhaps out of smugness, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of disdain for both God and Abel, says “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

From there, we somehow move to this basis of theology – I am not my brother’s keeper. Now stay with me on this. Politically, I am a staunch individualist. I believe in the preservation of individual rights, and I believe that a promotion of individualism is the best system for promotion of the common good. Economically, I am a capitalist. I know that the profit motive and the ability of an individual to move up a ladder are the cornerstones of the best way for a market system to create the best situation for all of us. But, to jump from individualism to “I am not my brother’s keeper” is a jump that I am not willing to make. It is also a jump that the Bible does not make. Not only is it a misquote, but it is a misquote of the world’s first murderer – not my first choice for inspiration.

Instead, let’s see what the Bible does say.
 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
 “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
 “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.... It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause you brother to fall.”
 “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed, but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”

You see, even as we work in our politics and our economics, we also must understand that we are all created in the image of God, and we have a responsibility to each other.

2. “…and David lived happily ever after.”
Now this is a tough one. We start with David playing harps and leading armies. Then we move to his writing Psalms and serving kings. Finally, we understand that he was a man after God’s own heart.

Contrasted to that we have terrible sin. You know the story of Bathsheba. What starts with David's avoiding his duty as commander in chief of the army moves to invasion of privacy, then to lust, adultery, and murder. Not just a single murder, but instead, murder of many soldiers just to make sure that Bathsheba’s husband is killed. Multiple, horrific sins.

David was forgiven. There is no question of that. He was repentant, he asked for forgiveness, and he got it. He was still a man after God’s own heart.

But sin does not quit affecting us when God forgives us. Most of the book of Second Samuel is given to describing the horrors in David’s life that resulted from his sins. A baby died. His children who grew up alternated between raping each other and trying to steal David’s throne from him. Rather than living happily ever after, the lasting words of David are laments as he cries over the death of his son Absalom.

Forgiveness comes. We continue to seek God. God even restores to us the joy of our salvation. But scripture is clear that your sin will find you out.

My point is not to rail against David or to minimize the importance of his writings or of God’s forgiveness. My point is that many build a theology around the principle that they can do what they want because, like David, they will be forgiven, and then everything will be hunky dory. They are right – they will be forgiven. But it is naïve and unscriptural to think that the consequences of sin will vanish.

3. “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
This is my favorite of all. How many hundreds of times have we all heard this one? Again, I am a capitalist and an individualist, and I believe in working for a living and putting your money in the bank. But, this "unverse" is not scriptural. In fact, scripture is just the opposite. If you want to build your theology on an idea, then make it this: the Lord helps those who cannot help themselves!
 “But God commended His love toward us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
 “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him.”
 “They will see the splendor of God, who strengthens the feeble hands and steadies the knees that give way; who says to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear, your God will come to save you.’”
 “I waited patiently for Jehovah; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth.”

The words of a great man, Jehoshaphat, make this clear, and these words are particularly timely for us today. Listen to these verses from 2 Chronicles: "O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you. O our God, did you not drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? They have lived in it and have built in it a sanctuary for your Name, saying, `If calamity comes upon us, whether the sword of judgment, or plague or famine, we will stand in your presence before this temple that bears your Name and will cry out to you in our distress, and you will hear us and save us.' But now here are men from Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir, whose territory you would not allow Israel to invade when they came from Egypt; so they turned away from them and did not destroy them. See how they are repaying us by coming to drive us out of the possession you gave us as an inheritance. O our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you."

Jehoshophat was a great king. If anyone could help himself, it was Jehoshophat. But his prayer should be ours. I do not understand. I cannot fix it. I do not know what to do. I am powerless. My eyes are on you, God.

The Lord helps those who cannot help themselves.

Don't rely on things that aren't really there in scripture. Don't live by a "Play it again, Sam" theology.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Is It Worthwhile to Raise a Tiger?

Let me start by saying that I don't know if what the press is reporting is true. I am, for the purposes of this blog, going to use as my example the "Tiger Woods" that has been painted by the press. I could just as easily write a blog about a fictional character that I named "John Smith," but the Tiger story is too much in the news for me to ignore. If the press reports are wrong, then that is an injustice to him.

But just for example purposes, let's assume the following (We will call it "Group A") is correct:

1. Tiger is a serial adulterer.
2. Tiger needs treatment for a "sex addiction."
3. Tiger needs treatment for addiction to pain medication and sleeping pills.

Now again, I don't know if all of that is true, or if any of it is true. But let's just assume it is.

Here is what else we know ("Group B") about Tiger (and these we know, we are not just assuming):

1. He has more money than virtually anybody else short of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
2. He is the best golfer on the planet, and he is likely the best who ever played.
3. He is world famous. His face and name are known anywhere you go.
4. He is handsome, well-spoken, and smart.
5. His wife is one of the most beautiful women in the world.
6. He has two attractive kids.

So, here is the question: as a parent, would you put up with Group A if you knew you could get Group B?

Tiger's father, Earl, began teaching Tiger golf and drilling him on the game before Tiger could walk. Tiger appeared on TV at the age of 3 to show off his golf skills. His single aim was determined for him by his father, although it seems clear enough that Tiger has embraced and expanded that aim beyond what even his father could have imagined.

I do not for a minute suggest that Group A has to follow in order to get Group B. I suppose there are many successful athletes, actors, musicians, and other celebrities who "make it" without involving themselves in addiction, adultery, abuse, or crime.

Neither do I suggest that Earl Woods had any idea that Tiger would end up with Group A. I have no stones to throw there.

Finally, I do not suggest that the reason Tiger has the Group A stuff is because he is the world's greatest golfer, or because he is rich, or because he is famous.

But there are certainly a lot of "Group B" folks who have their share of Group A.

So, back to my question. If you knew that you could get your child to Group B, but only a cost of Group A, would you? Of course we would sacrifice all sorts of things from our own lives to help our children succeed. But what would you sacrifice from their lives?

It is a real question. Of course, nobody sets out to send their child down the road to addiction and adultery. But if you knew that was a byproduct of the "successful" road you were outlining, would you still do it?

I am not here today with an answer. I am only suggesting that we have more than one certain priority list in this generation, and different ones of you have different lists. Some of you would answer the question "yes" and some would answer "no."

Would you do it?